Final Fantasy XV review — the PS4 RPG that broke Final Fantasy’s crown

By Lee Brady,

Final Fantasy XV's mishandled production and messy design have dealt lasting damage to fans, but is the PS4 action RPG still worth playing today?

Despite its initially strong critical reception, today an air of disappointment hangs over FFXV and its Final Fantasy XV trophies, keeping it from joining the best PS4 games list. With the PS5 release of Final Fantasy XVI fast approaching, many comments online continue to cite FFXV as the reason why they won't be picking up the next game, prompting TrueTrophies Staff Writer Lee to investigate as he plays the game for the first time for this Final Fantasy XV review.

With Final Fantasy XVI and Final Fantasy VII Rebirth coming to PS5, we are filling out our back catalog of unreviewed games in the Final Fantasy series. For this review, Lee played through Final Fantasy XV on PS5, clocking up 38 hours of playtime. This review does not cover the game's episodic DLC content.
FFXV review 2023

Lee

Final Fantasy XV review — a sandwich of errors

I expected Final Fantasy XV to be a little rough around the edges — I mean, I certainly thought so myself watching its E3 live demo back in 2016. However, back then I had let general online opinion condition me against Final Fantasy, so I was predisposed to dislike what I saw. Eventually, I would grow up, take stock, and let myself appreciate the ambition and craft designers so often poured into the series.

Having enjoyed the last number of Final Fantasy titles and with high hopes for the future of the series, I decided to play FFXV to see where so many modern fans dropped off. I pushed the game's red flags aside, assuming the negativity online was overblown and that my own eyeballs had been too quick to judge. Now, in 2023, I can only express my gratitude to those online cynics, because if I had played Final Fantasy XV back in 2016, I would have sworn off Final Fantasy for life within the first hour of the game.

The top layer — Final Fantasy XV's terrible opening hours
Final Fantasy XV has to have one of the worst player onboarding experiences of all time. It throws everything right at you, and not in a daring or intentional way — very much in a "we didn’t have time to design a smoother introduction" way. Within twenty minutes, we get a hands-off introduction to our protagonist Noctis, his three friends, and a flash forward to some future battle. Then suddenly we're pushing our car in an awkward scripted gameplay segment, 'Stand by Me' plays, and the game assigns us our first mission: kill rats to get money to fix the car you need to drive if you want to marry the priestess over the sea.

I found my brain rejecting Final Fantasy XV on instinct. What little I had to grasp of the story at this point — I play as Noctis, he's the Prince, he lives in a techno-magic world, he's getting married, he has three friends who follow him around, there's a war on — only raised further questions. Stunned by this terrible first impression, I looked online for some kind of explanation and found what appears to be the biggest culprit: something called the "Final Fantasy XV Universe."

FFXV review 2023

To summarise, in an attempt to navigate FFXV's enormous scope and budget, Square Enix and the game's creatives hacked off chunks of the game's narrative to make a movie (Final Fantasy XV Kingsglaive), an anime, a mobile game, post-launch DLC, and more. These gaps feel very noticeable in the game's opening hours, particularly when, at one point, the game shows us silent clips of the movie prequel completely out of the blue before cutting to Noctis and pals reading how the movie ends from a hotel newspaper. Needless to say, the production mess behind Final Fantasy XV is felt throughout constantly.

And that's just talking about Final Fantasy XV's story — everything else the game throws at you right off the bat gets introduced woefully. The weighty combat system, the overwhelming open world, the game's precious attitude to the player's ability to drive a car, and the ceaseless assault of menus and tutorial prompts — just to name some of the big ones. All-in-all, it took a thankless ten hours to get my head around everything going on in FFXV, which is obviously far too big an ask for any player not determined to like the game.

FFXV review 2023

The filling — where Final Fantasy XV gets good
Kept aloft by morbid curiosity, I was able to push through the game's dreadful onboarding until I eventually found the part where Final Fantasy XV gets good. Call it game design by immersion therapy, but somewhere around the ten-hour mark is where the game starts to click into place. It's at this point, where the game lets you drive the car wherever you want without lecturing you and the side missions start to build your familiarity with the open world, where frustration with the game's faults gives way to appreciation for FFXV's ambition.

By this point, I had come around to the game's over-animated, unrefined, and thoroughly wrong-feeling combat. Learning to predict how long each pre-scripted dance number Noctis and the boys will perform every single time you press the attack button, just so you can learn when not to attack, is a skill worthy of a bachelor's degree. Yet, eventually, I got into the groove. I learned to appreciate that, between all the potion chugging and attack delays, there was something very turn-based feeling about Final Fantasy XV's combat. Badly executed, yes, but I chalk it up to flawed ambition.

FFXV review 2023

It was here that I also came around to the game's flabby open-world structure. I'm not a big fan of open-world games in general, as they often result in games becoming busywork simulators. These are games that hand you a checklist of mundane activities hoping you'll appreciate the routine of walking around and doing stuff enough to forgive a lack of actual gameplay. It's pretty bad in modern Assassin's Creed, it almost collapses the Horizon series, and it's lodged deep in Final Fantasy XV's bones.

