Final Fantasy XV
Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Release: November 29, 2016
Final Fantasy XV is a journey.
As most people who care about Square Enix’s latest Japanese role-playing game probably know by now, it tells the story of a road trip shared by four friends; a prince and three members of the royal guard of a kingdom under siege.
More than that, the finished product represents a 10-year creative odyssey. That’s the (nearly unprecedented) amount of time it took to travel from the minds of its makers to the consoles in our living rooms.
And playing it is a kind of voyage, too. It’s an epic adventure quite unlike the vast majority of games lining store shelves, full of weird and unexpected sights, activities, detours, and interactions that coalesce through time and travel.
So it seems only fitting that our review of this landmark game be formatted as a bit of a journey, also. It will take the form of multiple diary entries over however long it takes to work through its 50-plus hour story. It starts with the handful of entries below, which chronicle my first 10 hours.
2:30 p.m., Sunday, November 27
A PlayStation 4 code for Final Fantasy XV landed in my inbox. I began the download immediately, and it was ready to launch in just 10 minutes.
Sadly, when I booted it up all I could access was an arena in which I could practice fighting an endless stream of level 7 goblins. It gave me a chance to familiarize myself with the game’s unique combat system, which involves “phasing” and “warping” around the battlefield by throwing a weapon and teleporting to its location, as well as holding down the circle button while tilting a thumbstick to vary attack styles. It will clearly take time to master, but it’s nothing if not fluid and cinematic.
However, without access even to a tutorial of some there wasn’t much to keep me here. After 15 minutes I checked how long I had left before the rest of the game – more than 50 GB – would be downloaded and installed. About two hours. I switched over to Dishonored 2 and tried not to think about the time.
8:00 p.m., Sunday, November 27
Rather than play for just a few minutes before supper I opted instead to dine and hang out with my family for a while. Then I bid them goodnight so that I could make my introductory session a proper one and play for a good five or six hours. After waiting 10 years to play this game it seemed like the right move.
It begins with a scene out of time, and where in time it takes place is unclear. What’s obvious, though, is its intent. It shows our four heroes – Noctis the prince; a tower of a warrior named Gladiolus; the British-accented brain of the group, Ignis; and Prompto, a slight but sprightly kid – working as a closely knit team fighting a seemingly unbeatable enemy. They are clearly friends and comrades, loyal to the death – which looks like it could be just seconds away.
This scene lasts just a few moments and ends without resolution. Then I was whisked to the present, where Prince Noctis – sounding a bit bratty – and his friends were being sent by his father, the king, on a trip to marry a princess and bring peace to a pair of warring nations. For the time being, at least, it seems I’m to be given no more introduction to the story’s grander political goings-on than this brief narrative sequence.
Then the group piles into an expensive looking convertible and their road trip across the land of Eos begins.
It didn’t take long for me to gain a sense of the world. It’s an oddly appealing – and, most of the time, absolutely beautiful – mishmash of eras and cultures, mythologies and fantasies. Much of the time you might think it was set in our world, thanks to the familiar looking cars, diners, highways, cell phones, newspapers, and TVs, not to mention some unmistakable Texas and New York accents. At other times, though, it seems like another world entirely, filled with monsters, magic, and clothing that would be out of place pretty much everywhere save perhaps for fashion show runways (and Japanese role-playing games).
Our heroes perfectly reflect this mix of the familiar and strange. One minute they come off as four average guys going for a ride in the country telling jokes at each other’s expense, the next they seem like a group of classic Final Fantasy characters, wielding massive swords and throwing flames with their hands while performing graceful flips, their ornate goth duds and lightly feathered hair rippling in the wind.
They’re a likeable – and talkative – bunch, but the actors playing them seem poorly directed. It’s as though they were told to put on voices to overtly convey qualities such as gruffness and intelligence rather than allow the writing – which is actually pretty good – to naturally differentiate each character’s personality over time. Thankfully, some of the non-player characters I’ve met – like Cid the mechanic (A.K.A. Paw-Paw) – have a bit more vocal nuance.
