Last night, I finished Final Fantasy XV. There’s been a lot of concern, even on this blog, that the game might not be able to live up to the series’ reputation. I’m happy to say that Final Fantasy XV is simultaneously an evolution and a tribute to the series, evoking the spirit of Final Fantasy through story, gameplay, and aesthetics.
SPOILER WARNING: From here out, I will be discussing FFXV in its entirety, including major plot points, character development, and the ending. You’ve been warned.
While playing the game, I was consistently amazed by how the story drew on games past to create an experience that is completely new and unique, while also undoubtedly being a Final Fantasy game. When someone sums up the story in bullet points, it sounds like a Greatest Hits album of previous stories, yet when combined it’s more than the sum of its parts and becomes stronger than many other entries in the series.
The basic framework of the world is plucked straight from the original Final Fantasy: four heroes are on a journey to, ultimately, reclaim a Crystal that can stop a worldwide calamity. Nearly every FF game has included Crystal MacGuffins in some form or another, so it was no surprise in the newest entry.
However, the connections run deeper. Noctis’ journey to find the 13 Royal Arms of previous Lucian Kings mimics the Legendary Weapons that Bartz and company collected in Final Fantasy V. The kings’ spectral appearance during the final battle (and at the climax of Kingsglaive) is clearly meant to be a nod to Knights of the Round, Final Fantasy VII’s ultimate Summon. This culmination gave me nostalgic feelings about the older games, but also showed how far Noctis had gone to regain their power. All the side-quests I completed to get the legendary weapons, all the work I did to raise a gold chocobo to find the secret materia cave in VII were wrapped up in a single moment.
The quest to bond with the Six is also a connection to Final Fantasy X. Yuna’s pilgrimage to commune with all of the Aeons was the linchpin of that game’s plot. Noctis’s quest to meet the summons was meant to be throwback to that. Even if they end differently, Noctis and Yuna’s quests were both destined to end in sacrifice. As someone who isn’t a huge fan of Final Fantasy X, I almost appreciate this connection more, as it gives me an opportunity to appreciate that type of story without suffering through the game’s stilted dialogue.
In my wishlist a few weeks back, I said I wanted Ardyn to be the new Kefka. While the execution wasn’t quite what I was expecting (and, to be frank, it was one of the game’s weak areas), he joins the “Trickster Advisor” camp of Final Fantasy villains alongside Kefka and Kuja. The fact that the quest through a world Ardyn rules is called “World of Ruin” reinforces the homage to Final Fantasy VI in the game’s closing acts, even if it wasn’t the full second half of the game as many theorized.
None of these, though, are the most obvious connection. I genuinely expected Lunafreya to make it through Final Fantasy XV, or at least most of the way. When it was clear she wasn’t going to leave Altissia, I realized how foolish that was.
Like Aeris, Luna is a force of good and healing in the world, whose special powers hold the light of hope for the protagonist. She was given an item of great magical power, but she doesn’t act out of a sense of duty, but because she genuinely cares for Noctis and wants to help however she can. She even is heavily tied to the imagery of flowers, her demise really should have been obvious. FFXV cemented its place in the Final Fantasy legacy by providing its own spin on the most famous twist in the franchise.
By adopting ideas from Final Fantasy’s legacy and combining them with new twists (feel free to correct me if I’m forgetting something, but I don’t think Ignis’ arc is a throwback to anything in particular), the game is more than a rehash of old games. By the time I reached the end of Noctis’ journey, I felt like I hadn’t just finished this game, but had closed a chapter on the legacy of Final Fantasy.
Another reason for the perceived disconnect between FFXV and the rest of the franchise is how wildly different the gameplay itself is. The shift from ATB to full action/RPG has finally been made. The game embraces Western RPG concepts like needing to rest in order to gain experience, and (the first half) drops the player in the middle of an open world. While it may seem like the exact opposite of Final Fantasy, the gameplay is where the game does the best job of making the game still feel like FF.
