What I don't like so far about Final Fantasy XV can be written on the back of a beermat, in large, all-capital letters. I dislike how the car – so widely trailered – is effectively on-rails while on the road, even when "you", Prince Noctis Lucius Caelum, are at the wheel. I was hoping for the same relationship between it and its charges as Geralt had with Roach in The Witcher 3: that go-anywhere (within the confines of physical possibility) freedom. But instead, driving in FFXV extends to holding down the right trigger to accelerate and letting the vehicle steer itself, with U-turns and parking automated animations activated by a single face button. (I also dislike how cheap petrol in the game is, but that's by the by.)
I don't like how the game's magic system is buried beneath unintuitive menus that, during a preview session with the game's first four hours, the attendant press officer has to guide the assembled journalists through. Chances are, without that, I'd never had began to play around with it – which would have been disappointing, as it's got a lot of customisation potential, as ingredients gathered from the land, and from slaying enemies, can be combined with elemental powers for special effects. I'm still not hot on the mechanic Cindy's outfit, which remains unchanged from the Episode Duscae demo of 2015 – though, my wife has a point when she says that if the weather's good, and the work is messy, why wear too many clothes? And that Afrojack-soundtracked trailer from E3? Kill its wub-wub with all the Firaga.
Everything else, though, I'm totally into. Consider me sold on the four guys hit the road premise, where Noctis is surrounded by three of his most trusted friends and advisors, who aren't simply around to blow smoke up his regal arse. The interactions between the quartet, even when heard in the game's original Japanese (forgive my settings preferences), are snappy and smart, often endearing and (so far, but it's only been four hours) never grating. The opening area's environments, too, are convincingly grounded in relatable ordinariness – this is a Final Fantasy game, but one that mixes a healthy dose of the real world into the usual formula of almighty monsters and spectacular summons. So there's no magical way to fix your broken car – someone's going to need a wrench for that.
'Final Fantasy XV', "Reclaim Your Throne" trailer (note that the release date is now November the 29th)
The game's combat (which is graded, at each encounter's end) is fast and fluid, requiring a lot more than simply holding down a button to win – which was, remember, pretty much how Final Fantasy XIII played out. Yes, all attacks are mapped to one button, and defensive dodges to another; but using the bumpers and the d-pad you can combine moves with other party members, switch between magical weapons mid-combo, and take emergency evasive action via Noctis's warp ability – something you'll have seen both in prior FFXV preview videos and the (watchable on YouTube) opening to the game's accompanying CGI movie, Kingsglaive. It's a great deal deeper than it might appear in trailers, requiring detailed monitoring to appreciate which enemies are weakest, which are posing the greatest threat, and how you can adjust your tactics accordingly. Imagine a system dead centre between the real-time action of The Witcher 3 and the turn-based group encounters of older FF titles, where the player must manage more than one avatar's moves: that's how it feels to play.
I'm not about to spoil any of the story – not that you can't find the details elsewhere – but let me confirm that the why behind Noctis and company's adventure is successfully conveyed without its natural melodrama descending into tired cliché. The plots of Final Fantasy games are often filled with world-altering occurrences, depicted via generously budgeted cutscenes, and this is no different – but there's a palpably personal drive to Noctis's quest that even those unmoved by the rising and falling of fictional empires will be able to relate to. There are loads of tiny details around travel and mission completion marking and character levelling that add up to a really appealing whole, which I simply don't have space to detail here. Basically, I'm excited for FFXV, and while it just recently saw its release date slip from late September to the end of November (2016), my preview with it leaves me unconcerned that this is because of any significant problems with its production.
But to really set my mind at ease, I spoke to the game's cheerful, personable director, Hajime Tabata, at Gamescom in Cologne, Germany. Sat around a fake campfire – the game's foursome regularly take breaks amid the great outdoors, to replenish health and level up – we begin where we must, by addressing that delay.
VICE: Two months more to wait for Final Fantasy XV isn't a great length of time, given the game's been in development, on and off, for about a decade. But what areas for you were standing out as absolutely requiring the extra time?
