Announced all the way back in 2006 (as Final Fantasy Versus XIII) it’s hard to believe we’re less than a month away from Final Fantasy XV’s release. It’s even harder to believe that a game with such a protracted development cycle could come out and be anything more than sun-baked trash. But, in my brief tryst with the game’s opening hours, I began to feel my doubts fade. I walked away from my session not just impressed by what I’d played, but legitimately excited to return to FFXV’s offbeat, yet engrossing, open-world.
Now, unfortunately, this article isn’t based on the 15 hour preview Square Enix has been floating around some press sites (the lucky shits), but instead on the two hour hands-on demo held at an NYCC preview event. Got it? Got it.
Full disclosure: My attachment to the franchise pretty much begins and ends in the PS1 era. I was always more attracted to the stories that generation weaved than its turn-based gameplay or Materia systems (or, shudder, its Junction system). That’s why FFXV piques my interest. It has Final Fantasy’s DNA coursing through its veins, to be sure, but mows over its roots in favor of an open-world experience that hems much closer to Western efforts like The Witcher and Red Dead Redemption. Mind you, the game is a very Eastern take on the genre, but that’s precisely what makes it so interesting.
The game begins with some preamble where we’re introduced to Prince Noctis and his three boyband bodyguards, Ignis, Prompto, and Glaudiolus (the days where you could rename characters are sorely missed). The young heir is set to marry Lady Lunafreya, a childhood friend and heiress herself, in order to end a bitter cold war between the kingdoms of Lucis and Nilfheim. Sounds like standard FF fare, I know, but a consistent theme underscoring the game from the very get-go is its focus on realism and character. It juxtaposes its more fantastical (read: ludicrous) elements in a way that even some of the more beloved entries in the franchise haven’t before.
Our heroes’ journey comes to a halt before it even begins in a fashion most of us can probably relate to: with a broken down car. So your first task in the latest entry of the most influential JRPG series of all time… is to push your fancy car along a rural highway road while your buddies bicker, complain, and crack lame jokes. And you know what? It’s awesome. It’s understated, and it immediately tethers players within this tight knit group. I’ve always had a tough time relating to Final Fantasy’s huge, neon-garbed ensemble casts. Noctis’ crew of J-Pop/N*Sync analogs may not seem like much of an improvement, sure, but traveling with them during the game’s subdued opening hours made me feel like I was on a roadtrip with old friends. Friends with meticulously permed haircuts that look sculpted by a Super Saiyan, but friends nonetheless.
Before long, your group stumbles upon a rural slice of civilization. You meet a vivacious mechanic named Cindy (who is, true to Japanese developers’ indulgences, wearing an outfit three percent better at covering the female form than a bikini) and her cantankerous father, Cid, who is happy to fix the boys’ car — provided they get off their pampered, high falutin’ asses and help the denizens around town.
Finally free to explore this expanse of land (which hews oddly close to America’s heartland than it does, say, a steampunk kingdom), you’re able to speak with locals and gain missions to earn enough scratch to repair your car. There’s some light dialogue options at play; nothing to the extent of Mass Effect or Fallout, but you can at least pump NPCs for useful knowledge about quests or just the world in general. This is how I ended up on my first mission to rid the countryside of giant scorpions.
As I said, gone are the days of turn-based battle. Encounters are in real-time and have a feel more in line with Kingdom Hearts. At a glance, the combat can seem hack n’ slash-y, and I suspect this is one move of many to bring a wider audience into the fold. I handled my first few fights without a sweat, relying on my decades-honed ability to mash a single button. But I felt an intricate beast swimming beneath the surface of the combat system the more monster bashes I stumbled into. Evasion plays a big role in fights, allowing you to sidestep (or sometimes phase away from) attackers. Time your dodges right and you’re given the ability to counter-attack, which pays off in a major way, dealing big damage to threats. You’ll often face off with small hordes of enemies (each replete with their own level) and the lock-on mechanic does an admirable job keeping you on target. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before in other action games, but the experience opens up when you factor in your AI comrades.
You can’t switch to your party members, but they engage in combat as much as you do, and the interplay between their attacks and yours makes for some surprisingly satisfying combos. Staring down a hulking beastie that looked like a giant buffalo cosplaying as a rhino, Gladio put his muscles to use, whacking the charging monster hard enough to topple it on its side, which set me up perfectly to warp in — yeah, Noctis warps — and slash at its vulnerable belly. Unlike a lot of AI companions in other games, your teammates rarely get in your way. Hell, I felt like I was in their way from time to time, fumbling a precise attack of theirs with my own clumsy flailing.
Running with my crew, at all times, everywhere, isn’t as annoying as the prospect initially sounds. It’s a great thing redundancies in their chatter from the initial demo (coyly paired with Final Fantasy Type-0 last year) seems to be addressed. I’m not listening to the same drivel endlessly, and it’s actually more involving hearing their exchanges at my side instead of relegated to me through disruptive radio transmissions like most other titles love to do. What struck me in my ventures was how lonely other open-world games feel in comparison. Whether I’m the Dovahkin or The Witcher or John Marston, I’m often by lonesome, blazing a quiet trail in solitude. In Final Fantasy XV, I’m traveling with my buds, facing the unknown together. It’s a pretty refreshing change for the genre.
Eventually, your wheels are spinning again. Not having to cover great distances by foot anymore, you’re able to see more of the world. This doesn’t mean you can cruise your vehicle over hilltops or run over creatures for EXP, however. Car controls are incredibly restrictive, allowing you to only drive on man-made road while on a finite amount of gas. This might come as a shock to Westerners especially used to launching sports cars off of ramps and decorating their hoods with civilians. Players might want forgo control of the wheel to Ignis who can “auto-pilot” you to your destination while you sit back and jam out to classic FF tunes on the radio (nice touch).
What I didn’t get to hunker down with in my session was the “RPG” part of this “Action-RPG.” Leveling is handled by the Ascension Grid which allows you to spend the experience points (or Ability Points) your earn from quests and battles. You don’t actually get to cash in accrued AP until you set up camp in the open-world, however. This is where your team’s health is replenished and you, uh, choose what you want to eat for dinner. For the sake of trying to see as much as possible before my two hours were up, I avoided lingering in menus, but I can at least attest it’s no more obtuse than recent skill trees we’ve tangled with.
The short amount of time I had with Final Fantasy XV graduated my interest to full blown excitement. I was surprised how quickly the gameplay absorbed me. Final Fantasy titles are usually a slow bake for me– that hook has never been immediate. It takes time for me to grow accustomed to the in’s and out’s of gameplay, its mechanical quirks, while trying to soak in a whole new universe’s lore and characters and history. FFXV does a great job of setting aside its intricacies to get players on board right away. Using our familiarity with the open-world genre, the game lets players break through the barrier of entry that typically forms over a sprawling franchise, especially one like Final Fantasy that has been around for nearly 30 years.
I know a ten year dev cycle is cause for concern — just ask Duke Nukem how that worked out for him. But in Final Fantasy XV’s case… the wait might have very much been worth it.
Final Fantasy XV releases (finally) November 29th for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.