Full disclosure: aside from the first 20 minutes of Final Fantasy 7 (which infuriated me so much, I immediately went back to the shop and swapped it for Parappa the Rapper), I’ve never actually played a Final Fantasy game. As far as I’m concerned, every series entry is basically innumerable hours of pretty men with stupid hair waiting patiently to hit each other, which probably makes me the worst possible person to be telling you about the long-awaited Final Fantasy 15. But here’s the thing: after four hours of hands-on time with this latest instalment, I’ve been won over.
So what, you might reasonably ask, makes Square’s ten-years-in-the-making RPG extravaganza so damned appealing to someone like me? Well, like last year’s Metal Gear Solid 5, Final Fantasy 15 (A.K.A Stag-do Road Trip: The Homoerotic Adventures of Four Military Fetishists in a Car) is a game of grand ambitions and big ideas. It’s still recognisably Final Fantasy – from the sprawling, free-form questing and dungeon crawling to the big emotional story beats and ludicrously pointy hair – but it’s also a game obsessed with radical, forward-looking reinvention; almost every well-worn Final Fantasy element has been ripped apart, meticulously scrutinised, then reassembled into something sleeker, more streamlined, and thrillingly new.
In the first of many twists on the classic Final Fantasy formula, 15 opts for a somewhat more grounded, pseudo-realistic set-up for its immaculately crafted world – albeit one with gigantic spaceships, silly outfits and some kind of alternate universe Florence and the Machine singing Stand By Me. It all plays out like a 1950s road movie version of The Hangover, set across an americana-tinged retro-futuristic landscape, and it tells the story of four likely lads on a journey to reach lad-number-one’s future bride.
Tonally, it’s got an easygoing ambience, with ample, immediately appealing warmth and humour. The core ensemble (Gladiolus the muscle, Ignis the brains, Prompto the comedy relief and Noctis the slightly bratty protagonist) might consist of familiar RPG tropes, but each character is engagingly written and voiced. The light-hearted banter's certainly far more relatable than the genre’s usual portentous monologuing, and the likeable, believable leads help to anchor the world – even if they do look like a gaggle of oiled-up twinks on the way to a leather convention.
As refreshing as Final Fantasy 15’s distinct, pseudo-real-world set-up feels, however, it’s the new real-time combat system that really shows the series stepping outside of its comfort zone. And while battling is built around several familiar elements, it’s quite unlike anything that I’ve played before.
Essentially though, your three distinct, easily switchable weapons (javelin, two-handed sword and engine blade at first) form the core of an unusual offensive/defensive system that, on a fundamental level at least, simply requires you to hold down one of two buttons in order to consistently block attacks or unleash a rapid flurry of weaker strikes.
It’s more nuanced than that, of course (you can also initiate a slower, more powerful attack or parry by jabbing the relevant button, and there are numerous weapon-specific sub-moves to explore) but this definitely isn’t a game of frenzied button mashing, whatever the pyrotechnics of combat might suggest. Instead, Final Fantasy 15’s fisticuffs are designed to offer a more tactical, considered take on traditional real-time action.
The faintly staccato rhythm of combat creates brief pauses in which you’re able ponder your next move, and this tactical breathing room is amplified by a focus on evasion and retreat. You’ve three teleportation moves at your disposal: Warp Point for quick traversal; Warp Strike for catching enemies off-guard with an attack; and, finally, Warp Out – perhaps the most distinctive aspect of combat. This latter move is one you’ll use frequently, and enables you to quickly reach safe areas around the battlefield in order to refill your magic and slowly dwindling maximum health levels.
If anything, Final Fantasy 15’s combat shares a spiritual (if not mechanical) connection with Monster Hunter – and not just because the game now has its own equivalent of guild quests, hunter ranks and pre-battle stat-boosting cuisine. As in Monster Hunter, 15 requires a cautious approach to combat, with retreat and recuperation a core strategy to success.
To illustrate, a typical fight against a larger creature will usually see you adopting a permanent defensive stance while you watch and wait for an opening. When you’re finally ready to strike, you’ll deploy whichever weapon gives you a power advantage against your current foe (aiming to reach an enemy’s weak point if possible), then you’ll warp away to recharge, and start over again. It can feel a little awkward and alien at first but, once you’ve become properly acclimatised to the set-up, there’s real satisfaction to be found in the game’s unusual, fluid combat rhythm.
It’s a relief that combat works so well as it gives real incentive to leave the beaten track and explore 15’s enormous, enemy-strewn open world. To see the sights (such as the lavish, tiki-hued beach resort), however, you’ll be at the mercy of the novel, somewhat peculiar traversal system. Until Chocobo travel is unlocked later on, you’ll need to use your car (which can't ever leave the road) to get around; and the journey (in both automatic and manual modes) happens in real-time. This might get old fast for some people but, for me at least, it merely heightened the appealing road-trip ambience at 15’s core; it’s a delight to sit back, relax and watch the beautifully rendered world go by as classic Final Fantasy tunes blast from the stereo.
That’s just skimming the surface of Final Fantasy 15, of course, and four hours with the game isn’t nearly enough time to do justice to (or even see) the myriad other systems at play. One thing that’s immediately evident though is just how much love and attention has been lavished on this latest Final Fantasy endeavour; everywhere you look there’s something new to see and do – from the fully featured fishing mini-game, to the incredibly rich magic system, which enables you to form spells by combining elements and then tweak them further (imbuing them with, say, poison damage) using catalysts.
Then there are the countless smaller touches that help bring you even further into the world, like the way that Prompto randomly takes photos during your travels (which you can browse and share at the end of each day), or the ridiculous horseplay that ensues between your teammates whenever you hunker down at a campsite.
Admittedly, it’s too early to tell if some of the game’s grander ideas and idiosyncrasies will, in the longer term, prove to be more folly than visionary, but, even so, this is the first time in 19 years that I’ve been legitimately excited about a Final Fantasy game. Yes, it might all fall apart at the seams but, like Parappa taught me on that fateful day in 1997 when I said goodbye to my first Final Fantasy: you gotta believe.