With the launch of the Episode Ardyn DLC this week, Final Fantasy XV finally reached the last stop of its long road trip. The game originally released in November 2016 (read our review), and over the last two-plus years, it received a variety of new features, events, and content. That kind of prolonged attention is something we expect from service games like Overwatch and Fortnite – not from single-player JRPGs. These improvements made a great game even better over time, and I don’t think Final Fantasy XV gets enough credit for everything it ultimately accomplished.
Final Fantasy XV was my favorite game of 2016, but I know it isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t align with what many fans love about Final Fantasy’s glory days on SNES and PlayStation. It has real-time combat, a bizarre mix of linear and open-world structures, and only four main characters. But that’s also the brilliance of it; Square Enix took risks with Final Fantasy XV, and the experience is better for its willingness to defy expectations.
I love old-school turn-based RPGs as much as the next person (more, probably), but cleaving to an aging formula wasn’t going to revitalize the Final Fantasy series’ diminished standing in the industry. The team behind Final Fantasy XV was aware of this problem with the brand in the early phases of the game’s development; in our May 2016 cover story, Final Fantasy XV director Hajime Tabata said: “The way we understood Final Fantasy after our analysis is that it was a dying IP that had already peaked.”
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Drastic measures needed to be taken, and I love the way Final Fantasy XV reimagined and refined existing conventions while also breaking new ground. It doesn’t succeed at everything it attempts, but these are just a few things it deserves high praise for achieving.
Thematic power: Lots of Final Fantasy games are about a group of misfits banding together to save the world from a ruinous end. Though the plot points of Final Fantasy XV are similarly plotted, you can’t really say that’s what the game is about. Instead, the experience is about friendship and loyalty, and those thematic threads are reinforced in a host of clever ways. The smaller cast, long car rides, and campfire meals add an unprecedented intimacy to the journey. Characters’ interests, like fishing, cooking, and photography are worked into the mechanics to convey their personalities as you play. In battle, Noctis can team up with his buddies for joint attacks. All of this combines to clearly convey that, no matter what your actual goals are, the important part is that you’re approaching them together. So many RPGs focus on what you’re doing, rather than how, so Final Fantasy XV’s clarity in purpose is unique and impressive.
Surprises: One thing that defines my favorite game in this series, Final Fantasy VI, is that the bad guy wins halfway through. The world is destroyed, and the rest of the game has players picking up the pieces. It is so surprising because it runs counter to the adventure you thought you were having; you don’t expect your eventual victory to come at such a heavy cost. Final Fantasy XV also has moments like this, but I won’t spoil them here. I’ll just say this much: In a genre that often relies on archetypal personalities and established tropes, I found it refreshing to not see every plot twist coming from a mile away.
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Progression: Making characters more powerful is a big part of the RPG appeal for me, and Final Fantasy XV nails that sensation. The Ascension system has a variety of skill trees split into different categories, so your selection of available abilities hits a sweet spot between flexibility and deliberate design. Your options aren’t as sprawling as Final Fantasy XII’s license board, but they aren’t as rigid as Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. This allows you to invest in things you enjoy, and the advantages are significant enough that you notice them; they aren’t all just minor boosts to the behind-the-scenes calculation. Unlock more attacks with your pals. Make your crafted spells more powerful. Increase your bonuses from activities like fishing or driving. You always have something cool to save up for, which means it’s always satisfying to see your characters get stronger.
Astrals: Any longtime Final Fantasy fan remembers the thrill of summoning creatures like Leviathan and Bahamut for the first time. But over the years, these magical allies almost became punchlines, starring in overlong and elaborate summon sequences that began to cross the line between cool and ludicrous. Final Fantasy XV gives them back their power, restoring a sense of awe to these primal forces (called Astrals this time around). You can’t summon these world-shaping entities on a whim; you have to meet certain conditions, like being in critical condition, or having an encounter drag on too long. Only then can you call for aid from beings like Titan and Ramuh, and they don’t just charge up energy beams from space. Astrals are fully present on the battlefield when they appear, and their scale and power are simply jaw-dropping.
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Free Updates: We’ve previously mentioned Final Fantasy XV’s excellent and free post-launch support, and took an in-depth look at the game one year after it came out. However, unless you played the game right at launch or immediately after, it might be hard to understand the incredible strides that game has made since release. The team at Square Enix added new game+, a directly controllable off-road car (addressing a major complaint from the launch version), an alternate version of Chapter 13 (another sore point at release), a boat to cruise around in, and the ability to control other party members in combat, just to name a few things. These continued updates give players new stuff to check out, and they demonstrate the team’s willingness to listen to the community and address issues with the game. If you tried Final Fantasy XV and it didn’t click for you, that’s okay… but odds are good that some of your complaints have been resolved in the current iteration. And that’s just with the free stuff. If you’re willing to pay, you can also experience some cool expanded story content with the character-focused DLC episodes, and a multiplayer expansion called Comrades.
Again, I acknowledge not every aspect of Final Fantasy XV is rosy. Parts of the narrative still feel thin. The sidequests aren’t great. And the only reason I’m eulogizing the game now is because Square Enix abruptly canceled the rest of the year’s announced DLC after Tabata’s resignation – a huge disappointment on multiple fronts. But the game also did something remarkable: It overcame the odds. After a tortuously long development spanning a decade, the game that began as Final Fantasy Versus XIII released, and it was actually good. It only improved from there, and dislodged the series from the doomed rut the Final Fantasy XIII saga had dug for it. That task alone seemed practically impossible prior to Final Fantasy XV’s release, and the team behind the game should be applauded for achieving it. I don’t know what the future holds for this venerable RPG series, but I hope Square Enix learns the right lessons from Final Fantasy XV, because I would be happy to see its legacy carried forward.