At the Beginning: A Review of Final Fantasy XV

I didn’t plan on playing Final Fantasy XV. In truth, I didn’t even want to play it, having ostensibly abandoned the series after the incomprehensible slog that was Final Fantasy XIII. Still, I couldn’t help but read the reviews that started flooding out around Final Fantasy XV‘s late November release and, much to my surprise, the vast majority of these reviews – including those by jaded old gamers such as myself – were glowing. Despite a decade long development cycle prolonged by innumerable delays and setbacks, Final Fantasy XV had reportedly emerged as promised: a sprawling JRPG for fans both new and old.

Goddamnit, I thought to myself as my iPhone scanned my thumbprint, completing my purchase and condemning me to at least one more go-round in a fantasy series that has long been anything but final.

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You’d be forgiven if, even after playing every single Final Fantasy game, you weren’t quite able to articulate the finer details of plot points involving countless crystals, the idea of “time compression” and whatever the fuck a l’Cie is. Yet for all the byzantine digressions layered into the narrative of each Final Fantasy installment, the overarching premise of every game is the same: you’re going to explore an adventurous land, befriend a cast of misfits and save the world. That’s it. If you’re one of those gamers who plays “only for the story” then I have just saved you 10,000 hours of gameplay. (Also, maybe read a book instead, you know?)

What has always set Final Fantasy games apart from that heavily clichéd backdrop is a vast array of memorable characters, consistently enjoyable game mechanics and the feeling of wonder that comes from exploring a beautifully realized game world. If you’re going to dedicate sixty-some hours to a Final Fantasy game, you’re going to do it because there’s an alluring veil of heroism and adventure draped over some very satisfying Skinner box design mechanisms, not because you care passionately about the political machinations of Ivalice.

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To that end, I’m just over ten hours into Final Fantasy XV and I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing. Historically, Final Fantasy games have metered the player’s freedom of exploration by tying said freedom to various narrative threads and roadblocks so that, by the time you’re set free in the game’s world, you’re familiar with both its mechanics and its story. But this is 2016 and we gamers are an impatient lot; Final Fantasy XV has no time for such formalities. I was given access to a large portion of the world of Eos – a world whose name I had to Google – shortly after the title card flashed past. Within a matter of minutes, I had forgotten everything I was supposed to be doing and was instead driving across the countryside, exploring and completing side quest after side quest.

Eventually I picked up the narrative thread but only in the barest sense. Because of my meandering, the game’s inciting event – the death of the protagonist’s father – has only just occurred for me even though I could have (and probably should have) experienced it hours ago. When that purportedly impactful moment left me bereft of any emotional response, I quickly re-abandoned the game’s central plot in favor of chasing chocobos and battling behemoths. All of which is to say: I have no idea what this game is about, plotwise. I’m sure that at some point my mystically powerful protagonist and his three companions – the strong one, the smart one and the goofy one – will save the world, but right now the story seems superfluous, a distraction from the joys of exploration and combat. Those two aspects really are a joy, too; the itch to pick up my controller is so strong that I’m struggling to sit here and type this instead of diving back into my ever-growing quest list.

For all the pleasure it brings, though, Final Fantasy XV is far from a perfect game (which is true of every game in the series, no matter how much nostalgia might try to blind me to that fact): aside from the story’s lacks of clarity and urgency, the camera is an unwieldy abomination and the Sphere Grid-lite leveling system is both under-explained and filled with upgrades of uncertain purpose and efficacy. None of which considers that the game’s primary female character is so overbearingly sexualized and cringe-worthy that she flies right past self-parody and into the realm of the series’ worst characters – and that’s saying something given that Final Fantasy VIII included a playable character whose defining personality trait was his love of hot dogs.

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Final Fantasy XV, with its open world, active combat and sparkling graphical fidelity, certainly has the sheen of novelty but at its heart it feels an awful lot like the Final Fantasy games of my youth. There are side quests and minigames galore, there’s grinding that doesn’t really feel like grinding because of the sheer joy of exploration and, maybe most importantly, there’s a lingering feeling of scope – both internal and external – that arises from stunning visual vistas and character interactions that convincingly imply true, deep friendships. These first few hours really do feel like the beginning of a grand adventure. That type of start has long been one of my favorite parts of any Final Fantasy, whether it was the attack on the Sector 1 reactor, venturing out from Balamb Garden for the first time or cutting through a disintegrating Zanarkand only to end up in sunny Besaid. A big part of what makes Final Fantasy games great are those beginnings, those world-building moments when you catch an anticipatory glance at the scope of the journey that awaits you.

I may only be a small fraction of the way into its sprawl but for all the ways that Final Fantasy XV is disappointing or even terrible (seriously, that fucking camera), this game has convinced me that there is a giant, adventurous world waiting for me just beyond the next rise, ready to be explored. And goddamnit, I can’t wait to take my band of loyal misfits to go and save it.

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