For a good number of years now, mainline Final Fantasy titles haven’t really bothered with the whole “player projection” schtick. Sure, you can often rename your main character and the merry band of misfits that accompany him on his journey, but by and large you’re stuck with the sulky anime super-soldier Square-Enix have decided will be the leading man (or woman) of their story. Ever since Final Fantasy IV placed us in the black enameled grieves of Cecil Harvey, there’s been little room for players to imagine themselves as the heroes of the tale.

This trend did continue with Final Fantasy XV when it finally released in November last year. While you might have issues with the gaping holes in the games somewhat disjointed story, it’s hard to deny that Noctis Lucis Caelum has a very clear character arc, and his progression from entitled millenial nobleman to messiah figure is far more nuanced than Cecil’s own transformation from Magic Steampunk Batman to Alien Galahad 11 titles earlier. While Noctis was relatable, he certainly wasn’t a conventional projection of the player - he was his own boy/man.

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So when fans unearthed screenshots of a character creation tool that looked set to form part of Square-Enix’s continued support for Final Fantasy XV, speculation ran wild. We knew we’d be getting a multiplayer expansion; that much has been known for as long as the prematurely released season pass has been available. What we didn’t know was how this co-operative element of gameplay would eventually be implemented. Would players “invade” each other’s games as in Dark Souls, assuming direct control of Noctis’s normally AI-operated bros? Or would they be tackling special, standalone co-operative missions reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed Unity? Would everyone bicker over who gets to be Ignis in the same way we used to when playing co-op Streets of Rage, when we all wanted to be Blaze?

This screen taught the Sega kids of the 1990s that their siblings were arseholes they’d be competing with for the rest of their lives.

What became clear, as rumours of an in-development character creation tool began to spread, was that Final Fantasy was about to tear up its own rulebook.

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Last week, Square-Enix announced that a closed beta test would begin on August 3rd for Comrades, the subtitle for Final Fantasy XV’s long-awaied multiplayer expansion. Until the day itself, fans still didn’t really have a firm idea of what form Comrades would take. So far, we’ve received two “episodic” single-player expansions for the main game, both focusing on filling in major gaps in the narrative timelines of two of Noctis’s buddies. What had been deduced, at least, was that Comrades would be the most likely place for the new character creation tool to be implemented.

It seems a bit odd for me to be writing about Comrades. The first time I ever played an online RPG was back in the early noughties. The game in question was Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast. My brother and I used to play it together via dial-up internet, and we’d reimburse our mother the cost of bandwidth from our pocket money, like she was running some kind of illicit MMORPG coin-op from the comfort of her living room. I really enjoyed it, but it quickly became clear to me that I’d never have the time or inclination to master the game - or that particular genre in general. As such, PSO became the first and last time I dipped my toe in the murky, life-consuming waters of the MMO pool.

I’m an avowed single-player connoisseur. I view my gaming time as a private escape, and while I enjoy a bit of friendly competitive play every now and again, it doesn’t define my very existence like it seems to for eSports enthusiasts, whose hands probably tap out down-right-square in their sleep. The last time I dabbled in a multiplayer mode was with Mass Effect 3's unexpectedly addictive horde-mode style online component, and even then it was with the ulterior motive of augmenting my enjoyment of the single-player campaign, by boosting the Galactic Readiness score (or whatever they called it).

As it turns out, the gameplay and premise of Comrades looks set to have a lot in common with Bioware’s Galaxy at War. While story details are still scant in the closed beta, what we can surmise is that Comrades will be set sometime after Chapter 13 in the main game, as players take control of a user-created “Glaive”, the magically inclined royal guards of Noctis’s kingdom. Much like Galaxy at War, your online exploits don’t seem to have any meaningful impact on the plot of the main game, and instead take the form of peace-keeping missions issued by the infuriatingly enigmatic Lucian “Marshal” Cor Leonis.

 To access the closed beta, players need to have the following:

  • A copy of the base game, naturally.
  • A digital season pass for FFXV’s periodically released DLC.
  • An active PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live Gold Membership.

I’m a sucker for a good character creator, and as screenshots emerged of the closed beta’s largely restricted creation tools, it became harder for me to regard Comrades as something that wouldn’t really interest me. With news arriving recently of an imminent price-hike on PS Plus subscription, I finally took the plunge and bought a year’s-worth of Plus-time, then set to work downloading the 14GB install file.

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For anyone still on the fence about taking part in the closed beta, Comrades is pretty much exactly what you should expect from a FFXV expansion. The game’s graphics are polished to a near-perfect state, and the combat remains the same frenetic mix of flashy real-time slashing and strategic ability use. Played alongside three human-controlled Glaives, the three missions currently available are nice and diverse, tasking you with hunting monsters, defending outposts and serving as security for an on-the-road Cindy. Note that once you complete each cycle of objectives, the game thanks you for playing and boots you back to the title screen, with none of your progress saved. While this might seem annoying, it’s simply because Square-Enix are stress-testing their servers, meaning they’re currently more interested in players match-making data than they are their enjoyment factor.

Unfortunately, match-making is in an abysmal state at the moment. More often than not, efforts to quickly join a random match or requests aimed at specific matches will fail, leaving you stranded in a deserted lobby with nothing to do but read flavour text and beat up a practice dummy. Worse still, it’s possible to get stuck in a match-making loop, in which the game tries and fails to find players or link you up with available matches in a seemingly infinite loop. When this happens, what limited interactivity was available in the initial lobby is also stripped away, until the game finally gives up match-making. Even once you get to a new session’s campsite - essentially private match lobbies - you might find yourself stranded there for huge periods of time if any one player decides to tinker with their “readiness” setting too much.

“But what of the character creator?” I hear you cry. Well, customisation selections are a bit limited at the moment; clothing and hair options are minimal, accessories are locked out, and there doesn’t seem to be a make-up option beyond garish face-paint, but these shortcomings are more than made up for by the fact that there are sliders for nearly every conceivable aspect of your avatar’s appearance, from the commonplace height, jaw width and nose size through to the ubiquitous “chest size” (thankfully understated), ass-size (surprisingly dramatic) and even weight. This is the first time since Dragon’s Dogma I’ve found a character creator that allows you to construct a proper fat bastard.

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So robust is this system that I immediately made an attempt at accurately recreating myself in the game:

Meet Lucto Corvum, the fifth Chocobro?

The beard’s a bit on the thin side, and I can’t quite manage to perfectly render my alarmingly oval-shaped mug, but otherwise this is the best likeness I’ve ever managed to achieve in a game.

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Strangely, considering how well FFXV initially sold, I haven’t seen a single “show off your Glaive” thread on any of my regular online haunts yet. Please, feel free to show off your monstrosities in the comments. Who knows, there may be a metaphorical cookie in the offing for anyone who can come up with an authentically Lucian cod-Latin name for their avatar.