"This is my first numbered Final Fantasy game," FFXV director Hajime Tabata told me at Square Enix's Tokyo headquarters early last week. And what a numbered Final Fantasy game this is.
Tabata sat comfortably in a leather chair. "I don't feel much pressure," he said. Final Fantasy XV, he explained, was something they were proud of. "I just want to get the game out there, see what people think, and hopefully get a good reaction. So, it's more of me looking forward to that than feeling pressure."
While new to the numbered series, Tabata isn't new to Final Fantasy. Previously, he worked on Final Fantasy Type-0, Crisis Core -Final Fantasy VII-, and Final Fantasy Agito. He's also working on the HD remake of Type-0, which comes out in March.
Behind him was a Final Fantasy Type-0 poster — a game we expected to see. On the television moments ago was the trailer for Final Fantasy XV — a game we did not expect to see. And a game that, over the past eight years, we really haven't seen all that much of.
"The FFXV trailer was all in-game engine, except for the part with the spaceships flying," Tabata said, gesturing towards the large TV. "That was pre-rendered."
The trailer was, in a word, stunning. The game that is now Final Fantasy XV was first announced as Final Fantasy Versus XIII over eight years ago. At this point, some players might have given up on the game ever coming out. The development process hardly seemed ideal — or typical. To many, it seemed like the game was a lost cause.
Eight years is a long time for a game. Currently, Final Fantasy XV is 55 per cent completed. That number, however, is misleading. That isn't 55 per cent after eight years worth of work. This is 55 per cent during the two years Tabata has joined the project. It's something that Square Enix want to be very clear. Perhaps that is the most honest way to think about Final Fantasy XV: The game's development can be divided into before Tabata and after Tabata.
"I joined the project about two years ago, and around that time, we changed platforms," he said. "We re-examined Final Fantasy XV's development structure. We had the gameplay team, the cinematics or CG team, and the game engine team. And we finally merged them all together to work on this game. I think we can deliver the best that Square Enix has to offer."
Internally, more was going on at Square Enix than simply moving teams around. "So, when I joined the development team, we've also shifted from primarily using pre-rendered CG to a mix of pre-rendered CG and in-game images that are at the quality of a pre-rendered image." Tabata wants the experience to be as seamless, as beautiful, as possible. As the trailer shows, they're getting there. According to Tabata, the graphics are about 70 per cent of what they are aiming for. "I think we can get the demo's graphics at about 80 per cent of what we hope to achieve," he said. "By the time the game is released, we hope to achieve 100 per cent."
The rub, of course, for some fans will be that, even though eight years has passed and the game isn't out, its original creator, Tetsuya Nomura, isn't directing. I ask the logical question: Should we think of Final Fantasy Versus XIII and Final Fantasy XV as separate games? You know, different?
"We are making this for the gamers who have been waiting since the game was Final Fantasy Versus XIII," Tabata said. "But, this is not the exact same game. The director is different, and the platform was switched to the current gen. And because the platform has changed, there were things we had to re-evaluate, like what we can and cannot do or even what we have to do. The various circumstances are different."
That being said, Tabata sat down with Nomura and discussed the direction of FFXV to ensure that he and Nomura were on the same page. "I wanted to make sure that characters, like Noctis, that are so important to Nomura, are maintained in the best possible way." Other elements that have appeared in the game, such as the car, also are in Final Fantasy XV.
The trailer showed how Noctis and his cohorts sojourned across the world in a sleek convertible as the road unfolded before them. They chatted and hung out. It made me wonder: Will Final Fantasy XV be the ultimate road trip game? The trailer has a terrific "hang-out" feel, which could hopefully lead to a stronger bond with the characters.
"Even though it's a single player game, we want you to feel like you are actually going across the continent with your companions in the car," Tabata said. "It's as if they're real people travelling with you."
According to Tabata, players can drive the car themselves, but there is also auto-pilot — and, from the looks of the trailer, you might be able to let other characters drive. The driving isn't like, say, Gran Turismo. You cannot tune the steering or change the tires to tweak the handling. The team did look to games like Need for Speed for current-gen references. "We certainly made the driving so it's enjoyable and fun," he said. "The driving replicates the feel of controlling a car, but doesn't go into the nitty-gritty of it. Still, it was designed to feel real. Myself and other members of the staff are very much into cars."
But since this is Final Fantasy, this car is more than just a car. According to Tabata, "You can consider the car like it's a member of your party — like airships are in other Final Fantasy games."
The car, though, as a symbol, represents so much. The open road. Far off destinations. And freedom. It seems like a perfect symbol for Final Fantasy XV itself. "Whether it's driving or combat, you can do what you like in the game," Tabata said. "There is that freedom. It's open world, and it's possible to go where you want and explore."
"That being said, if the game is totally open world, it kind of defeats what makes a Final Fantasy game Final Fantasy — which is the dramatic and cinematic storytelling. The game is balanced to ideally satisfy those fans who like traditional Final Fantasy storytelling so they can feel like they're following an epic story."
From what Tabata said, it sounds like Final Fantasy XV aims to offer the experience players get from some of the best open world games: There is the freedom to do as one pleases and explore, but a narrative arc, forgive the pun, drives the game forward.
In the trailer, Noctis and his crew get out of the car and battle with enemies along the road. "How does combat work?" I asked. The trailer showed characters engaging with each other during combat, and everything appeared quite fluid. Tabata described how players are "always tag-teaming" with the characters in their party. "So," he continued, "the game has that action element, but it's also taking into consideration the traditional Final Fantasy party play."
While Square Enix hasn't gone into great detail about how combat explicitly works, the way Tabata described it certainly sounded interesting. "The controls aren't you simply press a button once for a single action to happen," said Tabata. "Rather, they are a continuous flow of movements. It's more about the movements that are associated with the buttons and building upon them for actions through the combat system."
I'll be honest, it was hard to visualise what he was saying without seeing a controller layout, but Tabata offered this assurance: "I think if you tried it, you'd think it was very natural." Throughout the interview, he stressed that the way a game plays and feels is "so important." According to him, "The way a game plays has to feel good."
Make no mistake, there's a bunch riding on this game. At this point, it might seem like the aim is simply to get the game out, but Tabata and Square Enix have a bigger goal in mind: To make a benchmark game that defines a generation.
"Before I joined Square Enix, I always looked at Final Fantasy games as the benchmark for game consoles," Tabata said. "Each new game showed what was possible on video game hardware." So, two years ago, when Tabata joined this project, that was the goal: Make a game that would knock everybody's socks off. According to him, the attitude on the team is that they have to make a great game and that they have to impress.
"If we don't do something that people think is amazing, it's meaningless," Tabata said. "If we don't do something that's challenging, it's also meaningless."
With the changes that have been made to the team, I asked, do you think that future, numbered Final Fantasy games will be released in a more reasonable and timely pace?
"If the development is for the PS4 and the Xbox One, then I think it would go smoothly. But, there are various factors to keep in mind, such as the amount of content and whatnot. So across the board, I don't know if it would be shorter. Personally, if I was making another one, though, with the same process and for the same platforms, then development would be fast. We came this far in two years, so I think we could develop it quickly."
Then you should make Final Fantasy XVI, I quipped. "If I could do anything I'd like," Tabata replied, "I'd want to make Final Fantasy Type-1 first." That's fine, but if Final Fantasy XV meets people's expectations, then Tabata should have something new to work on: his second numbered Final Fantasy.