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Pre-review: Final Fantasy 15’s first 15 hours

Square’s next epic RPG was worth the wait

After all this time, it feels impossible that I’m about to write these words, but here it goes: Final Fantasy 15 is good. In its first 15 hours, at least, it’s very good.

Final Fantasy 15 was first announced a whopping ten years ago, at the time going under the name Final Fantasy Versus 13. At that point in my life, I was only a couple years into college and had never been paid for any of my writing. It’s been a long time coming, is what I’m saying.

Over the course of that decade-plus of development, a lot has happened. The Final Fantasy series fell out of favor with a larger, more mainstream audience after a trilogy of middling Final Fantasy 13 releases. Japanese role-playing games in general struggled on home consoles all of last gen, with the most notable releases in the genre sticking to handheld. And Western RPGs — particularly ones focused on open-world gameplay — exploded, with titles like Skyrim and The Witcher 3 launching games about leveling up and going on quests into newfound popularity.

Keeping in mind all these shifts in the gaming landscape, the huge amount of time it’s taken and the well-documented internal changes in development staff, I went into Final Fantasy 15 with a lot of concerns. Final Fantasy is one of the series that originally pulled me into games, and I’ll always have a bigger place in my heart for Japanese RPGs over Western ones, but that’s exactly what scared me. With as much money and time as Square Enix has spent developing Final Fantasy 15, a bad game could kill the series and significantly injure the genre for a long time to come.

Final Fantasy 15 is not a bad game. I spent the past few days rolling my way through a demo containing the game’s first five chapters in full, and barring it going completely off the rails as the game continues — a distinct possibility! — it’s on the verge of being an excellent game. And while it certainly takes some inspiration from Western RPGs, Final Fantasy 15 manages to be great without giving up the Japanese identity that long-time fans will be looking for.

It’s evident from the start that this was the goal. The demo (and presumably the final game) opens with a single line: "A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers." Final Fantasy 15 wants to bring in new fans, but not at the expense of the elements that made people fall in love with the series to begin with. And so far, everything seems to be lined up to accomplish both of these goals.

The first major change that Final Fantasy 15 brings to expectations for the genre is felt immediately. Namely, it gets you directly into the actual playing of it. Where many Japanese RPGs start slow, sometimes taking hours just to get to the first encounter, Final Fantasy 15 opens with a brisk series of cinematics and then puts you right into control.

Final Fantasy 15 screenshot Square Enix

In fact, the game is so light on tutorials that it puts the explainer for how to do combat completely outside of the story. There’s an optional combat tutorial that you can skip if you’ve already played through the game or played one of the demos. While that makes the tutorials feel a little strange and disconnected, it’s a great method to get the story and game rolling quickly.

So far, that story is so much more engaging than I had imagined. It follows Noctis, a young prince who is sent away on a diplomatic journey by his father, the king. Along with his three best friends, Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto, Noctis embarks on what is essentially a road trip across a vast, beautiful fantasy world that finds itself struggling under the grip of the evil Niflheim empire.

While many aspects of this tale are classic Final Fantasy fare — the evil empire, the band of friends journeying across the world, the importance of crystals and magic, etc. — the road trip aspect lends it a very original feel. Final Fantasy 15’s world is a strange blend of fantastic and post-industrial modern elements; characters wield swords and spears, but they also travel in cars along a fully-developed highway system and use guns. It’s a world that feels simultaneously true to the series’ roots but fresh and different.

Most importantly, though, it feels like a world. This seems like the most obvious necessity for this type of game, but Final Fantasy 13 failed to create a believable or memorable locale out of Gran Pulse across three full games. Final Fantasy 15 pulled me into its world, aware of different locations and looking forward to discovering them for myself, within hours.

I’m going to avoid any major storyline spoilers here, but across its first five chapters, Final Fantasy 15 settles into a comfortable routine with the gameplay: You journey to a new outpost in a new section of the world and, once there, you have the option to take on side quests or optional hunts, or stick to blazing through the main quest. Thus far, I’ve encountered dozens of side quests, and they all seem fairly fleshed out, with full voice acting and unique locations and challenges.

