This Week in Games - Final Fantasy XV

by Dustin Bailey,

Final Fantasy XV just came out. I'm playing it. Let's talk about it.

Impressions: Final Fantasy XV

I'm about a half-dozen hours into Final Fantasy XV. That's with a handful of early story segments completed and a whole bunch of side stuff done. We'll see how it feels 10, 20, 50 hours down the line—please look forward to the full review next week—but so far? I kinda love it.

Your capacity to enjoy this thing largely depends on your willingness to let go of big chunks of whatever it is you like about Final Fantasy. This whole series has been built on constant reinvention, but this entry does away with more baggage than most of its predecessors. Real-time, action-based combat. A Western-style open world. A dope car.

The setup, if you've missed the infinite heaps of marketing materials we've been inundated with, is this: You are Noctis, prince of the Kingdom of Lucis, which has long been at war with the Empire of Niflheim. Peace treaties are finally being signed between the two nations, and you're to wed Lady Lunafreya as a symbol of the peace. At the start of the game, you and three of your closest friends—Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto—are driving on the way to make that marriage official. You don't need to have seen the mediocre Kingsglaive to guess that things go bad before the happy day, and the stakes on this journey suddenly get far higher.

The weirdest thing about the game's opening hours is how “American” it feels. We joked about how this seemed like a road trip movie, but no—every ounce of the adventure so far has actually felt like a road trip, in a quintessentially American way. There are the greasy diners, the greasier mechanics, and regular folks living their lives in tiny towns. Cindy (for better or worse) looks like she should be draped across the cover of a cheap hot rod magazine. The Regalia—that's the aforementioned dope car, if you haven't been keeping track—is the foundation of so much of the game's aesthetic and vibe, in a way that's very informed by car culture. Customize that thing, drive along the open road, and just watch the hills roll by. While everyone you meet is clearly a Final Fantasy character, with dark clothes, fancy hair, and lots of zippers, it's a vision of Final Fantasy filtered through the lens of Americana.

The game also takes a lot of cues from Western design. This is an open world from people who have played the Witcher 3, Grand Theft Auto, and Dragon Age: Inquisition. That's not to say that it ever feels like it's imitating those games, rather that the designers looked long and hard about what works and what doesn't when it comes to a wide variety of open world games. Chatting with waiters will fill your map with points of interest, but those points aren't just collectibles to be checked off of a massive completion list. They're helpful equipment, or items you could use for cooking—useful, but non-essential, there to reward exploration but not force you into it.

But yes, I did say cooking. Not all of this game's influences are Western, and there's a huge sidequest system built around the hunting of monsters. (Yes, you might call it a monster hunter thing.) You can gather up ingredients to cook impeccably-rendered food—or just order it at a restaurant—for big but temporary stat bonuses as you take on your bounties. That's one of the non-combat skills associated with each of the party members. Ignis is good at cooking, while Gladiolus focuses on survival, and Noctis on fishing.

Prompto, though, is a photographer, and he's constantly taking quick, discreet shots during the adventure. Every time you make camp (which is incidentally also how you level up), you'll see about 10 of Prompto's photos, and you can flip through them and choose some to save to a big album recording your adventure. Normally I'd never mention an in-game photography thing because it's usually such a throwaway feature, but here, where it's slightly off to the side as a quick reminder of your adventure so far, it feels like a vital piece of character building, and helps to make this thing feel like a real journey.

That commitment to characterization and world building is what's impressed me most about Final Fantasy XV. These little details add up to make it so easy to invest in the characters. The plot so far has been kind of flat, though admittedly I'm only just now reaching the sections of the game that haven't been relentlessly spoiled by movies, anime, and extensive preview coverage. But the core group of characters is so well-realized through in-world dialog and game systems that reflect their personalities that I want to keep spending time with them. Sure, Prompto's a stereotypically corny, over-enthusiastic dude, but when he started singing the classic battle victory music as we explored I just wanted to keep hanging out with that guy.

I haven't even talked about the combat yet, and that's ultimately what will make or break this thing over the course of dozens of hours. I called it action-based earlier, but that's not entirely accurate. You do make your commands in real-time and you get Devil May Cry-style rankings at the end of every battle, but don't think it's a challenge of dexterity rather than strategy. You hold down the attack button to automatically unleash combos, and hold down evade to automatically dodge and parry. There is timing to what you do and when you do it, but it's more about understanding the flow of what's happening and making the right strategic choices on what to do about it.

There's a lot more nuance to the system than that, but I just haven't had the time yet to fully explore it and dig into it here. It's been fast, engaging, and fun so far, but we'll see how that stands a dozen hours deeper into the game.

