Final Fantasy XV was a game that didn’t have a lot going for it. For being a Final Fantasy game, the main plot wasn’t written as well as it could have been, and the characters fall flat in dialogue writing and performance. So, if a game like this fails to be even half of the pleasant literature that its predecessors were, why did I spend one hundred hours of 2016 driving around with a band of J-Pop anime heart throbs? After about six years I returned to the game to see what the draw was that made me watch a car drive for five minutes between every fight and I finally have the answer.
Final Fantasy XV provides a unique experience in time management. The game gives you many reasons to care whether it is night time (or getting dangerously close to it). You are prompted each day to spend the night somewhere rather than brave staying up all night, the travel is harder and longer after dark, and brutal enemies hunt when the sun is down. This means that every day that I woke up as Prince Noctis I paused the game, looked at my map with all the quest markers for things I had to do, and planned a road trip.
I spent more time than I want to admit staring at the map; I needed to find out the best way to hit every stop. Do we need somewhere to stop and eat? Will there be a place to stay nearby if it starts getting late? Can I squeeze in some fishing? I haven’t been here before, can I afford to stay here for a few days and take a few hunting jobs? These questions that I asked myself became my driving force in building excitement for the day, having a plan and seeing it happen, OR, dealing with emergencies in planning as they arise. The side quests in Final Fantasy XV feel like errands, but scheduling and finding ways to swoop up three quests in one day feels satisfying to the person that gets a kick out of completing tasks efficiently.
This didn’t come naturally at first. In the beginning of this play through my goal was simply to do all the side quests that I could as soon as they were available. But what brought me to a place where I was planning each day was a willingness to interact with every system that the game had to offer. I had to learn how to fish, how to meal prep, how to take hunting jobs, where the side activities are, and how to hire a Chocobo to speed up ground travel. Some of these things I completely missed out on when playing the game when it first released.
The most detrimental part of my initial play through though was a simple decision when I first booted the game in the tutorial to turn off wait mode. I remember this too; I tried fighting in the tutorial and said, “this’ll get annoying” and turned wait mode off. Turning wait mode off changed the game into something more akin to an Assassin’s Creed, spamming attack until I was prompted to press square to do a counter. This halted my education in Final Fantasy XV’s in-depth combat systems quite literally before the real game even started. Now in 2022, with the simple thought of “maybe I’ll mix it up and keep wait mode on”, I am playing the game in a completely different way than before. I am scanning enemies and exploiting weaknesses beyond just switching weapons until the damage numbers turn orange. I'm using magic in more tactical ways (like preparing the spare lightning cast for imperial ambushes), stopping for more than half a second to decide if I have an opening for an ally attack, treating the phase dodge with more care now that I can stop and assess situations. I’m even stopping to aim at different monster body parts because I want to craft a spell or cook the thing. The slower combat style helped me see that there is more to this game than holding down circle and then using a health potion when you run out of health.
Analysing why I am enjoying the game now helps me to shine a light on why I'm happier to play in the exact opposite way to my original play through. Earlier, I said that a major point of excitement was planning where to go in the Regalia and planning around how much time I could afford to spend in certain places. Now, imagine a younger me that does not care at all if the timer hits night time and brute forces his way through any monster mob or just accepts the fast travel option to the nearest town to avoid it all together, who spams the circle button to attack because I skipped over the tutorial text that told me that I just needed to hold the circle button down to attack continuously, who never picked up a fishing rod, and who never cooked anything except the product placement cup of noodle. I was frequently frustrated by being under levelled later in the game and constantly reminded that I must go out of my way to do content that I didn’t want to engage with to get stronger.
This was a valid play style that comes from the fact that the game is hard to learn, and it was fun. There's a freedom about roaming from truck stop to truck stop with no plan and no responsibility; just buying enough potions to make my way through this beautiful landscape and see hulking beasts that could kill me with one hit. The person who hits the road with nothing but the clothes on their back, finding jobs for money as needed, is the complete opposite from the meticulous planner who anticipates every detail of a road trip (including the bathroom stops along the way). There were no other open world games that offered a road trip type of experience that I had heard of at the time, and the appeal of hitting the road with your friends as a kid with no plan was so seductive to my teenage brain that even though I was struggling against the game to play it my way, I still loved every second of it.
Final Fantasy XV fulfilled two specific fantasies for me, the freedom to go and do what I wanted without the fear of consequences, and the release of feeling a well-planned day go exactly so. The modern-day fantasy setting that along with the beautiful landscape propels the game past its faults and gives someone like me an experience worth treasuring and reflecting upon.
With this story, I had originally set out to remind myself why I love Final Fantasy XV. But in the process, I've really recorded my own evolution as a gamer. What's even more surprising is that this game appealed to me in very different ways at different stages of my life. I think that's proof positive that Final Fantasy XV is indeed something special, even with its shortcomings.
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