I didn't expect to like Final Fantasy XV. Imagine my surprise when, about 12 hours into the game, I realized I kind of love it.
That point — 12 hours — was around where I began to make headway into the game's third chapter. I spent about seven hours completing the first chapter, and another three on the second. Both of those portions of the game took place in the same region (the desert-like Liede), which I thought I had explored in its entirety during Chapter One. Surprisingly, though, I had overlooked an entire corner of the map off to the northwest, which served as the primary setting for Chapter Two. I could have gone there at any time and farted around pointlessly the way I did the rest of Liede, but it didn't even occur to me that there was something up there — the rest of the map had been so desolate and empty.
But no, in its northern reaches, Liede's desert begins to give way to rolling, grassy hills. Unlike the desert, the hilly northern areas contain a great many manmade structures — all abandoned and fallen into disrepair, as with almost everything you come across in the sandy wastelands. But here the ruins provide more context for Liede's general desolation: It was laid to waste years prior by warfare. Rusting hulks of tanks and shattered military structures fade into the scenery, sinking into the earth as moss and other overgrowth creeps up to consume them.
You can stumble across these remnants of simmering conflicts more or less from the outset of the game, but they're isolated at the other end of a boring stretch of desert highway from where the action of FFXV's Chapter One takes place. By the time you're forced to venture into that area, war has erupted and Prince Noctis has been displaced from his home in the Crown City. It's a canny bit of open-world design — context and clues for the story's central conflict sit right there in the open for you to discover at any time, but you're only guaranteed to uncover them once that conflict has emerged. FFXV's world, so far as I've seen, comes off as thoughtfully designed, with many environmental elements that underscore the story... provided you know what to look for.
It wasn't until I entered the third chapter and made my way to the Duscae province — yes, as in the "Episode Duscae" demo — that it all finally fell into place for me. Everything that happens in Liede, it turns out, works more or less like a tutorial, a prologue: A fact that became clear at the very outset of the chapter, when the game finally allowed me to take the wheel of the group's car and drive myself around instead of issuing orders to Ignis. Of course, FFXV still makes you stick to the road as you drive Regalia; there's no Grand Theft Auto-style off-roading in this luxury car. But that's OK, because you can make a beeline directly for a sidequest that will grant you speedy passage across the countryside once you make it to Duscae: Acquiring chocobo rentals.
What you won't find in Duscae or, it seems, anywhere else in FFXV? True fast travel. The game only allows the party two options for fast travel shortcuts across the land: You can return instantly to the last place you camped out or rested overnight, and you can warp immediately back to wherever you parked Regalia (assuming those two places aren't one and the same). You can also have Regalia towed instantly to your current location, in order to enable your party to hop in and continue your journey. But you can't simply pick a town from a menu and zap immediately to that location.
I imagine that won't sit well with a lot of players. It flies in the face of open-world game design convention, forcing players to travel manually from point to point. Granted, the highways that Regalia travels along skirt along and cut through each region, so it only takes a few minutes to drive between major points.
FFXV's creators have very consciously and very deliberately chosen not to make instant fast-travel an option for basic transit. It's a bold choice, and one that I honestly appreciate. I always try to hold off on fast traveling in games like Skyrim and Assassin's Creed for as long as possible (ultimately giving in for the sake of convenience), because it destroys immersion and cheapens the world. Here's this vast land to explore, but ultimately you're just bouncing around different names on a menu — so why bother with an open world at all?
FFXV takes away that option, limiting you to a quick shortcut back to your base camp or the occasional change to skip backtracking through a completed dungeon, and it really underscores the central "four guys on a road trip" conceit of the game. When you go trekking by road across the middle section of America, there's no "fast travel" to skip you past Nebraska or Indiana. There's a lot of empty space and wide horizons, and that's all part of the experience. And FFXV fills its stretches of wandering with amusing exchanges between your party members: Varied banter after battles, complaints about the weather (one morning too chilly, the next too warm), and even fussing about Noctis's well-being.
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