What is Final Fantasy XV?
Simple answer: The latest entry in a nearly 30-year-old RPG franchise.
Longer answer: The fifteenth numbered entry in the Final Fantasy series pushes the series more toward the current trends of big-budget Western action games, attempting to wed the open-world design of something like The Witcher and Grand Theft Auto V with the narrative traditions of Final Fantasy. So while combat takes place in real-time and you can drive around the world in a car, you do so in command of a squad of stylish young men with teased-up hair and the ability to draw on skills and weapons redolent of long-running Final Fantasy elements.
More crucially, however, FFXV represents an essential turning point for Square Enix—part of an ongoing attempt to right the company's internal development systems after the setbacks and the challenges that complicated those processes in the move to high-definition systems. Final Fantasy XIII arrived years late and seemingly compromised in terms of design. Final Fantasy XIV shipped in a disastrous state, and an entirely new team had to step in and overhaul the game in order to transform it from trash to a remarkably successful ongoing MMO experience. FFXV, then, appears to be the next logical step in this salvage process; Square brought on a new team to redeem the project before it shipped.
The Long History of an Upcoming Game
The saga of Final Fantasy XV began nearly a decade ago, when the game was first announced under the title Final Fantasy Versus XIII. Square Enix announced its HD generation intentions at E3 2006 by revealing Final Fantasy XIII as well as two games to go along with it: Versus XIII for PlayStation 3, and Agito XIII for mobile phones. The idea seemed somewhat obviously inspired by the recent success the studio had seen with its Compilation of Final Fantasy VII multimedia projects, and the idea that a single game within a larger franchise could become its own franchise clearly inspired the company to put its cart before the horse with XIII, which along with its spinoffs comprised an umbrella series called Fabula Nova Crystalis.
In truth, maybe Versus FFXIII could have worked out just fine. Unfortunately, Square Enix didn't account for the challenges its development teams would face as they began developing for HD consoles. The traditional workflow the company had used during the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 eras had yielded great results, but the demands of the new hardware (and the initial learning curve of the PlayStation 3's Cell processor) made a mess of FFXIII's development cycle. The game didn't make its way to the U.S. until early 2010, and its delays seemed to have a cascading effect on its side projects. Agito XIII shifted from mobile platforms to PSP and eventually arrived as 2011's Final Fantasy Type 0 (which finally landed in the U.S. this year through an HD remaster for current-gen consoles), while Versus XIII remained in the shadows for years before being rebranded Final Fantasy XV at E3 2013.
Internally, the game's development has seen considerable chaos, and the title slated to ship next year bears only a passing resemblance to the early glimpses we saw of Versus XIII. Much of the change likely has to do with the tremendous upheaval within the team; as Versus XIII, FFXV was a project being led by Tetsuya Nomura, the long-time Final Fantasy character designer and creative lead on the Kingdom Hearts games. Now, however, Type 0 director Hajime Tabata has taken the reins for FFXV. Under Nomura, what little we saw of the game seemed decidedly similar in nature to Kingdom Hearts, with the same direct, juggle-focused combat style. Under Tabata, however, FFXV has a faster, more cinematic style, heavily influenced by Tabata's own previous Final Fantasy projects (Crisis Core and Type 0). It's also adopted an open-world format, though that seemed to be something that had been in the cards to a certain degree even during the Versus XIII days.
It's difficult to pin down exactly how much FFXV has changed since the beginning, though, because Square showed so little of it over the years. For the first few years after its E3 announcement, the company would roll out alternate cuts of the announcement trailer, adding in a handful of new scenes each time, until after a few years the slowly evolving trailer had almost no material in common with the original cut. More concrete material was harder to come by; Square Enix hosted a special fan event in Tokyo during the summer of 2008 in which a brief, in-engine cut scene (featuring protagonist Noctis and female lead Stella spoke to one another inside what appeared to be a sci-fi version of Tokyo Tower) played on an endless loop. A year later, the latest recut of the trailer, played exclusively inside the closed theatre Square Enix used to trot out for Tokyo Game Show, ended with a five-second stinger of a developer filming some off-screen video of Versus XIII in action. The next year, at TGS 2010, they followed up with a glimpse of the Kingdom Hearts-like combat juggling. And then, the game went radio silent until it reemerged as FFXV.