Hajime Tabata: How long did you play the game for, so far?
About four hours, from very the beginning.
Okay, so that opening area is one that you'll be able to have a lot of fun in. But if you played the game for 40, maybe 50 hours, you'll have come across areas where the playability, as it stands, isn't quite where we want it to be. And there are still some bugs in the game's later areas, and other parts where the optimisation isn't quite at the standard we're aiming for.
The real issue is that if we tried to deal with the issues the game has with a patch, because we were thinking that way initially, there'd still be a lot of people around the world who would only be playing from the disc, without connecting to the internet for the update. They would see the game in what we consider an unfinished state, and that was a real problem for me.
That's quite a noble way to approach this. A lot of big studios would simply aim to hit that big deadline, and fix the game afterwards. The people who never downloaded the patch would simply be, I suppose, collateral damage.
We want to make this experience right for everyone who plays it. Like I said, originally I thought a patch would be okay, but I heard some good information that a lot of people still play their games offline, even people who have the internet at home. When I heard that, it changed my thinking on it.
The team must have been very reluctant to push the release back, especially given the fanfare for it around the Uncovered event earlier this year?
The decision didn't take too long. Once I had made the decision myself, I spoke to all of the important stakeholders in the game, and we announced it straight away. It was two weeks ago when I was really certain, in my mind, that moving the release to November was the right thing to do, and the discussions happened quickly after that, likewise the announcement to the public. We sent word out to all of our international partners, to get the message out there as soon as possible. But I think it was a good decision.
And what about the reaction to the delay? A small minority of internet dickheads aside, I think those who've been waiting years for this game aren't about to kick up a stink over two more months.
I know that people have different opinions on what we've done here, but I do try to avoid the forums where people say things without having to take any responsibility for doing so. I much prefer to listen to the opinions of journalists, and speaking to fans face to face about things. That's where I think the most valuable information comes from.
Let's move on to the game's leading guys, the quartet we see in all the marketing: the player character, Noctis, and his colleagues Ignis, Prompto and Gladiolus. Now, in a lot of Final Fantasy games, you begin with just a single protagonist, and you recruit a party as you progress through the game. Here, you start with a readymade one. What's the thinking there?
It all comes from the core concept of this idea of going on a journey with your mates. And we figured that, given that's the central idea, we don't need to go through that process of having to recruit allies. Starting with the party as a fully developed team, albeit with any backstory filled in by the movie and the other media around the game, made total sense – these guys already have a solid relationship with each other.
That direction, the journey with friends, does come from my own experiences, in my life. There are a lot of my personal experiences throughout the game, when I would go on road trips in my 20s. Although, obviously, Noctis is going on a journey to reclaim his throne and take his kingdom back; I was going on regular holidays. Nobody was coming to invade my home.
What I really like about the presentation of the game is how grounded it is in reality. Yes, there are fantasy creatures, some from the series' past; and there are amazing powers, and magic. But you get around in a car, one that needs petrol to go anywhere. You stay in sketchy motels, and get your wheels repaired at a dilapidated garage, using regular tools. People just go about their business. Every little part just seems to fit into place, into this world that happens with or without you. There's a relatable, lived-in feel to the game, certainly around its opening area.
The feeling amongst the team on this game was that we really didn't need to do things as we had before, on previous Final Fantasy titles. We didn't need it to be over the top. Nevertheless, there were definitely people who initially found it hard to find the reality line that we were looking for.
Last night, all of the staff on the game that are over here now, at Gamescom, were discussing the relationship between fantasy and reality in the game, over dinner. We were talking about the behemoth, Deadeye, the monster that turns up (as seen in the Episode Duscae demo). Yes, this is a monster – but we didn't want it to be just that. We made it so that it was a very individual creature. He behaves differently to other behemoths. He has a history that's unique to him. So that's one side to this reality we're aiming for – but it was hard for some people to get on board with that that entails. Nevertheless, I think we've found our reality line, and it's quite distinct from where previous Final Fantasy games have been. We've taken a step towards making Final Fantasy more grounded.
