Ask any Final Fantasy fan why they love the series and you'll likely get three answers: the story, the characters, and the sense you’re part of a role playing legacy stretching back nearly three decades.
Which makes Final Fantasy 15 a brave entry. From the outside it looks as though Square Enix is forcefully digging up the series’ roots and planting them in the same fertile soil as western RPGs like The Witcher 3, Skyrim and Mass Effect. Turn-based combat is gone. Rainbow coloured fantasy-scapes have been replaced by an open world grounded in reality. And a stubbornly linear approach to narrative has been ditched in favour of a story guided by player choice.
The origin of 15’s structural shake-up can be traced back to Final Fantasy XIII, a divisive entry that on paper was the ultimate in fan service. It had story. It had characters. It had chocobos and Bahamut and a Big Bad that laughed maniacally while explaining his plan to destroy the world over several cutscenes. Then it rammed all that into an expository log flume for 30-hours before belching it into the sea.
By contrast 15’s world is enormous and fully explorable, something games like The Witcher 3 have spoiled us into expecting from an RPG in 2016. But more than being a big bowl of trees you travel through on your way from A to B, the world of Final Fantasy 15 feels like it’s there for its own sake. There’s pleasure from simply existing within the fiction; my favourite moment during a recent hands on came when I stuck the Regalia on auto-drive, played Roses Of May (from the FF9 soundtrack) over the in-car stereo and then just sat back, the music stirring a twinge of nostalgia as the scenery slipped past in a relaxing blur.
15 is in no hurry. As with many modern western RPGs, you are in control of where you want to go and how long you want to take in getting there. Fancy carving up the local wildlife for extra gil instead of saving the universe? The universe will have to wait. And even then you’ll likely find something else to distract you - fishing, cooking, racing along the beach. The world of Final Fantasy 15 doesn’t want to be a backdrop. Like Skyrim, it wants to be explored, examined and admired.
How you explore it is your choice, and that’s the crucial thing. You can trek about on foot, set up camp in the wilderness and stumble across side-quests as you go. Or you can stick to the roads, zooming through the countryside if you prefer to get things done quickly. But more than just allowing you to pick your own route to the next story beat, 15 lets you mess about with your characters too. All four members of your party have alternate outfits they can wear which, for Final Fantasy, is tantamount to blasphemy. Usually the outlandish, intricate fashion creations of designer Tetsuya Nomura are gospel, their hotch-potch, multi-layered oddness a staple of characters who must wonder what the hell they’re supposed to do with sixty-seven zips.
When I dress protagonist Noctis in a baseball cap, puffer vest and denim jeans then it’s a shock to see him looking almost like a normal human being. It’s a practicality mirrored by the world itself. Yes, you can summon 60-foot thunder gods and set the earth’s crust on fire but this strange fusion of fantasy and reality feels like a place that could actually exist.
There are dialogue options too. Nothing so flexible as the story-shifting decisions you make in Mass Effect, but this is Final Fantasy we’re talking about. Being able to choose between ‘yes’ and ‘yes but later’ when Prompto asks if I fancy a quick side mission feels revolutionary for a series that until now has followed a strict narrative railroad.
These are changes that needed to happen for a series that even the most obdurate fan will admit has lost its way over recent years. But the fact it’s changed at all is perhaps the biggest and most important thing Final Fantasy has learned from its western RPG cousins. Until now this has been a series notorious for ignoring shifts in the medium - look no further than the steaming train wreck that was the original PC release of Final Fantasy 14 Online back in 2010.
Square Enix, it seems, has learned its lesson. This time Tabata-san and his development team have bared themselves to criticism, opening a discourse between player and designer that simply didn’t exist before.
Episode Duscae - a massive playable demo of FF15 - was given a software update which added new features and tweaks to combat based on fan feedback. Not only can we choose how we play Final Fantasy 15, we also get a say in how it’s made.
It really is a massive shake-up. We’re role playing rather than just role watching, carving our own path through the game as opposed to being whipped along for the ride. For the first time ever in Final Fantasy it feels as though we can affect the world around us, and as a fan desperate to see this series return to former glories, that’s incredibly exciting.