While the popular tendency among fans has been to blame Versus XIII leader Tetsuya Nomura for the game's tortuous, decade-long gestation, that doesn't seem completely fair. The entirety of Square Enix was caught flat-footed by the HD transition, and Versus XIII almost certainly had to have been affected by the delays that bogged down FFXIII (which in turn had originally been slated to arrive on PlayStation 2, but was delayed and pushed to PS3 when Final Fantasy XII fell years behind its deadline). That's a problem much larger than one man.
Furthermore, the game has suffered multiple fundamental shifts in technology. Originally designed for the Crystal Tools middleware system, Versus XIII then moved to a different engine, only to leap to the company's current Luminous Engine. A single engine change is a massive disruption to any development cycle; two is practically unheard of outside of Duke Nukem Forever—not really the best company to be keeping. The game's engine history also implies a lot about its actual development process; Square Enix revealed Crystal Tools at Game Developers Conference 2008, which means that the real-time conversation they showed off between Noctis and Stella a few months later was quite likely some of the very first content actually created for the game. Despite its 2006 announcement, chances are good that nothing but concepts and a trailer existed for Versus XIII until nearly two years later.
Since its rebranding and its new creative lead took over, FFXV (née Versus XIII) has seemed a far more focused project. The FFXV announcement trailer featured extensive real-time game footage, and Tabata showed off a real-time demo of the game at TGS 2014. A playable demo ("Episode Duscae") shipped with Type 0 HD about six months later, featuring a small chunk of the game world and a couple hours of content; it was heavily overhauled in a major patch that went live in June.
Currently, Square Enix has the game slated for a 2016 release, though the complete lack of any new game content at this year's TGS has left many fans skeptical that it will hit that target. On the other hand, Just Cause developer Avalanche has been called in to help realize the game's ambitious open world, so maybe their input will be just what FFXV needs to finally see the light of day.
The complete Final Fantasy XV timeline to date
- June 2006: Final Fantasy Versus XIII announced, to be directed by Tetsuya Nomura
- Fall 2006-Fall 2011: Incremental updates of the E3 2006 trailer are made public once or twice a year.
- March 2008: Square Enix reveals Crystal Tools, an evolution of FFXIII's White Engine; Versus XIII is named as one of major beneficiaries of the tech.
- August 2008: Square Enix shows the first in-game footage of Versus XIII at the DKS3713 Event in Harajuku, Tokyo. Fans can also buy a replica of Noctis' suit or a CD of Yoko Shimomura's main theme for the game, "Somnus."
- October 2009: A real-time Versus XIII engine demo, filmed in shakycam, appears at the end of a private Square Enix demo reel.
- March 2009: A Final Fantasy XIII demo ships in Japan.
- December 2009: Final Fantasy XIII launches in Japan, with a Western release following a few months later.
- September 2010: Real-time Versus XIII combat footage is shown at the end of Square Enix's TGS closed theatre event.
- January 2011: Final Fantasy Agito XIII becomes Final Fantasy Type 0. No change announced for Versus XIII, but around this time the company makes a decision internally to reposition the game as FFXV.
- June 2013: Versus XIII officially renamed Final Fantasy XV.
- September 2014: Hajime Tabata announced as lead on FFXV, having taken over those duties around the time the new name was publicized.
- March 2015: Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae demo debuts globally alongside the launch of Type 0 HD.
- June 2015: Episode Duscae receives a 2.0 patch based on user feedback.
- August 2015: Avalanche announced as contributors to FFXV.