Final Fantasy XV, out November 29th for PS4 and Xbox One, is so desperate to tell you it's for you – whoever you are – that it puts the message there every time it loads. "A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers," it says, as if saying it was the same as it being true.
Square Enix knows the stakes are high for the future of its 30-year-old, 115-million-selling cash cow. But it's also inexplicably chosen to try and rebuild the franchise's all-conquering past on the 10 year-old bones of Final Fantasy Versus XIII, a spin-off-that-never-was from the underwhelming mess of the last main installment. It's an achievement of sorts that anything could be rescued from those troubled beginnings, but the question is whether what it's become represents a new start or a final dead-end. And after spending a decade being reshaped and upgraded, and changing both director and console generation on the way, it's no surprise that FFXV is a game that never manages to escape the ghosts of its own making.
You set off into the world of Eos on a road trip while the world around you is engulfed by a darkness that the game never properly explains but still expects you to overcome. You and your band of brothers – looking for all the world like some kind of All Saints-sponsored, Backstreet-Boys-Go-Emo-themed comeback tour – are the first obvious break from series tradition, replacing the typically diverse and peculiar casts you've spent hours getting to know before with a homogeneously bland maleness. It's a story of would-be camaraderie starring four people I'd avoid if I saw them on the street.
Noctis, the sullen prince, is mostly forgettable beyond his unexpected, late game bid for a Most Unnecessary Imitation of Keanu Reeves In Point Break award. There's Ignis, whose position as The Smart One is signposted by the fact that he wears glasses and has a voice that sounds like someone decided Wesley from Angel was neither nerdy nor posh enough for this world. There's off-the-production-line, gruffness-and-duty-engine Gladio, whose entire character development is perhaps best summarized by saying that he starts off with a mullet and ends up with a ponytail as well. But of the four, it's Prompto – in the traditional, babbling, cheery tomboy role – who's perhaps the most irritating: every time he inanely hums the old Final Fantasy battle music, it feels like someone hammering a stake into years of fond memories.
If you're wondering where anyone who isn't a bro has got to, it's not long before you realize that this is a game that defines women solely by their relationship to the men in your party. Lunafreya, your would-be arranged bride, is little more than a fleeting, implied presence, a pretty cipher used to wring emotion from others. Gladio's sister, Iris, only exists to gaze adoringly at Noctis, and amounts in her entirety to a crush in a skirt. But most jarring of all is Cindy, the mechanic who fixes and upgrades your car – the Regalia – and the one hope of any kind of independent female presence: yes, that's her, in hotpants and a bikini top, leaning over your hood to wash the windshield with her cleavage looming like an adolescent fantasy of being eclipsed by cheesecake. And yes, just to make it worse, you'll get to hear at length how much Prompto has the hots for her. Somehow, the future of Final Fantasy is one where Daisy Duke is twenty years ahead of you.
It's not so much Final Fantasy as a mediocre Ubisoft pastiche
It's Cindy who sets the template for the open world that starts the game. Having bravely set out, you immediately run out of gas, push your car to a garage, and are tasked with heading back out into the wild to get the things you need to fix it. It's not so much Final Fantasy as a mediocre Ubisoft pastiche, a continent-spanning series of sidequests that sees you ramble around the plains undertaking chores that range from the mostly-predictable to the mostly-tedious. Anyone in the royal family fancy checking that eight steam valves are working? No? Then why not run around in a blue, highlighted circle catching frogs that you can't see properly in the environment instead. Fans of being bored by things from 20 years ago will also be delighted to learn there's an entirely needless, and poorly implemented, fishing minigame, too.
But it's not the grinding repetition of the hunting and fetching sidequests that grates – it's that everything open world games have spent the last 10 years learning not to do is central to your day-to-day existence in FFXV's version of one. I spent hours on long, unavoidable journeys back and forth to revisit quest-givers after completing their missions, wondering why anyone would create a world where travel is a necessity and then deliberately make it harder to get anywhere. For a game that revolves around the road, you never really drive on anything other than well-worn tracks. And while the intention is clearly to make you appreciate the time spent travelling with your friends as well as your destination, having no choice but to watch them loll about looking as bored as you feel is a counterintuitive way of achieving it. As if to underline the point, the game throws in a handful of fast travel options to places you've visited before, but they simply mean you get to watch a loading screen for around the same amount of time the journey would have taken.
You come back from your busywork at night, when high level monsters roam, and stay at campsites or motels where the experience you've banked in the day is tallied and levels you up. It gives the game a subtle but enjoyable rhythm, once you get over the irritation of being repeatedly killed in the dark. But all the fireside camaraderie and pictures of your travels can't disguise how un-princely you feel running around doing sidequests in a supercar while the world around you crumbles. And unlike Witcher 3, Skyrim – or any previous Final Fantasy title – you never really feel like you inhabit the place you're in, more like you've been poured on afterwards. It's most unsettling when, much later, I encountered a Vivienne Westwood dress in this haphazard, 1950s-tinged, deep south universe: somehow, that dress seems to belong here far more than I do.
Having bumbled about the world killing and collecting things for money, you suddenly – and with virtually no warning – find yourself leaving the open world and arriving instead in a series of corridors, boss fights and cutscenes that bring the game to its close. Whole cities have been half-built solely to deliver a couple of minutes of narrative in a plot that, at best, is incoherent. Its non-sequiturs and inexplicable action scenes look stunning, but hint at hours of scenes left on a digital cutting room floor, and left me wondering whether it would make any more or less sense if they were added back in. When I wanted to go back to the open world, I was welcome to, but each time I did, I was told I was "returning to the past" as the plot was not just suspended but erased. It's here, watching two irreconcilable games mashed together like a couple of films that happen to have been shot in the same location, that the game's long, mutating history is most unavoidable.
And, when you do go back, if you hadn't noticed before, then you'll see it in every battle you fight. There are times when the combat looks as incredible as those 10-year old trailers promised, full of flash and movement, but few times when it feels like it. Half the time, your main enemy is the camera itself: warp out to recharge, and the chances are you'll find yourself staring at a miserably textured rock-face wondering where the battle is. The boss fights are uniformly hapless – disorientating mishmashes of lurching scripted attacks featuring Quick Time Events and a stubborn inability to see where you and your enemy are at the same time. For all the depth that might be available in weapon switching, combos and team attacks, you end up mashing buttons and relying on potions; the inclusion of a wait option, where you choose what to do from menus in an old, familiar style, only lays bare what can't be fixed in real time. All the balanced, knife-edge strategy of previous games is gone, replaced by a veneer of fluid motion.
It's a game full of glimmers of the new, things that gesture toward what Final Fantasy XV might have become – had it not spent ten years battling its own history – only to let them drown, half-finished in a muddy stew of missteps and throwbacks, inexcusable omissions and baffling inclusions. Far from being for everyone, there are hours where you wonder if the game knows what it's become, let alone who it's for.