Early in my playthrough of Final Fantasy XV, I was presented with a simple sidequest: go to a nearby abandoned mine, fetch a trinket, bring it back. It was a simple request and it was easily completed because the trinket was just sitting at the entrance of the mine. I could have just left then, brought back the trinket, likely forgotten the mine existed, moved on with the game. I didn’t, though. I walked in.
My level 11 characters explored the mine beating down level 7 foes in simple combat scenarios like many of those I’d already encountered. I found treasure, dodged mysteriously-pushed minecarts and descended toward the goal marker that the game had set for me upon entering. It was a fairly standard RPG experience of the sort we’ve been used to for years now.
Eventually, I reached the boss of the mine, and there I ran into a problem: I hadn’t checked the recommended level for going through this dungeon and had ended up in battle with a level 55 boss. There was no way of winning. I was going to be wiped out effortlessly and I’d lose at least an hour of progress…except that’s not what happened. I watched the boss’ movements and attacks and came up with a strategy: he had a sword, my vastly more nimble character could use guns, what was stopping me from whittling this guy down with chip damage? So for a solid twenty minutes that was what I did: plink away at the boss while fleeing whenever he came close enough to attack.
It took an agonizingly long time, but I won and several things happened simultaneously: my character, the only surviving member of the party, earned a massive chunk of experience worthy of such a powerful foe; I was able to claim a powerful new weapon seemingly hours before I’d normally be able to do so; and (this is important) at no point was I penalized for doing what I did. The boss’ experience reward wasn’t drastically reduced MMORPG-style to punish me for killing it at a vastly lower level than expected. The weapon I obtained wasn’t behind a locked door that I wasn’t able to get through – I already had the key and could just stroll right in and take it – and it wasn’t restricted based on my character’s level, so I could use it right away and get a leg up on the enemies for a while. Along with the new weapon, the game offered a fancy-looking door that was actually locked to encourage me to come back later, sparking excited thoughts about what might await beyond.
When is the last time something like this happened to you in an RPG? When have you last felt this sort of accomplishment at getting one over on a game – something you can only do if the game is designed to let you claim this sort of victory and reward you for it? When, in this age of level scaling, procedural generation and defining games based on how much “content” they have rather than how much fun it is to play them, did you really feel like you were having an adventure instead of being led along a trail?
There’s a lot more to recommend Final Fantasy XV than a silly anecdote about beating a boss earlier than expected. It’s gorgeous, the main characters are likeable, the combat system is odd but fun, the plot is interesting enough to keep you going and the game as a whole oozes style from every pore. For my money, though, the fact that it’s possible to take on a challenge that wasn’t mechanically designed to be just the right level of difficult, succeed despite the odds and be appropriately rewarded for doing so is the biggest draw this one has.
You play as Prince Noctis, heir apparent to the throne of the Kingdom of Lucis, as he and three of his friends go on a road trip so that Noctis can wed his betrothed. The trip is interrupted early on and the goal shifts to survival against an evil empire that’s hoping to find Noctis’ group and wipe them out. All of this is presented in the typical high-budget Final Fantasy style with impeccable graphics (that are even more impeccable, barring some framerate drops, on the new PS4 Pro), but it’s a different sort of style than we’ve seen from the series in recent years. It’s fairly short if you only pay attention to the story, but we’ll get to that.
First, let’s talk about Final Fantasy XIII, the most recent single-player Final Fantasy title prior to this one. This was a game about presenting you with a carefully designed experience and steadfastly refusing to let you deviate from what you were supposed to see. For better or worse you were playing a film; this wasn’t just a game, it was a multi-million-dollar production, and each bit of “content” (there’s that word again) that the player didn’t “consume” was essentially wasted. You ran through a lot of hallways because that way you couldn’t miss any cutscenes. There weren’t any towns because that might distract from the point of the game, which was the cinematic experience.
I found that Final Fantasy X felt similar much of the time. Though it was admittedly a little better about optional gameplay, the two had a lot in common. They were both the first iterations of the series on their given consoles, so the heat was on to showcase the most impressive visuals possible; Final Fantasy is known for being a leader in graphical fidelity and cinematic presentation and failing to meet this standard could lead to disaster.
This ended up being the focus of these games, with exploration and combat slapped on as a courtesy after the fact. It felt like playing one of those licensed anime RPGs on the Super Famicom. Neither is a bad game, and it’s comical to say that any Final Fantasy game “isn’t Final Fantasy” as Internet pundits so love to do, but playing both FFX and FFXIII was a shock when you didn’t know what you were getting into.