This is the part where I say I'm eager to finish writing this article so I can go play more Final Fantasy. I have nothing but praise for the early part of the game, but remember—it's the early part of the game. I don't know if the combat will prove to have lasting depth, or if the well-realized cast will ultimately take part in a story that feels like it has stakes and drama. I'm dying to find out the answer to both of those questions, though. Stay tuned for the full review.

NEWS

NO MAN'S SKY, NEARLY FOUR MONTHS LATER, FINALLY GETS A MAJOR UPDATE

Infinity simulator No Man's Sky finally got a major update this week. It adds earliest bits of base building to the game including options for farms and camps, along with big freighters, new resources and technology, survival and creative game modes, a variety of interface improvements, and oh look at me describing this like a normal game update with no additional baggage whatsoever.

The whole No Man's Sky situation is a massive, bewildering mess. On one hand, you have an indie developer that over-promised and under-delivered, and on the other you have a group of fans who treated marketing like gospel and a mediocre game like an affront to human rights. The loudness from the latter more than explains the silence of the former, and it seems like a far-off dream that anyone would ever be able to feel good about what's happened.

But the message from Hello Games is a good start—apologetic in tone, with a note of hopefulness for the future. The game's creator, Sean Murray, said this on Twitter: “We're getting better as quickly as we can for the players who invested in us. Thank you for sticking with us.” The undertone of “so please put down the pitchforks and extinguish your torches” was left unspoken.

NINTENDO AND UNIVERSAL COLLABORATE ON THEME PARK ATTRACTIONS

Of all the great things about the Wii U that will someday be forgotten, Nintendo Land doesn't rank anywhere near the top. It was another minigame collection, and even though that genre isn't without merit, it's typically a scarcely remembered thing. The most interesting part of Nintendo Land has little to do with any gameplay—it's the idea of a theme park devoted to Nintendo characters, which seems like the most obviously great thing in, like, ever.

Lucky for us, Nintendo has agreed, and they're partnering with Universal to open branded attractions at three Universal Studios locations—Orlando, Hollywood, and Osaka. The two companies say they're working together closely to ensure that the best strengths of both brands are brought forward to increase the value of—

Okay, look, yes, it's a strategic media partnership. But I'm going to a real life Nintendo Land in a couple of years and no amount of cynicism about the commodification of childhood nostalgia is gonna make that any less cool to me.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

DEAD RISING 4
Developer: Capcom Vancouver
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform: Xbox One / PC
Release Date: December 6
MSRP: $59.99

Wanna feel old? The original Dead Rising released a decade ago this year. While it was the tip of the spear that ensured pop culture would be completely buried under hordes of brain-hungry undead, it was also a wacky, completely unique adventure in its own right, so I can probably forgive its role making zombies a “thing.”

Dead Rising 4 looks to be turning up the wackiness but dialing back the uniqueness, as it's doing away with the time crunch that's defined every previous game in the series. It will still be throwing back by providing the return of Frank West, who'll once again be dealing with the undead outbreak in Willamette, Colorado, but this time in a Yuletide-infused time of year. Yeah, I'm disappointed that it doesn't seem to be following what made the previous games great, but it's also a rare Christmas-themed game, so I'd say that puts its chances of success at about 50/50.

THE LAST GUARDIAN
Developer: genDESIGN / SIE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: December 6
MSRP: $59.99

Don't think the word on “games we've been waiting a decade for” is over with the release of Final Fantasy XV. No, another epic game development saga comes to a close this week with the release of the Last Guardian, the new adventure from Fumito Ueda, creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. But it's been a long time since those titles stole our hearts, and the rest of the industry has learned a lot from the successes of Team Ico's games.

Will the Last Guardian live up to that precedent? We'll find out soon. For now, we know that you play as a young boy who befriends a griffon-like creature called Trico, and you'll have to work together to solve puzzles and survive in a ruined castle. We can guess with some certainty that the game will end with something bad happening to the boy or the bird or both, and it will be very sad.

SUPER MARIO MAKER FOR NINTENDO 3DS
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: December 2
MSRP: $39.99

Hey, Nintendo's finally putting out Super Mario Maker on a platform people actually own! That's great! Now you can make courses on the go and post them online and—oh, you can't do that? Well, at least you'll be able to download your friends' levels and—wait, what?

What the 3DS edition of Mario Maker allows you to do is create and share levels locally, go through select, Nintendo-approved courses, and play the 100 Mario Challenge. The Mario Challenge alone probably still makes this package worthwhile, but the features here are so stripped down from the game's console counterpart that I can't help but wonder “why?”

ALSO AVAILABLE:
This week also sees the release of Ubisoft's frigid extreme sports simulator, Steep, and a Steam edition of the anime crossover fighter Nitroplus Blasterz: Heroines Infinite Duel.

I'll see you guys next week, assuming I can tear myself away from Final Fantasy long enough to get the column written! Stay tuned!


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