Final Fantasy has the rare honor of being one of the few franchises to survive across multiple eras of gaming. The series dates all the way back to the early days of the NES, when Square and Enix were still separate companies. But that legacy is also a burden: There are people who, quite literally, grew up playing these games and any franchise, left to its own devices, will bury itself in features and lore, locking out new players. Square Enix wants to change that, to the point where the first thing that fades up in the latest entry, Final Fantasy XV, is “A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers.” And, having played a few hours, they’re not kidding.
Way back in 2006, when this game first started as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, the idea was to spin the main franchise off into a darker, less traditional game. Tetsuya Nomura, the original director, wanted to use what he’d learned from the Kingdom Hearts games to see what Final Fantasy could do outside of turn-based combat or Active Battle Systems. And while we’re a long way from that game that was envisioned in 2006, it’s fairly clear that core vision stuck with the game throughout its long development.
The first question, of course, is whether you have to play the last 14 games in the series. The short answer, while avoiding spoilers, is no, and in fact you’re probably better off going in cold. While the Final Fantasy series has a seemingly bottomless repository of stories about crystals, and some of those tropes turn up here (yes, yet again, there’s some crystal you have to find) everything you really need to know comes into play as you poke around the world and stab monsters.
Probably the most arresting feature of Final Fantasy XV is that the game forgoes turn-based combat altogether in favor of squad-based brawling as you run and drive around an open world. The feel of combat, where you’re frantically dodging, stabbing, flinging spells, and parrying giant monsters, feels surprisingly like Capcom’s underrated RPG Dragon’s Dogma. It’s a bit tricky to get the hang of, at first, because the dev team has an odd controller layout you’ll need to experiment with. But it’s far more intuitive than any of the main Final Fantasy games have been in the playing, while still retaining the seemingly endless complexity hardcore fans of the series seem to enjoy in the menus.
Not everything has changed, though, which is varying degrees of good and bad. The voice-acting is, so far, isn’t “Tidus’ laugh” bad, but it’s still pretty bad, with both hammy delivery and noticeably poor mixing, which is strange considering how good the rest of the sound work is. Loading screens still take a while. The score is still beautiful, and the game opens with a nice cover of the classic “Stand By Me” by Florence And The Machine, but also still prone to bizarre swerves into genres like elevator music. So, yes, it may have changed substantially, but for better or for worse, this is still Final Fantasy.
Is the game worth picking up? We’ve only played a few hours, so the jury is somewhat out on that. That said, it’s fun, it’ll be easy for newbies to pick up, and if the other open world games out there have left you cold, this might be the one that sucks you in. We’ll have a full review next week.