Personally, I’ve been an avid fan of Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star and video game RPGs since I was a little kid. For most of my formative years, the story was the focus until consoles got beefier and action and lights won out. Well, until now.
Admittedly, I’m one of those obnoxious “When I was your age…” jerks when it comes to some of my more beloved series growing up. We had it so much better in the means of finely crafted narratives as graphics just weren’t obviously there. We took what we could get in the form of visuals but, truly, what we remember the most are the stories that we were told. As a kid, you’d see those quaint little pixels on the screen but your head blew the world up so much bigger. When I’d lay in bed and remember the story within the Final Fantasy games I had been playing, it was never as 8-bits but in a massive sprawling world that would bend to my imagination and crackle with electricity.
As an adult, however, I’ve felt a bit burned by the past couple iterations of Final Fantasy. The stories lost me entirely and left me behind, drawing up more characters than were necessary and throwing terms, locations and concepts at me that always felt complex for the sake of looking vast. While I still played them, it left me winded by the time the experience was over and I constantly sighed and went back to the earlier titles where the game wanted to open up to you and moved at a pace that felt consistent with the systems speed it was on.
That was, well, until Final Fantasy XV.
At E3 of 2016, I remember talking with some lovely people at Square-Enix and even relaying some of that to them. I flinched. I looked almost hesitant to a point of pain but this lovely person slid a controller in my hands and said to me something I’d have a hard time forgetting: “Just let the boys ease your fears. This is a story you’re never going to forget.” and so I did. I played the bit of game I was allowed to, an over-the-top boss fight in which these beautiful characters bounced and leaped all about and took down a titan. I then left. I left with the thought of.. “Okay, I’m definitely listening.”
Cut to now. Sharp cut, even. I had played Final Fantasy XV briefly when it came on PlayStation 4, but when you’ve got a room of your friends all chattering back and forth about their experiences with the game and you can’t really invest yourself fully and involve your brain into the surroundings, it doesn’t turn out well. I found myself not getting into that same groove that I had hoped, but I was absolutely determined to not let that be my experience with the PC release titled Final Fantasy: Windows Edition. While everyone was obviously gobsmacked by the graphic update, the promise of DLC being given without a season pass, I was more just excited to experience the game myself in a purely solo sense. When I loaded it up and I watched those four young men pushing their car along a road, hopeful for a repair shop and remarking on their adventure up until that point – I was starting to get it. Then, as if the game was feeling I was seeking just a tiny bit more from its depth, Florence and the Machine started gently and almost somberly singing “Stand by Me” gently as the boys pushed their car along the road.
My eyes, I admit, filled with wetness and while blinking them away, the title screen shifted upwards and away from the boys and into the sky to show the world ahead of us. Final Fantasy was no longer just showing me a lot of pomposity but it was giving me a story I could start experiencing as if I was the fifth friend on a journey alongside them. I found myself talking to them idly, giggling and amused by their friendship and while the situations that surrounded them were important, I found myself mostly concerned for their well-being. That, right there, brought me back. It brought me back to preparing my party because I cared about them.
With each character having their own skill, aside from battle, to help their friends out – I would speak with them as if I felt they even needed my aid in this and despite the fact I was actually controlling their moves. I consulted with Ignis (Who I call Iggy) excitedly and bought foods and herbs just in the hopes I’d see the camera shoot over my shoulder and he’d be snapping his fingers with a new recipe idea. I would quietly mutter to Gladiolus (Gladio, my boo) about if it may be a good time to set up camp because the night is dark and full of daemons that are intensely over our level and ready to tear us apart. As we’d set up camp and Iggy would be manning the Coleman grill, the campfire would be where Prompto would show off the pictures he took all over the course of the day. From campground to campground and morning to night, Prompto would be finding moments to snap pictures of our adventures together and at that camp, we’d shuffle through them and I’d give a quiet smile as I recalled it. Sure, it was minutes between sun up to sun down for me, the player, but it always felt like we were very truly recounting a long, long day together.
The game would remind you that you had goals, a sense of push to the story and that was great, but it also wants you to take quiet in those moments you can. To let the fellas stand behind you and Noctis and just cast a fishing rod out. You’d fish in these beautiful waters and then, if you’re lucky, you’d find a fish that would make Iggy lose his mind a little and snap his fingers over the idea of a new food he could grill up for us at camp. Right, we have to go save our Kingdom and that’s fantastic — but I found myself caring so much more and investing my heart into their story even more when I took those moments along the journey to love my friends.
I’ve pushed a decent bit through the story now and while I would say that there is this incredible and, no pun intended, fantastical world out there to encounter — your friends are why you stay. You want to see the boys protected as they attempt to guide Noctis, the Prince, through his growing up. He had lived so protected and now, as he’s headed towards a marriage that is pre-determined for him, in a time of complete unrest between kingdoms, he has to lean on his friends to help him push through. You believe not just in Noctis but his friends and the love and loyalty they have for him, not only as a future King, but as their best friend. I’m still pushing through the massive story to Final Fantasy XV but I’m more determined with this title than I have felt for the past few games in the series and I heartily evangelize it. They won’t be upset if you have to save and leave for awhile to handle your mundane and rather grayscale world around you because, when you come back, vivid colors and their subtly eager faces will be there to welcome you.