As opposed to the movies, comparatively few video game directors are called out by name to associate meaningfully with their projects. Alongside Shigeru Miyamoto, Rod Ferguson, Jade Raymond and Hideo Kojima, the words of Hajime Tabata hold considerable weight.
At last we have been able to spend time with the experience that Tabata has championed while at the same time openly criticised ever since replacing Tetsuya Nomura in 2014. We offer this preview with Tabata's express mission in mind: to make Final Fantasy great again.
Two of the main points offered by Tabata in press interviews this past couple of years have been to make Final Fantasy feel modern, and to make it relevant to audiences worldwide. The opening scene of Chapter 1, which show King Regis bidding farewell to his son Noctis, perfectly capture this notion of state-of-the-art while presenting a cast that not only feels accessible, but is genuinely likeable. The game holds you firmly by the shoulders to witness this fateful moment; to admire the exquisite character detail and to become engrossed in their behavioural nuances. Regis is clearly weakened after years of steely resolve. Noctis is just a kid who can't see past his own reflection in the mirror, though he is certainly cool.
Strong, lifelike and easily identifiable personalities carry over into the game proper as we find Noctis and his pals Ignis, Prompto and Gladiolus pushing their broken down car. It's the most unusual of opening scenes to be found in a video game period, let alone a Japanese RPG. It very successfully juxtaposes our own concept of reality with a fantasy scenario, this bunch of wisecracking youths in charge of daddy's car, at this time unaware of what truly lies ahead.
As far as they know until this point, this is just a road trip to see the prince formalise the union of states - aka get married. On the one hand this scenario is very sweet and easy to grasp, but the political undertones are more mature and elegant in terms of storytelling. Dialogue is cute ("I thought this car was supposed to move us"), the vista is astounding.
Personalities and character interaction continue to be the strong point of Final Fantasy XV as we venture into the game world, where technical shortcomings soon become evident. We have to say we're relieved that visual issues such as frame-rate, which can also impact the gameplay experience, are now being given a couple of additional months to refine.
While a conversation with grease-monkey Cindy is cheerfully engaging, during which we receive our first minor quests while learning about the general set-up of vendors etc., the moment the team heads out to hunt "ornery varmints" things start to get a little painful.
Worryingly, it's not just the inner workings of the game that struggle; the structure of the game feels awkward too. In its pursuit of gritty realism, the business of jogging into the hills to skirmish with feeble though agile sabretusks jars with the slick build up until this point. True, this mission is dubbed 'The Pauper Prince' and is to show that the boy is starting from nothing to become far greater, but such shenanigans may not be what you signed up for.
The dilemma facing Tabata and his team is evident at almost every turn. Sometimes it is well and truly vanquished, other times it rather trips over its own elaborate bootlaces. There's a sense of awe during an encounter with a sleeping beast the size of a double-decker bus in which Noctis needs to remain stealthy, requiring slow movement while carefully observing. This golden moment is countered though by the haphazard, apparently MMO-like mission structure, which basically hands you a map and leaves the narrative flow largely up to you.
Final Fantasy XIII was widely, and appropriately, criticised for being too linear, but the early missions of XV rather leave the story to fend for itself. This notion of freedom effectively means that Noctis and the gang can try their hand at everything from fishing to fighting colossal nocturnal beasts from the get go. Some more guidance would have been desirable, in particular regarding combat skills, in readiness for the action that soon escalates.
After all, combat is the nucleus of any Final Fantasy (or indeed any A-list JRPG). Again, the FFXV approach embraces the freedom ideal allowing the core team of four to move strategically around targets. You're primarily in command of Noctis, who may choose to attack using one of four equipped weapons or tools. Very quickly the game urges the use of Phase, which is a technique that teleports Noctis between highlighted points in the area. It's similar to Blink in Dishonored or Destiny, and very effective to gain the upper hand. In battle, the sullen Noctis is transformed into a phenomenal warrior that you'll wish to finesse. While Noctis lands his sword or spear combos, the rest of the team can add their own moves via linked strikes. They each have speciality techniques too, such as Gladiolus' Tempest (sword) or Prompto's Pierce (firearm) available on a cool-down basis to wear down groups or larger targets.
Button-mashing during combat is usually quite forgiving, but the first true test of the team's mettle - a rampaging Dualhorn - clearly points to the benefits of working thoughtfully as a unit. One cool touch is how Noctis' companions often call out a preferred strategy before battle. If this strategy is followed, there are bonus Ability Points (AP) awarded upon victory. AP is used to acquire new abilities from the Astralsphere, being the FFXV skill tree located under the Ascension menu. Early unlocks include Airstep, moving in mid-air after attacking, and Rapid Regen that raises HP and accelerates recovery time. Further encouragement to perform spectacularly comes in the form of post-match report card ratings Defence, Stealth and Offence. Another neat idea is that Ignis sometimes learns new recipes to rustle up his stat-boosting menu. Dualhorn steak anyone? You'll need to acquire all the ingredients first.
The greatest compliment we can pay Final Fantasy XV based on the first few hours is how, disparate though they appear at first, the various gameplay elements support each other. It's necessary to spend time scavenging for fire, ice and earth elements to infuse magic capabilities along the lines of e.g. Fire, Fira, Firaga etc. During the course of which you're likely to encounter an increasingly more challenging assortment of exotic creatures to fight. Beneath all the grandeur, the gameplay in Final Fantasy XV is still very much that familiar JRPG grind demanding countless smaller battles in order to survive main encounters.
Some of the dialogue is a little bit try-hard when it comes to establishing roles - Prompto refers to a cute dog as "totes adorbs" at one stage, which is a bit much even from him. However, insofar as the drama goes, your first sighting of the Imperial Dreadnaughts that spell doom for Insomnia and the king feels ominous. They light a fire in any heroic heart.
We've been forbidden from talking about mission structure beyond Chapter 2, 'No Turning Back', but if you've ever played The Legend of Zelda series you'll have some clue as to how the world opens up after the initial proving ground. Final Fantasy XV bears the scars of a series in search of a new identity, but our hands-on session - in which we could play however we wished - made it clear that Tabata's team has at the very least crafted a true Final Fantasy. Exactly how well everything hangs together after 50+ hours, our review will decide come November 29.