(First posted 3/27/2017. Pictures are now numbered in order to facilitate discussion) Car oriented video games are about as old as the medium itself, but beyond racing games like the Forza series and all around mayhem simulators like Grand Theft Auto V, the appreciation of the automobile remains scant. Final Fantasy XV, the latest installment from a hugely popular and storied franchise, stands as one notable exception.
What exactly is Final Fantasy? Each installment is a member of the RPG (role-playing game) genre, a category that follows similar beats to something like The Lord of the Rings, where you and your assortment of allies are tasked with saving the world from some all-powerful evil. Within the games you’re essentially playing as the Bilbo Baggins type: the protagonist with the weight of the world on their shoulders. However, unlike the aforementioned book/film series, the numbered Final Fantasy games are not directly related to one another. Despite that, each game feels similar to previous ones, kind of like how the James Bond films handle different actors playing the same secret agent. For example, moviegoers can expect to see Q concocting all sorts of gadgets for Bond regardless of which film they’re watching, while Final Fantasy fans can expect to see someone named Cid pop up at some point during their adventure.
Although the first entry saw success upon its debut in 1987, the series didn’t properly break out until Final Fantasy IV, released in 1991 for the Super Nintendo. Square’s desire to push boundaries with each subsequent game compares favorably to the career trajectory of The Beatles, as both groups steadily built upon their previous works to elevate their mediums to extraordinary heights, and to much fanfare. Their relentless output also mirrored the Fab Four: five critically acclaimed games from 1991 to 1999, a figure that does not include the other successful games Square developed concurrently with its flagship franchise.
While popular in its home market of Japan, the series didn’t attract much international attention until 1997, when Square created its own Ed Sullivan moment with Final Fantasy VII. The seventh installment differed from previous games due to its extensive use of 3D graphics, made possible in part by Square’s decision to ditch Nintendo for Sony’s Playstation. The game also broke ground by featuring modern technology, a departure from previous games, all of which utilized a fantasy setting for their fictional worlds. Magic and swordplay now existed alongside guns and automobiles. Paired with these innovations was an engaging story, memorable protagonists, and one of the most surprising plot twists in video game history. Square struck gold.
The good times couldn’t last forever. While Final Fantasy IX received high praise from critics, it sold less than VII and VIII, likely due to its return to a more traditional fantasy setting and Square’s decision to release the game right before the launch of the Playstation 2. Final Fantasy X, which shipped to retailers in the summer of 2001, performed well, but suffered from linear gameplay.
Compounding these problems was Square’s desire to alter the formula of their most popular series. In addition to Final Fantasy X, the summer of 2001 also gave us the CGI movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The full length, wide-release theatrical film produced by the newly created Square Pictures went wildly over budget and did not receive favorable reviews from critics or the public. The result? One of the worst box office flops of all time. The film performed poorly for many reasons, but a likely contributor to its failure was its lack of resemblance to the video games it shared a name with, which was an utterly baffling decision, since 1993’s Super Mario Bros. tried the same thing eight years before, with similar results.
Square also started to broaden the Final Fantasy brand by developing remakes, spin-offs, and sequels. Most notably, the company decided to call their first MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game Final Fantasy XI, a decision that meant numbered titles weren’t exclusively single player experiences anymore. After a merger in 2003, Square became Square Enix, and resources shifted towards supporting XI due to its extremely successful debut. The result was a five year gap between X and XII, the next single player game in the franchise. This paradigm shift departed from what Square had done in the recent past, when the company released three major games in three years.
The world never got to hear how The Beatles would have responded to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Queen. Instead, we got the video game equivalent with Square Enix and Final Fantasy XIII. Released in 2009 to sharp criticism for its linear gameplay, a substantial portion of the gaming community wondered if the traditional Final Fantasy experience could survive the 2010’s. This wasn’t because of poor sales. With few exceptions each successive entry in the series sold more units than its predecessor, and the games that didn’t still performed well. It was the newer intellectual properties from rival game studios that presented the folks at Square Enix with fresh challenges.
Japanese video game developers dominated pretty much every genre until the 2000’s. In order to break out of the mold established by their Asian counterparts, western developers created what is now called the “open world” model, a style of gameplay focused more on exploration and giving the player the freedom to complete quests or missions in whatever order they desire. Grand Theft Auto III, developed by British developer DMA Design and released in October 2001, demonstrated the appeal of a 3D, open world environment and quickly became a hit.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind followed a similar path. Developed in Maryland by Bethesda Game Studios, the game firmly established the difference between RPG games developed by Japanese and western studios. Now games in this particular genre carry the de facto labeling scheme of “WRPG,” to denote a title that takes place in an open world environment as popularized by American and European companies, or “JRPG,” the more traditional Japanese model that focuses more on a strict narrative and structured gameplay experience.
The western style RPG really came into its own with Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which immediately became an international hit upon its release in 2011. As of November 2016, the game sold over 30 million copies. To put that into perspective, Final Fantasy XIII and its two sequels sold less than half that number. Although no one directly quoted these figures when discussing the state of the Final Fantasy franchise, the gaming community increasingly viewed the series as outdated and incapable of adapting to modern tastes.
Employees at Square Enix felt the same way, and recently game director Hajime Tabata stated that Final Fantasy XV (XIV is another MMO) would have been the last of the series had it failed to find an audience. Fortunately that didn’t happen, with the latest entry selling over five millions units almost four months after its release, a figure that makes it the fastest selling game in the franchise.
