Last week I visited the offices of Bandai Namco Australia to play the first four hours of the PS4 version of Final Fantasy XV. They weren’t 100% certain on which build it was but after having a look at a few different screenshots and videos floating around out there I’m pretty sure it was the one being demoed at Gamescom. Before I dive in let me give a few disclaimers. Firstly I have only played three Final Fantasy games to completion: I, II and VI. Currently I’m playing through VII and enjoying it immensely. Second, I have not been following the development of XV closely at all. I am of course aware of how long it’s been in limbo and have been watching the occasional trailer, but I haven’t consumed every piece of media they’ve shown off. Third, the game was delayed by two months, now set to release on November 29th, and so there will no doubt be improvements made upon the build I played. Finally, it’s probably worth mentioning I opted to play with Japanese voice and English subtitles.
Through an extremely brief flash-forward and a beautiful CGI cutscene, the games main characters are introduced. Noctis, his clothes as black as his spiky hair, is told by his father the King of Insomnia that he must marry the princess of a neighbouring empire in order solidify their alliance. Real medieval stuff. Accompanying him on this journey are Noctis’ three friends: Ignis, a bespectacled, dignified fellow, Gladiolus, an enormous, tattooed man with abs on full display, and finally Prompto, who immediately comes across as the scallywag of the group. The gang jump in the Regalia, a modern royal carriage, and drive out of the city.
The next scene has the boys pushing the car along a desert highway, clearly having mechanical issues. I was a little disappointed to have already moved on from Insomnia, the enormous city merely teased by the CGI opening. The back and forth between the guys, arguing about whose turn it is to steer, that Gladiolus should push it on his own, is endearing straight out the gate. One promise Square actually seems to be delivering on is that vibe of going a roadtrip with friends. It’s an intriguing opening, wasting no time getting started and yet leaving much to the imagination. Empires and kings, arranged marriages and alliances, and yet here we are with a bunch of J-pop teenagers having car troubles in what looks like the desert of Route 66. If nothing else, the flash-forward at the start suggests that by the time this tale is over we’ll have witnessed a large part of these boy’s lives. As a whole however the intro in its current state is incredibly brief and disjointed, perplexing me far more than it satisfied.
After getting the car fixed up, the guys head down to catch a ferry to where Luna (the neighbouring princess) and Noctis will be married, only to find out they have to wait til morning. After getting some rest the team wake to find that, seemingly overnight, the empire has invaded Insomnia and both the king and Noctis are being reported as dead. How do they find this out? By reading the morning newspaper. Yep. They may have cars, TVs and even smartphones in this weird medieval/future world but apparently news still only travels as fast as the printing press. There is certainly the potential here for a classic RPG story of brotherhood, adventure and betrayal, but there are also numerous red flags – enough to make even the most optimistic fan incredibly wary.
I’ll start with the most obvious issue which is graphics and performance. The loading times through out were significant. They ranged from standard fare for an open-world PS4 game, to between 1-2 minutes. These longer waits occurred between mission chapters and when loading the game up for the first time. After about 2.5 hours the game crashed but this was the only crash I had during the playthrough and it was just back to the dashboard. The frame rate was incredibly spotty, particularly during combat. This would all be a little more forgivable if the game actually looked good but it just doesn’t. Now admittedly I was sitting fairly close to a pretty big TV, but even forgetting that there’s intense shadow dithering, aliasing to the high heavens (you’ve all seen their hair) as well as texture and vegetation pop-in. I kinda just got used to the combat being a bit of a mess visually and it was often hard to tell what in the hell was happening. Moving the camera around seemed to make things worse somehow. I also experienced a glitch of some kind when driving in 1st person, everything through the windscreen of the Regalia looked super low res and pixellated. Needless to say I refrained from using 1st person after that.
Now this isn’t to say the game has nothing going for it visually. The character models themselves are intricately detailed, everything from facial expressions down to the soles of their boots has clearly had a lot of attention. The various beasts and monsters I fought also look very cool, my favourite being the imperial ground troops: essentially medieval knights with rifles. The environment can also be pretty, the white crystalline structure in the distance of the Duscae province and the meteorite-powered Lestallum, are both highlights. The design and art underneath is impressive, it’s just the tech isn’t meeting it halfway. Hopefully Square utilises the time the delay has given them to iron out these issues.
Another frustration I had was with the character of Noctis himself. It doesn’t take long for him to get super angsty. When meeting Cor (the king’s adviser) for the first time he throws a real tantrum: “What was my father thinking! What good am I! What did he expect me to do! I’m no king!” etc. Even though these lines were delivered in a language I didn’t understand, I was still rolling my eyes. Sure, having to take up the mantle of king of a conquered city-state would be enough to stress out the most resolute of young men, but it’s just not executed in a sympathetic or engaging way. We’ve all seen plenty of anime’s and JRPG’s where the protagonist has to carry on a legacy he or she is not ready for. Self-doubt is only an interesting quality in a protagonist when it is handled well, and in my brief session with XV, it was not. In terms of female characters there were only two that really left any impression on me during my playthrough. First, there’s Cindy, the mechanic who fixes up the Regalia. Cindy’s just a free spirit who owns her sexuality by having her enormous cleavage on display and ensuring her thong is visible above her short shorts. There’s definitely nothing unsettling about her design whatsoever and I look forward to seeing how she’ll develop as a character and impact the narrative … (sigh). Then there’s Gladiolus’ sister Iris who you meet up with in Lestallum and she’s your typical bubbly, teenage anime girl. You can choose for her to take Noctis on a tour around town, which was a nice way to see the place, but I could’ve done without Iris’ jokes about how the tour was a date and that they should make sure not to tell Gladiolus or Luna.
