Final Fantasy XV is a flawed and ambitious role-playing game (RPG) that barely holds its story together. But it succeeds at making you care for the four friends at its heart.
It is a game of two halves. The first is a light-hearted jaunt in an open world that feels very much like an idealised America, with truck stops in the middle of nowhere and long roads flanked by desert. The second, grimmer half has a more linear structure.
Prince Noctis and his three companions are travelling to the city of Altissa, where Noctis is to be wed. The opening scene, which sees the four friends pushing the car after it runs out of fuel, is a wonderful introduction to these characters.
The open world is beautiful. There are hidden dungeons to explore, monsters to hunt and quests to complete. Mini-games like fishing and playing pinball are other time sinks that had me spending over 40 hours in this part of the game (the story itself probably takes an additional 20 hours). And I plan to spend even more time here, as completing the story unlocks new quests and monsters.
Unlike most open-world games, you (as Noctis) are not alone. His friends tease, quip and banter as they tear up the countryside in their souped-up car. They also help to explain some of the lore and background of the world, especially when driving to story-specific areas. This storytelling approach may feel heavy-handed, but is probably familiar to anime fans.
A nice touch: You can buy the soundtracks of previous Final Fantasy titles from various shops in the open world and play these tunes while walking or driving around.
PRICE: $84.90 (PS4, version tested, Xbox One)
GENRE: Role-playing game
The game's combat system is like a real-time action RPG rather than the tactical turn-based approach of older Final Fantasy games. The game pauses when you try to change gear or use an item. You can also enable a Wait mode that lets you scan the enemy for its weakness, which I found very helpful.
You can control only Noctis, who has the ability to warp around and strike enemies from a distance. He can link up with his friends to execute combos that deal significant damage. Button mashing works against easy foes, but you get bonus experience by doing combos and striking enemies from the rear.
When your party has levelled up and is equipped with better gear, the combat system does a great job at making you feel all-powerful and unstoppable.
When you tire of the numerous fetch and hunting quests in the open world, you can set yourself to progressing the story, which has the usual Final Fantasy elements - magic crystals, evil empires and god-like beings that Noctis can summon after he earns their favour.
Things start to go awry in the second half. As the plot unfolds, you are funnelled into increasingly short chapters. The final chapters of the game feel rushed and truncated, with major events happening off-camera and a plot twist that is right out of an anime.
Watching the companion Kingsglaive movie, which is set just after Noctis leaves on his road trip, helps with understanding the story. But this should not be the case.
As the tone of the game and the world itself turned dark, so did my mood. A low point: slogging through a particular late-game dungeon that ventures into the survival horror genre, but induces only tedium. Thankfully, things do get better at the end, with a cinematic and rousing fight.
The thing is, there is a very decent, even epic story beneath all the dross. But it has been poorly told. Perhaps Square Enix ran out of budget or time, and had to cobble together the story with in-game notes and flashbacks as band-aids.
The good news is that Square Enix has acknowledged these issues and has promised to patch in new cutscenes, as well as rework that problematic dungeon. Perhaps we will eventually get the game that we deserve after waiting for a decade.
•Verdict: Final Fantasy XV's open world is one I would return to, but its story is a mess. However, its biggest achievement is to create a believable band of brothers that I cared about.