Dragging a revered games franchise into a 21st century landscape of open-worlds and instant action must be a thankless, even scary task – particularly when that franchise emerged in the late 1980s, hit its peak in the 1990s and had as its centrepiece a turn-based battle system.
But that's precisely what Square Enix has attempted with Final Fantasy XV – generally known as FFXV – and near-miraculously, it has come up with an exemplary reinvention of the role-playing classic.
In common with modern RPG peers like the Witcher and Elder Scrolls games, Final Fantasy XV boasts an open-world (which is huge and packed with activities and side-quests), as well as a real-time battle system (although there's an unnecessary sop to those forever wedded to turn-based systems of yore in the form of Wait Mode, which lets you pause the action and plan your approach).
FFXV review: What's the story?
But the best news is that it does all that without also jettisoning Final Fantasy's unique and very Japanese vibe. And a potentially confusing one if you don't know the ins and outs of what Final Fantasy is all about.
Final Fantasy XV's action starts in Insomnia, capital of Lucis in the world of Eos. You play Prince Noctis, heir to the throne of Lucis, preparing to embark on a carefree road-trip in order to hook up with his betrothed, Lady Lunafreya of Tenebrae, which will end in their marriage and cement a peace treaty with the Empire of Niflheim.
Noctis jumps in his flash royal car, the Regalia, with his three mates Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto. Gladiolus provides the muscle, the British-accented Ignis likes to cook, and Prompto is a keen photographer.
But soon, the slightly brattish foursome face a rude awakening: the Empire launches an attack on Insomnia, killing Noctis's dad King Regis and stealing the Crystal, which is an incredibly powerful artefact placed under the care of the Kings of Lucis.
A massive, rambling quest ensues in which Noctis acquires his kingly powers, engages in various skirmishes with the Empire and its leading characters (who at times – suspiciously – appear to offer assistance to Noctis's party) and overcomes countless hurdles as he attempts to make his way to the island city of Altissia.
That's where Lunafreya awaits with the ring that will power up the Crystal and will perform a dangerous mission designed to bring Noctis the blessing of one of Eos's six gods. From there, fully powered up, he will head to Niflheim and take on the Empire.
FFXV review: Missions, side quests and Chocobo
Story-wise, Final Fantasy XV offers everything that Final Fantasy devotees crave: its narrative is convoluted, full of twists, turns and changes of pace. It's a modern epic.
Plus this time around, there's a ridiculous wealth of things to do away from the main storyline. Including classic RPG dungeoneering, as Noctis battles through to tombs containing weapons that only a Lucian king can wield, as well as more mundane tasks such as bounty hunts and fishing.
If you want, you can jump on a Chocobo and ride randomly around the countryside, or carry out quests for people you meet in the game's various cities.
FFXV review: Turn based or real-time battle?
Final Fantasy XV's battle system, too, preserves the DNA of equivalents from old Final Fantasy games, yet for the first time feels sufficiently modern to avoid alienating those weaned on the likes of The Witcher.
Noctis has four weapon-slots, and switching between weapons is key. His special kingly weapons consume HP when he uses them, so it's sensible to equip him with one normal weapon, so he can also wield magic in the form of elemental flasks (which basically operate as freezing, electrifying or flaming grenades).
When taking on groups of enemies, you can simply hold down the attack button and cycle through enemies, switching weapons for chain-effects, and carefully avoiding incoming attacks with a side-stepping Guard move. Or you can take a more carefully timed approach with your button-presses.
Manoeuvring yourself to get behind enemies under attack from another party-member brings a damage boost, and you can trigger special attacks from party members once you've been fighting for a while and a bar powers up.
But Noctis's key attack is his Warp-strike, which allows him to teleport to designated points, then fly in with a devastating blow. You can also cycle from enemy to enemy with Warp-strikes, and the technique offers a great means of recovering from damage yet still delivering frequent major attacks.
A way into the game, Noctis acquires another attack which brings all of his kingly weapons into play at once, but it takes a long time to charge up, so you generally preserve it for key moments, such as finishing off bosses.
The battle system may sound complex, but in practice, it isn't especially so. It's certainly more understandable than Final Fantasy's old turn-based systems, and leaves you feeling much more in control. When you nail a string of attacks, it's vastly satisfying, and using all the attacks of which your party is capable at the right times requires a pretty strategic approach.
FFXV review: Skills tree
Elsewhere, Final Fantasy XV impresses in many ways. Eos looks amazing – the Venice-like Altissia, for example, has benefitted from some stunning environmental design – and it's a classic fantasy-world, full of endearing little quirks, lore and surprises.
You can set the Regalia to drive automatically from point to point (or fast-travel at the cost of a few Gil, the game's currency). You can even shop for crucial potions while driving. Chocobo are constantly available to rent, and Noctis's fishing mini-game is pretty tidy. Camping at designated sites is rewarded too: you can only level-up when resting, and Ignis cooks status-boosting meals.
You also earn Ascension Points (AP) with which to buy new skills and uprated stats for the entire party: the skills tree is absolutely massive, but sufficiently well organised that you soon get to grips with it.
As Final Fantasy XV moves towards its climax, the chapters become shorter and opportunities to meander around off the beaten track become fewer, but the narrative compensates by becoming ever more epic.
By any standards, Final Fantasy XV is a very long game – even if you speed-run just the main elements, you're looking at well over 20 hours of gameplay, and the cornucopia of side-missions and quests available easily doubles that. Like all the best open-world RPGs, it's the ideal winter game, in which to immerse yourself for weeks rather than venturing outside into the real world.
FFXV review: The perfect modern version?
To argue that Final Fantasy XV is perfect, mind, would be idiotic. Firstly, there will be those who stubbornly prefer the format of older iterations; secondly it has flaws which never quite become deal-breakers, but which do sometimes niggle.
In the more manic battles you sometimes have to work the camera furiously (particularly when seeking a Warp-point), and occasionally the cut-scenes and dialogue lapse into tweeness (a common failing of Japanese games). One of the later boss-battles, too, is surprisingly lame (although plenty of others are satisfyingly tricky and exhausting).
There's a slightly baggy feel to its open-world at times, too, as you often find in games with a lot of underlying systems churning away. Plus we found the odd glitch, such as a feedback loop when Ignis was trying to turn the Regalia around and got stuck against a barrier, necessitating reverting to the last save (frequent saves are a must).
But there's nothing you feel you can't live with given the game's ambition and scale.
It's fair to say that Final Fantasy XV had a rather troubled inception. It was first trailed in 2006, as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and originally mooted for the PlayStation 3. Yep, all that time ago.
Then Square Enix decided FFXV would become the basket into which it would put all its eggs and, a full decade later, it finally emerges as an instalment of the franchise which has the tools, lore and heft to inspire similar devotion to the likes of the classic Final Fantasy VII.
FFXV also leaves Final Fantasy, as a franchise, utterly refreshed and ready to do battle with rival RPGs in the future. For Square Enix, it represents the biggest punt in the company's history. But that punt has paid off. For FFXV is an unmitigated treat for RPG lovers.
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