It’s standard open-world stuff, but to a high degree of quality. And if you’d rather not deal with all the open-world bloat, it seems like you can progress through Final Fantasy 15 more or less fine by just focusing on the main storyline, at least to the point that I got to. Doing side quests nets you more cash and increases your level and stats, making the main story stuff easier but not trivialized.

Whatever path you choose to go down, most of Final Fantasy 15’s quests revolve around traveling the world, delving into dungeons and engaging in increasingly difficult battle scenarios. Combat in the game is more action-centric than any previous mainline Final Fantasy, but it’s still a far cry from a full-on action game like Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry. By holding the attack button, Noctis will launch into a string of attacks with whatever weapon you currently have equipped. Tilting the control stick in different directions as you do so will make Noctis perform different attacks — for example, tilting back and holding attack while you have a spear equipped will see Noctis leap dramatically back from the enemy and then lunge forward.

Final Fantasy 15 screenshot Square Enix

The real strategy comes not in attacking itself, but in choosing which weapon to attack with. Noctis can have up to four weapons equipped at any one time and can swap between them on the fly. Certain enemies are weak to different weapon or magic types. Other times, your focus will need to be on defense. The block button will allow Noctis to dodge attacks at the cost of a small portion of his magic bar, while blocking certain special attacks will provide an opportunity to pull off a special counter-attack.

The system feels clumsy at first, but after a couple of hours with it, I found it both fun to control and extremely stylish to watch. The best parts by far are the team-up moves. Every time you attack an enemy from behind (a "blindside" attack) or parry an enemy blow, there’s a chance to launch into a team-up move with one of your party members. One of my favorite examples: When using a greatsword, Noctis has a team-up move where he will toss his sword to Prompto while Prompto tosses him his gun, and then they will use each other’s weapons on the enemy for one extra-powerful attack. These are basically cutscenes, removing player control briefly, but there’s a ton of variety to them and they look so cool that I never minded.

The teamwork moves also help to push one of the most important elements of Final Fantasy 15: friendship. I’ll admit that going into the game, I wasn’t really interested in this cast of generic anime pretty boys. But Final Fantasy 15 does a spectacular job of making you care about these characters; of showcasing their strengths and flaws; of driving home just how tight the bond between them is.

Final Fantasy 15 isn’t scared of quiet moments, and these long stretches without combat give the characters time to grow. Almost every quest requires either a lengthy drive or a lengthy run across the countryside, during which time the characters will talk among themselves, revealing tidbits of history or snippets of info about the part of the world you’re in. As you progress, there are ways to skip all this traveling, but honestly I’m not sure I’ll ever want to. These small conversations are just so effective at building up these characters and the places they’re moving through.

Perhaps the best bit of atmosphere in Final Fantasy 15 comes in the form of Prompto’s photography skill. See, no matter how big this adventure grows, this group continues to view it as a road trip. And that means pictures. Prompto considers himself something of a photographer, so throughout your questing, he will snap pics both at great photo ops and sometimes just in the middle of battle.

Final Fantasy 15 screenshot

Final Fantasy 15 requires you to rest at campsites or hotels every day in order to level up — a requirement that, along with the need to eat, could get annoying in the long-run but still seems cool so far. When you rest every day, the game will showcase up to 10 photos Prompto has taken that day, with the characters commenting on them as they see them. You can even save your favorites to share later. It’s such a small but incredibly thoughtful and smart feature, something that continues adding to this sense of playful brotherhood between this group.

Even in the deepest darkest dungeons, there are moments of shared levity and character development. The best example from my time: In an icy cold dungeon in chapter three, the characters frequently comment on how cold they are. At one point, Prompto points out that the tips of Noctis’ spiky hair have frosted over. He responds: "Really? How does it look?"

In 15 hours with Final Fantasy 15 I experienced dozens of moments like this, little developments that had me actually squealing with delight. I still have some concerns, like whether the story will pay off in the long-term, or why some of the voice acting is so rough, or how the camera can get really finicky during intense, close-quarters combat scenarios. But any complaints I have feel really petty right now in light of what Square Enix seems to have accomplished with Final Fantasy 15.

That is: It’s made Final Fantasy relevant again. They’ve actually done it. I cannot wait to play more.

Final Fantasy 15 releases for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on Nov. 29. Polygon will have a final review of the full game.