Final Fantasy XV’s predecessor Final Fantasy XIII, despite attaining widespread plaudits on its original release, has become fashionable to bash in recent years.
The main justification for this is pretty much always the “20 hour tutorial” argument, criticising the fact that the game gradually introduces its various character classes and other gameplay concepts over the course of a very linear, narrative-heavy section that lasts approximately 20 hours.
Once this part of the game is complete, the experience opens up into a much more freeform affair with sidequests and optional battles aplenty, and at the same time the progression system also removes all restrictions, allowing you to develop all of the game’s playable characters as you see fit.
Apparently aware of this increasingly frequent criticism, Square Enix opted to make Final Fantasy XV the complete opposite of Final Fantasy XIII in terms of structure, in the process completely turning the standard JRPG formula on its head.
Most Japanese-developed role-playing games have a specific formula that actually isn’t all that far off what Final Fantasy XIII did: their first half is strongly linear, designed to introduce you to all of your available options in battle and progression one at a time, then the second half opens up the entire game world, affording you access to sidequests, optional bosses and hidden secrets.
Final Fantasy XIII certainly wasn’t unique in doing things the way it did, even among the Final Fantasy series. You don’t even get to see a world map in Final Fantasy VII for at least five hours, for example, and even in the earliest NES installments where the world map was theoretically “open” from the get-go, you were naturally prevented from going in the “wrong” direction by the game throwing unfeasibly tough enemies at you to encourage you to turn back. Final Fantasy XIII simply made this structure a lot more apparent to many people.
As we’ve said, though, Final Fantasy XV represents an inversion of the formula. It does this by providing players with a short introductory sequence that depicts the characters pushing their car to Hammerhead, a small settlement that becomes something of a makeshift headquarters for the party, and then pretty much just telling you to get on with it — an approach much more characteristic of Western RPGs (particularly those from Bethesda) than your typical JRPG.
There’s a main scenario questline to follow, clearly marked in a different colour to the other quests that become available to you, but there’s no obligation to follow this immediately, and you can pause your progression through the story at any time to go and do other things. Somewhat similarly to immediate predecessor Final Fantasy XIV, the main scenario quest does unlock certain game elements and map areas as you progress, but once you reach one of the two main milestones in the story — chapter 3 to gain access to most of the open world and chapter 8 to gain access to the remaining locked off area in the northwest corner respectively — there’s no obligation to push things onwards until you’re good and ready.
The game always gives you plenty of warning before a main scenario quest takes you out of the freedom of the open world, whether this is temporarily for a self-contained mission or more permanently for the game’s much more linear latter half, but even in the game’s later hours you’re given the opportunity to “travel back in time” and return to the open world to clean up loose ends if you so desire. Indeed, Final Fantasy XV’s postgame content makes heavy use of this facility, technically all taking place before the final confrontation despite you having to actually beat the game once to unlock most of it.
Open-world games often run the risk of spreading themselves too thin by providing too much to do and not affording the player sufficient opportunity to get attached to any characters or locations. Final Fantasy XV averts this by keeping its open world map to a manageable but still impressively large size and delivering the majority of its sidequests through recurring, named characters that you get to know over the course of their complete questlines. Completing these questlines not only leads to some significant rewards for Noctis and his team, but also provides you with assistance during one of the most challenging postgame quests.
Somewhat similarly to Monolithsoft’s incredible Xenoblade Chronicles X, Final Fantasy XV’s story is delivered in two discrete ways: firstly, through the main scenario, which delivers the important events that focus on protagonist Noctis, and secondly — arguably more importantly — providing context to the game world through its sidequests, incidental content and environments. This latter aspect is much more subtle and easy to miss if you’re simply rushing through the narrative, but taking the time to stop and look around reveals a game world that has been crafted with a huge amount of care and attention.
Take the city of Lestallum, for example, a location that you visit fairly early in the story in order to meet up with party member Gladio’s sister Iris. As you approach the city, the party will discuss how its power plant harnesses the energy from a crashed meteor — a recurring motif in the Final Fantasy series since VII — to power the entire region. Step out of the car and it won’t take long for you to notice that Lestallum appears to have its own unique “fashion” going on, with the women in particular apparently all clad in what look like metallic puffer jackets and heavy-duty trousers, while the men all appear to be dressed more normally.