Meanwhile, this is a game about populating a world with interesting things to do then allowing you to ignore all of it if you so choose. Bethesda’s games, for all their faults, are pretty good at this. The Witcher 3 was really, really good at this. This model implies a sort of trust between developer and player: all those potentially missable sidequests and voice acting weren’t cheap to make, and if you ignore them all and beeline straight to the end, the game will last you around 20 hours. That number will double if you take your time and enjoy the game. (You should. It’s excellent.) Square Enix knows that a 20-hour Final Fantasy will take some flak from both critics and users, and yet here we are, with a game that hides many of its best moments as entirely optional content. It’s a game that respects you enough to know that if this is Your Shit, you’re going to try and see everything regardless of if you have to or not. You don’t need to be spoonfed. Isn’t that refreshing?
FFXV probably will be Your Shit. It’s very accessible. The characters – a largely unchanging party of four consisting of Prince Noctis and his three friends – have a lot of personality and don’t tend to grate as other attempts at this sort of “buddy picture” game tend to. The combat system brings to mind Kingdom Hearts with a dash of Shin Megami Tensei, with a focus on both gracefully avoiding enemy attacks and hitting their weaknesses to finish fights quickly. It’s simple at first but the difficulty rapidly ramps up, so it’s good that you have the option of freezing time while you’re not moving, allowing you to take your time and make tactical decisions in a twist on the traditional Wait-style Active Time Battle system.
You have a car you can drive around (but only if you want to, as the game can drive for you and you can also just directly fast travel to many destinations), and it’s widely and easily customizable to your liking despite the game being single-player only. You can play CDs in the car with music from previous Final Fantasy games, but (and this is important) you have to find and buy most of them first, giving you a reason to look for shops and maybe do a little extra questing to make a little extra money. Many of the game’s dungeons and more interesting locations are never visited as part of the plot, so you need to get out of the car and explore, which the game transparently encourages you to do. Rest stops along the road offer reams of sidequests that can be entirely disregarded if you so choose.
The list goes on: you often have to rest at inns and campgrounds both because the world is dangerous at night and because your earned experience points aren’t actually applied to your level until you do. One of your characters is a photographer and will offer a selection of shots from your recent adventures each time you rest; you can browse through these and save or share the ones you like most to save or share, but you don’t have to bother if you don’t want to. Another character is a chef and can cook up stat-boosting meals if you take the time to seek out recipes, but you could also just buy your food at restaurants. The hero can fish, which is an involved system that you never have to touch. No big deal. Do it if you feel like it.
That pretty much sums up the Final Fantasy XV experience, really: it’s a game that’s saturated with the love inherent to a decade of development time, but it also accepts that forcing any of that love on the player would just breed resentment. That’s a significant swerve from many of the hallmarks of modern game design. What if FFXV attached a ranking system to the photography? What if the chef’s meals were the only way to get stat boosts? What if most of the car customization was paid DLC? Perhaps the only nod FFXV makes to modern game design sensibilities is the presence of a rudimentary crafting system, which is incredibly simple and intuitive and can be ignored like 90% of the rest of the game if you don’t like it. It’s fairly inoffensive, in other words.
There are plenty of development choices that could have made Final Fantasy XV a worse game. Those choices weren’t made, including the choices that would have regressed the series to a pre-FFXIII state rather than pushing it to new heights. The game’s reviews and revenue will likely suffer for this; the zeitgeist doesn’t appreciate this sort of deviancy, especially from an established franchise, and if you “consume” FFXV as is expected in 2016 rather than “enjoying” it as was expected in 1996 then you’re probably not going to like it.
I’ve already counted at least three acquaintances who’ve made a point of announcing that they won’t be buying the game. Those brave, brave souls, taking a stand like that. In their hubris, they’re missing out and they don’t even know it. I could go on about how the proliferation of social media condescension, misplaced self-importance and hot takes are the worst thing to happen to gaming as a hobby since the rise of the microtransaction…
…but that would distract me from saying that Final Fantasy XV is one of the best games of the year. It has to compete with Overwatch, Furi, the latest iteration of Pokémon, Titanfall 2 and Watch_Dogs 2, but it’s definitely in the running. My point is that fans of RPGs, action games and open-world exploration alike should probably make sure this one’s on their Christmas list.