Final Fantasy XV was announced over a decade ago, completely missing the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 generation. Even now, when it seems tantalizingly close, the game suffers last minute delays. It’s a game with a massive budget and multiple tie-in media, so it’s hard to imagine how the reality could live up to fan expectations. However, in spite of years of hype and anticipation, the Final Fantasy XV first hour was surprisingly laid back. It felt like you were just tagging along on a road trip with four well-dressed young men.
Stand By Me
After a brief flash-forward (we’ll get to it later), Final Fantasy XV‘s first hour starts off quietly with a young prince named Noctis leaving for a trip. It’s a very grounded moment of a father seeing off his son, with King Regis giving his farewells to Noctis and his pals Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto. As if the opening didn’t already feel counter to the epic, sweeping scope of previous Final Fantasy games, the next scene is the foursome pushing their derelict car for miles to get to the destination. Then the above cover of “Stand By Me” kicks up and we’re shown the logo for the game.
It’s such a relaxed introduction to the world of Final Fantasy XV, lacking the genre trappings of overly complex histories or dense exposition over some operatic score. These are just four guys taking their time on a simple road trip, sharing small talk and listening to American pop music. But the song feels oddly thematically fitting for these heroes, with lyrics about loved ones staying together even as the world crumbles around them. Strength through friendship in the face of apocalyptic threats is constant in the Final Fantasy series.
Plus the song is also a clear reference to the film Stand By Me, also about four childhood friends going on a dangerous journey that’s also full of realistic, friendly dialog. It’s an intriguing way to ease players into Final Fantasy XV‘s first hour.
Monster Hunting for Gas Money
Once we’re out of the title screen, the four guys arrive at the same Cindy’s truck stop as seen in the first public demo. Cindy explains that she can fix the car they pushed all the way there, but it won’t be cheap. Despite being royalty, Noctis is out of cash and takes his first monster-killing quest just to get the cash to fix his ride. Your team is tasked with clearing out some cumbersome demonic prairie dogs, and it’s a quick, clever way to introduce new characters, explain the quest system, and give players their initial taste of battle.
The combat is pretty similar to that of Episode Duscae and Platinum Demo, though you’re obviously much weaker at the start of the game, so no summons or other cinematic attacks. You and your squad take out group after group of beasts with some nifty teamwork that’s like a more brutal Kingdom Hearts. Final Fantasy purists might not be keen on how action-focused the combat is, but there are definite JRPG elements that make fighting more than just simple hack and slash.
The higher level of strategy was there when I faced the boss of the quest. The large, boar-like creature came running straight for me again and again, requiring me to call on the AI-controlled teammates to use their special attacks to buy me enough time to regenerate health. When the boss was finally eliminated, the trek back to the truck stop became something of a nature walk to take in the incredibly well-realized naturalistic landscapes created for the game. The attitudes of the characters might be relaxed, but the developers were certainly serious about the time they invested in creating Final Fantasy XV.
Ten Years of Waiting Comes to an End
Shortly after the car was repaired, I took the team on a quiet ride to the next destination, and my first hour with Final Fantasy XV was over. But I want to go back to that flash-forward opening. Pictured above is how we first meet Noctis. He’s a grizzled young king fighting to survive against an impossibly strong enemy. Noctis is ten years older than at the start of the game, and we’ll see him age throughout the story. This glimpse of his future is a signal to players that the epic Final Fantasy you know is there, you just have to wait ten in-game years to get to it.
As long as Noctis’ decade might have felt, it can’t be any longer than the wait fans have had for Final Fantasy XV. It actually makes the wait easier to reflect on knowing that FFXV‘s protagonist had a pretty nasty decade to match the difficult development. And after that first hour at PAX West 2016, I’m dying to invest even more time into FFXV to see if its intriguing mix of expensive visuals and relaxed storytelling can stay novel for the entire campaign. Final Fantasy XV is out Nov. 30 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.