Playing with terrible, fabulous boys in Final Fantasy XV

What do you do when your franchise has seemingly exhausted all its core systems, and all you are left with is a vague aesthetic style and an army of veteran game developers? You make Final Fantasy XV.

Final Fantasy XV, which we got our hands on recently at PAX West, does not feel or play like Final Fantasy. The trappings of a Final Fantasy game are all here — the ridiculous clothing, the crystal theme, familiar names like Cid — but it plays much differently.

Take combat. A battle in Final Fantasy XV is far more action-oriented than in previous games.

You zip around the arena using a warp power, which can also be used to strategically hang on certain parts of the environment to regenerate your HP/MP. Combos are more prevalent, and you are encouraged to switch between weapons mid-combo to extend it or do more damage. Linking combos together with your rowdy entourage of royal guards is key to taking down enemies, and you sometimes have to perform defensive tricks like blocks, parries, and dodge rolls. This is all done seamlessly and in real-time, rather than through a mechanic such as the classic ATB system.

The general structure of the game is different as well. You drive along roads, talking to people at rest stops to mark off points of interest on your map.

These points include parking spaces for your car, hunting locations, other rest stops, and so on. Each also plays host to open-world objectives, such as gathering materials, hunting dangerous monsters, or completing side quests. It smacks of modern open-world action design, and the end result is that you don’t feel like you are playing a JRPG. It feels like the result of some wild science experiment to see what would happen if Metal Gear Solid 5 and Devil May Cry were thrown into a test-tube and merged.

That’s not to say it isn’t fun. This focus on action makes this the first Final Fantasy that stays interesting in the minute-to-minute, and the slew of small details (such as one of your bodyguards clasping your shoulder after a cool combo) add to the feeling of being a bunch of rowdy road trip boys.

There are a number of side-activities, such as fishing and cooking, that boost your stats and make it worthwhile to explore the world. Every system in the game seems focused on making you go out to explore the world before coming back and having a nice night’s sleep around the campfire with your pals.

It’s unfortunate, then, when the game gets up to typical Final Fantasy bullshit. Everyone in my entourage wears very similar, very bad black outfits; I would not have been able to tell them apart if they didn’t have different hairstyles.

The very first woman I met in the demo — Cindy — wore extremely tight booty shorts and a mechanic’s jacket that flashed bikini-clad tits at me in every cutscene. She also had what could be charitably described as an “offensively bad American South accent”. I hated every single one of my entourage, and found myself wishing that they’d never say anything to me again.

When Final Fantasy XV leaves behind what other Final Fantasy games have done for decades, like the ATB system or the emphasis on linear, story-driven progression, it succeeds wildly. But when it returns to the morose aesthetic habits of its series, it feels like a chore — like watching a TV series full of characters you hate.

Final Fantasy XV releases November 29th, 2016.