PAX West: Hands-On With Final Fantasy XV

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It’s been ten years in the making, but Final Fantasy XV is finally, fantastically, coming out this year. Square Enix gave press the opportunity to play the game here at PAX West and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed my time in the world of Eos.

I’ll steer clear of narrative spoilers other than to say that the story begins, as so many do, with a group of buddies setting out on a road trip to a My Chemical Romance concert. Actually, they’re off to take Prince Noct – the player character – over to the neighboring kingdom to get hitched, but Noct and his pals’ costumes are an amusing mash-up of styles ranging from biker bar to goth. One thing’s clear, though – the guys like wearing black.

After the car breaks down, you and the bros start exploring the area while waiting for repairs. It’s a huge, open area that’s striking in its visual style: Final Fantasty XV’s first hour or so looks like the American southwest in the ‘50s, with hand-painted signs, cars with fins, and scrubby desert topography. I half expected the Fallout: New Vegas soundtrack to kick in at any point. Your companions run alongside you as you explore, and they’ll handle themselves in combat fairly intelligently.

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It’s combat where the game breaks most from what I’ve always thought of as the Final Fantasy “style.” There are no turns or action meters to fill up; instead, it’s a fluid, real-time beat-em-up affair that focuses on combos of the various weapons and skills you have equipped. You can carry four at a time, each mapped to a D-pad direction. Noct quickly unlocks the ability to “point warp” toward or away from enemies, and you can command your compatriots to use special team abilities for additional damage.

In my 90 or so minutes with the game, I never quite got the hang of the combat – I’d consistently get A ranks in offense, but Ds in stealth and defense. The parrying system is a bit fiddly but I expect it’s just a matter of learning the timing. Fortunately, your friends will run to help you out if you run low on HP or stamina.

I encountered a couple huge beasts during my demo that reminded me a bit of Monster Hunter – down to the ability to sever tusks and horns during combat.

Some of the fine details packed into the game are just delightful. There’s a surprisingly complex fishing mini-game, a camping system that involves your pal Ignis learning new recipes (like “open face breakfast sandwich”) and actual Coleman-branded tents and stoves, and the guys chatting and high-fiving each other while riding around in your enormous royal convertible, the Regalia.

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In terms of voice-acting, it’s basically anime as all get-out. Ignis has an inexplicable upper-class English accent, your doofball buddy Prompto sounds like Fry from Futurama, and ab-workout enthusiast Gladiolus grunts like the bouncer at a biker bar. The voices can be a bit incongruous at times but generally I found this amusing more than annoying.

Naturally, this happy-go-lucky Britney Spears in Crossroads situation can’t go on indefinitely, and at the close of the first chapter, things take a dark turn. Again, I won’t spoil any story beats, but I was genuinely intrigued by the turn of events and wanted to push further into the game to see what happens next.

I’ve never been a big fan of the Final Fantasy series, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Final Fantasy XV’s opening act. I suspect the combat system will prove divisive for long-time franchise devotees. It’s much more action-centered than anything I’ve seen in the Final Fantasy series, but the equipment and skill system, as well as the synergies with your party members’ skills and gear, make room for a lot of depth to explore. Still, it’s a big departure from past iterations and this may rankle players more accustomed to traditional JRPG combat.

At any rate, Square Enix is hoping they have another hit on their hands and had a presence here at PAX West that was hard to miss – from the bubbly blonde Cindy cosplayer in the vintage yellow tow truck outside the Seattle Sheraton to the Uber drivers in yellow spandex chocobo costumes and feathered Mini Coopers, if you’re here you know about Final Fantasy XV.

The game comes out for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One November 29.