15 hours with Final Fantasy 15's strange open world

Final Fantasy 15, like the series it belongs to, has undergone numerous transformations. It began life as Final Fantasy Versus 13 - a spin-off that began development 10 years ago - eventually being rebooted as an official mainline entry, complete with a new director and a new direction.

It's also changed wildly over the course of even recent history, from the initial idea presented by Episode Duscae back in 2015, to the updated combat of the Platinum Demo earlier this year. Heck, a lot seems to have changed since the PAX West demo I played a few weeks ago, as entire menus have been reworked, tutorials have been added, and graphics have been polished. So much of this game has been up in the air for so long that it's been very hard to peg exactly what Final Fantasy 15 even is, but after spending nearly 15 hours stretching my legs out in its bizarre road trip, I've think I've finally figured it out. Final Fantasy 15 is as fascinating and confounding as I expected, bringing all of the joys and pitfalls of the open-world genre while carving out its own place with its unique rhythms and routine.

First things first: Final Fantasy games are known for their stories, and the story in Final Fantasy 15 so far is… fine? You play as Prince Noctis, sent off by his father, King Regis, on a road trip to wed Lunafreya of Tenebrae. This is clearly a political marriage, though Noctis and Luna both knew each other as kids, so they're not entirely against the idea. Things are never so easy, and within the first few hours, you learn that your homeland has been invaded by the neighboring kingdom of Nifelheim, your father has been slain, and Lunafreya is presumed dead as well.

It's an interesting set-up, but these relationships are barely explored in Final Fantasy 15's opening chapters. While all of this turmoil is going on miles away in Lucis, Noctis and his pals are trying to figure out their next move, help the prince acquire powerful weapons and magic secreted away in lost tombs, and evade capture by the Nifelheim empire. It makes sense - Noctis and crew are effectively cut off and their kingdom dissolved, so it's not like they'd know everything that's going on elsewhere. But since we don't know why Nifelheim would even want to invade (other than some obliquely evil-sounding references to a ring and 'The Six'), the main narrative thread ends up losing its way. It's like there's a prologue missing, where the connections between family lines and kingdoms could be properly developed and explained so the important story beats actually feel important.

Then I remembered something: there are prologue chapters - they're just completely divorced from the main game. Kingsglaive, a recent animated film from Square Enix and Sony Pictures, tells the story of the fall of Lucis, explaining the deep, political ties between these two warring nations and why they're even fighting in the first place. Then there's Brotherhood, an anime series you can watch for free on YouTube, which explores Noctis' relationship with his friends, his strained relationship with his father, as well as some of the finer details about this world and how magic exists within it. These are important contextual details, and they seem to do a lot of Final Fantasy 15's initial heavy narrative lifting, while allowing the more immediate open-world gameplay to take center stage. Without these two important bits of media (which are, admittedly, both good and worth watching), you're effectively thrown into the middle of a story that's nearing the end of its first act and are expected to absorb everything in media res, and Final Fantasy 15 isn't doing a great job so far of getting everyone up to speed. 

Where Final Fantasy 15's story is winning me over, though, is in its moment-to-moment scenarios and side quests, and there are some truly impressive set-pieces within those opening chapters. At various points, you'll explore a gorgeous, labyrinthine series of ice caverns behind a waterfall to find a hidden tomb; trek through a volcanic mountain, culminating in an explosive battle with the skyscraper-sized Titan; or stealthily infiltrate a Nifelheim fortress filled with enemy soldiers and giant Magitek suits of armor to try and get your car back. The narrative throughline may be a bit muddy and unclear at times, but individual moments within that story are pure, mouth-agape spectacle, positioning many of the beats Final Fantasy normally reserves for cutscenes in terms of actual gameplay. 

Much of that is thanks to the real-time combat, where battles are as much about the strategic owning of three-dimensional space as it is about twitch-based reactions. It begins simply, pitting you against weak monsters where victory is all but assured if you hold down the attack button and learn to counter properly. Eventually, new enemy types are introduced that will test your reflexes as much as they do your ability to react to their particular weapon or elemental-based weaknesses. Positioning is important too, as attacking from the rear will cause more damage, and doing so next to one of your pals will activate an even more powerful Link Strike. You can use your Warp Strike to blink around the battlefield to help with this, as well as to escape to high ground if you need a breather. Magic is also unpredictable, essentially becoming a huge field-clearing elemental blast with lingering effects, and it doesn't discriminate between friend or foe. When you put it all together, battles feel like they're one step away from pure, unhinged chaos, and while the controls and camera are sometimes too clumsy to keep up, I've relished every combat encounter I've played so far.

As much as the combat and those big set-pieces are Final Fantasy 15’s more impressive draw, it's the small moments that I cherished the most. It's driving along the highway and watching Prompto geek out about a particular bit of scenery, begging you to stop the car so he can get out and take a picture. It's sorting through those pictures when you make camp after chowing down on one of a dozen different ridiculously detailed meals, picking out the snapshots you like best and saving them for posterity. It's about taking the wheel and listening to the Final Fantasy 6 soundtrack CD you bought at a gas station while Ignis worries aloud that you're going to wreck his precious vehicle. Final Fantasy 15's world is visually striking, existing on the cusp between the real and the fantastical, and it's really easy to get lost in simply being here, drinking everything in while enjoying the playful banter between these four anime bros. It's a deeply strange juxtaposition, and having those grounded moments where you get lost in the routine of everyday life in a world where a giant freaking crystal meteor just hangs out in the middle of a big open valley makes it all the more intoxicating.

But that's the paradox of the open-world, especially in a series as narrative-driven as Final Fantasy, where the pull of the main plot is diametrically opposed to the desire to seek out and craft your own stories. I'm not sure how (or even if) Final Fantasy 15's later chapters will attempt to fix the issues I have with its story, but even if it doesn't, I've enjoyed my time exploring its strange world and experiencing what it has to offer, and I can't wait to see where it goes next.


David Roberts lives in Everett, WA with his wife and two kids. He once had to sell his full copy of EarthBound (complete with box and guide) to some dude in Austria for rent money. And no, he doesn't have an amiibo 'problem', thank you very much.
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