Stand by Me

Square-Enix's Final Fantasy franchise is an enduring one, one that's had its claws in my heart since Final Fantasy VII way way back. I've been following it ever since, and whilst I've played VIII and so on (barring the MMOs) I've only finished a few of them. I've put in over 105 hours to Final Fantasy XV and loved every minute of it. When SE say that it's a Final Fantasy for new and veteran players alike, they actually mean it.

I can easily see this being a great jump-on point for people new to Final Fantasy, and there's enough staples of Final Fantasy in the game to keep veteran players happy. With numerous difficulty modes and a huge swathe of content, this might very well be my Game of the Year 2016.

Read on.

Boy-Band Adventures

Let's get this out of the way, the game's aimed at creating a sense of comradeship between the protagonist and his friends - the story is such that I'm not going to spoil one second of it, I'm not even going to tell anyone how it all kicks off. You want to know, buy the game, play it and see it through to the end. Noctis, Gladio, Prompto and Ignis are out on one heck of an adventure and they're caught up in events that are much larger, with effects that are more far-reaching than anyone could first imagine. But they do remind me of a boy-band line up (in a good way).

Their friendship and bond are what ultimately sees them through, and the game works hard on keeping this feeling throughout. You live with these characters on their journey, through the ups and downs and get to see lots of small details to their relationship as they progress through the 15 Chapter story.

It can take about 20 hours to nail the core story if you ignore the majority of the side content, and as I said, 104 hours later I'm still playing - I've wrapped up the main story and I've hit level 99, I'm doing huge end-game content now and there's still a TON of stuff to do.

It's a Final Fantasy Action Game

It's an action game and a roleplaying game, there are plenty of staples of the Final Fantasy franchise here. You control (for now) Noctis, the Crown-Prince of Lucis and the main hero of the story. You can issue commands via a simple and effective system to his companions to allow them to perform their special attacks once the Tech Bar has filled. You can use items mid-battle and restore your fallen friends, as well as yourself back to life (Phoenix Down) or heal up (Potions, Hi-Potions and so on).

Noctis has a variety of attacks and whilst the combat system might seem dumbed down at first, there are nuances to it that make it quite interesting. Holding B will let you attack for example, but if you tilt the left stick and use B you'll do different attacks with different effects, these are also per-weapon. So if you're using a javelin/spear type weapon Noct will attack in a different way than he would with a sword, or 2-H sword.

X performs a dodge, timing it right can perform a parry, or a warp-dodge where Noct blinks in and out of reality. He can Warp Strike (lock on and Y) to cause massive damage and so on.

He can also warp out of battle to direct points in the area, where he can recover his HP as well as MP (Magic Points) used to fuel his abilities such as Warp Striking.

As Noct fights on, so do his friends, they'll do their own thing in battle, helping you, helping each other and generally providing a lot of support. They never overshadow the hero and they can be equipped with a variety of weapons, accessories and techniques to support your play style and Noctis.

There's also Elemancy, where you can craft your own spells from the elements you find. Ice, Fire and Lightning are the three main forms of power. You can combine them together, or you can go pure element - you can add in various items or ingredients from your journey to change the way a spell works. For example, hang on to your Rare Coins, Debased Coins, because throwing them into a spell will turn it into an Experi-Cast variant, giving you XP when you use it. High power versions of this can fire 20,000 XP per use regardless.

You can flee from battle by leaving the combat zone area, which is a lot easier to do than previous versions of FF.

All in all I found the combat system fun, engaging and extremely cinematic - it reminded me of the anime that many J-RPGs try to emulate but fail to do so. Over the top, dramatic and extremely impressive to watch. Especially if you trigger a Summon (Astral) once you gain the power to do so.

Warning: Astrals are fickle beings and they have minds of their own, they may/may not come to your aid. You'll know when they do.

For those who like to take their time, there's also a Wait Mode (with its own skill tree thanks to the recent Crown Update) that lets you turn the game into a more traditional J-RPG.

The Open World

Unlike previous Final Fantasy games this one has an open world attached, it's packed with a variety of things to see and do. The heroes have their own skills, and these directly flow back into the game in some way/shape or form.

Noctis is an avid fisherman, so when you engage in the fishing mini-game you'll gain better and better skills the more fish you catch. You'll also get fish that Ignis, the party's cook can turn into delicious food, food which gives you bonuses the next morning when prepared at camp. Gladio is the survival expert and he can start to pick up useful items at the end of a battle, potions, coins and so on. Finally, Prompto is your fun-loving jester-type, who has a passion for photography - he serves to document your journey in combat, free-roaming and exploring the open world and at the end of the day at camp you'll be able to check his photographs and even save/share some of them with your buddies on social media.

