Arguably, the pop-culture divide between East and West is nowhere more apparent than in the realm of role-playing games. In Asia, the fashion is for depth and rigor, as you see in 100-hour epics such as Star Ocean and Persona. American gamers prefer the slick and streamlined punch of Mass Effect and The Witcher. The East wants depth. We want to be dazzled.
If anything can bridge the gap, it’s Final Fantasy, the nearly 29-year-old RPG franchise from Japanese developer Square Enix. The game has enjoyed massive popularity since its debut on the original Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987, but its past decade has been ill-starred. Final Fantasy XIV, a Warcraft-style online multiplayer game, failed to galvanize nongamers, and XIII never quite hit the mainstream. Fans and Square Enix alike have pinned their hopes on the wildly ambitious new installment, Final Fantasy XV (PS4, Xbox One)—and darkly wondered whether another disappointment could snuff out the vast and minutely wrought world for good.
In FFXV you play as the Crown Prince Noctis, son of Regis, king of a land called Lucius. When the game begins, you’re on a breezy road trip with your buddies—until an army of killer robots (what else?) descends on your homeland and you find yourself in the middle of an all-out war. It’s Star Wars meets Game of Thrones. Already you’re hard-pressed to imagine a better blend for the current American palate.
But as it’s wooing Westerners, the game also makes sure to honor its traditions. Many key elements are here—including everyone’s favorite mountable yellow bird, the chocobo—and overall the game sticks with what Final Fantasy has always done best: deep combat, complex lore and rich, sweeping adventure stories, all of it realized with bleeding-edge tech. You can still get as involved in the back end as you’d like; it’s just that FFXV balances dense design with pure entertainment. It’s equal parts highbrow opus and popcorn fodder.
The deeper you get into the game, the clearer it becomes that this is not the Final Fantasy that recently appeared to be hurtling toward extinction. FFXV has the scope and scale of a modern triple-A game, with every battle, set piece and story beat amplified to supersize dimensions. There are sports car rides and airship excursions, robot fights and magic spells. And once you defeat a glowering, skyscraper-size giant named Titan, he joins your side. Final Fantasy has always had fun with the superpowered creatures in your battling menagerie—and rest assured that many favorites from installments past will return—but none is quite as staggering as this.
Fifteen installments in, Final Fantasy has proven it can bring the fireworks. This may just be the turnaround needed to bring this teeming, endangered world back to life.