Final Fantasy XV for Windows should have been a mess, but it’s the opposite
The open-world RPG Final Fantasy XV has finally launched for Windows PCs ($49.99 at Steam, Windows Store), roughly 15 months after its console predecessor. Up until this week, we weren't so sure this later version would be worth playing.
Nearly six months ago to the day, Square Enix invited us to take a world's-first look at FFXV's PC version. It wasn't good news. The clearly incomplete preview build included everything in our worst PC-port nightmares: messy mouse-and-keyboard support, incorrect resolution scaling, lousy tweaking options, and a frame rate only a mother could love.
This was followed with a February launch of an FFXV benchmarking tool, full of in-game sequences meant to tax your system and print out a vague score. However, this tool turned out so rough that Square Enix now tells fans to ignore its readings. Between that and the lack of advance access to review the PC version, we wouldn't have been surprised to see this port launch as an utter disaster.
But—what's this?—Square Enix has apparently pulled it off. Final Fantasy XV, at least based on anecdotal testing and tinkering, has landed on Windows with a breadth of tweakable options, a suite of noticeable boosts, and a knack for scaled performance. I've certainly noticed quirks in a day of testing, but the Japanese developer deserves credit for making good on a PC port worth checking out.
Alpha dreams came true
Our dreams of an eventual FFXV port to PC began with our first hands-on in May 2016, when Square Enix was still demoing its alpha build running on Windows PCs. That version, unsurprisingly, was far from optimized, as evidenced by horrific frame rate stutters and frequent crashes, and we weren't surprised to learn shortly afterward that its console launch was delayed a few months.
But we didn't have to play the build on a specialized dev kit; FFXV utilizes the PC-friendly Unreal Engine 4, and we knew that meant the game could find its way to normal consumer PCs some day, or at least there'd be less friction to Squeenix making that call.
What we didn't expect was the company going above and beyond. FFXV on Windows is indeed a more complete version of the game in terms of fidelity and customization, not to mention that it comes bundled with "season pass" content that already launched for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One fans. We'll break down what to expect by looking at our complaints from September and noting what has—and hasn't—been addressed since then.
Improved keyboard-and-mouse performance
FFXV for Windows ships with a far more sensible default control scheme, should you wish to avoid using a gamepad. More important, of course, is the ability to rebind keys however you see fit, with Squeenix going so far as to enable three button options for every action in the game (two for keyboard, one for mouse). If you want to assign a "sprint" command to left-shift, your right mouse button, and a number on your number pad, go ahead.
The biggest default fix is to move the game's essential "target-lock" button to the Shift key, instead of its original, finger-bending spot on the Z key. You can't survive in FFXV's combat, sometimes full of waves of foes, without managing and mastering target-locks, so this relocation is pretty clutch. Mouse wheel support is now enabled, as well, and it defaults to letting protagonist Noctis cycle through weapons.
Unfortunately, FFXV does not support a mouse cursor anywhere in its UI. Should you want to select items in the starting menu, you can glide a mouse around to change the selection, but this feels incredibly awkward. Worse is the game's variety of map screens. If you'd like to move a pointer around on the map, which you'll need to do to toggle waypoints in the game, you have to use the IJKL buttons like a WASD equivalent. It's very odd.
Beyond that weirdness, the game's default mappings are generally fine. You'll likely want to assign useful functions to the Q and E buttons, which for some reason default to replicating mouse-click commands, but otherwise, the game is pretty dreamy with mouse control.
Stable (mostly) 60 frames-per-second performance
And that mouse control only feels better when you crank the game up to 60Hz territory, which is double what you can expect from its console siblings. FFXV's tweaks to combat largely resemble the systems of the KingdomHearts series, with players directly controlling the steps and attacks of main character Noctis, but unlike classic Kingdom Hearts games, FFXV launched as a 30Hz console game on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. That always made the game's wildest, most frantic fights feel sluggish and hard to follow. But now that FFXV's PC version supports a 60Hz refresh, it's so much easier to wildly turn a camera or pull off last-second dodges and parries—and keep visual track of everything around you while doing so.
Even better, the game appears to scale pretty nicely on lesser gaming PCs, thanks to an ample number of sliders and toggles. Reducing detail on shadows, geometry, and textures will free up the most frames, as does a sheer resolution reduction. We were able to easily achieve a 60 frames-per-second refresh on some of our gaming laptops—with notebook versions of 1000-series Nvidia cards—by reducing detail to a console-comparable "average" preset at either 1080p or 900p resolutions. Should you wish to trade frames for details, of course, you can go right ahead, but be warned if that's the direction you're leaning. At launch, the game's 30Hz cap introduces inconsistent frames, which pretty much renders the cap moot. It should be there to add performance consistency, not take it away.
The game's 60Hz cap doesn't appear to add significant stutter as of press time, at least, and the game can ratchet up to 120Hz if your monitor supports it. In order to enjoy a mostly locked 60Hz refresh, I tinkered with the game's sliders in order to reach an average of roughly 70fps during a benchmark sequence of the game's heroes taking their first drive in their fancy black car. By doing this, I could mostly shore up my performance for when the game inevitably dipped into the high 50s when giant creatures emerged.
