'Final Fantasy XV' Driving Needs a Tune-Up

On the road again. Really dislike getting back on the road again.

Final Fantasy XV’s first major plot segment begins with Noctis and his pals pushing their car, the aptly named Regalia, down a stretch of asphalt baking in the desert. Narratively, its a smart move; XVs director Hajime Tabata has on many occasions explained the game’s story is about growing up. It also keeps players from test-driving the Regalia themselves, perhaps intentionally.

The premise is that the young 20-something prince and his buddies are going on a road trip to see his betrothed, the princess of another region, and, royal trappings aside, everyone can relate to going a joyride that ends in damaging someone’s vehicle. It’s a great way to show how inexperienced these boys are. Unfortunately, when you do get to step behind the wheel, the experience leaves a bit to be desired.

You’ve probably heard by now that the Regalia drives more or less on rails, sticking only to proper roads, and that’s not necessarily the issue. After getting the beast repaired at a body shop in Hammerhead — transported from the lands that appeared in FFXV’s debut demo Episode Duscae — you can choose to get in the driver’s seat yourself, taking to the open road. Hit the accelerator and the Regalia starts crawling forward, going no faster than a city bus.

And there it stays. For a brash would-be millennial, Noct drives like a man three times his age. As the Regalia putters along, the countryside moves by slowly. Your pals occasionally add some color to the trip’s proceedings, but mostly time trundles by without much excitement.

I can guess why FFXV’s team had to do this. Driving the Regalia off-road would require no small amount of extra work, accounting for terrain, physics, and collision systems to name just a few, to say nothing of what goes into a simulating a vehicle’s driving itself. The Regalia also being a luxury vehicle, there’s probably quite a lot of terrain that just wouldn’t work. So, forcing it to stick to the roads is probably the best compromise the devs could work out without delaying the game another four years. The overall design is already too ambitious.

Still, nitpicky as it is, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that there’s at least no variable speed. Given the relative scale of the world, distance was always going to be a factor, which can make for some lengthy car rides; kind of like a real road trip. Good for realism, then, if not so much for gameplay. (It also feels a bit narratively incongruous that the speed limit would be so low out in the country. Then again, NPC drivers are all slow as well.)

Granted, the series has had this issue before in various forms. Most modes of transportation in the franchise’s overworlds are limited in one way or another — boats can obviously only travel down wherever rivers go, for example. FFVIII’s cars also were limited by access, though the the world map was just an open, empty space dotted with locations to visit, so off-roading would have been irrelevant.

FFXV’s airship, usually the series icon of complete geographic freedom, will also only be able to land in certain areas. As before, restriction is probably somewhat of a necessity to keep from breaking the game. And while it’s cute that you can listen to old Final Fantasy soundtracks in the Regalia, not giving players the option to at least speed up the journey a bit is something of a mistake. It’s giving them the feel and surroundings of an open world that’s boxed in.

Since the narrative is about a road trip, I’m sure Tabata wants you to enjoy the sights rather than looking at points on a mini-map. And it does look nice, even if some scenery blends more into the background. But whether intentional or not, enforcing that mindset as mandatory doesn’t necessarily encourage natural sightseeing.

Ultimately, this is probably just what happens when linearity butts up against “free-roaming” design, and, as it stands, travel actually feels less constricted on foot or, as far as I can tell, riding a chocobo. That makes the Regalia just one more slightly awkward element of FFXV’s well-meaning design, which seems to overextend itself in places in an effort to please everyone.

Considering the game’s incredibly long development cycle and everything that’s riding on its success, its an extreme and unenviable catch-22 situation (and to be fair, the build Square Enix had playable at PAX West could’ve been old). The game and its cast aren’t without their charms, though you wonder if they’ll really get there in the end. At the very least, I hope the Regalia gets a speedometer before it hits the road in November. Road trips, if nothing else, are supposed to be about having fun.

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