Forty hours on the road with Noc­tis and co in Fi­nal Fan­tasy

XV’s lav­ish, trou­bled rein­ven­tion


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.


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

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