Ten years of anticipation met with ten years of doubt as I drove to the GameStop down the street for the game’s midnight release. It was a surreal moment removing the disc from its case, staring in awe as I watched my PS4 suck it in. The next four days at work were painful, but no amount of sleep deprivation could have kept dormant the reflection that Final Fantasy XV orchestrated.
Memorable music has been an iconic staple of the series for almost thirty years now, and the concepts of melody, rhythm, and harmony bleed into the very fabric of FFXV’s presentation. Florence and the Machine starts the game off with a rendition of “Stand By Me” that brilliantly embodies the three principles, acting as an emotional prelude to the visual nocturne that follows.
See, here’s the thing about music: it only consists of twelve notes. All of the music you’ve ever heard has been some series of twelve notes. In this way, XV plays the same notes as so many series of fantasy before it. There’s no revelatory storyline that depends on mind-bending intricacies, and there’s no groundbreaking gameplay mechanics. How XV truly excels, however, is with a combination of melodic storytelling, rhythmic combat, and harmonious character development.
Noctis, Gladio(lus), Ignis, and Prompto are close, and the game reiterates the strength of their connection at every predictable, yet engrossing turn of the Regalia–their car and unofficial fifth member of the group. Characters portray a genuine identity composed by much more than just an outfit or hairstyle, and outfits that affect the crew’s performance in the battlefield can be swapped in and out without robbing anyone of their personality. Noctis still looks for good spots to fish while Ignis continues to seek recipes to broaden his cooking repertoire, and Gladio’s an expert in survival tactics who prefers a good read over good conversation when out on the road. The absence of dialogue here is strange given how chatty everyone is outside of the car, but maybe they’re just blowing out the Regalia’s speakers with old Final Fantasy tunes with the volume cranked.
Oh, Prompto? Prompto’s a photographer, and he documents the journey with (mostly) personalized snapshots highlighting the four together. Setting up camp for the night allows you to look through the pictures he took for the day and save the ones you like–a lighthearted, seemingly pointless act that becomes significantly heavier as the game progresses. For as simple as it is, the story acts as a melody to establish the group’s dynamics as a four-piece harmony, and XV frames the severity of its combat with the strength of this bond in mind.
XV‘s ascension from quiet character development to enthralling battles escalates in a flash. The transitions are as smooth as the fighting itself, merging the two variations of intensity into a rhythmic dance of offense and defense. Warping around the battlefield feels overwhelmingly foreign in the beginning, but phase shifting to avoid attacks and retaliating with your own quickly leads to impressive feats of magical acrobatics that become exponentially more gripping during battles of narrative importance.
Attacking an enemy from behind can trigger a link attack if someone in the group is in position and, with the combined efforts of a coordinated strike, can often leave enemies vulnerable. It can’t be done alone. Teamwork affects the strategies and tactics used in a fight just as much as it fleshes out the game’s characters, and each group member usually contributes an authentic reaction to quests taken or enemies slain. Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto each carry with them a portion of the burden Noctis bears, and their absence is felt both in battle and in town whenever Noct is alone. Barring a few awkwardly delivered lines of dialogue, everyone just feels so alive.
Actions taken on the battlefield often provide some verbal tomfoolery between the four, further establishing the group’s dynamic set around a fire and a “home”-cooked meal mere hours before. If Noct’s health falls too low, Ignis offers some playful words of encouragement as he runs over to help before literally jumping back into the fray with a lance. Prompto is most assuredly getting mauled by a stray Goblin, but at least he’s getting some good shots with his camera while the rest of the group fends off the herd. Gladio stands his ground on the battlefield with his two-handed sword while yelling at a certain someone for hitting him with a customized fire spell that poisons its target. Sorry, dude. My bad.
Character growth cannot be quantified as a stat number here, and the game doesn’t rely on cutscenes to accomplish this feat. Whether you’re fighting for your life or briskly passing by a beach, the smallest life-saving gesture from a friend or the sight of a couple playing in the water by the shore, however recurring, breathes life into the game’s world. The major scale of XV‘s open world and the creatures that dwell within match the magnitude of the game’s character, and the amount of in-game content made available after the game’s end is just as staggering. Chocobo racing, secret dungeons, hidden upgrades, absurdly powerful boss fights that will challenge the strength of the gods themselves–it’s all in here.
There’s no one individual piece of FFXV that defines it–the game’s identity is born from the harmony of it all. From the rhythm of reflexive actions in battle to the compelling melody of a familiar story, everything emphasizes your attachment to the crew. Quality character development is nothing new, but it happens all around you in XV.
Everything in and outside of your control sways the way you view and respond to people encountered throughout the journey. Even the Ascension skill tree used to customize how the characters perform on and off the battlefield unifies everyone into the same grids of advancement as you decide which aspects of your characters you’d like to improve over time. Everyone is always connected. Everyone is in this together.
The consistent reinforcement behind the game’s seeds of attachment is the core of FFXV‘s excellence, and its effects echo through every aspect of the game from beginning to end. It may hit a flat note here or there, but the operatic performance as a whole proves itself worthy of ovation.
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