For a franchise that built its legacy on turn-based combat, you can argue that making Final Fantasy XV an action-RPG was a big risk. You could also argue that it was the only way for Square Enix to keep their game relevant in modern times. Whatever the reason for adopting a new combat system, it has certainly changed up how Final Fantasy games will play in the future.
Final Fantasy XV only lets you play as the main character Noctis, however you can use every weapon type in the game, so this isn’t an issue. The weapon variety is one the best aspects of the combat as you can choose from blades, great swords, lances, handguns, daggers, shields and more. You can equip up to four weapons at any one time and you can swap out weapons during combat as well. This is an essential feature as enemies have weaknesses to the various weapon types. You will be switching them around quite often. From my personal experience, the blade and greatsword are two of the best to use. Great swords are great for short bursts of large damage, especially against large and slower enemies. From the blade category, you can upgrade Noctis’ Engine Blade into one of the best weapons in the game, the Ultima Blade.
Unfortunately, the large weapon variety doesn’t save the combat. The biggest problem is how automated everything feels. You can just hold the attack button and Noctis will chain together a short combo. The “strategic” elements comes from simply attacking enemies from the back to score some bonus damage. While you can mash the button, it doesn’t have the same feel as other action titles because the game was designed for it be held down. Rather than letting you form your own combos using various button presses, a big part of any action game, Noctis does everything on his own.
The implementation of Noctis’ techniques are a little different from your usual action game. All of them are passive. So, they activate only when you attack an enemy from a certain angle, or if you move your analogue stick in a specific direction. For example, when attacking airborne enemies, you can hold the analogue stick down to make Noctis “air step” backwards before launching another attack. After a few upgrades, you can have Noctis practically walking in the air until you run out of MP. There are a few more techniques, like holding the stick down during a great sword attack to do massive swiping motion. Although these are a nice addition, it would have nice to have more options and a combo list to see how to execute techniques.
Aside from Noctis’ basic attacks, you can also activate your allies’ techniques by filling up the tech bar. Your allies have some useful techniques, like Gladious’ Tempest which breaks up a group of enemies or Ignis’ Regroup, if you get separated from your companions. Once again, another nice addition that can get you out of a tight spot. It’s a shame that they only have about three techniques each and Noctis doesn’t have any of his own. Generally, you can follow up techniques with an attack of your own using a button prompt, but these can be a little tricky to time.
Final Fantasy XV is sadly limited when it comes to defensive options. The majority of your defending will be holding down the dodge button. While the button is held down, Noctis will automatically dodge incoming attacks, with a few exceptions (namely area-of-effect attacks). At first, it’s awesome seeing Noctis do flips and rolls to get out of the enemy fire, but you quickly realise that it takes zero skill and isn’t fun at all. The “cost” of holding the dodge button is MP, and you can nullify this cost by timing your dodge instead of holding the button down. The only problem is that the MP cost is so minimal, there’s no point in timing your dodge.
Occasionally when you’re in the dodging stance, a button prompt will appear to counter an enemy. These are very quick and can easily be missed in the middle of the action resulting in some damage, but never enough to make you feel threatened. The last thing Final Fantasy XV needed is more button prompts to play the game for you. Good action games encourage the player to master dodging and blocking so that it becomes satisfying when you pull off a difficult evasive motion. Final Fantasy XV encourages you to hold the button and wait for enemies to stop attack, so you can hold a different button and win the fight.
The flow of combat is another major issue with the combat in Final Fantasy XV. Action games should have a constant speed, not so slow that it gets boring, and not so fast that you can’t keep up. While the combat paces itself very well, the issue is item usage. During the late game, you will find yourself using a lot of items as enemy damage scales a lot higher than your defence and HP stats. This wouldn’t be an issue if you could just use the item in the middle of combat. But you need open up a separate menu to use an item which constantly breaks up the flow of battles. Not to mention that you get three lives before a game over. When Noctis’ HP hits zero, his MAX HP is exposed. And when that reaches zero, you can get an opportunity to use a phoenix down and heal yourself. There’s no incentive to carefully plan out your moves because of how lenient Final Fantasy XV is.
The final aspect of combat in Final Fantasy XV is magic. The workings of magic in this game are far different from any other Final Fantasy. For starters, you are restricted to three spells: Fire, Blizzard and Thunder. Throughout the open world, there are deposits where you can collect energy for each respective element. By combining that energy with items, you can create spells which are stored in flasks. This a decent crafting mechanic because you can come up with a variety of spells, such as a Firaga which has a passive effect of healing Noctis. However, the fact that there are only three elements means the crafting is extremely restricted. Final Fantasy XV is sorely missing classic spells like Cure, Protect and Shell. They could have at least added a fourth element, “Healing”, to allow for a few defensive options.
The next problem is with how the spells are used. The energy is stored in a grenade which you have to throw to activate the spell. Aiming this grenade isn’t very intuitive, but easy to get used to. Each time you use a magic grenade, it needs to recharge before you can use another one, which is fair. The nature of these grenades makes them very situational and ultimately not even worth the effort. They can be great when enemies are in a large crowd, but don’t maintain their usefulness during boss fights. The only time in the game where magic was used in a meaningful way was during the Behemoth boss fight which had oil canisters to trigger large explosions.
The spells can also hurt your allies and inflict status conditions like burn and paralyse. And since your allies are always in the middle of the action, using magic without hurting them is very difficult. It is easier to not use magic at all throughout the whole game. I found this very disappointing since magic is such a huge part of the Final Fantasy universe. But I suppose they took a more grounded approach to this particular entry in the franchise, so everything feels watered down. I would have been really happy to see spells like Haste, Protect, Osmose, Reflect, Aero etc.
The combat of Final Fantasy XV does have its highlights. The weapon variety is excellent and ally techniques are also very cool. But where it mattered the most, the combat failed to deliver. Battles feel too automated for an action game and, at times, it feels like playing a slow turn-based RPG. Defending requires practically no skill or thought and the potential of magic was wasted. Final Fantasy XV is a great game for many reasons, but the combat isn’t one of them.