Review: 'Final Fantasy XV' a rough road trip worth taking
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During the all-too-brief golden age of "Final Fantasy," from 1997 to 2001, the Tokyo-based studio Square cranked out four memorable installments that are widely regarded as the pinnacle of the Japanese role-playing game.
The new "Final Fantasy XV" (Square Enix, for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, $59.99) has been in development for 10 years, and it's unlikely to inspire the kind of devotion that chapters VII through X generated. Still, it's hardly the fiasco that some had anticipated, and it displays flashes of brilliance.
The prolonged production cycle, with a midcourse change of directors and a shift to an entirely new generation of game consoles, is apparent. "FFXV" feels like something cobbled together from a decade's worth of game ideas — some clever, some well past their prime.
The story begins with a young prince named Noctis who's expelled from his castle before an attack by an overwhelming force from a rival nation. Noct hits the road with his three buddies — the ludicrously named Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto — and they make their way to the site of the prince's wedding to a fetching young oracle named Lunafreya. First, though, they need to make some cash by hunting down monsters and otherwise helping the locals, and Noct needs to contact some of the old gods who have been lying dormant around the kingdom.
The first two-thirds of "FFXV" consist of this type of open-world exploration, with the boys cruising around in a slick convertible, looking for trouble. The fundamental problem is that most of these missions aren't interesting, boiling down to either "go kill a monster" or "go find an obscure object."
A secondary issue is that this is the worst "Final Fantasy" cast ever. Noct and his posse look like a J-pop boy band and have about as much depth: Gladiolus, for example, is your typically gruff muscle head, while the hyperactive Prompto just never shuts up.
"FFXV" could just as easily have been a solo act, like last year's landmark "The Witcher 3." You have very little control over anyone but Noct during battle, and I found myself worrying more about their health than trying to get them to help. The combat is lively, letting you switch quickly between Noct's weapons and his magical skills; I just wished I could take over one of the other guys, as in BioWare's team-based "Dragon Age" adventures.
The pace picks up considerably after you reach Luna's home, when "FFXV" shifts into a mostly linear series of confrontations with increasingly dangerous villains. Even the fun-loving boys (especially the droll Ignis) become a little more tolerable after they've been hardened by a few unavoidable tragedies.
There were many points in "FFXV" that left me wondering what the developers were thinking, but it kind of won me over in the end. It's a ridiculously ambitious game with many glaring flaws — but after 50-some hours, I want to keep playing. Two and a half stars out of four.