Activating Wait Mode in combat brings the ATB feeling back to combat if you are worried about the game being too action-y. The thing that has made ATB such a great battle system (and something I would still be totally fine with the franchise returning to) was the emphasis on strategic use of the tools at your disposal, combined with a mild sense of urgency.
FFXV uses these same basic concepts and applies them to a new framework to great success. In Wait Mode, players can pause combat and analyze enemies, examining the environment and making a plan of attack while a Wait Timer ticks away. While the timer is large enough to not be a real threat (it didn’t get below half, even in my toughest battles), the same could really be said of the time-based aspect of ATB. Unless you spent several minutes gawking at the battle menu instead of choosing an action, the enemy wasn’t going to get any extra actions.
By boosting the usefulness of items and making the party’s Link Attacks effective, Final Fantasy XV feels a lot like giving individual orders during the moments where it matters, expanding the diversity of your toolbox while not bothering you with minutiae. Once I settled into the groove of selecting weapons and identifying a strategy for each battle, I fell into a similar rhythm as random encounters in a traditional FF dungeon.
The open world, road-trip style of the game also lends itself to Final Fantasy. Aren’t all the games about a road trip? Didn’t Cloud and company cross large amounts of terrain, growing closer as they went from place to place?
They must have interacted in between standing around a room with their serious faces on discussing what to do about Sephiroth? Previous FF games glossed over this time because of technical limitations, but as I cruised around in the Regalia, getting out to let Prompto take a photo of a vista or making camp so I could try out the new recipe Ignis discovered, it hit me that this is what the world map travels of older FF game was meant to represent. It made me think about older parties, the friends I’d made over the years. Who did the cooking in FFVII? Did Steiner ever crack a smile at Zidane’s jokes, even if he tried to hide it? Did Sabin’s time living in the wilderness teach him where to find useful flora and fauna? The open world of FFXV illuminates something that has always been an element of the franchise, just one that was previously hidden.
These concepts are nice, but Final Fantasy has always been a series tied together by its aesthetics. A game isn’t complete without the “Prelude” or “Main Theme” tracks, and we can’t know how to react to a Tonberry if we don’t recognize it as such. This is where the game’s connection to its heritage shines. Every monster in the game looks like an animal that fits its habitat, while also looking like a modern reimagining of old sprite art. Perennial favorites like Iron Giants and Behemoths look better than ever. An enemy hit me with a petrification spell, and it came in the form of a blue triangular beam of light – just like the “Break” spell animation from sprite-based FF games. I found myself chuckling at the subtle references to previous games peppered with every new creature and location.
The music is the final piece that brings everything together. Using old soundtracks for the Regalia’s radio was a genius move. The connection to old world maps I felt was further cemented when I played world map and airship themes while cruising down the road.
When it comes to the original soundtrack, Yoko Shimomura had big shoes to fill as lead composer. Her work on this game invites comparison to Nobuo Uematsu’s legendary soundtracks. I’ve been a fan of her since Kingdom Hearts. She is the true successor to Uematsu in this field, and her work on FFXV makes it easier to defend that opinion. It knows just when the right time is to depart from the norm and when to embrace it. The chanting choirs, roaring orchestras, and elegant piano pieces form one of the most emotionally effective soundtracks I’ve ever played.
The decision to wait to play the franchise’s main theme until the very end of the game, with the triumphant image of Noctis and Luna finally reunited, filled me with a sense of victory and accomplishment that a game hasn’t given me in a long time. It reminded me how far this franchise has come, while shining the light on a brighter future, on a franchise that had lost its way, but was finally ready to be the innovator it once was.
People who bought Final Fantasy XV hoping for an ATB-powered linear RPG where the party members line up to fight enemies and gain experience could be a little frustrated by what they got. However, I implore players to look deeper, past the surface levels dissimilarities, and see that Final Fantasy is in this game’s DNA. Nothing can ever take the classic FF games of old away from us, but after playing this game I have more faith in the FF brand than I have in a decade. It may not have checked off everything on my wishlist, but in some ways it brought me surprises better than I could have imagined, and it did its job in reclaiming the throne of the JRPG genre.