Final Fantasy XV doesn’t feel like a typical Final Fantasy game. There’s very much a save the world spirit with a group of young men who happen to be exceptionally adept at using weapons and crafted magic. You’re traveling a world to reach places and further the quest. Yet, it doesn’t feel like Final Fantasy IV, VI, VII, or X in the early days. Rather, I think of it as something of a cross between Final Fantasy VIII and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. You have a mission that’s politically fueled, reliant on road tripping around a modern-day setting and offers many opportunities early on to deviant from the given path and get caught up in sidequests.
It all starts with a tutorial segment that involves our heroes’ car breaking down. With the Regalia immediately out of commission, it’s up to the quartet to push it to Hammerhead, the outpost where Cindy will apply improvements to the Regalia and Cid will upgrade Noctis’ weapons. Right from the start, we get a situation that isn’t unfamiliar to young people on a road trip. Unexpected car troubles come up. Your money ends up drained. You have to find a new way to get money or adjust your budget. While real life means borrowing cash from family or friends or relying on credit cards, Final Fantasy XV uses this as an opportunity to introduce us to the tipster tips, battle system, fetch quests, resource gathering, and world.
It’s an unconventional entrance, but one that works. Especially since it gives us a chance to ease into the battle system. For those who opt to skip the tutorial, in which Gladiolus helps Noctis train, or didn’t play through the battle sample while waiting for the full 50GB download, the first few fights are embarrassingly easy. At the outset of battle, Ignis and Gladiolus might stop you from rushing in and suggest a battle strategy. A prompt will come up, offering advice and telling you to perhaps blindside an enemy with a rear attack or head to a warp point and attack from above. It gives you a chance to try the wait and active battle systems, to see which best fits your play style, as well as trigger your allies’ skills.
I prefer Final Fantasy XV’s wait system myself. It slows the action down in the same way Fallout 4’s V.A.T.S. system does. You can see lines showing which allies and enemies are targeting each other, hold down a button to analyze an enemy with Libra to find weaknesses, pick out a target with less stress, and set up your attacks. As you’re doing so, a timer will very gradually wind down in the center of the screen, letting you know when time will begin again. It’s a perfect way to kick off a battle without rushing in or focus when you’re about to fight multiple enemies.
The camera can be a bit of a distraction, though. It isn’t a problem when driving or engaging in general wandering, but can very much be an issue during fights. Even if you lock onto an enemy, there’s so much activity and movement that it isn’t long before you aren’t looking at the right opponent, Noctis is in an odd place, you have to search for a new target and rely on the Wait system to regroup, and deal with things as they may. It left me honestly wondering how Prompto managed to get so many good in-action shots with his camera and if it was possible to somehow tap into his apparently good camera system. All I wanted was to have it focused on the opponent I was fighting. That was all. Or, to offer a clear view of the space in front of Noctis when I was in a dungeon.
After these initial quests, you’ll find yourself in a good place to hang around Hammerhead. It perfectly mimics a truck stop or rest area you’d find in rural North America. At least, it reminded me of by-the-roadside stops I’d come across in Illinois and Wisconsin. Diners are small and have a tipster that will alert you to points of interest in the area, basically encouraging you to talk to the local. Note that I said local, as you can’t talk to general NPCs; only specifically designated folks are up for a chat. Someone might have a trailer with weapons to sell or a truck filled with produce and soundtracks from past Final Fantasy games.
There’s even forced camping. Yes, forced. While Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus, and Promptu will earn experience for all sorts of activities, it doesn’t get applied until the guys settle in for a spell. Camping out doesn’t give you an experience bonus, but it does give you an opportunity to enjoy Ignis’ cooking. This offers Monster Hunter-style boosts to health, attack, and other parameters, as well as protections against ailments like poisons sometimes, for a limited time. Resting at a camper or actual hotel costs you money and means no meal, but does offer 1.2 to 1.5x experience boosts. All options allow you to go through, save and share some of Prompto’s most recent photos from the trip.
Once you do get out on the road again, there’s this sense of freedom. You can have Ignis act as the driver during the day time, automatically taking you from place to place. Yet, even if you do this, it’s possible to have him pause so you can immediately take in some roadside sight or random activity. Noctis can also drive, and is the only option for night rides, giving you a chance to go almost anywhere you want. Almost, in that there are still given paths you have to stick to. You can’t just go off-road and start driving anywhere you want. It’s basically turning when you can reach other main or side roads, but otherwise holding down the right trigger to keep moving forward. Fuel isn’t too scarce a commodity, the maps are well laid out after finding tips from people at restaurants, and it’s really like being on a road trip with friends. You know where you should go, but it’s easy to pause and take a moment along the way. Especially if you find a photo spot where one or all of the guys can get together for a group photo.
When you get into Final Fantasy XV, it’s initially all about rambling around and enjoying the world. You have a huge area to explore. There are collection spots, ready to offer you minerals, food, and treasure. There are photo ops, where you can make memories with these virtual friends. You can take time to camp out or rest, going through photos or enjoying a meal. There’s this initial sense of freedom as you go from city to city and objective to objective, yet still have time to take a break and hop out to explore something that seems interesting or suspicious. It might not feel exactly like previous Final Fantasy games, what with open-world elements that feel plucked from Bethesda games, but it definitely relies heaving on its road trip theme and runs with it.
Final Fantasy XV is now available for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.