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Early on in Final Fantasy XV, Prince Noctis and his three best friends are stranded on the side of the road pushing a broken down car to the nearest garage as Florence + The Machine’s cover of “Stand By Me” plays over the background. It’s an extended sequence, intercut by back-and-forth quips between the four main characters. And as I sat there listening to the banter and swinging the camera around to observe the landscape, I realized how unique of an experience this is. There were no Big Bads swarming around me, and I wasn’t on some Grand Quest yet. It was just a perfect little slice-of-life moment where I got to observe four friends on a road trip, who had run into an unexpected delay, and tried to make the best of it. Despite this foreign world resembling nothing of my own, I felt an immediate kinship. I thought of my college roadtrips with friends and smiled warmly as I reflected on my own personal friendships.

It’s a weird emotion to experience in a Final Fantasy game, to be sure. I grew up on the series and certainly didn’t personally identify with other characters the way I did Noctis, Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto. Despite their goofy hair and grungy clothes, I saw myself in this group. The emotional backbone was established from the first moments of the game, and while it doesn’t quite work, it’s such a bold, beautiful risk for the series to take that it’s hard to admonish them for it.

Coming of Age

The story starts simply enough: Prince Noctis is an angsty twentysomething, a stand-in for the mostly millennial target demographic. He’s off to get married to his childhood friend, an arrangement forced upon him by his father, the king. Chomping at the bit to get out of the city and enjoy their freedom, Noctis drags his three friends along for the ride and they’re off in a fancy car to take the scenic route to collect Luna, his future wife. You can almost forget this in the game’s early moments, though. As the friends rib each other and joke, the only brief glimpses you get of the importance of this marriage is through NPC conversations and radio news broadcasts.

Of course, the main pitch for the game reveals that things don’t go as planned, and while he’s away, his father’s kingdom is attacked and overtaken by the empire, so the alliance-forging marriage is immediately thrown into turmoil. As the last living heir to the throne, Noctis and his friends are fugitives on the run, camping out in obscure wilderness and trailer park RVs to avoid detection. Faced with his kingdom’s devastation, Noctis has to grow up from a whiny boy into a man worthy of the crown, and fast. While the “king on a quest” trope may seem like typical fantasy fare, the game handles this plot almost on the periphery. Sure, there’s a few plot cutscenes showing the guys discussing what to do next. Sure, there’s a few moments of urgency as the Empire closes in on Noctis and his friends. But moments after discovering the news of his father’s demise, you’re back in the open world and can decide that the best thing right now is to take you and your BFFs on a fishing trip.Final_Fantasy_XV_key_art;_characters_in_battle

The story works, in a way. By establishing the baseline for the story in the (sometimes, borderline homoerotic) friendship between the four main characters, the game situates itself among coming of age films like Stand by Me and The Breakfast Club. (I suspect the choice to include a cover of “Stand by Me” that early in the game was no coincidence.) And really, those coming of age stories all center around some kind of “larger than life” event that brings people together and forces them to grow up. However, this is still a Final Fantasy game, and the plot loses some urgency along the way by giving the player the freedom to indulge. I was legitimately confused at times by how lackadaisical the game seemed to be about the fact that a sovereign kingdom had just been overthrown and had its ruler murdered by an opposing nation. It’s as if the game said, “Oh, that’s interesting! But what if we went fishing and took photos of some cool rocks?” It’s a schizophrenic experience… one where my heart tells me I want to learn more about this friendship and the characters, but the game is telling me to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the countryside. The sense of urgency is lost almost immediately.

Without spoiling the story, suffice to say there is plenty of important information that feels like it’s left out. That is more passable in the early game where the main plot is kind of happening on the sidelines and your freedom to just hang out with your friends takes center stage. But about halfway through the game, the main plot overtakes the open world and you’re stuck on a fairly linear pathway, meaning that Stand by Me feeling is now playing second fiddle to the Generic Fantasy Quest plotline. And without more buildup and focus, the plotline feels like an utter mess. After beating the game, I had to look up an explainer article to help me understand what happened in the last few chapters. Now that I’ve read it, it makes sense. But should a player really need to do that in order to be satisfied?

