Have you ever pressed ‘A’ on a TV in a Pokémon game to see what was playing?
“There’s a movie on TV,” the text box reads. “Four boys are walking down railroad tracks. …I’d better go, too.”
This is, of course, a reference to “Stand By Me,” the 1986 Rob Reiner film adapted from Stephen King’s “The Body.” The film and the book it’s based on are seminal texts that explore working class heteromasculinity. They’re favorites among those who grew up in the ‘80s — those who have a fondness for an era with less parental guidance and a larger, more mysterious earth to explore.
(I recently had a conversation with an excellent author about “Stand By Me.” You can check that out here.)
While it’s difficult to say whether the original Japanese text made such a reference or whether the English localization staff embellished the nod, it’s equally difficult not to wonder whether “Stand By Me” had a profound influence on Japanese Role-Playing Games — youth abandoning their hometowns to go on a parent-less adventure is quite nearly a cliché in the genre. “Chrono Trigger,” “Kingdom Hearts,” “Secret of Mana,” “Earthbound” and most certainly “Pokémon” all introduce their narratives in this way. And even if they’re framed around different concepts (“Final Fantasy VII” following a group of radical ecoterrorists) many more of these games are structured like road trips. A group of friends travel across great distances and make stops in fascinating little towns. It’s a formula for success.
So “Final Fantasy XV” is most certainly not the first road trip video game, but it’s the first video game to literalize the concept into gameplay. We open on a dusty, western highway, on which four gorgeous, primped anime boys are pushing a broken-down luxury car towards a gas station. As they banter among themselves and the player takes control of the car-pushing effort, a Florence + The Machine cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” song swells in the background (it incorporates a bit of the classic “Final Fantasy” title screen music into its orchestration, a nice touch). Could it be clearer what we’re supposed to be thinking about? This genre. That movie. Angst. Coming-of-age. That childhood desire to pack up an old-timey knapsack and head out to the Yukon, “Calvin and Hobbes”-style.
The anime boys in question are Noctis, a prince, and his three confidants Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolis. Those familiar with “Final Fantasy” shouldn’t balk at the Latinesque nonsense that comprises their names, but for everyone else, hearing names like this spoken very seriously will take some getting used to.
But there’s not much else about the introductory sequence of “FFXV” that “Final Fantasy” die-hards will expect. There’s no daring bombing mission. No epic swordfight. No futuristic water polo game. Rather than being shoved headlong into a desperate scenario, the game quietly picks up with four kids driving around, listening to an indie singer and talking about things. It’s jarring, to say the very least.
“Final Fantasy” has blended modern and future technology with classical high fantasy aesthetics in the past, but never like this. “FFXV” drops our Anime heroes into a world of Western Americana, complete with diners, gas stations and a whole lot of desert. It feels new.
And there’s more Western influence than merely the visual. Like last year’s “Metal Gear Solid V,” “FFXV” represents a massive left turn for a franchise that’s been around for decades — abandoning the precedent of narrative linearity that was held very closely to in the last single-player “Final Fantasy” game in favor of a quest-based open-world structure.
It’s a lot like “The Witcher 3.” The player can progress through a singular “main quest” storyline, complete standalone side quests for experience or take on lucrative bounty hunts involving tough fights against “daemons,” mindless wild beasts emboldened by mysterious antagonists. While I wish the side quests were more complex (most of them are simple MMO-style fetch quests), they provide a meaningful alternative to traditional grinding since each of them provides experience points and reward items.
Those comparisons aside, the game “FFXV” shares the most DNA with is “Kingdom Hearts.” Before a massive team transition in 2014 in which Hajime Tabata took over development as director, “FFXV” was to be the first main series "Final Fantasy" game to be directed by Tetsuya Nomura, who directed the first two Kingdom Hearts games. His influence shows itself blatantly in the game’s combat. Fighting in “FFXV” is essentially an expansion of the action-based combat in “Kingdom Hearts,” the primary differences being the ability to hold the attack button rather than mashing it, and an emphasis on maneuvering to the backs of enemies to do extra damage.
