It took Square Enix twelve years to finally finish development on Final Fantasy XV, and while the end result was a good game by many measures, it also felt needlessly bloated and meandering in many ways. There’s a saying going around now that Final Fantasy XV went from being the game that would never come out, to being the game that would never stop coming out, with Square producing several spin-offs, a slew of DLC expansions, a movie, an anime and more, all in an effort to get the most out of the project. The latest venture to be born from this is Final Fantasy XV Pocket Edition HD — a pared-down ‘demake’ designed for weaker hardware — and while it does a great job of capturing the spirit of the original, a little too much is left on the cutting room floor.
The story of Pocket Edition HD follows that of the original game almost to a tee, making nips and tucks where necessary to keep the experience truncated and bite-sized. You play as Noctis Lucis Caelum, the prince of the kingdom of Lucis, on a road trip with his three best friends to be married to a princess from a neighbouring kingdom. Things quickly go awry when the empire of Niflheim reneges on peace negotiations and captures the crown city of Lucis, leaving Noctis no choice but to go on a quest to claim the power of his bloodline and save his people. It’s a touching story of love and loss, but the true beauty is found in the strong friendship that exists between Noctis and his three companions. Whether driving to a new location, battling monsters or just walking around, the four heroes are constantly bantering and chatting with each other, building up a believable and natural rapport. Noctis and his gang are the heart and soul of this narrative, and Square has done a fantastic job in characterizing them and making the player care, but the plot stumbles much more in a broader sense.
The same criticisms of the original Final Fantasy XV’s plot apply here as well; what starts out as a seemingly straightforward narrative of a hero’s journey quickly becomes unfocused and increasingly more confusing. You’ll find yourself enjoying Noctis and the crew for the whole adventure, but there are too many non-sequitur moments where it’s not made very clear why the team is going somewhere, or the events that occur have little bearing on events that follow. Pocket Edition HD does feel a little more tolerable than the original, however, in how it cuts out plenty of the extraneous side content and the open world in favour of a more streamlined storytelling approach, but there’s only so much that can be done with a core storyline that, frankly, isn’t very good.
Gameplay in Pocket Edition HD does an admirable job of shrinking down that of the original, sometimes in surprising ways, but it often goes a little too far in how much it removes. For example, Final Fantasy XV received some criticism for the design of its open world, so Pocket Edition HD goes hard in the other direction and removes any semblance of open-ended design, moving you between small levels that are experienced in a linear fashion. It’s rather fascinating to see how smartly some of the locales have been turned into cutesy levels, but one tends to feel claustrophobic in these environments with all the invisible walls and environmental clutter funnelling you down very specific paths. There are moments of more open-ended design, such as in dungeons, or how exploring a brief side path may net you an extra potion or junk to be sold to a store, but this is very much a game that gives you little leeway in how you experience it.
Combat is impressively close to the style found in the original, eschewing turn-based action for a more hands-on approach. Each party member fights on their own and holding down the attack button causes Noctis to automatically wail on the enemy you’re targeting, while occasional prompts will give you the option to perform a special attack with one of your teammates. Noctis can warp-strike to any enemy on the field at the cost of MP, and occasional QTEs can give you a brief window in which an incoming attack can be dodged or parried. The issue with all of this isn’t so much the design of the battle system, but the way in which Pocket Edition HD makes little effort at pushing you very hard.
Final Fantasy XV wasn’t a difficult game to begin with, but Pocket Edition HD strips away almost any hint of challenge, leaving you with a product that’s a bit of a chore in extended play. It can be fun to battle through enemies and dungeons in brief sessions, but after enough time passes, the illusion of challenge wears off and you realize that you’re fighting through the same basic enemies that pose no real threat. In the rare event that your health does get too low, maybe in one of the boss fights, you can just pop one of the dozens of hi-potions the game doles out in generous supply and keep up the attack. This results in a combat system that becomes less about smartly outpacing worthy opponents and more about wailing away on damage sponges until you can progress further; it’s flashy and exciting in small servings, but there’s not a ton of substance to keep you invested.
This extends somewhat to the progression system as well, which gets the job done, but feels much too basic. Characters acquire XP after each battle and have it applied to them at the end of every story mission, bumping up their stats and generating AP to be invested in the skill tree, which doesn’t have a ton of meat to it. Rather than feeling like you’re speccing the party to a specific playstyle, it’s more like you’re just unlocking the next node in a close-to-linear set of abilities. There are noticeable improvements to be found, of course, but many of them can feel like overkill given how weak most enemies are relative to your team.
In terms of presentation, Pocket Edition HD opts for a low-poly, 'chibi' visual style that takes some cues from the look of the Bravely Default series. Environments are full of chunky objects and buildings, and the characters are cute, big-headed creations with fixed facial expressions. When in gameplay, this art style does a fine job, but the cutscenes can feel a bit weird when a character’s voice is full of emotion and pain while the model just has the same facial expression. What’s a little more disappointing, however, is how often pop-in happens in bigger environments and how performance tends to chug in places, despite the basic art style. Oddly enough, we noticed far more framerate drops when playing in docked mode, too, with Tabletop offering a much more stable 60fps. Pocket Edition HD’s presentation leaves something to be desired, both from a visual and performance standpoint, but it’s not exactly hard on the eyes.
Final Fantasy XV Pocket Edition HD is the sort of game that you play and then wonder why exactly it needs to exist. Though it does a great job of capturing the spirit of Final Fantasy XV in several ways, it drops the ball in some others, resulting in an inferior facsimile of a game that is already seen as something of a rough gem. There’s very little reason to give Pocket Edition HD a go if you’ve already played Final Fantasy XV, and if you haven’t, we’d give this a tenuous recommendation at best. There are many moments where the live-action combat is satisfying and the cutesy visuals are charming, but this is hardly something that we’d say should be close to the top of your wish list.