Final Fantasy is always a good choice when it comes to spending a lot of time, and that’s something which most of us currently have in surplus. Final Fantasy XV promised to provide more opportunity for that than any other single-player game in the franchise, it consigning the traditional linearity to history and instead putting the bulk of the adventure in an open world. The result, however, seemed to be something quite reduced from what we’d expect; the world lacked quests, towns, and enormity, or at least those certainly were my complaints in the first thirty huffily-played hours of the game. I’ve persisted despite the foot-tapping tedium and realised that I’ve been ignorant to an adventure that’s slow but still captivating, moreish, and almost impossible to put down.
Its beginning seems more than a tad low-key with the four leads plonked at the start of road trip. There are, inevitably, some epic moments that instigate the story proper, but there’s none of the earth-shattering change and propulsive linearity of preceding games – and this is quite jarring when that’s what you expect from Final Fantasy. Things don’t change significantly for the first half of the game as the story weaves around the unhurried, exploration-encouraging world. Narrative doesn’t come in quite the same neat, sixty hour package that characterises such epic drama as there is in Final Fantasy X, a game that had been my personal benchmark for the franchise.
Questing is initially a frustration, too, with none of the wit and intricacy of the likes of The Elder Scrolls. Taking on “Hunts” is the main way that you engage with side quests, and what this means in reality is being ordered to another part of the map to kill a few beasties. It starts to seem a charmless task to traipse back and forth in the name of perfunctory combat, and the comparisons with previous adventures in this series, and the traditions of recent, expansive Western RPGs, weighed me down. The game felt frustratingly monotonous, but I found myself compulsively playing regardless in what I assumed was simply the masochism of a franchise fan.
There are more activities than it seems on the surface, though. One of my favourites was fishing, a task that can easily be dipped into as you’re traversing by simply heading to the nearest lake or sea; and new areas would reward your interest with fresh catches. A simple activity such as this started to become part of my routine, and before darkness set on the land I’d often look to see if I had time to net a few fish. Before I was fully aware of what I appreciated about the game my interest had already been held, and my concerns about pacing were dwarfed by being hooked into a personal challenge of proficiency.
Where Final Fantasy XV Shines
What I started to recognise was that it felt like a real road trip. I was starting to become familiarised with and enjoy the minutiae of the journey, whether that’s settling down into camp with a meal, going fishing, reviewing the photographs produced on the journey, or savouring the views presented. This even allowed me to bond with the characters – Noctis, Gladiolus, Prompto, and Ignis – just by virtue of having spent so much time exploring with them. It no longer seemed tedious to drive round the world doing various quests but instead seemed essential to being immersed in the game.
Of course, taking these numerous journeys means being exposed to beautiful sights. Constantly are there new vistas, new angles from which to view the world and to admire the incredible art design; its array of environments feel together akin to a greatest hits of Final Fantasy’s best crafted scenes. I’ve made sure to never fast travel but to sit back, make a selection from one of the classic soundtracks included in the game, and simply admire an eye-catching, multifaceted view as the light changes – all the while contemplating the next leg of this quietly, intelligently epic adventure.
By the time you return the story you’re thoroughly caught up in the world so that it’s close to jarring for an authorial hand to take over. There’s benefit to a Final Fantasy that’s linear, which presents a procession of unforgettably staged scenes, but the ability to explore this world with little narrative nudging makes it feel more like yours. I’ve sunk nearly one hundred hours into plunging into dungeons, driving between hunts, and doing the odd bit of story, and I’m more immersed than I’ve ever been in any of the franchise’s games. Of course, whether you have that connection depends on your approach to play; and Final Fantasy XV rewards those willing to take the slow road.
It might seem silly to start playing this when Final Fantasy VII Remake now exists, a game almost universally loved and a current part of the cultural conversation. That newer release doesn’t offer, however, the catharsis that these times require, being a frenetic game of disparate elements that don’t always gel. Calm comes from being able to rely on what you’re able to get from an experience, not the risk that irritation is around the corner; and an important fact at this point is that there are countless more hours to be enjoyed in XV.
This is undoubtedly worth returning to or starting for the first time. It’s a solidly constructed game, for a start, and the numerous patches have made its mechanics more enjoyable than ever. It’s a game that will only let you really enjoy it if you fall into its rhythm, but one that reveals itself to be an utterly unique experience when that happens; a game that has blown away my once cast-iron expectation of what one with its name should be. Its addictive routines are a perfect replacement for our non-lockdown activities, but the charm of its world will keep you coming back again and again.
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