Another useful detail slider is hamstrung at launch: an internal resolution scaler. This lets you run the game at your panel's native resolution, with higher-res menus, while reducing 3D elements' fidelity. This kind of feature can be a great way to squeeze more performance out of a lesser game and let anti-aliasing fill in the gaps. (DICE's Frostbite engine has a particularly nice implementation in games like Battlefield 1.) However, FFXV's resolution slider only works in 25-percent increments. You can't arbitrarily ask the game to render at, say, 85 or 90 percent of your current resolution. It can be a pain to trick your system into running at unofficial resolutions like 1800p, and we'd appreciate if Squeenix unlocked this option a little more so that we didn't have to sacrifice so much fidelity to use the feature.
Built to impress on powerful systems and 4K panels
That 30Hz cap better receive an update soon, because while we appreciate getting this game up to a 60Hz refresh, the whole game is just too demanding to work in 4K/60Hz mode on my most powerful testing rig. (With all game settings up to medium-high, my i7-4770K/1080Ti system reached an average of 44fps in an early game benchmark session. That's too choppy on a screen without any form of variable refresh rate à la Freesync or Gsync.)
A new "high-res" pack exclusive to Windows (which requires an additional free 63GB download, of which roughly 20GB is boosted textures) does not consistently improve all textures in the game, but it does work on enough of the game's most common vegetation, buildings, signs, and characters to really make this game a looker on your biggest, most pixel-loaded panels. This, combined with a "TAA" anti-aliasing option and an Nvidia-exclusive "Turf Effects" mode, makes the game's fields of grasses and trees look remarkably populated and dynamic, but that settings combo will do a number on your game's frame rate. The higher-res texture download pack still impresses in general otherwise and, at least on my highest-end system, has little apparent impact on frame rates when enabled.
I can still get close to 60Hz refresh by reducing my 4K resolution using the in-game "75 percent" slider, which brings me to a 1620p resolution, and dropping most of the game's settings down from "highest" to "high, but the built-in anti-aliasing systems are either that resource-hogging TAA or a much more shimmery FXAA option. The latter can look downright ugly, quite frankly, while the former slashes 10 more frames per second off my performance than FXAA does.
But on my 1440p Gsync monitor, I can maintain an average of roughly 65fps with many effects left on, and, quite frankly, it's pretty flipping cool. I lose some of that 4K-specific texture impact by operating at a lower resolution, but hectic fights with my four-man crew remain fluid while I continue enjoying certain effects, particularly the Nvidia "Hairworks" system that makes the game's furriest monsters (and cutest companion pets) look that little bit floofier without as severe a performance impact as I expected. (Hairworks has been notorious for slashing performance in PC series like The Witcher and Tomb Raider; whatever Squeenix and Nvidia figured out for this one, god bless 'em for it.)
Speaking of: four Nvidia-developed visual perks can be found in this game in all, and they're subtle enough to not be worth switching GPUs. (I did not have any comparable AMD systems to measure how they handle the Nvidia tweaks.) The most interesting impact comes from an Nvidia-specific implementation of ambient occlusion, which adds a refined but easy-to-miss pass of the game's lighting pipeline. It's the kind of thing you'll most notice if you stand still in FFXV's restaurants, cafes, and indoor scenes. You won't do much of that during a standard session of this game.
Of course, with a PC port…
I have not gotten anywhere near testing this game enough to declare that PC players can expect a wholly stable open-world RPG experience. In my few hours of testing on the game's launch day, I suffered two system crashes. In good news, an auto-save system made sure I didn't lose more than a few minutes of gameplay each time, but that's cold comfort for anybody anxious about how well the game will run on their own rig.
I've seen anecdotal reports of some players suffering more crashes (and sometimes consistent ones) or seeing wacky visual glitches like characters disappearing entirely. The worst I've seen thus far is the same wonky stuff found in the console versions: beasts animating weirdly thanks to faulty collision-detection systems. That's a little annoying but doesn't detract from the general flow of frantic combat.
FFXV is by no means a perfect RPG—we said as much in our late-2016 review—but Square Enix deserves credit for continuing to tweak the game with patches and content additions. That being said, this is the same company that still hasn't gotten around to patching Nier Automata's wonky PC edition; fans of that game continue to rely on community-made patches just to get it running consistently. We wonder whether our above nitpicks, particularly an improved 30fps cap, will ever arrive. And if bigger issues arise, the company hasn't inspired confidence about its ability to patch and react.
At the very least, Square Enix really surprised us with this performance turnaround compared to everything we'd seen before Tuesday's launch. FFXV isn't just playable on Windows; it's a darned beaut with most of the tweakability that PC gamers demand, and it's finally on a platform with enough CPU and GPU headroom to truly deliver the developers' ambitious world, character, and art designs.