The first few hours introduce us to a desert region that can be freely explored – Ignis is doing most of the driving at this point; I just tell him where to go and he drives there – though we’re gradually led along a fairly linear path toward the ocean. I embarked on half a dozen monster hunts posted by staff at diners and rest stops, helped out someone whose car had broken down (I felt for him, since the boys’ car had been in the same fix only the day before), and aided a stranger who was trying to track down soldiers’ dog tags lost in the wasteland.
Combat has been frequent, but not overwhelming. I’m enjoying it, but I can tell that I’m still at a kindergartener’s level in my of understanding it. The player only controls Noctis, save when we command a teammate to use a special technique. The rest of the time Ignis Prompto, and Gladiolus fight on their own. Noctis can switch between four different weapons and spells on the fly, as well as warp anywhere on the battlefield at the touch of a button. Plus, we can choose for combat to be active – which makes it feel like a fast-paced action game – or turn-based, which pauses the action between each strike. The latter slows things down considerably, but allows for much more strategy. I don’t know which I prefer at this point.
One thing is certain, though: Final Fantasy XV has a vibe quite unlike any other game I’ve played, Final Fantasy or otherwise. The road trip setup gives it a pacing all its own, and at this point the narrative seems quite content not to overly concern itself with the larger story about nations at war. And some of the stuff the guys have been getting up to – like snapping selfies (all of the pictures in this post were captured by Prompto; it’s his special road trip skill) – feels fitting yet weird. Clearly, I’m still very much just getting a feel for this huge, striking, and unlikely world.
I stopped playing just after 1:00 in the morning, not long after a major narrative event took place. I’m keen to learn the repercussions of this incident, but I felt like it was a good place to call it quits for the night.
9:00 a.m., Monday, November 28
After a quick email chat with my editor – and playing another half hour or so and still feeling kind of lost in terms of what was going on plot-wise – I decided to take a break from playing for a couple of hours and watch Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, a feature-length CGI film released earlier this year that tells the story of what happened during that major narrative event that I referenced in my previous entry. I plan to be back into the game around lunch.
12:30 p.m., Monday, November 28
I’m happy I watched Kingsglaive.
It’s not a great movie – though the acting, led by Sean Bean, Aaron Paul, and Lena Headey, is miles better than what I’ve seen so far from the game – but its two hours of exposition fills in all sorts of important blanks. I worry that those who don’t watch it will be left befuddled regarding key parts of the story.
I jumped back into the game after eating and played for a few more hours. And not only does the story now make more sense, but suddenly the game itself is starting to seem a lot more familiar to the veteran Final Fantasy player in me.
I’m encountering proper Final Fantasy dungeons – closed off mazes loaded with nooks and crannies containing hidden goodies. I’ve earned enough ability points (AP) to begin digging into the web-like “Ascension” trees, which are a bit Final Fantasy X-ish in how they connect and nodes are gradually unlocked. The mid-level hunts I’m starting to take on (levels 15-20) are feeling a bit like those in the second half of Final Fantasy XIII. And the world is opening up, providing more opportunity to find fun little side quests, hidden dungeons, and even ride chocobo.
I’ve also noticed that, save for when I choose to fast travel, there are no loading screens. Whether I’m inside or out, above ground or below, this huge, beautiful, and dynamic world seems to be one giant and unbroken map. It’s kind of wonderful.
I’ve punched through a roadblock and I’m now well into a region called Duscae, apparently known for its wetlands. It feels much different than the Nevada-like area of Leide, in which I spent my first few hours. It’s greener, hillier, more populated (at least along the roads), with seemingly more to do.
This second session feels very much like where the game really begins. Everything that came before was introduction and prologue. I’m feeling more confident in combat and finding my way around. And, thanks to the break I took to watch Kingsglaive, the world and its characters are feeling more cohesive and complete.
I’m less than 10 hours in, and I’m starting to think Final Fantasy XV might have been worth the wait. Still plenty of game to go, though. I’ll have another report on how my trip through Eos is progressing in a few days.