Full disclosure: hating Final Fantasy is something of a trademark of mine. I think FFVII is, to be elegant about it, a bag of wank for tossers. This will probably be a source of ire to some of you: why was I, a confirmed hater and loser, sent to preview Final Fantasy XV, a game from a series I clearly know nothing about? Well, one (1) because nobody else in the office likes Final Fantasy either, and two (2) I do know about and have played Final Fantasy games, I just don't like them (I actually really liked X-2, the comparative metaphor being that it's more a tupperware of wank than an entire bag of it, so take that how you will). But with all this in mind, I don't know what it means for lifelong fans when I say that I really, really enjoyed the preview of Final Fantasy XV.
I played a chunk that had been carved out of the game specifically for preview, from the start to Chapter 3 (including a kind of prologue Chapter 0), and was surprised how massive this section was. It took me somewhere between four and five hours to get to the end, following just the main story and driving past sidequests in my bomb-ass convertible. During my play time I saw an arid New Mexico style desert, a white sandy beach, dark caves, and a huge, rocky waterfall (though, as was explained, this was an unfinished build and we should be forgiving of things like pop-in textures, of which there were some, which would be fixed in the final game). Rather than the more confined maps of previous Final Fantasy games, FFXV gave me an open world and went 'here is a country, and a car that drives like a moccasin on invisible rails, have at it!' The car itself was almost like another character; I had to keep it full of gas, and it refuses to leave the roads so I had to remember how far away I'd parked. The world also has weather cycle, and a day/night pattern, and at night huge monsters stalk around: I spent too long in a cave and emerged just as the sun was setting, and had to sprint back to the car muttering 'shitshitshitshitshit' under my breath. This, at least in my estimation, is so much more fun than being funneled down a track in a jungle, or a future-as-designed-by-the-past city, or whatever.
There have also been huge changes to combat, which you'll know if you saw any footage from or played the demo earlier this year. Turn based combat has been swept away, replaced with a real time, contextual system that relies on you chaining attack and defense at the right time. If you're near one of your buddies you'll work together automatically, and they also have special attacks you can trigger to help you out. You can warp in and out of battle, switch weapons on the fly, flank, plan, and target weak spots. It's fast and it's stylish and felt so much cooler and more immediate than Final Fantasy combat had to me before. Spells require much more admin, and are a resource-heavy process that entails crafting what are essentially grenades of magic from elemental sources you find in the environment. The trade off is that magic, at least in the preview build, is amazingly imber, and will damage everything in the blast radius (including you and your friends, who were visibly charred by my aim on more than one occasion). Like the rest of combat it's contextual, so if you cast Fira on dry grass the area will burn for longer than if it's raining.
And the main characters. Oh, the main characters. The framing narrative is that your player character, Prince Noctis, is going to get married as part of a peace treaty between two kingdoms, and is being accompanied there by his three groomsmen-come-bodyguards-come-best friends. This sadly, and predictably, doesn't go quite as planned, the guys are forced to pivot, and I assume the story will then blossom into an epic quest of self discovery and redemption and so on. Each of the four characters in the central group represents a different boyband archetype: Gladiolus, the big muscly tattooed one who would mainly sing backup because his voice isn't that great; Prompto, the cute blond fun one, who says 'WTF?' sometimes and is the mums' favourite; Ignis, the mature one who wears glasses and cooks, and gets to sing the second verse; Noctis, the brooding sensitive lead singer who's a bit of a dick. You can change their outfits and buy them hair gel. The whole thing felt like a movie tie-in for a J-Pop band, like Spice World or that one the Beatles did, and is somehow incredibly endearing. Just four bros on a road trip.
It may not have escaped your notice that the things I enjoyed most are also the biggest changes from traditional Final Fantasy games, which may mean to you that Square has fucked it, but it's not that the preview didn't still feel like Final Fantasy. To me it absolutely did. It had weirdly theatrical dialogue, gravity defying hairstyles, the big swords that are basically just planks of metal you need two hands to swing at someone. It was campy but in that fun way (a journalist with a Noo York accent used the word 'capische'; I met a suspicious purple haired stranger who was actually called Suspicious Stranger in the subtitles). It had that Final Fantasy colour pallette – you know the one, the slightly keyed up primaries with hints of green and orange that makes you think 'Any minute now we're going to run into a long lost childhood friend/get in a fight/find a giant ostrich-chicken hybrid'. What was hinted at was Final Fantasy, but one that'll be faster, slicker, highly detailed and with more freedom than the linear stories of old – or the illusion of it, at least. I'm actually excited for a Final Fantasy game now. My heart grew three sizes.