With Final Fantasy XV, Square Enix finally recognized the popularity of the open world format. They also chose to give the game a more realistic aesthetic compared to previous entries, with the result being what you see above. If you thought the photo looks like something right out of the American southwest, you’re right, as the designers specifically sought to emulate the American road trip experience.
Final Fantasy XV follows the story of Crown Prince Noctis and his three friends as they traverse the Kingdom of Lucis in order to find a boat that will take them to the city of Altissia, where the prince is to wed his betrothed. Obviously the plot isn’t just about a wedding, but the beginning of the game really feels like a quasi-bachelor party road trip.
The game mechanics encourage you to stop and eat at regular intervals, which only enhances the feeling that you’re genuinely traveling long distances.
Prince Noctis is in the drivers seat, and since he’s the only person you control in the game, he’s the one who gets behind the wheel if you choose manual mode and drive the car yourself. Ignis, the guy with the glasses and spikey hair, drives the car if you prefer to let the game take you to your next location. The blonde haired dude in the front passenger seat is Prompto, the frequently annoying comic relief, and behind him sits Gladiolus, Prince Noctis’ personal bodyguard.
The other main character is the Regalia, a one-off vehicle designed exclusively for King Regis, who lets the gang use it for their trip. The four door, hard-top convertible is an important part of Final Fantasy XV, and throughout the game you really get the feeling that the guys deeply respect the car.
With LED tail lights, backlit dashboard gauges, and an electronic push button shift mechanism, the Regalia has all the hallmarks of a modern vehicle.
The exterior and interior definitely resemble the Bentley Mulsanne.
The game allows you to alter the interior and exterior colors at Hammerhead Garage, which is pictured above.
The proprietor of Hammerhead Garage uses this tow rig to assist the group if the Regalia runs out of gas.
The property also features an item shop and a diner, so its parking lot is home to many vehicles. This particular truck is a rolling weapons store.
Throughout Lucis, trailers serve the purpose of giving the group a place to stay for the night, if they have the money for it.
To keep things as realistic as possible, no car permanently occupies the same spot. Although the game only features several makes and models, individual cars are quite varied in color and condition. This convertible got my attention with its bright color scheme, which really stood out at night.
Square Enix didn’t skimp on interior designs either, making this photography tour feel like a genuine CC hunt, with the added benefit of being able to do all of this from my couch.
Come morning the algorithm responsible for the cars decided to put the top up. Kind of the opposite route a real life owner would take, eh?
This pale blue sedan bears a resemblance to the Impala.
At least from the front, anyway.
The Kingdom of Lucis is home to many parking lots, but outside the town of Lestallum you’ll find vehicles resting curbside, despite the ample parking not far from where this picture was taken.
As you’ll see in subsequent shots, having the cars parked along the curb gives the town a great atmosphere. Lestallum bears a strong resemblance to Havana, Cuba and the cars are a big part of that aesthetic.
The lovely patina on this Ford Cortina lookalike doesn’t take away from its excellent two tone paint job.
The fictional manufacturer of this sedan is Gracchus. Seems like the game designers are fans of Roman history.
This yellow pick up is another Gracchus product. Based on a quick internet search I’d say a Fargo truck influenced one of the artists at Square Enix to create this vehicle.
More Patina! Also note the intricate shadows.
Although this particular truck is the same make and model of the yellow one, it appears the game slacked off when rendering the front grille of the yellow Gracchus, as it appears quite blurry when compared to this one.
This wagon has Japanese style side mirrors while looking great in green.
It also sports a healthy dose of patina.
I only took a few interior shots because the zoom in camera mode doesn’t work well with the cars. Fortunately Square Enix did their homework and created detailed interior designs that still look good with the camera pulled back.
Here is another shot of that fantastic rear end at sunset, in the perpetually empty parking lot that the citizens of Lucis ignore to park right on the side of the street or directly on top of the sidewalk.
This car appears to be made by Benbow, which may be a nod to a John Benbow, an officer in the Royal Navy during the late 17th century, or his son, who shared the same name.
Could this car fit right in with its real life counterparts on the streets of Pre-war London? I think so.
Benbow also made this sedan at some point in its history. I’m guessing the artists at Square Enix researched British automotive design then decided to name the fictional car company after a somewhat obscure figure as tribute.
Is this vintage Vixen more British than American? I’m not sure.
Red suites this Vixen convertible well.
I’m also digging the rear end and the wrap-around chrome strip.
Large delivery and off road trucks also roam the streets of Lucis. This particular truck carries Cup Noodles. Yes, you read that right. Nissin and Cup Noodles now exist in the real world and in the fictional world of Final Fantasy XV.
I’m not sure how I feel about real world companies advertising their products in a video game set in a fictional world. What I do know is that the truck looks pretty cool.
That faint lettering on the truck to the right indicates its a Gracchus product.
There’s also this variant, primarily used by the group that protects citizens and hunts the monsters that plague Lucis.
As for the broader Final Fantasy XV experience, overall it was the most frustrating game I’ve ever played. It was also the most rewarding. Perhaps my nostalgia on returning to the series that greatly entertained me when I was a kid is a factor for my positive feelings towards the experience. Or maybe the idea of a couple of dudes cruising around town while goofing off reminds me of my college years, when a simple car trip to the supermarket with my three friends could become a hilarious adventure. Either way, and for the first time in a over a decade, I’m excited about the future of the Final Fantasy franchise.
All in-game screenshots taken by the author.