I’m very much an outsider looking in at the Final Fantasy series. I remember excitedly loading PlayStation discs into my Mac to play Final Fantasy VII via an emulator, only to never return after ascending some tower and putting up with an interminable battle in a lift, I remember moving on from the quite lovely Final Fantasy III remake on DS after the world opened up and I got lost in the enormity of the task, and the opening hour of Final Fantasy XIII was certainly pretty but… well, it wasn’t the most inspiring section of gameplay ever imagined. Final Fantasy XV is a game that’s for both fans of the series and newcomers, it proudly proclaims.
And so we meet Prince Noctis, years on from all of the promotional material and demos of the game that have been released so far. A rugged beard on his weary looking face, he trudges toward a demon of some sort, shrouding himself in walls of flames, only to be dragged to the side by his trusty companions in what is a glimpse of a titanic battle to come. This opening minute – otherwise known as Chapter 0 – sits in stark repose to the next hour of the game, as the dire situation makes way for a more jovial joy ride through the sparsely populated wilderness.
Noctis, it turns out, is off to get married in Altissia and, as presumably befits a prince in this world, is sent on his merry way with a trio of friends cum bodyguards in tow. There’s no grand military escort, no triumphant fanfare as his father says goodbye on the palace steps and puts up with Noctis’ abundance of cheek.
This is a strange world that mixes fantasy with modernity. There’s sports cars, mobile phones, diners and so on, almost as though you’ve been blazing a trail down Route 66 in the American Midwest – this is a pretty clear inspiration – and then there’s fantasy creatures like the Varmint, Chocobo, huge hybrid creatures and giraffe-like things that wouldn’t be out of place in No Man’s Sky. You predominantly wield a sword in battle, concoct magic spells, and so on.
It’s an unusual mish-mash, to say the least, and yet it kind of works. Yes, they’re driving around in a car and wearing clothes straight from Take That’s early 90s wardrobe, but they could just as easily be medieval knights riding forth on horseback, camping under the night’s sky and joking around, on their quest to reach a far off castle and unite these two kingdoms.
Like medieval knights in a fantasy tale, they get roped into helping the locals as they travel. The Varmint are something of a blight on the lands, and as your car is getting fixed up – there’s a delightful cover of Stand By Me when it breaks down – bizarrely with no disposable cash and an inability to play off the fact that Noctis is royalty, you’re put to work clearing the area of them.
It’s an easy introduction the game’s action packed real time combat system, which keep you in the moment and the battle, instead of with your nose in a menu system. You can quite easily select your weapon using the D-pad and just hammer away on the attack button, stringing hits together and overcoming the wild creatures with a bit of brute force. The end of battle ratings paint quite a picture when you’re awarded an A+ for Attack, but a D for both Stealth and Defence.
Button mashing is all well and good early on, but it will only get you so far. It’s not long at all before the levity of a late teens road trip is thrown out of the window and you find yourself knee deep in a war. The odd clash between fantasy and the real world clash once again, as you bring magic and swords to a gun fight, and have to contend not just with soldiers wielding assault rifles, but snipers – who are particularly annoying if you don’t deal with them quickly – mechs and plenty more.
You have to pick your moments, then, and ducking into cover or warping up to certain vantage points lets your health and magic regenerate quite rapidly. You also need to know how to team up with your buddies. By performing attacks in close proximity of them or manually switching perspective using a shoulder button, you can dynamically join forces on the battlefield. Gladiolus will wade in with heavy attacks that Noctis then follows up on, Ignis marks points on the enemy for Noctis to strike and deal more damage, while Prompto pulls out a pistol and fires a couple shots that Noctis adds to.
Additionally, you have a magic system that lets you craft what are essentially magical grenades. Absorbing fire, ice and lightning elements from around the campsites that you find, you can delve into the menus and mix them together with items in a number of ways. Just adding more fire element to the grenade will make it a more powerful attack dubbed Fira – this one will doubtless be familiar to Final Fantasy fans – but combine it with a potion and it will heal you as you throw it, with Phoenix Down to have it give three blasts of fire, with a scorpion barb to add a poison effect, and so on.
The game delay announced in the last few days, pushing the game’s release back by two months to November 30th, seems to have been entirely necessary. The build I played was a branch from the main path of development, with just the first three chapters included and a differing level of polish, but in common with previous demos, it often struggled with frame rate, moments with low detail textures and so on. In addition to a typical array of mid-development bugs and issues, those two extra months will hopefully result in a much better and more polished game.
No matter how polished it is, there’s no getting away from some of the delightful quirks that I quickly came to love over my few hours of play time. Driving around is both a terrible and brilliant at the same time, as Ignis insists on taking the wheel during the hours of daylight for the first few chapters – you get to take the keys at night and a little further into the game – but even when he’s driving you get to exert control, dragging the car to another side of the road, comically stamping on the brakes so that everyone crashes forward and starts complaining. Even when Noctis is driving, you don’t have free reign and are restricted to the roads. In lieu of a fast travel system – to the best of my knowledge – you’re probably best off letting Ignis drive to your waypoint while you go and grab a fresh cup of tea and a few biscuits.
Camping is also an unusually integral part of the game. It’s here that your characters are rewarded with the experience that they’ve gained through that day’s battles, Ignis will break out the stove and cook you all a hearty meal that can boost stats for the day ahead, and it’s a menu that’s accompanied by gloriously cheesy music and playacted tomfoolery of our group of boys in the background.
It’s also here that you get to view the photos that Prompto has snapped during the day. Some of these are scripted photos, featuring characters in particular poses, but others are candid moments snapped in the middle of you playing the game. I honestly have no idea if it makes the blindest bit of difference, but he gradually levels up his photo taking through the game, just as Ignis improves his cooking and Noctis his fishing, and starting from zero might explain why so many of the photos taken are so comical. One had Gladiolus shrouded in near total darkness, with a faint light reflecting of his bulging muscles, another was framed so that Noctis’ arm was the only part of him in shot, a photo of Noctis seemingly just staring at a wall.
But I kind of love Prompto for how useless his photos are – and sometimes bizarelly brilliant, as he took the time to photograph Noctis pinned to the ground by a Varmint instead of helping – and how he reminded me of a quavering Shaggy from Scooby Doo, as he jumped out of his skin at every turn when Noctis and the gang had to venture into an old tomb. In fact, don’t say this too loudly, but I actually came to like the English voice acting overall, despite being the kind of snob that insists on watching anime and playing Japanese games with subtitles.
Honestly, I have no idea how well this game will be received by long term fans of the series, but for me, with both feet firmly in the “newcomer” camp, I rather enjoyed it. The button mashing combat gives way very quickly to a system that has a great deal of depth to learn, the story quickly turns on its heel and heads down a much darker path than it might have initially suggested, but above all, it’s got a character and individuality, a kind of idiosyncratic approach to game design that I couldn’t help but enjoy.