Final Fantasy XV is out. Jeez, it’s been so long since it was announced, I thought those words would never be truthfully said aloud. It has been 10 years since Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and since then, the game has taken on a Duke Nukem Forever sort of mythological presence in the industry. Shit, if The Last Guardian actually hits shelves next week, the only thing left to joke about will be Half-Life 2: Episode Three.
Even crazier is that it’s good. Quite good, actually. I’ve been playing it nonstop since Tuesday and I don’t feel like I’m all the way done with it, though the story surprisingly wraps up rather quickly. You can blow through that in maybe 20 hours or so, but if you keep futzing around in the world, that number can easily balloon up to 35 or 40. It’s not terribly difficult and kind of predictable, but it does what it wanted to do.
Its biggest accomplishment, however, is something that was stated early on to the name transition: it’s a road trip game. It was a…baffling component at the time. No one was necessarily put off by the idea, but no one was praising the gods above for their Final Fantasy fantasy finally coming true. If anything, it just caused fans to ask, “What next?”
Turns out there was no “next,” necessarily. The world of FFXV is derived from that of Versus XIII, and based on the original trailers, the philosophy of the combat design has remained unchanged as well. And that shows as both the setting and the battles are two standouts in a game full of standout components. But what is here now that wasn’t around then returns to that odd, indecipherable promise of a road trip.
But why? It’s not as if the franchise had been languishing under failing to provide an open world, though it certainly feels like a response to the growing number of games and studios orienting their compass in that direction. But it also feels like a response by people who know about open worlds but never quite understood the staples of the structure. Or rather, they never quite found those pieces agreeable.
This is how we end up with our group of heroes rolling around a giant, explorable space reminiscent to Final Fantasy XIII‘s Gran Pulse (namely the Archylte Steppe) area. Instead of having a meandering journey through Eos with little direction, you instead just see every road (literally) you’ll take all at once instead of just when you’re about to traverse it. There are things to find and side missions to complete scattered throughout, but it’s not in the same way a Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed builds their worlds.
Instead, the game is centered around the actual trip and the road it takes place on, some the above trailer both captures marginally and misses completely with that Bad Meets Evil song. It’s friends simultaneously trapped together to suffer under each person’s inanities and free to enjoy one another’s quirks. That is a road trip, after all, isn’t it?
It’s definitely not about the driving, which the game recognizes by allowing you to simply summon your car, pick a destination, and then sit back and relax, taking in the sights and your companions’ banter. While I preferred a further camera view, the default is hovering just a few feet over the trunk of the car, a placement indicative of what the mechanic is there for; it’s for you to feel like you’re in this car—on this trip—with these boys. (The fact that there are no leading women is a separate discussion but a necessary one nonetheless.)
There are a bevy of touches ranging from minute to small that keep the motif whole. Prompto, the pipsqueak of the group (who has been getting exceptionally divisive reactions), is a great example. While everyone else has a specific skill they bring to the table like survival tactics or whatnot, Prompto loves taking photos. Like, with a camera. And he does so whenever he wants.
And I really mean that. He takes them. They’re always from his perspective. Sometimes from his seat in the car of Gladiolus scowling or as he holds back from the other fellas to capture a candid group moment, but the pictures you get to peruse are always his. Not all of them are winners, but that’s life. Look through your phone’s pictures and see how many are blurry or off-kilter or haphazardly framed.
It paints a vivid and intimate portrait of these friends in a way that words or even cutscenes would otherwise fail to fully capture. The same goes for odd little incidental moments sprinkled throughout the game. Like resting up at motels and around campfires eating whatever Ignis has cooked up and watching them all bond over a meal. Or after a successful Link Strike and you see some Army of Two-style fist bumps.
These boys expand so far beyond their duty-bound lives that brought them together, and not in the traditional ways you’d expect from a Final Fantasy game. You can get a lot from the Brotherhood anime (especially the one about Prompto), but the game itself sells it the best. These moments come and go, but their effects linger on your heart and soul. Really, it’s just the way a road trip should go.