Don't be fooled by the magic, the unpronounceable names or the mountain-sized monsters: "Final Fantasy XV" is simply a coming-of-age buddy road story.
The genre elements of that story are the most effortful parts of Square Enix's 10-year game project — and, if you let them in, the most engaging.
The campfire meals Ignis prepares for fellow main characters Noctis, Prompto and Gladiolus look like they took as much time to graphically render as the lizard beasts and used future outposts that dot the four's world of Eos. The green soup curry, paella de pollo and the rest of Ignis' cookbook of 100 (!) recipes romanticize such precious comforts in the face of collective adversity. The four's studied poses for both Prompto's camera lens and your screen at the bedtime save menu romanticize such close company. Their banter as they unfold themselves from their sleek black convertible to grab gas and food at an outpost, harmonica wheezing from its bones, romanticize the road, the comforts and the company all at once.
Sure, the vividly realized food is silly and, sometimes, even a vehicle for unabashed product placement from Coleman and Cup Noodles. Sure, the four look and move and pose like a boy band. Sure, their banter is hokey as hell, and crowded out by the peculiar gasping and panting characteristic of Japanese voice work, as well as Yoko Shimomura's serene score.
But "Final Fantasy's" coming-of-age arc, its naked ambition to tell a story about friends on the road growing together, is so earnest that the game endears itself to you regardless. With the weepy brotherhood of "Stand By Me" (whose Florence + the Machine cover bookends the tale) and the male intimacy of "The Lord of the Rings," it transcends cheese, transcends snickering homoeroticism. It wills you into the company of Noctis, Ignis, Prompto and Gladiolus, to face the ungodly perils of Eos with them and to see their otherwise crazy story to its end.
When it comes to "Final Fantasy XV's" gamier elements, Square Enix's fixation on that company sets that story to a choppy rhythm. Eos' day/night cycles are so abbreviated, and Prince Noctis' pals cry for sleep and food with such bratty regularity (especially Prompto), that it's hard to venture too deep into its open world or progress too far along their quest to reclaim their kingdom from the Niflheim empire before you have to stop and set up camp. With its inspired topography of swamps, desert and dungeons, the world tempts you to push forward and make the comforts wait. But the same can't be said of the quest: Beyond its Campbellian basics, Noctis' journey is mess of silly mythology, sillier plot jumps and straight-up ludicrous character design. So, it's a "Final Fantasy" game.
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Given its origins as a "Versus" spinoff to "Final Fantasy XIII," "XV" departs most from previous games in Square Enix's 30-year franchise in the way you play it.
The game's real-time combat requires more on-the-fly strategizing than turn-based, such as reading the color of attack values and, if they're purple (ineffectual), switching to a weapon with a different strength. The new warp strike ability, in which Noctis darts across the battlefield to deliver a blow, rewards farther-out attacks with more damage, as does backstabbing. And the defense button is a quiet difference-maker, allowing not only parries when prompted, but also easy dodges of enemy attacks that could otherwise wipe out Noctis and co.'s HP.
The combat system is so deep and occupies your attention so fully that Square smartly redefines the role of magic in "Final Fantasy XV." Now finite spells concocted from reserves of fire, ice and lightning scattered near Eos' campgrounds, magic has a room-clearing effect during its relatively rare uses. Against bosses it can inflict substantial dents in their health bars, and against unwelcome crowds of daemons or Niflheim's surprise air-dropped soldiers it can end battles you'd rather not have begun. The series' deity summons are even more rare — and, proportionately, damaging.
Enemies, be they daemon hordes or bosses, will inflict plenty of hurt of their own if they're even near the level of Noctis and friends. Their damage sponge design often forces "Final Fantasy XV" into an attritional space where you spend just as much time reviving your party members and restoring their two-tier health bars as you spend attacking. Even with the attack, HP and other benefits provided by Noctis' campfire meals, some late-game bosses shouldn't even be considered without at least 50 potions and a comparable amount of elixirs.
Other parts of "Final Fantasy XV's" back half just disregard the game's basics altogether. Two boss fights consist of little more than moving Noctis around in space and holding the attack button — one also exemplifies the camera dizzies that mar encounters with flying enemies. The now-notorious chapter 13, meanwhile, not only ghosts a major supporting character with only a few lines of text to explain why, but it also sends Noctis down an interminable semi-stealth corridor crawl that almost made me quit the game completely.
That I pushed on speaks to my investment in "Final Fantasy XV" — in reprising its fresh, robust combat, savoring its imaginative design and, more than anything, seeing my friends come of age.