My final disappointment was with the driving itself. As someone who is used to games like GTA V and The Witcher where you can leave the beaten track at any time and go exploring, I was very surprised to find how on-rails the driving is. If you even nudge the car towards the edge of the road it’ll automatically guide you back into place. If you just hold R2 and turn at intersections you’ll be set. Due to how sluggish and slow this feels, there’s little incentive to put Noctis behind the wheel. I’ll definitely be letting Ignis drive when this comes out so I can at least look around at stuff. It doesn’t help that, as long as you’re not in combat, you can quick-travel to both your car and the last place you rested. So when I finished a dungeon, instead of getting back in my car and driving back to town, I’d just quick travel to the town, progress the quest, then quick travel to my car and move on. This kills any immersion and adds to that sense of disjointedness.
Combat is an odd mix of action games and traditional JRPGs. As mentioned earlier I haven’t played a lot of the more modern Final Fantasy games so my ignorance may show here. Noctis has four weapon slots which were assigned to the d-pad. By default, starting from the left, he had a huge two-hander sword, a normal sword, a polearm and then the down slot was empty. You’re able to swap these all out if you wanted and nothing is locked in place. Each character has a skill tree and they all share the one pool of AP (Ability Points), which is what you use to unlock more abilities. For example Gladiolus can unlock the ability to use shields, Ignis can infuse Noctis’ weapon with different elements and Prompto can… Take photos during combat. The majority of skills seemed to be just boosts to attack or the ability to wear three accessories, that sort of thing. Combat itself can be a little confusing at times, partly due to performance and IQ issues, but also because you only have direct control over Noctis. There a few abilities you can get the other guys to do, and you can assign their weapons and give them potions, but other than that they have to fend for themselves. This can lead to rather frustrating fights. One time a particular enemy (see below) kept one-shotting everyone with his quick slashes, the only reason Noctis wasn’t dying immediately was because I was doing this block/parry technique. Basically you hold square then quickly press circle when the prompt appears. It was infuriating having no control over my party, I would revive them with phoenix downs and within seconds they’d be killed again.
At towns or settlements you can talk to shopkeepers to add nearby points of interest to your map. They can also give you monster-hunt side quests, but you’re only able to accept one at a time which seems needlessly restrictive. The main town of the demo, Lestallum, looks pretty cool aesthetically but it lacks soul. NPCs are lifeless, cardboard cutouts, wandering around not saying anything. The music was repetitive and the ambient sounds of a crowd felt out of place. Compared to the Witcher (I know people are probably sick of this comparison), Lestallum is incredibly dull. In these towns and outposts you can stay the night at hotels or caravans, or out in the wild you can set up your own camp at predetermined locations. Upon choosing to settle down for the night you can see the boys setting up their tents and chairs, lighting the campfire, joking with each other and just chatting. This is where the camaraderie of the group really shines through. Camping or resting is quite important, as it’s where all your XP from finishing quests, killing monsters etc gets tallied up and you actually level up. Ignis is the cook, and depending on what ingredients you’ve looted, you’ll be able to cook different meals with different stat boosts. While you’re selecting which meal to cook Ignis is standing there looking pensive, once you select a meal he clicks his fingers as if he’s suddenly made up his mind, it’s a nice touch and made me smile. After taking care of business a final screen will appear with “Your Lodgings” across the top, and you can see everyone just hanging out at the campsite. I couldn’t help but feel a little warm inside as I looked at all these buddies taking a break and having fun together.
It’s possible that Final Fantasy XV has been in development hell for so long that a lot of people are perhaps just wondering if the damn thing is fun, and I have to say I did enjoy myself. I would definitely like to take my time to get to grips with the finer details of the combat, especially in terms of weapons and magic, all of which were pretty confusing at first glance. The story’s catalyst, the angsty protagonist and two-dimensional female characters are all cause for concern, and I could tell by the subtitles that the writing would be more of a problem if I could hear it in the poor English voice acting. Nevertheless there’s enough here to hold out hope for the release version of XV. While at times it felt like wading through mud, it also managed to successfully capture that old-school RPG feeling of departing on a new adventure with friends bound together by tragedy. This is something that is sorely missing from a lot of epic, triple-A RPGs these days, so I’m intrigued as to where that leads within the game itself. I for one, am looking forward to exploring more of this world, angst and all.