Booting up a near-final version of Final Fantasy XV a few days definitely ranks as one of the most surreal gaming experiences I've ever had.
This was it, the real thing, at last — a game that I've been following closely for more than a decade, since it was first announced as Final Fantasy Versus XIII back in 2006. For years, Square Enix would drip-feed tiny droplets of information, reworking the game's CG announcement trailer a bit at a time until, through some bizarre alchemy, it no longer was the same video from the initial reveal. It's been a checkered, troubled project, one that has required a new director and the help of some open-world game design experts. And amidst all of this, FFXV still has to be Final Fantasy XV: The next chapter of gaming's premiere role-playing series, the biggest thing Japan has going in terms of big-budget productions.
That's an enormous burden for a single game to shoulder, and by all rights FFXV should be a failure. A spectacular failure, at that. Yet I've put in half a dozen hours with the game now, starting from the very beginning, and I'm pleasantly surprised to find they may just have pulled off what by all rights should be an impossible feat.
FFXV admittedly falls short of perfection, from what I've seen so far. Technical nitpickers will find cause for complaint in its frame rate (which occasionally hitches) or in various aspects of its overall image quality, like the elaborate main character hairstyles that appear as pixellated meshes. Even after hours of play I still find a couple things about its play mechanics slightly inexplicable. And you could make a pretty good case that FFXV is a less beautiful game than Final Fantasy XIII, which debuted one console generation, two numbered entries of the series, and six years ago.
That loss of visual splendor speaks to the ambition and scope that FFXV brings to the series, though. Where FFXIII ended up being a somewhat hastily assembled tour through gorgeous, linear, dead environments, FFXV attempts to steer Final Fantasy into modern open-world design. Not that the franchise hasn't been there before — before 2014's Lightning Returns, Final Fantasy XII did it a decade ago, and that was in turn inspired by the massively multiplayer Final Fantasy XI — but with FFXV there's been an obvious attempt at making a Final Fantasy that works more within contemporary open-world conventions. That means faster-paced combat, more sprawling spaces, and map-based waypoints and icons to track down. While, you know, still feeling like "Final Fantasy"... whatever that means to you.
To me, the name "Final Fantasy" demands a tricky balancing act: A game that both builds on what's come before while at the same time repudiating its past. In that regard, FFXV lives up to its legacy. It downplays longstanding franchise conventions like menus and turn-based combat in favor of free-roaming action and a look that, at least in its first hours, places its immaculately coifed young heroes (pulled straight from a Harajuku photo shoot) into dusty environments that feel like a particularly downtrodden stretch of America's famous Route 66. On the other hand, the main cast look very much like typical Final Fantasy characters. And the sprawling world, full of its empty spaces, hunt quests, and the occasional over-leveled monster to avoid, reminds me strongly of Final Fantasy XII.
The game begins in a decidedly atypical fashion for Final Fantasy, however. Those used to bombast, of being flung immediately into an intense action scene as in Final Fantasy VII's opening bombing mission, may find themselves taken aback by the languid pace at which this adventure opens. A brief cutscene sees the hero — Noctis, the surly crown prince of the free city-state of Insomnia — part brusquely with his father the king as he sets off on a road trip with three companions. Rather than venturing out to enjoy the open skies and taste freedom, though, Noctis' mission is to journey to a nearby kingdom and fulfill his royal duty by marrying the princess Lunafreya, thus forging an alliance to keep Insomnia safe from the growing threat of a power-hungry empire. All standard fare so far… but once the quartet of teens leaves the impressive walls of Insomnia, their vintage car breaks down. The first interactive moment of Final Fantasy XV involves not combat, and not exploration, but rather slowly pushing a broken-down car down a lengthy stretch of desert road.
Giving players such a plodding introduction to the game seems a surprising choice, especially in light of the dicey history and mountainous expectations surrounding FFXV. You'd think the developers would have played their best hand in the opening round. But they didn't, and it works — not only to set up the game's first chapter (which sees Noctis and crew performing odd tasks to repair their ride, a task that causes a disastrous delay in the prince's mission), but also to set up the world surrounding Noctis and Insomnia. While little is revealed about the city and its royal family directly in this introductory chapter, the game's flavor text hints at the fact that Noctis' bloodline grants him unusual powers: Potions, for example, are simply standard convenience store energy drinks, but Noctis' innate, inherent powers imbue those mass-produced soft drinks with healing abilities.
And then there's the world outside of Insomnia. The city sits apart from the lands surrounding it, a towering and elegant metropolis connected to the nearby desert by a long suspension bridge. The desert itself, however, is littered with run-down machinery and abandoned structures long since gone to ruin. Aside from a few roadside stops, it's entirely desolate, walled off on its eastern side and generally inhospitable. The desert's few inhabitants — which includes a cantankerous old mechanic named Cid and his grease-monkey daughter Cindy — speak with a country drawl and dress in dusty, shabby clothes.
With their elaborately styled hair and high-fashion outfits, Noctis and his retinue stand out horribly in the wilderness… which is basically the entire point. They're pampered teens from a royal family from an isolated city that feels like one of the last desperate holdouts against an oppressive conquerer. Noctis may be a prince in Insomnia, but to the rest of the world he's just a dumb kid who doesn't know how to care for a classic car. His friends are a bunch of overdressed goofs who constantly complain about the desert heat while wearing leather jackets. How well and how long FFXV will manage to maintain this world-building remains to be seen, but Noctis' status and notoriety factor into the story in its early hours: Cid seems to bear him a specific grudge, and a sharp-eyed reporter recognizes him and threatens to blackmail him by exposing his whereabouts in the press.