Final Fantasy XV Feels Familiar and Foreign at Once [NYCC 2016]
Square Enix’s flagship Final Fantasy series has undergone many evolutions in the last 20 years, but there are still some hallmarks expected from a game in the core franchise. Final Fantasy XV does have some of these familiar elements: dudes with hair reaching varying degrees of spikyness; a grand, high-stakes story involving a prince undertaking an epic journey; there’s even a grumpy old man named Cid. But these familiar details are juxtaposed with some pretty big departures from the formula. That’s not necessary a bad thing, as I discovered during my hands-on session with FFXV earlier this week. If anything, the demo showed me that the long-awaited next entry in the series is a lot of fun if you’re willing to let go of nostalgia and embrace the new.
Fittingly, my demo started at the beginning of the game, so I was treated to some cinematic exposition. Prince Noctis, whose gravity-defying hair is somehow both broody and pointy, is embarking on a journey to wed his betrothed. It’s a political marriage, meant to bring peace between two nations, and three of the prince’s best buddies have been entrusted with the all-important task of getting him to his wedding alive.
It’s the moment the road trip begins that things take a sharp left turn out of typical Final Fantasy familiarity. First of all, Noctis and company are making the trip in a convertible, top down and music blasting. That music, by the way? The first song we hear playing is “Stand By Me.” The setting is very Earth-like, and without context the opening story beats could easily pass for a classic coming-of-age tale set in the American Midwest.
Naturally, the car breaks down almost immediately, providing an opportunity for some actual gameplay as the boys wait for it to be repaired at Cid’s shop. The old man’s granddaughter, the spunky and barely dressed Cindy, gives them some tasks to accomplish in return for fixing the car. I began running around the open expanse of land surrounding me, testing out the combat system along the way. From the trailers, I’d gotten the impression that fighting was chaotic, but that’s not exactly true. Skirmishes are action-based and take place in real time, so you won’t find anyone waiting for turns here, but there’s still some deeper strategy involved. The player controls Noctis but can give his friends indirect instructions to turn the tide of battle. Meanwhile, Noctis uses melee weapons like swords and switches between straight-up hits, dodging and parrying, and warping from place to place to avoid danger. It’s extremely fast-paced and will take more time to master than I had, but the more I did it, the more I enjoyed it.
Unlike previous Final Fantasy games, in which the party could pretty much go on forever without eating or resting, FFXV has more realistic limitations. Noctis and his friends need to find safe places to rest, and if they’re not near a convenient inn, that means setting up camp—using a Coleman tent, naturally. Once settled, the prince’s friend and adviser Ignis whips up a good meal for the group, which provides some stat bonuses the next day. There’s clearly a strong bond between the four men, and I appreciated the glimpses at their friendship these moments of downtime provided.
After getting rid of some pests roaming the area, finding a missing local, and spending the night at a campsite, the car is fixed and the group is ready to continue their journey. I noticed a gas pump at the car repair shop, noting that keeping the vehicle gassed up is just one more way FFXV incorporates more realistic elements into its fantasy world. And you know what? I’m okay with that. I’ve been a die-hard fan of the series since childhood, which has left me with some firm ideas about what Final Fantasy should and should not be—and I’m now willing to toss all of that aside. The hour I spent with FFXV only left me wanting more, and I’m more than ready to embark on this road trip when it’s finally released next month.
Final Fantasy XV will be out on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on Nov. 29.