The world is huge too and there's one more member of the party that I've not mentioned. The Regalia, a fully customisable transport that Noctis and co can use to get from A-B quickly. When not riding Chocobos that is (which are awesome and level up too). The Regalia can be customised with new paint jobs, decals, styles of interior and extra components, one which negates the need to fuel her up now and then. Again, I'll leave you to explore all the options - but the gearhead in me is very happy with the level of customisation that's available for the car. The Regalia can be driven manually (very easy to drive) - or you can throw Auto drive on and let Ignis take you to the destination.

You can listen to past Final Fantasy music too through the car-stereo, as long as you've bought it from the various shops around.

There's a lot of side content in the game too, from Chocobo races, massive dungeons (some of the best parts of the game) and bounty hunts. There are side missions and hidden secrets all over. Don't worry either, you can come back and tidy all of it up later on if you missed something - nothing's locked out.

There's a robust fast-travel system as well.

Once you've had your fill of exploring for the day, since the game has a dynamic day/night/weather cycle, with weather based on the area you're in. You can stop at a hotel, or a motel, or even a camp out in the wild. Motels and hotels offer XP boosts when you stay in them, whereas camps offer the chance for Ignis to cook a bonus-stat boost meal for the next day.

You'll tally the day's XP up when you do rest/camp and level up. Then you can spend AP in the Ascension screen, which is another staple of FF. The good old Sphere Grid for example. Here you can activate a bunch of cool nodes that unlock new powers for the heroes as well as boost their stats.

A Beautiful Journey

The level of detail in the game is simply stunning. There's a whole host of things you can look out for in terms of graphical detail, tiny nuances in the sunrise and sunset, weather effects and even things like frosty breath when the characters are too cold. There's even a layer of dirt/grime/muck that collects on them as they engage in battles and get knocked around by the many diverse and powerful enemies in the game.

The frame-rate held solid for me too, even in some of the bigger battles, which can get quite hectic when a bunch of enemies all show up at once as they are attracted to the nearby fracas. There were no crashes too.

An Animated Anime Romp

The animations are also great, and there's a heck of a lot of character to them. The heroes will help each other, they'll move around the battle and act like a team, they'll pick each other up off the floor and each one of them has their own distinct fighting style. It all helps to engage you in the game world and makes the battles even more fun. The lads even have their own animations when in the Regalia, rather than just sitting there, they'll interact with each other and characters like Prompto will occasionally shoot snaps as you drive along.

Vocalisation

Your buddies and Noctis are also pretty vocal, you'll get out of combat banter, in combat banter and in-car banter. They comment on Prompto's snaps, and whilst some of this repeats, the further into the game you get, the more they have to talk about and the more they react to things that are going on. The voice work is pretty solid and there's some stand-out performances from the cast.

A Musical Journey

Another stand-out feature of the game is the car stereo, where you can listen to classic tracks from previous instalments of Final Fantasy and the game music itself. Final Fantasy XV's music is good stuff, the score is suitably diverse and kicks into high gear in battles, especially when Summons appear and are ready to use. There's a real feeling of pomp and grandeur to some of these pieces and they can get suitably dramatic at the right point.

Post Game

With plans for a New Game+ and all sorts of updates in the pipeline. SE has ensured that Final Fantasy XV is a strong contender for replay value. Out of the box there's a lot to do at the end of the game once you hit that final 15th chapter and you'll have some meaty end-game bosses to hunt down too. I was able to finish FFXV at around level 70 or so, and then with some massive battles I've fought my way to 99 and now I'm cleaning up the rest of the stuff I have to do.

And just like Witcher 3, I'm not bored yet at all. I'm still having fun with the post-game content that's on offer. I've upgraded the Regalia and I've got lots of new weapons to find.

I have to say that I love the game and that's why it's a Must Buy for me. I even liked the story.

I can't wait to see what SE do to add to it and I'll be there playing again when they do. I might still be playing when they add the new content too, because some of these end-game Dungeons are MASSIVE - I'm reminded of Dragon's Dogma in a good way, and I loved that game too.

In short, if you're an old or new fan, this is one Final Fantasy you don't want to miss. It's the most accessible Final Fantasy game to date and that's the charm for me.