Wander around a bit, talk to some characters and overhear some discussions and you’ll discover that Lestallum is a city in which the traditional gender roles are somewhat inverted, in that the power plant is exclusively staffed by women — hence the heavy-duty clothing and Gladio’s occasional comments about how the “women here are built” — while the men run the service and retail sectors. A questline that brings you into contact with a character called Holly, a member of the power plant’s staff, gives you further insight into how Lestallum society works, particularly with regard to the highly competitive nature of Lestallian women — a trait which is running Holly ragged and leading her to solicit the assistance of Noctis and his companions.
It goes further than that, though. One of the random incidental conversations that Noctis and his party have upon arriving in Lestallum sees Noct comment on how “the people here are so friendly”, leading to a discussion on how it would be unusual in the Crown City of Insomnia for someone to greet you in the street. To further emphasise this point, occasionally when you pass an otherwise unimportant random NPC in the street in Lestallum, they’ll nod or wave at you, and you’ll get the opportunity to press a button to greet them in return. This button prompt doesn’t appear anywhere else in the game and serves absolutely no gameplay purpose; it’s simply there to back up the things that have been said.
There are even more subtle touches throughout the game, too, some of which have an interesting indirect impact on the gameplay. Right from the outset, we’re given the story context that some mysterious, amorphous form of “Darkness” is causing trouble in the world; we’re initially given to assume that this is a metaphorical means of talking about the Niflheim Empire, who are set up to be the main villains in the story, but in true Final Fantasy tradition, it becomes apparent that something rather more epic is going on over the course of the narrative.
One important point that is brought up early in the narrative and mentioned very occasionally in subsequent hours is that the rising Darkness is leading the days to get shorter and the nights to get longer. During the opening hours of the game, this is not noticeable; the day seems to be a normal length, with the sun setting around 6pm or so and night following soon afterwards. However, progress the story a little — up to around Chapter 8, say, where you’re once again free to explore the open world before entering the linear final chapters — and those paying attention will notice that the sun is now setting around 2pm. This makes the daylight hours noticeably shorter and the night-time — during which the strong “demon”-type enemies, mostly drawn from the classic Final Fantasy bestiary, come out to play — much longer and more dangerous.
The game doesn’t explicitly draw your attention to this at any point aside from a few throwaway comments here and there, and so conditioned are we to games — particularly open-world games — that say something is happening without it actually having any real impact on the world itself or the gameplay that it’s easy to dismiss the comments as simple generic role-playing game NPC chatter. How much more clichéd can you get than a “rising Darkness”, after all? But it’s there.
To put all this another way, Final Fantasy XV is a game that rewards observation and curiosity. While many JRPGs have plenty of hidden aspects to them — powerful weapons, superbosses, secret dungeons and the like — their main narrative content and worldbuilding is typically confined to a linear main storyline that takes players all around the world before setting them free just before the final confrontation. Final Fantasy XV doesn’t play by those rules at all. Final Fantasy XV sets you loose in the open world almost from the very outset and invites you to go and see what that strange mark on the map is, or what that smoking mountain off in the distance is, or whether or not that large, dangerous-looking monster is really as large and dangerous as it appears.
Most of Final Fantasy XV’s dungeons are completely optional, simply sitting on the map waiting to be discovered or, very occasionally, introduced to you as part of one of the numerous sidequest chains. You don’t need to visit most of the settlements on the map, but if you do, you’ll find characters with quests to complete and shops that offer unique goods you can’t get anywhere else. Technically the main story content only uses a tiny fraction of the complete game map — and then its own unique locations for the latter half of the narrative — meaning it’s entirely possible to play through the main scenario and miss maybe 80-90% of the interesting stuff the game has to offer.
Is this a better way of doing things than Final Fantasy XIII offered? Time will tell how people will respond to Final Fantasy XV in the long run — as we mentioned earlier, the general overall perception of Final Fantasy XIII has shifted over time, so the same may be true of XV — but for now it should suffice to say that there is a lot here for players to explore, and absolutely no-one can accuse the game of having a 20-hour tutorial before it “gets good”.
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