Magic and summoning are also overhauled. Magic involves charging spells by using resources picked up in the environment, and deploying them as massive area-of-effect attacks that one would use much like a grenade in a first-person shooter. It never really struck me as useful, but I’ve seen other gamers on YouTube harness it quite effectively. Really, it’s a matter of preference.
Summoning is strange. Essentially, the player can call gods down from the heavens to do massive damage to everything in the area, but only when the gods feel like helping? The criteria for when a summon appears feels inconsistent. It’s not at all reliable, but its rarity makes it admittedly very cool whenever it happens.
But what really keeps the combat in “FFXV” entertaining over the course of its runtime (about a 15-hour campaign with about three times as much side content) is its extraordinary enemy variety. I constantly marveled at the creativity expressed in the often gigantic creatures Noctis and company were tasked with hunting them down. Some of the later-game fights against screen-filling monsters are breathtaking — highlights of an all-around excellent single player story that shifts drastically as it progresses.
“FFXV” goes from road trip to intercontinental boat trip, to train trip, even to a secret mode of transportation that only unlocks after you beat the game. The constant shifting of tone and structure in the game’s campaign might feel incoherent to some, but to me it provided much-needed variety to a genre that’s often held back by homogeneity. There’s really only one part of the game’s campaign that isn’t a blast — a lone chapter that drastically shifts tone to emulate survival horror gameplay. It’s a nice idea, but it’s not executed in a way that’s fun to play.
Besides hunting monsters and traveling, the player can also engage in one of my favorite fishing minigames I’ve ever played in a video game — rivaling even that of “Twilight Princess.” It’s a blast to take a break from the action and level up Noctis’ fishing skill. The other party members have special skills too, but they’re more passive — Prompto will take pictures over the course of the adventure that you can save to your hard drive, and Ignis will cook meals at campfires that grant helpful stat buffs. They’re fun little touches. This game has a lot of those.
I’m somewhat conflicted about how “FFXV” represents gender and race. Both the male and female characters are sexualized relatively equally (breasts, biceps and abs hang out EVERYWHERE in this game), which I’m more than fine with, but it seems like a missed opportunity to make every character in the party a light-skinned straight dude. What kind of dynamic would it bring if one of these beautiful anime boys liked other guys? How much would it have changed if one or more of the party was a girl? Why are there only two or three people of color in the entire world? But at the same time, I’m proud of the way that “FFXV” portrayed a nontraditional sort of heteromasculinity with its main characters. It allows them to show love for each other, dress in risqué black leather and talk to each other about their feelings without writing off any of those things as something not okay for straight guys to do.
Over the course of the campaign we’re allowed some real insight into the interpersonal relationships of the four boys, even beyond the (well-written) banter that’s frequently spouted in the car and on quests. There are social quests that very occasionally pop up that provide much-needed breaks in tone — they kind of feel like the filler episodes of an anime where everyone goes to the beach for no reason, except they’re actually good. A scene that pops up randomly when you’re staying at a certain hotel between two of the boys is an emotional one that I’ll not forget for some time. There are times when the characters fight, make up, split off from one another and come back together again. It felt like there were tangible emotional highs and lows among the characters — I can’t think of another game where that’s been felt in recent years. I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed spending time with Noct, Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto. I would be remiss not to note how meme-worthy their dialogue can be at times, with Ignis in particular lending his voice to one of my favorite twitter memes I’ve seen in a long time.
It’s strange. On paper, “FFXV” is a number of combat encounters strung together with only a few interruptions from fishing minigames and sequences of travel. It doesn’t sound all that compelling. But because the game’s story is so excellently creative, its visuals so gorgeous, its style so unique, it becomes something much greater than the sum of its parts. It goes to show how far a dedication to world-building can go in making a superb video game.