I am still on Chapter Three of Final Fantasy XV, appropriately dubbed “The Open World” — the point at which the majority of the main map opens up to you and you’re let loose to go and piss around doing whatever you want before progressing the main story.
The fact this moment occurs so early in Final Fantasy XV is a curious inversion of the usual formula for Japanese RPGs in the Final Fantasy mould. The typical format is that the game spends anywhere between 10 and 30 hours sending you on a linear quest that takes in most of the major locations around the world, conveniently introducing you to all these places and gradually providing you with increasingly unrestrictive means of transportation between them. At some point in the game — usually not long before the final confrontation and the end of it all — you are effectively given the “keys” to the world and complete freedom to explore, usually in conjunction with some particularly convenient means of getting around such as an airship.
Not so in Final Fantasy XV. Here you’re given the open world almost from the very beginning of the game, and there are a hell of a lot of things to do in it. I have been finding the myriad sidequests and hunts enormously entertaining and compelling, so much so that I haven’t advanced the story beyond the party’s arrival in the major town of Lestallum, and yet somehow I’m 30 hours deep in the game and past level 40 on all my characters.
There’s an argument that this kind of structure kills pacing somewhat, and it’s often a bugbear of mine with open world games. But I sort of feel like it makes sense this way around: that “open world” bit at the end of older Final Fantasy games often felt a little peculiar, as the narrative was demanding that you fend off some sort of imminent disaster, and yet there you were breeding chocobos, investigating crashed planes underwater or collecting frogs to get through a forest. The narrative demanded urgency, in other words, but the gameplay discouraged it.
In Final Fantasy XV, meanwhile, after the dramatic opening of the game, Noctis and his companions are simply out in the world, attempting to operate incognito while developing their own skills. While the Empire’s invasion of Noctis’ home city of Insomnia is something that needs Sorting Out at some point, the Noctis at the beginning of the game is not ready to face up to that responsibility, nor is he skilled enough or familiar enough with his unique powers to be able to simply charge in and take on a whole empire. It makes sense, then, for him to travel around the world, coming to understand it with his friends, developing relationships with people who could prove useful to know in the future, and improving his own skills in the process. The Empire will still be in Insomnia tomorrow, after all, and retaking a capital city is not the sort of thing you want to rush.
Practically speaking, it doesn’t really need all that much justification, as exploring Final Fantasy XV’s world is simply fun. Today I particularly enjoyed encountering the Rock of Ravatogh, a dungeon at the far Western side of the map that is actually a landmark you can see from the far Eastern side. Yes, it’s that old open-world favourite “if you can see that mountain, you can go to it” — or in this case, “if you can see that mountain with weird pointy glowy bits sticking out of it and smoke billowing out of the top, you can go to it”.
The Rock of Ravatogh, despite being an outdoor location, is treated as a dungeon rather than just a hill that you have to find your way up. This makes it a much more enjoyable, spectacular experience to climb, as it’s been designed and paced to feel like a real trek up a mountain, rather than simply walking in a straight line up a sloping grass texture. There are sections where you need to avoid slipping, there are sections where you need to climb cliff faces, there are sections where you need to pick your way along perilous paths with sheer drops to one side of you. And there are some amazing views of the game world along the way, plus a great reward for making it to the very top.
The Rock of Ravatogh is only the second dungeon I’ve encountered in Final Fantasy XV, but it’s very different to the first, which was a series of dark, underground tunnels with scary noises behind closed doors. This gives me hope that other dungeons in the game will be similarly varied and interesting to explore; I’m looking forward to encountering them for the first time.