Final Fantasy XV – First Impressions

ffxvFinal Fantasy is a big deal. And Final Fantasy XV is a big deal even by those standards. Final Fantasy XV is a game that was almost relegated to vapourware, a game in perpetual development with no release in sight. But now, after countless delays and a decade of development, it is here. So, how is it shaping up? In short, it is good. It is really good. It is straight up incredible.

I’ve been a fan of Final Fantasy games since I was a kid. Final Fantasy VII, VIII and X rank up there with my most memorable experiences in gaming. These games offered unforgettable experiences and represented the pinnacle of accessible and sweepingly epic RPG games. This trend began to ebb after Final Fantasy X, though. The generational shifts in console hardware and a desire to reinvigorate and reinvent the series along with the core structure of turn based RPG games began to prevail and things changed.

I’m one of those cranky old-timers who rejected the changes. I found that the alterations and new directions were unneeded and blemished the pristine landscape of Final Fantasy. Obviously Square were seeking to attract a new batch of gamers, while appealing to the nostalgic value of the franchise for veterans. Square wanted to keep the franchise relevant and engaging. But the subsequent games, while good, lacked the soul of the earlier games. That is the only way that I can explain it. There were less memorable moments, fewer iconic characters, less enjoyable mechanics, and a lack of the freedom one should expect from a Final Fantasy game.

So, with the preamble out of the way I can safely say that Final Fantasy XV is the first new generation game to do it right. This is the game that Square envisioned when they began to change the formula. This is the game all subsequent releases have been working toward since the release of Final Fantasy X. This entry stands on its own, a titan among the best of them. And barring some sort of catastrophic failure in the later acts of the game, it will easily be the best game I’ve played this year. This game has renewed my faith in Square’s vision for the series.

There are a few key aspects to its success, so I’ll break them down for your reading pleasure.

Nostalgia:

This game is rife with nostalgia, but in a way that isn’t hackneyed or cloying. They don’t beat you over the head in an overt way to appeal to the long-time fans of the series, they simply add little touches – winks and nods. A character hums the theme from the close of a battle in Final Fantasy VII, for example. Tracks can be purchased at kiosks that have the soundtracks of earlier games that will play while your party is out on the highway. The old staples are there to reinforce it – familiar enemy species, chocobos, Cid and gil are all back – all of the distinct and memorable minutiae of a shared universe are there. This game is simply filled with little prods of recognition. It ushers in a world for the established fan and it will welcome new fans to the tradition with open arms.

Characters:

The rapport between characters and their distinctive personalities were always of paramount importance to the series. This could be rose-coloured glasses, by the way, but I always felt that characters and their dynamics within the party were hugely important to the way the game connected with the player. They are what make the world and the narrative breathe. This game feels just like the best of them. Any fears I held initially of the character design (possible boy band) road tripping in a luxury car, and the disconnect that might present with my concept of party construction in a Final Fantasy game melted right away when I realised the potential that this focused, preformed group had. The dialogue, interconnection and emotive power of their relationship became not only apparent, but also integral to the game. It’s amazing how deep they have taken this. Little things, things that you feel could be dismissed, like photographs, snippets of dialogue, and locations all become important because of this. It’s about a group of friends, brothers in arms, and their connection against forces looking to eradicate them.

Story:

This has always been the most important part of the franchise to me. Final Fantasy is all about sweeping, epic, momentous and over-the-top stories. The story is supposed to move you, to make you care. So far, Final Fantasy is back in the wheelhouse. I love the story, the parallels with the past, the hints and breadcrumbs that allude toward the bigger picture. There are the makings of a truly grand story here and I can’t wait to see it all through. There is urgency to it that I haven’t felt in a Final Fantasy game in a long while. It is most welcome. I can’t wait to see it to the end. I have very high hopes.

World:

What would a Final Fantasy game be without an open world to explore? It just wouldn’t be the same. A world map is one of the basic expectations of these games, a signature. It allows the world to expand, to provide the player a grasp of the vastness. It allows it to come into existence, to show simultaneously what is at stake, but also, how the pieces all fit together. Each game has made it’s own stamp on the world map. Final Fantasy XIII, a departure in many ways, was probably the most sub-par. This game represented a troublingly narrow and stunted system of exploration. It was a very linear experience. When the world finally opened up it was beautiful but largely empty. I remember how disappointed I was with that after the initial excitement of discovering it. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about this with the advent of FFXV, but it was for nothing. This game’s open world is enormous and exploding with life and activities.

The side quests are interesting, rich and numerous; there are plenty of diversions from the central quest line. The game makes exploration compelling and rewarding. New outposts present new locations for treasure, materials, ingredients and quests. There are bounties, monster hunts and everything in-between to make exploring every nook and cranny of this beautiful game a pleasure. Each of your party members also has skills or hobbies that benefit through exploration. This includes photography, survival, cooking and fishing, which is probably the best in-game mini-game since Blitz ball in FFX. The game is ridiculously heavy in content, and I’m interested to see just how much to the world there is. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is on offer, and what I have seen so far is already immense.

Music:

The music is stellar. It always is with Final Fantasy, but this iteration is no exception. Not only is the new score incredible, the music from past games is also packaged in, purchasable from vendors in game for gil. There is really nothing more one could ask for here. Driving down the highway listening to tracks from my favourite games is a nostalgic treat.

Combat:

Finally, the combat is definitely worthy of mention. I’m an unabashed purist when it comes to JRPGs. I love the old-school turn based combat systems. I have resented the updated ‘action RPG’ styling of combat that rose to prominence following FFX. I understand the reasoning behind the changes but it never appealed to me. It seemed more like a change for the sake of change, rather than any functional, practical or necessary advance. I’m happy to say that I really like the combat in FFXV. It heavily favours the action RPG philosophy of design that Square have been attempting to achieve, but it is by far the most enjoyable and compelling variation of it so far. I will always miss the turn-based style of yore, but I can appreciate this change and I always find myself looking forward to combat wherever I find it. The mechanics are easy to grasp but satisfyingly deep to master. There is a learning curve, though, and if you’re getting your arse kicked, you’re probably doing something wrong. You learn from your mistakes. I like that a lot.

This game, so far, has been worth the wait. It has been a long time coming and its future so uncertain that I’m still amazed it is actually out, let alone sitting in my PS4. I am in awe of the potential of this game. The scope, the quality, the music, the story, the graphics and the world are everything one could hope for. The efforts on behalf of Square and the development team on this one is herculean. They have made me one hell of a happy gamer. This is the Final Fantasy that I have been waiting for. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited to load up a game again. It’s been a while since I’ve clocked a 100 hour + playtime in a single player game, but I think this could very well be the next one. I’ll post again once I’ve finished it with final thoughts. This game deserves it.

 

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