That said, I found that the hunting side missions — which task you with heading out into the wilds and killing a certain beast for a reward (I suppose a little like Red Dead Redemption, though crucially lacking both hunting and exploration) — fairly enjoyable. Doing these missions gradually opened the map out and it's here you can feel that a lot of love and care was poured in as the developers attempt to make Final Fantasy XV's world feel somewhat consistent. It's flabby as hell, but (once again) is at least ambitious.

FFXV review 2023

Finally, I also came around to the characters. Every few minutes, one of the lads makes some sort of comment about what we're doing and the game does a great job of making the group feel connected even when you, the player, have no idea who they are. You grow to appreciate Ignis being the fussy mom of the group, Gladiolus' simple appreciation for simple comforts, and Prompto's outsider, punching-bag status.

Trophy Tactics — Final Fantasy XV

The toughest challenge you'll face when collecting Final Fantasy XV trophies is staying committed. This isn't so hard when it comes to completing 80 side missions, as the robust fast travel system keeps you from wasting too much time between events. However, I found it pretty challenging to stay interested in the fishing minigame long enough to earn the Angling Expert bronze, or just plodding around in the open world long enough to earn the Survival Expert bronze.

However, without spoiling anything, a few hidden trophies do highlight some of the best experiences in Final Fantasy XV. Do enough hunting and you'll get to hunt something really impressive, showing just what the Luminous Engine was capable of. Upgrading the Regalia to its final form was an example of the game genuinely surprising me and earning it. And while I tapped out on hunting down all 13 royal arms after beating the game, I still recommend giving that a shot as these tend to be near the better dungeons.
FFXV review 2023

I eventually warmed up to protagonist Noctis as well. At first, he seemed designed only to fit the Cloud Strife archetype of 'pretty boy with quiet angst,' but slowly you learn to spot the difference. As a prince, there's a natural blend of duty and entitlement within Noctis, so his occasional tantrums of inadequacy feel decidedly for show. He's not as accessible or as easy to read as farmboy Cloud Strife, but I found Noctis' brand of angst grew on me and I came to appreciate him as Final Fantasy's take on Paul Atreides from Dune.

And so I remained relatively at peace with Final Fantasy XV for the next twenty hours or so. The game was feeding me busywork, but not without offering glimpses of the ambition behind its design giving me something about the world I could chew on. Then, at the thirty-hour mark, I decided it was time to follow the story more actively. That's when FFXV really showed me how ambitious it was as it boldly left its open world behind.

FFXV review 2023

The bottom layer — Final Fantasy XV's terrible final hours
I was perhaps unduly hopeful when FFXV brought me to Altissia, a stunning fantasy city modeled on Venice. Gondolas, twisting staircases, and the promise of a showstopping wedding on the horizon — traces of the slower, more considered Final Fantasy games I had learned to love over the past few years finally crept into view. My imagination spoke for me: "if Final Fantasy XV can hide something this beautiful 30 hours in, then surely it could have more?"

An hour later and the game had abandoned Altissia to spend the next three hours on a train track. The story propelled itself at lightning speed through a barrage of setpieces, throwing twists at the player that only served to undermine the story rather than deepen it. Linear levels brought out the absolute worst in Final Fantasy XV's combat. I found the erratic pace of the plot erased whatever familiarity I had slowly gained with the characters and the world around them.

FFXV review 2023

I can't say the final ten hours of Final Fantasy XV are no fun — the jarring and abrupt plot twists had me in fits of laughter (I won't spoil them, but definitely watch a long-play video if you are not going to play the game). One thing I love about Final Fantasy as a series is that its designers almost always strive to tell earnest, dramatic stories just like the classic tales we all grow up with. Unfortunately, earnest storytelling can often feel smug and pretentious if poorly executed, and that is exactly how FFXV felt in its last ten hours.

By the end, I was on such a schadenfreude high that I found it hard to admire or even pity FFXV's creatives and their untethered ambitions. I had worked hard to appreciate their game after its abysmal start. To watch it all fall apart in the end had me almost wanting for it to keep getting worse, because at least it was funny when Final Fantasy XV got really bad.

FFxv review 2023

If cool ideas and ambition made for good video games, then Final Fantasy XV would be one of the best video games of all time. Tragically, in the real world, Final Fantasy XV is a franchise-tarnishing disaster, a game so poorly executed that it should be no wonder if it dampens the success of future mainline entries in the series.

Summary

Final Fantasy XV is a sandwich of errors — a fairly solid mismatch of assorted gameplay cuts held firmly between two slices of abject failure. Any recommendation of the game's better qualities would require endless caveats that still might not prepare eager players for its weak finale. Ultimately, Final Fantasy XV is the heartbreaking result of flawed ambition and mismanaged design, a project worthy of admiration were it not also a sub-par game marred by unignorable problems.
4 / 10
* Lee played Final Fantasy XV Royal Edition (PS4) in 2023 on PS5 for 38 hours, collecting 46 out of 51 of the base game's trophies in the process. He did not play the game's DLC content, though he did equip some of Royal Edition's starter swords. This copy of the game was claimed by Lee via Sony's now-elapsed PS Plus Collection on PS5.
Lee Brady
Written by Lee Brady
Staff Writer Lee keeps one eye on the future (Astro Bot), one eye on the past (PS1, PS2, and PS3 games), and his secret third eye on junk he really likes (Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Sonic). A PlayStation fan for over 25 years, he loves replaying classic games via PS Plus.
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