Forty hours on the road with Noctis and co in Final Fantasy
XV’s lavish, troubled reinvention
THAT DIRECTOR HAJIME TABATA HAS MANAGED TO BUILD ANY SENSE OF COHESION WITHIN THESE STIFLING CONSTRAINTS IS EXTRAORDINARY
Most kingdoms, even those built in videogames, are founded on some kind of violence, usually seeded in disagreements over the rules, boundaries and leadership, finally resolved by a political or military show of strength. Final Fantasy XV’s backstory is more bloodied than most. Here is a game that, during the course of its decadelong development, has endured overthrows in name, direction and governance. Final Fantasy is a series that thrives on reinvention, mixing familiar elements – the orphan protagonists, the crystal McGuffins, the rambling landscapes, the towering chickens, the airship silhouetted in the sky – in novel ways. Final Fantasy XV is, however, something else: a game built from the fragments, not only of its series, but also of past selves.
The character of the laconic young prince Noctis, his entourage and destiny, as well as his combat abilities (the way he can phase through incoming attacks, or plunge his sword into scenery in order to dangle from a tall building or a tree, surveying the battlefield from this vantage point) was established years ago via lavish CG trailers for Final Fantasy Versus XIII. It is on this failed game’s shaky foundations that Final Fantasy XV is built. That director Hajime Tabata, suddenly promoted from steering minor productions to captaining the company’s flagship title, has managed to build any sense of cohesion within these stifling constraints, immovably established in the game’s troubled past, is extraordinary.
Not that the current team hasn’t brought grand ideas and novelties of its own. As the open-world genre continues to homogenise, gradually refining Grand Theft Auto’s definitive template with tinkering modifications, these games are increasingly distinguished not by theme or geography (there’s little difference between Assassin’s Creed’s historic Italy and The Division’s futuristic New York, when you get down to it), but by the way in which you move through the world: by foot, by car, by flight or something else entirely. Most designers opt to remove friction, allowing us to traverse the world either through scenery-gobbling displays of parkour or, in Batman’s case, elegant, tower-scraping swoops
and dives. Final Fantasy XV takes an unorthodox approach, embracing all the niggles and microdramas of a cross-country road trip in a packed car.
It is the eve of Noctis’s wedding and rather than visit a seaside town for some beers and a strip club, the heir-to-be and his three closest friends and bodyguards, Prompto, Gladiolus and Ignis, instead opt to take to the open road. It’s a sightseeing-cum-camping tour, although it’s not long before the journey is interrupted by micro-errands issued by the hick locals, and macro-news from the capital they left behind.
The Regalia, as the prince’s luxurious vehicle is known, may be muscular and spacious, but it needs refuelling just like any other of the oddly ’50s-style cars on Lucis’s roads. Run out of gas in the desert and you’ll need to push the Regalia to the nearest petrol station at a painfully slow pace or, if you’re feeling flush, pay to have it towed. This is the closest a videogame has come to replicating not only the drama of a road-trip movie (even if, in combining the landscape and drawl of the American South with the tousled hair and allblack get-up of Noctis and his crew, it sometimes looks like the main cast of Spinal Tap has wandered into the set of O Brother, Where Art Thou?), but also the tedium of a lingering car journey.
Noctis and his friends bicker and sweat. They feel travelsick after reading a book in the back seat for too long (toilet breaks, mercifully, are not required). You’ll grow bored of your music collection (brilliantly, many of Lucis’s shops stock the digital soundtracks to previous games in the series; once purchased, they become available in the Regalia’s CD player, in this way providing the game’s most potent shots of nostalgia). They have to slam on the brakes whenever a herd of fantastical deer cross the road ahead. And while most designers of other open-world games work to make the journey as interesting as possible, the Regalia is unable to travel offroad. While you can take the wheel yourself, you’ll eventually opt to let Ignis, the sensible patriarch of the group, drive you between quests, while sitting back to enjoy the expansive views or, more likely, to check your phone.
At the end of each day you’re free to continue busying about Lucis’s roads, but as high-level monsters haunt these byways, you’re safer checking into a motel. The game’s designers capitalise on the need to seek a bed each night. The experience you earn in battle or by completing tasks is held in a pot and only banked and applied to your squad once you lay down your head, either by setting up a tent at one of the many camping spots around the world of Eos or by paying to stay at a hotel. The quality of the establishment at which you stay will dictate the size of a multiplier that’s applied to your experience. Draw into a dingy caravan park and, while you’ll save money, you could be losing out on thousands of bonus points that you’d earn simply by paying a bit more to stay at a well-to-do health spa or luxurious city hotel.
These rhythms of travel and rest are, at first, infuriatingly inconvenient – especially when you have to watch a 15-second cutscene every time you refill the car. The game offers a Google Maps-style estimated journey time between quest markers and, while these never last longer then ten minutes, the relatively short days and the perilous nights mean that you need to plan your excursions carefully. Often you’ll find yourself on the trail of some monster as part of a freelance assignment (issued exclusively and inexplicably by the front-of-house staff at the game’s various restaurants) when night falls, and forced to retreat back to the nearest trailer park. The strangeness of it all is compounded by the aesthetic. You are, essentially, a royal errand boy in a Maserati – a tonal melange exacerbated by the schizophrenic soundtrack (which lunges from country to J-pop to Yoko Shimomura’s sweeping orchestral pieces) and its babble of accents, which range in origin from Texas to Boston to Surrey. Allow yourself to adjust to the unusual flow and yield to the wild eccentricity, however, and in this way Final Fantasy XV can offer that rarest of blockbuster experiences: originality. The novelty extends from the game’s structure to its actionheavy battle system, offering a dramatic overhaul of Koichi Ishii’s line-dancing-style design, which has defined the Japanese RPG for more than three decades. Noctis has the acrobatic offensive ability of a kung-fu film star, including the ability to phase through enemy attacks while the defensive button is held down, and a show-stopping gift of being able to hurl one of his four equipped weapons and instantly warp to wherever it lands. When locked onto an enemy, a blade-warp is turned into an offensive move, known as a warp-strike. The damage caused by a warp-strike increases with distance, encouraging you to whip back and forth into and out of the battle’s throng. Noctis can also point-warp to resting locations, usually atop rocks, or pylons. While suspended from a point-warp spot, he slowly recovers health while his MP gauge, which is used to pay for warping and phasing, is instantly replenished. It’s a useful tactic, but you’ll need to wrestle the camera to find one of these willing warp points first, a difficult task in the middle of a ten-way skirmish.
ALLOW YOURSELF TO YIELD TO THE WILD ECCENTRICITY AND FFXV CAN OFFER THAT RAREST OF BLOCKBUSTER EXPERIENCES: ORIGINALITY
TOP LEFT There’s never more than five people in your party, and often fewer.
FAR LEFT Sidney, daughter of mechanic Cid, maintains your car. BELOW Lunafreya is only on screen for a short time, yet is the subject of much of the dialogue