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Which character, from the core four, is emerging as the fan favourite?
Truthfully, the character we see most people cosplaying as is Cindy. We always see people dressed up as her at events. The four guys are all popular, too, but until recently Prompto (slim, blonde, no glasses) seemed like the least popular. We couldn't put our fingers on why, but that's been turned around now, as a lot of people like him. In Europe and America, I've noticed that Gladiolus (dark hair, big muscles) seems to be popular.
While the story of March's Platinum Demo has very little to do with the events of FFXV, it's definitely helped me establish a connection with Noctis, and more importantly what he's fighting for. It deepened that sense of what home really is to him, before starting the main game; which in turn intensifies the impact of what forces him away from it. Is that something you intended?
Well, thank you for noticing that. We're glad that it worked that way. We really felt that showing his childhood – and the other characters too, across different parts of their lives – through other media surrounding the main game, it makes them feel that much more real. Everything is linked back to that need to have an individual personality for everyone, or everything, of significance in the game, from the humans to the monsters. We want the real people in the game to be real people.
There are, naturally, nods to past Final Fantasies – Carbuncle in Platinum Demo, who'll appear in the main game too, and that classic little musical flourish at the end of a battle. But do you wish at all that you could leave all of that behind, that, I suppose, fan service, and totally make this your own? I suppose the battle system, divisive though it is, represents one massive stamp of uniqueness.
I'm not sure that there were any elements from past games that I had to include. I certainly can't think of any now. But the whole philosophy here was to create a world that you could explore freely, and have this spirit of travel and adventure in proceedings. That's why we have the seamless battle system in there, because without it the game would have to stop and start all the time. It's essential to the whole feel of the game.
But we couldn't have this as just an action game – we needed to make sure that there were meaningful party members around you. How they behaved around you, and interacted with you, was so important. So designing that system as we have, I think it brings an extra depth that maybe wasn't there in previous games.
While the combat split people initially, the more recent feedback we've had on it is very positive, and that's very reassuring. We have a lot of confidence that it's a lot more tactical than perhaps some people are expecting it to be, and the party development system, and how you customise your load-out. People seem to be liking it.
There's a lot of "wider universe" activity around the game. We've got Kingsglaive, the Brotherhood anime series (again, watchable on YouTube), the pinball-style Justice Monsters Five mini-game, and more. But how much is too much? Does all of this not distract people from the fact that there's a significant video game at the heart of everything? Does the extra stuff bother you at all?
I did have the worry, a concern, that because there are so many products out there around the game, that it would confuse some of the players, and the fans. But I've been sure that every one of these things has its own position, and serves a specific function. And also, that they all feed back into the main game, so they're not totally separate. The relationship between the game and all of the side projects is something that we took a lot of care over.
This game's been a long time coming, of course. You took over as director, exclusively, in 2014. What has the process, the experience, taught you about making games, and what lessons are you taking forward into new projects?
I've learned a lot from making this game. And it's worth saying that through the process of making XV, we now have a solid production base, which represents groundwork for the future. I have so many expectations for what we can do now, with the experience we have; I think we can move forward as a team and make even better games.
What taught me a lot, though, was the global strategy for this game. This whole thing, like what we're doing now, with me going abroad before the game is finished, talking to people while the game is still in development, that's something that I never really did before. I don't think that we, as the Final Fantasy studio, ever really did this before.
I was in London, just the other day, after we'd had a meeting about the delay. I had a day off, and I walked around, and I was thinking about how much more we could do with this game, with future games. I was looking at all the European architecture, and thinking about how we could mix that into these games, to make these fantasies more realistic, but also more fantastical. It was really inspiring.
But this, all the making of XV, it's all been fun – a lot more fun than it has been stressful. Of course, it's not been without some stress. That will always be there, whatever you make, because of the fans' expectations. They're so high for this game, and that does weigh on us when it comes to working out the best ways forward. But also, that expectation is a joyous thing.
Final Fantasy XV is released for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on November the 29th. Find more information at the game's official website.