By William Haderlie / December 15th, 2016
Going into Final Fantasy XV I was fairly certain that the story and characters and world would be solid, but the combat system would need to convince me that it was good. There were two reasons for this. The first is that I played all three public demos and didn’t like the combat in any of them. The second reason is when Square Enix handed the reigns of development for this game to Hajime Tabata. His games previous to this I had not been a particular fan of, especially when they had anything to do with my beloved Final Fantasy series, examples being Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy Type-0. Those two games stand at number 18 and number 19 on my list respectively, and you can follow those links for my more detailed thoughts on the games. Overall I just haven’t liked the story very much in those games and the combat was a little too much like a Kingdom Hearts game. I am a fan of the Disney worlds in those games, but really dislike the combat in them. So with the tenor of Part 1 in this review, this game seemed to be leading into bad territory. The part that I was almost sure I would enjoy ended up disappointing me.
It turned out that, other than a few exceptions, the combat and ability development of the characters turned out to be overwhelmingly the highlight of this game for me. They did a lot more with the action-RPG formula than was done in any Kingdom Hearts game or any Tales game so far. But let’s get one thing clear about the combat; it is not party-based combat. This is a single player game where the other three members of your group act more like appendages to your body than any actual party members. You have no real control over them other than choosing when they use a technique or which abilities they learn to augment your actions as Noctis. Other than that they will help occasionally, and get into trouble a lot (especially on more difficult dungeons). They do make enough of a DPS impact that you will want to gear them well, but they do not have nearly the damage output that Noctis does (even Gladiolus) and so the best gear should always be saved up for him. A major portion of their DPS input will also be Link Strikes, and those are only ever initiated by Noctis so he is still the most important damage contributor.
The green bar you see above next to the L1 is the Tech Bar. It will slowly increase over time during the battle, but you can invest AP (Ability Points) into that characteristic to increase the speed at which it builds over time. It also contributes some bar building with damage from and damage to Noctis. Once it fills up at least one bar you can use a technique from a partner, which will have a wide range of effects. One of the most important is the one you see above by Ignis, called Regroup. It’s the only technique that heals your party and it costs two bars. Prompto’s technique, Gravisphere, is highly useful for magic because it sucks all enemies into one group and does small amounts of damage to them. The Technique for Gladiolus is not lit in green because there is not enough bar for it to be used yet; it requires all three bars. It’s by far his best Technique, Impulse, which sweeps his greatsword in a very wide area and then does a magic blast following it. The magic blast has a slightly larger radius than the greatsword swing so it can either hit all enemies on the battlefield once or twice, depending on their proximity to him. As soon as that Technique was available to him I was already doing 9999 damage per hit. It’s a powerful one to have in your arsenal. As for Ignis and Prompto, I tended to change their Techniques frequently based on the fight. During battle you could always go into the menu and change which Technique is currently equipped on them.
Even though it’s turned off by default, and you have to go into the Options menu to turn it on, Wait Mode feels like the way this game was meant to be played in almost every situation. Wait Mode pauses the combat any time Noctis stops moving for more than a split second and activates a Wait Timer, like you see above. While the action is paused you can not only strategize, but you can lock onto an enemy and scan them for their HP and weaknesses, like you see in the upper left. There is no Bestiary menu in this game, which I find to be a horrible decision, so this is the only way to know that information. Also the game does not keep track of any enemies you have previously scanned, or even apply current scans across multiple enemies on the same battlefield. It’s clunky, but it’s rather necessary information the farther you get into the game. Even more puzzling with it not being default is the fact that there is an entire skill tree associated with Wait Mode that makes it not only more useful getting around the Wait Timer, but gives Noctis and many of your party members more damage. One Skill allows your party members to do more damage based on how many enemies on the battlefield have been scanned, and another great one increases the damage of a Noctis Warp strike on an enemy with less than 50% health.
There are things that I like about the Ascension Grid, and a lot of things that I’m not sold on. One interesting decision is that there is only one Ascension Grid and it applies to your whole party. That means two things; you need to decide whether to focus more on improving Noctis or another party member, and it also helps lead to that feeling that this is really only a single party member and the other 3 are only there for looks. Ideally they are supposed to act in conjunction. Unfortunately, the development system is not nearly as rich as almost any Final Fantasy game of old. It lacks the depth and batshit insane combinations of the Materia system in Final Fantasy VII, and it lacks the versatility of the grid in Final Fantasy XII. Really, as soon as there became options with character development with the class changing featured in Final Fantasy III, Final Fantasy V, and Final Fantasy X-2, or the Esper system in Final Fantasy VI, this one is possibly the most simple one yet. If I were to link it to any other game’s format, it would be the Star Grids of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Ability Points (AP) are an extremely important, and rare, resource. For most battles you are probably not going to earn any AP, and it’s never given to you as a reward along with any experience like in most other JRPGs. You earn AP through very specific actions, and in battle those are almost always just finishing off an enemy with either a Warp Strike or a Link Strike. Link Strikes mostly happen when Noctis does a Blind Side attack on an enemy while at least one of his other party members is standing next to him. They will combine to perform a move that does more damage, hits multiple times, and makes all characters involved invulnerable for the duration of the move. If that happens to be the killing blow for that enemy, or if a Warp Strike is the killing blow, you will earn 1 AP for that. Through some investment in Skills you can also earn 1 AP for activating Armiger or for using magic. In general, that is not going to be your primary way of earning AP until you get powerful enough to just summon groups of enemies (with the Enemy Whistle, which you earn late in the game) that are so weak you can just Warp Strike kill them all for 1 AP each. For most of the game your best bet is to invest in the Exploration Grid (you see above), which allows you to earn AP for simple tasks such as fishing, camping, cooking someone’s favorite meal, driving the car, riding a chocobo, or winning a chocobo race. Fishing in particular was the way that I earned 90% of all my AP until I obtained the Enemy Whistle. Once you get to level 10 Fishing (which was rather easy), you have enough skill to fish many times on a single spool of Spider Silk before it breaks. Also, if you have the Leviathan Lure from the Digital Deluxe edition, it will never be lost after a line breaks and you have the third best rod and reel right from the start.
Farming for AP is not the only use for fishing. There is a whole series of sidequests associated with the practice and, more importantly, you can use fish for their cuts of meat or their items (such as scales). When you are fishing they show up as either a yellow dot or a blue dot on your map. The blue dots mean that potential fish turns into an item, while the yellow dots mean that the fish turns into a food ingredient. Other than that, you will not know what type of fish it is, although many fishing holes have a sign saying what potential fish there are. Many times those signs will only give a couple options and there are more that can be potentially fished there, depending on the time of day for your fishing. The flashing dots are very large and rare catches, but are much more difficult to hook and then reel in. The associated mini-game is a pretty good one, and is possibly my favorite fishing mini-game in any game.
As nice as it is to be able to sell fish parts, 90% of them are quite cheap on the market, so they are better used as Magic components (more on that a little later). Your best results from fishing are likely going to be food components. Cooking is a huge part of the game, so it makes sense that every shot of the food was lovingly crafted and equates to practically food pornography. Nothing in this game looks more beautiful than the food, with the minor exception of an irritating product placement for Cup Noodles. Even more startling is how much of the food they get absolutely correct with its look and style to that of real life foods, even the stuff that is not natively Japanese. As a serious cook, I really appreciated that attention to detail. And more than that, the food gives some seriously important buffs if you want to challenge some of the more difficult content in the game.
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