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Remembering Final Fantasy XV’s excellent first half

Open-ended and slow-paced, Final Fantasy XV’s first half is a unique take on open world design.

Last year I compared Final Fantasy XV unfavorably to The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild. My primary point of criticism was the game’s split identity between an open-ended first half and a linear second half that emphasized an improperly developed narrative. Despite this, the game’s first half is still a fantastic example of how going against conventional design can result in a wonderfully unique and personal experience. Final Fantasy XV’s open world contains layers of systems that encourage slow, methodical exploration and, regardless of how the game ends, this special form of play should be experienced by every gamer.

When I first got my hands on Final Fantasy XV, I was a little disheartened by what looked like extraneous systems hampering the simple joy of playing the game. I didn’t want to think about carrying ingredients for cooking meals. The game ground to a halt when overpowered demons emerged at nighttime, forcing me to take a break at nearby campsites or hotels which was the only way to save experience points earned during the day. Worst of all was the unbearably slow travel times. Unlike most modern open-world games that prioritize frenetic chaos, Final Fantasy XV does not allow you to drive the Regalia, your car and the primary mode of transport, recklessly through the environment. You have to stick to roads and a fixed top speed. All of this annoyed me as I tried to make progress through the game, itching to get to the next story mission or hunt location.

Then something changed. I started to become absorbed by the game, happily spending hours accomplishing just a precious few tasks in this fantasy world. I remember a moment when my roommate walked into our living room to see me sitting motionless on the couch watching the scenery slowly scroll by as Noctis and the gang reclined to the Regalia’s plodding pace. He watched for a few minutes before asking, “Are you having fun?” I had to think about it. The controller wasn’t even in my hands. It had been at my side for several minutes already. Then I realized that, in fact, yes I was. I was content to simply watch the Regalia eat up miles of the open road while I thought about what food I would cook later, which hotel I would stay at for an experience point bonus, and which song I would listen to next on a travel playlist I had begun to put together specifically for this game.

My response to my friend was ultimately this: “I’m sure this is boring to watch, but yes. I’m having a lot of fun. This isn’t a game you can rush.” He left unimpressed. And that’s okay because Final Fantasy XV is a game that demands you experience it on its own terms: slowly.

With the exception of speedrunning, video games are far less enjoyable when you try to rush through them. You miss out on little details that make the virtual worlds come alive, aren’t able to appreciate the depth of certain mechanics, and simply feel pressure to make the game move faster. Final Fantasy XV is a game that is impossible to rush through. It forces you to take it slow, especially in the beginning when night falls and you run into enemies that crush you in one hit. This naturally pushes players towards the camping and cooking mechanics. Since you have to take a break from playing the “real” game anyway, you may as well put the time to use some other way.

Over time, this repetition revealed to me how vital these design elements I had planned to ignore were to the overall experience. Cooking for stat bonuses became an essential feature that I started to look forward to. Planning the maximum experience bonus I could get from a hoard of XP added a great risk-reward element late in the game when I could actually survive at night time. Once I accepted that I wouldn’t be able to move through the game at the pace I initially wanted to, I started to enjoy all the little details even more.

In order to fully understand this game, I had to accept that I would only complete a couple of quests every time I sat down to play the game, but this slow pace made achieving my goals even more satisfying. It’s commonly understood that making players wait to experience the fun parts of video games is a bad design decision. Game designers usually don’t want gamers doing nothing. The weird thing about Final Fantasy XV is that, aside from the absurdly long load times resulting from fast travel, it never felt like I was doing nothing. The game leans into a slow-paced design, encouraging you to enjoy the journey rather than the destination.  

Listening to Chance the Rapper’s “Angels” while cruising down a coastal highway is more characteristic of my time in Final Fantasy XV than any epic boss encounter. I’m honestly very happy about that because it’s something unique to my experience of the game. It made the whole endeavor feel more like a journey of my own making rather than a loose collection of levels, something the much faster paced second half eventually felt like.

Every system in the first half of the game is designed for this kind of slow burn. On the surface, it shouldn’t work. Yet even though certain mechanics might be irritating in isolation, when they all come together the total experience is far greater than the sum of its parts. I still find the second half of the game to be a jarring transition away from this experience, but that doesn’t change the fact that I appreciate what the game’s open world achieves. It contradicts convention by forcing players to play it slowly, crafting a memorable experience out of disparate elements that would fail without cohesive integration. It’s unique, beautiful, and a truly great game that should be experienced by everyone. So get comfortable on your couch, make your best road trip soundtrack, and take a leisurely drive through the world of Eos. It’s well worth the travel time.