(Side note: there is apparently a companion film and anime series that fill in some of the details. I did not watch them and am not taking them into account.)

Hacking and Slashing

Perhaps the biggest departure from previous games in the Final Fantasy series is the choice to evolve into completely real time action RPG combat. Gone are the turn based encounters that force you to load into a separate screen. Gone are the semi-active combat systems seen in FFXII and FFXIII that gave the appearance of not being turn based while still having arbitrary time gating in place. Instead, if you see an enemy and want to kill it, you can dash right in and mash the attack button until you’re content. The weapon system allows you to switch to four different weapons on the fly, letting you chain together some cool combos. By performing certain in-combat feats (such as attacking from behind the enemy or attacking from far away), you can get bonuses and perform sweet double-team moves with your friends in combat.

Character progression is done via a new “Ascension” system that is one part sphere grid from FFX and one part Skyrim’s leveling system. You accumulate ability points over time that can be used to unlock a wide variety of perks and upgrades across several different categories. Maybe you want to dump points into your teamwork, letting you sync up with your friends for more damage. FinalFantasy-XV4Maybe you want combat, or magic, or raw stats, or… you get the idea. Even after dumping 40+ hours into the game and completing the main story, I was nowhere near halfway through the Ascension grid, meaning there are countless varied ways to complete the game. However, I also had to return before the final chapter and grind my way up in levels. The game’s “optional” sidequests really aren’t optional, because the main story content scales up at a rapid rate, leaving you in the dust and dying constantly if you don’t go back and complete sidequests to reach an appropriate level. I can appreciate the open world nature of doing your own thing, but I don’t appreciate the feeling of needing to grind out levels by doing supposedly optional quests in order to complete the game.

Gear has less of a presence here than in other Final Fantasy games, and it’s a mixed bag of results. On the one hand, it’s streamlined so you’re not having to spend hours tinkering with characters to get the exact right configurations. And in a game that’s as long as this, any time you can shave off is a blessing. There are only a handful of potential weapons for each character in the game, aided by the fact that each party member can only use one type of primary weapon and one type of secondary weapon. Each character can also equip a stat-boosting trinket like a bangle that boosts HP or a necklace that resists fire damage. While it’s a welcome change to not spend so much time in inventory menus, the game also feels a bit flat for it. There are no cosmetic changes to be had to character appearances outside of a measly few starting options that don’t affect much and then, of course, weapon appearances.

In the end, the combat certainly feels fluid and fun, and there’s potential for depth. But certain mechanics and abilities aren’t explained well and leave the combat with a bit of obscurity. There were more minibosses and bosses that required me to just potion-spam my way through it in order to survive. That’s partially because I skipped out on some early game quests that would’ve helped my level, but it’s partially due to the game’s progression system feeling like it was designed with a kitchen sink attitude, hoping the player would just figure it out along the way.

Worth the Wait

Despite the feeling that the story is a jumbled spaghetti and despite the fact that the combat scales up too quickly and doesn’t give the player a good way to take advantage of the depth, I still consider this a very worthwhile experience. It’s great to see a game take such huge risks in its franchise this late in its lifespan. And it’s especially refreshing to see a publisher take a risk on a game that was in development for more than a decade.

While it’s not a perfect experience, I think it’s one that people should at least give the time of day. The story isn’t great, but it’s good. I still cried throughout the game when it hits the right beats, even if those beats were rushed and featured no downtime. The progression might require some grinding and backtracking, but you know what? For the first time ever, when I was forced to come home for a few hours a night and complete old quests to gain experience, I didn’t dread it. I looked forward to returning to the world of Eos with Noctis, Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto.

The four guys at the center of this experience really give the game a heart unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I know them all very well now and won’t forget them anytime soon. And who knows? Maybe I’ll start to miss hearing Prompto’s unbridled excitement at everything, or Ignis’ droll pragmatism, or Gladio’s no-nonsense father figure life lessons. This is the rare single player game that I expect I’ll return to in the future, if only to have one last joyride with the four main characters and catch that brief moment where the sun it setting, the radio is blaring, and anything seems possible.