The first gameplay instruction you receive in Final Fantasy XV is a button prompt. Said prompt doesn't lead you to open a treasure box or swing a blade into a dragon's throat: It causes you to push a broken-down car along a lonely country road.
In a series that's known for epic openings, Final Fantasy XV's order to "push this busted-ass car to the nearest gas station while we show you the game's title logo" is gutsy as hell. And, frankly, it's kind of great. Though it's tonally unorthodox, Final Fantasy XV's opening scene performs the same function as Final Fantasy IV's slaughter of Mysidia's innocent mages, Final Fantasy VI's snowy walk, and Final Fantasy VII's rollicking raid on Midgar's mako reactor: It sets up the game's conflict and makes you wonder what's going to happen next.
Mind, car problems probably won't seize you in the same way Terra's fateful meeting with the frozen Esper did. However, even though Final Fantasy XV is Square-Enix's biggest, riskiest adventure to date, its opening half-hour indicates the studio is prioritizing adventure, warmth, and comradery above epic reveals and story twists that are supposed to shock you (but may just wind up confusing you).
My first contact with Final Fantasy XV (FF XV) happened by accident when I attended Xbox's X16 showcase event in Toronto yesterday. I hadn't put my hands on the previous FF XV demos up until that point; I suppose I was subconsciously saving myself for the game's final release. But no-one was lined up at Final Fantasy XV's X16 demo booth so I said "Heck it" and buckled up.
The demo I played is actually the same one that showed up at Gamescom just this week. It's essentially the game in its final form, barring some graphical polish that still needs to be applied. Players were allowed to journey up until the first boss battle, after which the Square-Enix representative turned off the tap.
It took me about thirty minutes to reach and put down the boss. In that time span, my car broke down, I handed it off to Cid and his grand daughter, Cindy (whose inexplicable southern twang makes her sound like Sandy Cheeks from SpongeBob SquarePants, but to my great disappointment, Cindy is not actually voiced by Carolyn Lawrence), I was told to clean up a "critter" problem in the near vicinity (hint: Battle tutorial), and then I searched for a missing person who was connected to the boss monster, a vicious Dual Horn.
Being a Final Fantasy game, FF XV obviously has some chatter going on. But even though its good times with car-pushing might convince you otherwise, FF XV isn't a slow game. It lets you wade into battle pretty quickly, and I did quite a bit of fighting in my half-hour. I also learned how to camp, and learned a bit about skill distribution. If NPCs had something to say to me, they got to the point. If my entourage of bros had something to tell me, they usually said it while we were on the move to another destination. In other words, FF XV wants you to listen, but it also wants you to play.
"Show, don't tell" is the most important lesson a writer, artist, or game-maker can learn, and Square-Enix seems to be taking it to heart with FF XV. It's especially evident with how Prince Noctis and his friends / party members interact with him, and with each other – even if the roles are a bit cliché. Aside from the stoic Prince, there's also the standard goof-off (Prompto), the tsundere (Ignis), and the grizzled senpai (Gladiolus). You've seen these characters before if you're any kind of an anime or JRPG fan.
That's not to say FF XV's heroes are cardboard cutouts. Even in my short session, they demonstrated little quirks that individualized them. Ignis, the group's cook, "thinks" about what to cook for dinner while you consider your options on a menu. When you make your selection, he snaps his fingers as if to say "Ah! I got it!" to himself. It's a simple gesture that successfully injects a potent bit of personality into the straight-faced chef.
That said, the characters' individual personalities are less interesting than how they react to one another and function as a group. Noctis may be royalty, but he's not pampered. After all, you are Noctis, and you push the car right alongside your fellows when it breaks down. You're expected to camp on the hard ground like everyone else (and presumably go to the bathroom the way nature intended).
Fights put everyone on equal ground, too. Nobody tells Noctis to stay where it's safe: He immediately takes up arms. At the same time, we're reminded of the entourage's role when Noctis gets hurt and one of his fellows tries to break away from the battle in time to administer a potion.
As it happens, FF XV's battles will probably be a dividing point for fans. They're definitely more action-based than menu-based, though Noctis can suggest which moves his comrades should use against baddies. The combination of menu commands and action reminds me of Xenoblade Chronicles, albeit simpler to get a handle on. Fighting feels good, at least to me, but cutting down a few enemies in the space of half an hour isn't the same thing as poking at innumerable bad guys over the space of forty hours. We won't know how FF XV's combat holds up until we have the finished product.
My surprise half-hour with Final Fantasy XV was illuminating, exciting, and most importantly, fun. I can't make any hard judgements until it comes to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One at the end of November, but I already know I'm very much looking forward to rambling down the dusty road with Noctis and his friends.