Final Fantasy is, to be polite, a tough franchise to get into if you’re a newcomer. To hit everything in the whole franchise, you’re talking something like 60 games depending on how thorough you want to be. If you’re new to it, it’s almost absurdly dense. Why the obsession with crystals? Why is everybody named after weather patterns? And what the heck is a Chocobo? So, we’re going to diverge from our usual review format to talk about the most important aspect of Final Fantasy XV: That people who don’t know the answers to those questions can just play it.
To start with, the story is interesting and easy to follow, something of a small miracle in of itself. Final Fantasy tends to be self-serious and demanding, as a franchise. Video games can quickly develop a narcissistic obsession with “lore” that makes them impenetrable unless you want to spend a few hours on Wikipedia, or a few hundred hours playing the highlights of the franchise, and Final Fantasy is the poster child for this. Final Fantasy XV doesn’t dump the last 14 games in a fire, exactly; if you know where to look, and know the franchise’s past, you can spot plenty of nods to it.
But it’s just a nod to fans, not a demand that you go back and watch the whole game unfold on YouTube. In part that’s because this game was originally a spin-off, one suspects, but it makes it accessible to newbies. Granted, the franchise is strange and has no interest in explaining its strangeness; that our heroes own cars and cell phones but fight with swords and magic spells while running around the desert in leather pants is basically unexplained. Still, that’s not a big leap if you play video games: It’s no weirder than an Italian plumber leaping in the air to crush sentient mushrooms, or walking around your neighborhood stuffing mythical creatures into tiny habitats and selling them to a professor for candy.
It helps that the quest system is heavily tilted towards beating the game. Unlike previous entries where you could be stuck in a casino for hours, most of the sidequests are simple and even sort of boring. Feed this cat, deliver this package, find this item, and so on and so forth. They’re really designed to be done as you’re playing through the main quest, as stuff you stumble over and happen to fulfill. It helps that about halfway through the game, the story, and the questline, become more focused and the design backs up the narrative drive.
Another factor is the controls. Part of the franchise’s problem reaching new players was its many unnecessarily elaborate systems, a relic of the days when video game RPGs were essentially tabletop games programmed into a cartridge. And while that level of unnecessary complexity is here, in the form of piles of fiddly menus, insistence on annoying tropes like “resting” to collect experience points, and a leveling-up system that frankly could have stood to be simplified, the actual game is easy to get into, as instead of figuring out a bunch of menus, you just have to hit buttons to perform actions. That said, the control layout could use a little work; that you have to hit Circle or B to attack is a break from standard practice that will take some getting used to.
There’s still depth, mind you, but where previous games have felt unfocused, what matters is stripped down to the relative basics. You have a party to equip and train, and as you learn to work together with them as a squad, you’ll become a smarter tactician more able to take down larger, more dangerous foes. Early on, you can hack at them like a klutz, but the game subtly drives you towards using its systems without railroading you into it. It’s a pleasantly player-focused experience.
Final Fantasy XV is messy and clumsy in some respects, especially in how it streamlines, or doesn’t, aspects of the game. The driving mechanic seems to exist mostly to create needless busy-work, for example. But, overall, if you don’t care about Cloud’s feelings and think Chocolina is a candy bar, you can play, and greatly enjoy, Final Fantasy XV. And that might be the game’s greatest achievement.