Final Fantasy XV, improbable as it may sound, feels nostalgic for me. When I was a kid, my family would take cross-country trips most summers to visit family. Air travel for a family of five would have been awfully expensive, so instead of flying we all piled into a station wagon to make the three-day drive between Texas and Michigan. Later in the summer, we'd head out west to spend a week in the mountains at summer camp with our church group.
Through the years, I got to know those endless stretches of American interstate quite well. The way the rocky hills of north Texas would taper off into the horizon-to-horizon plains of Oklahoma and Kansas. How the flat farmlands of the western states would begin to shift into the Midwest's increasingly thick forests once you crossed the Mississippi and ventured further north and east. And most of all, how the desolate prairies of eastern New Mexico would suddenly come to an end as the Rockies burst from the ground, evergreen forests taking the place of dusty flatlands the higher your altitude grew.
More than any video game I've ever played, Final Fantasy XV completely captures the feel of roaming through the middle portions of the United States. Just as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas perfectly recreated California and Nevada in miniature, FFXV has somehow managed to nail the rest of the country — the parts no one ever bothers to put into a video game. I mentioned in an earlier preview that the sun-beaten roadside towns of Liede resemble down-on-their-luck stops along Route 66, but Duscae has impressed me even more with its verisimilitude.
So far I've only explored about a third of Duscae (I had chocobos to unlock, OK?), but what I've seen unwinds like the American Rockies in micro: Highways wind through gentle hills and valleys, lining a grassy plain that slopes gradually downhill toward a massive lake. Step off the highway in the other direction, however, and you quickly find yourself facing a more demanding uphill climb into the mountains. This side of the road is thick with trees and bushes, the foliage broken only by sharp rock outcroppings. The subtle perfection of navigating Duscae's slopes just slays me: Noctis's easygoing saunter betrayed greater exertion as he struggled along one steeply rambling dirt path up the hillside, which led toward a camp site in one direction and an out-of-reach cavern containing a dungeon that I'll no doubt have to explore at some later point in the adventure.
What makes FFXV's wilderness work, I think, is its specificity. I feel like I've been to these places before, which is something I almost never experience in open-world games. Something like Rise of the Tomb Raider features gorgeous settings, and your Skyrims may be vast and impressive, but they never quite feel real. FFXV — despite being set in a fantasy world where augmented cyborg soldiers patrol by airship and an empire covets control of a magical crystal — feels nevertheless grounded in a believable, tangible world. Everywhere I go, I experience flashes of familiarity: Here a mountain path that reminds me of Tahoe, there a beach town sheltered behind a rocky pass that could easily pass for an isolated village on Gran Canaria, here again a desperately needed filling station midway between Las Vegas and L.A.
Of course, it's still Final Fantasy. So you have a massive unearthly structure — the remains of a fallen meteor — rising in a twisted mass from the middle of a lake. You have bizarre rock formations standing in the middle of nowhere. Dinosaurs forage for food at the water's edge. Tusked garuda graze in the grasslands. You can ride a massive yellow bird to get from place to place... but only after you destroy the towering one-eyed Behemoth that marauds the hillside near the chocobo farm. The touch of unreality keeps FFXV's world from feeling too mundane... and it helps keep the game in touch with its Final Fantasy heritage.
So yes: Final Fantasy XV feels nostalgic. It contains constant callbacks to earlier games in the series, of course — that's to be expected for a Final Fantasy game. Even though battles take place seamlessly in the game world, even though there's no victory fanfare when battles can flow one into the other, even though you're battling monsters in real-time with minimal use of menus, it still captures a certain ineffable sense of Final Fantasy. But for someone who grew up ranging across America's so-called "flyover states," this game improbably kindles some long-forgotten memories.
It's a strange juxtaposition, smashing Final Fantasy aesthetics and tropes together with what amounts to a road trip across what appears to be a thinly veiled simulation of the rural United States. But it works. Roaming vast spaces that are something besides the generic fantasy lands or non-specific wildernesses of other enormous games creates a subtle anchor for a story that amounts to one part Final Fantasy VI, one part Game of Thrones. A big part of what drove me to explore the desolate corners of Liede was the quality and familiarity of the land, and that sensation has only grown since I've reached the Duscae province.
And I've still only seen a small percentage of the overall game world, and completed an even smaller fraction of its quests and story. And that's OK by me. I haven't been hooked by a game world like this in a long, long time, and I'm more than happy to take this experience slowly and savor it.