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A cynic repents: first impressions in Final Fantasy XV

Diehard fanboy Matthew Codd has his jaded eyes scrubbed clean by the latest in an infinite number of Final Fantasy titles. 

I had a lot of skepticism going into Final Fantasy XV. Like many other lifelong Final Fantasy junkies, I was disappointed with the direction that Final Fantasy XIII took the series; prior to release, the new game was looking much the same. It’s been in development for 10 years and has gone through a few directors in that time, which is never a good sign. The two demos released in the last couple of years did nothing to allay my concerns, and rather made me more worried about the battle system and the general approach to storytelling. Basically, what I’m saying is that I came into Final Fantasy XV with very low expectations.

Within the space of the first few hours that I’ve played so far, all of these worries had been pushed to the wayside. The Final Fantasy-ness of the game is established almost immediately, with a modern arrangement of “Prelude” – an iconic piece of music that’s featured in almost every Final Fantasy game – playing over the main menu and tutorial. Once you hit New Game, there’s a short written prologue that’s an almost word-for-word recreation of the opening of the very first Final Fantasy. After an early fight, a character hummed the series’ famous victory fanfare in a fun little nod to its turn-based combat roots.

There’s a wealth of these little Easter eggs scattered throughout the game, and from the perspective of a long-time fan, they’re delightful to see. It’s worth noting that these are all superficial, generally inconsequential things – Final Fantasy XV isn’t nostalgia-bait in the way that the likes of World of Final Fantasy or Final Fantasy Record Keeper are. It very much has its own sense of identity, but it takes the time to acknowledge the franchise’s history from time to time in a way that won’t alienate newcomers.

Of course, sentimentality can only take a game so far, but Final Fantasy XV is more than capable of backing that up, at least in the first few hours I’ve played through. It has an open-world structure that’s almost unheard of in Japanese RPGs, and even though it’s clearly inspired by the American South, it retains a decidedly Japanese feel. It makes for a world that’s a delight to get lost in, which is only helped by meticulous attention to detail and a feeling of being lived in.

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That setting really lends itself to a story that’s essentially a fantasy spin on a road trip movie, centred on four young men who’ve been best friends since childhood. The story was one of the things I side-eyed the most in the lead up to the game’s release, but so far it’s got me absolutely enthralled. The four buddies are interesting and likeable from the outset, and they share a bond that feels genuine. There’s a silly, campy element to their relationships, but it comes across as endearing rather the cringe-worthy or overplayed.

Some of my favourite elements of Final Fantasy XV so far are the moments of respite, when you’re resting at a campsite or just driving around. The boys hang out, talk, laugh, and dick around like young folk on a road trip are wont to do, and through some sort of animation wizardry it comes across as completely organic. Among other things, whenever you rest you get to look through an album of photos that one of the guys in the group takes of his own accord. Essentially, they’re procedurally-generated photos based on where you’d been in the day and what you got up to, and they’re very typical road trip photos – goofy poses, beautiful scenery, fun, friendship, laughter.

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Tying it all together is a battle system that offers plenty of options for strategy, but that works just as well with carefree hack-and-slash approach. Whether you want to be a master tactician or just take it easy with some fairly laid-back button-mashing, Final Fantasy XV seems to somehow cater to either approach. The camera and hit detection issues from the first demo have been ironed out, too, and the end result is smooth, fluid, intrinsically satisfying combat.

This may all change, of course. Any number of things could go wrong in the days (weeks?) still standing between me and the final credits. But in the few hours I’ve played so far, I’ve been absolutely blown away by Final Fantasy XV and I can’t wait to see what else it has in store.


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