About a dozen hours into Final Fantasy XV, after I’d slain countless monsters and traveled hundreds of miles and bonded with tight-knit group of friends, a strange feeling swelled in my chest. The four of us stood on the rocky beach of a picturesque lake surrounded by towering green trees. The sun began to set, bathing everything in a gorgeous yellow light. Prompto, the blonde, goofy member of our quartet, had just set the timer of his camera and skittered back to the scenic spot so we could all take a photo together. As the shutter made its loud “click!” it dawned on me: I’m really going to miss these guys when this is over.
Like its predecessors in the long-running series, Final Fantasy XV is an epic role-playing game that spans dozens of hours. The kind of game where you travel across a fantastical world in order to save the planet from some kind of ultimate evil. But it also differs from past Final Fantasy games, which were often defined in part by linear stories and strategic, turn-based combat. FFXV has been in some form of production for over a decade, and the end result brings the series into the modern day with a vast open-world and dynamic, fast-paced battles.
The core of Final Fantasy didn’t get lost in this transition, though. Instead the new elements bolster the experience, making for an exciting journey across a fascinating world. Yet for all of its towering ambitions and big, new changes, the parts of the game that have stuck with me are those more personal moments between four friends who truly love each other. I spent nearly 40 hours saving the world, but what really made me tear up was, near the end of the journey, stumbling across a goofy selfie.
FFXV puts you in the role of Noctis, a sullen 20-year-old prince who looks ripped out of a Japanese RPG playbook, complete with the ability to wield both magic and huge swords, and an inability to come to grips with the heavy responsibilities of adulthood. Early on, he sets out to a nearby city to marry his childhood friend Lady Lunafreya. He’s joined by three friends: gruff bodyguard Gladiolus, stiff and serious guardian Ignis, and the goofy-yet-troubled Prompto. The four dress entirely in black and look every part the boy band. Even when they spend the night camping in the wilderness, their hair still looks perfect.
At its heart the game is a road trip story about best friends, a car, the open road — doused in Final Fantasy-style. The quartet drive perhaps the most luxurious car possible, while traveling long highways dotted with small towns and lots of charming little diners. When they head off road and walk through the wilderness, they encounter all manner of monstrous beasts to battle. They listen to the radio, but you, the player, have the option to put on classic FF soundtracks.
Of course, true to JRPG tradition, a modest journey rapidly spirals into something grander, with setting the squad on a path to rescue the world from an imminent darkness.
FFXV reminds me a lot of Final Fantasy VII, a game which marked the series’ ascent to true blockbuster status. Like that game, FFXV feels like a collection of contradictions that, despite themselves, gel into a cohesive whole. It’s a lavish spectacle that loves to focus on the mundane; a deeply serious story of love, loss, and friendship that’s also incredibly silly at times; a fantasy realm filled with elements ripped from science fiction and modern-day life; and a celebration of blatant stereotypical JRPG character types, yet the core cast grows beyond their tropes into personalities that feel like real people with real emotions.
For all of its tonal similarities to past entries, FFXV is a vastly different experience to actually play. Whereas traditional JRPGs tend to be linear affairs, from its earliest moments FFXV offers a huge world to explore at your leisure. Though nowhere near as dynamic or dense as games like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed, the space instills a similar sense of freedom and awe. Here’s a huge world where you can go just about anywhere.
You’ll no longer need to grind your way through countless random battles to upgrade your heroes’ skills; instead you can take on many different side quests that send you exploring various corners of the world, which will help you earn new abilities, gear, and cash. Quests vary in quality. For every thrilling adventure, there are multiple tedious fetch quests that simply have you running from one place to another in order to collect and deliver an item. One particularly egregious mission had me staring at the ground for a good 40 minutes searching for five red frogs on a beach, calling to mind the low points of massively multiplayer online games of the early 2000s. Luckily, you’re free to skip the more bothersome side missions, as FFXV isn’t a game that forces you to do a lot of extra grinding in order to succeed through the main storyline.
FFXV does away with the concept of random and turn-based battles, the menu-based combat system familiar to anyone who’s played previous Final Fantasy games. You only control Noctis — his buddies act on their own, except when you pull off special “teamwork” attacks. He attacks in real time, and his ability to perform rapid-fire combos and warp around the battlefield makes battles feel fast and fluid. They also look incredible: summoning powerful monsters and casting magical spells will result in gloriously outlandish visual effects. You can still essentially pause the game in order to do things like use a healing item, but for the most part, battles in FFXV feel like something out of an action game. You can even dodge and block attacks.
The changes are largely refreshing, but come with rough edges and inconsistent rules. While combat is faster and more satisfying, it can also get confusing and messy, especially when you’re fighting huge groups of enemies or especially massive bosses. When you’re warping around, attacking dozens of foes, the camera rarely tracks you properly, making it a chore to see what’s going on around you. The only way I was able to survive some of the bigger battles, where I couldn’t see what was happening, was by using the lock-on ability and hoping for the best.
The visual language of the game’s world, meanwhile, can be inconsistent. Some of the time you’ll be able to jump on objects or sneak through gaps to reach new areas. But in other places, you can’t. The game never makes it clear when or why you can interact with some areas and not others, even when they look near identical. It can make finding your way out of maze-like areas incredibly frustrating. At its lowest moments, the world feels lifeless, a series of interesting locations surrounded by virtually empty space. If you choose to venture out on foot instead of by car, the tedium weighs on you like a fat chocobo.
FFXV makes a lot of changes, but one of my favorites revolves around the game’s structure. While the world is largely open to you early on, toward the conclusion, events funnel your gang into a more linear experience. This decision solves one of the big narrative problems with open-world games, where you’re on a quest to save the world yet can take time to complete inconsequential side-quests or just aimlessly explore. But in FFXV, when things get serious, you can’t squander time — the campaign suddenly and confidently demands your focus. It’s a bold and refreshing change that helps make the game’s final moments feel as intense and powerful as they should. (Thankfully, when you finish the game, you’re free to venture back into the open world to do anything you might have left unfinished or unexplored.)
And FFXV earns its emotional final act by doing an exceptional job of honing in on the more personal moments with its cast, the ones that will make you truly care about your companions. There are ancient kings, powerful gods, and prophecies of a hero of light, but the story shines in smaller, more relatable moments.
For example, Prompto is a budding photographer, and every evening you can check out the pictures he’s captured. Some are posed group shots, others candid snaps of nothing in particular. Prompto takes a lot of selfies, displaying his trademark goofy grin. As you flit through the camera roll, your friends comment on the pictures; Noctis might mention how good he looks in a closeup, while Gladiolus will reminisce about the battle that resulted in a cool action shot. By the end of the game you’ll have amassed a treasure trove of meaningful memories filled with everything from camping trips to giant monster encounters.
Similarly, Ignis is an accomplished chef, and when the group goes camping for the night — which you’ll need to do when there’s no nearby hotel to stay in — he whips up a tasty meal. He’ll learn new recipes over the course of the game and you can gather ingredients for him to try. Sometimes, after a battle with a wild beast, he’ll exclaim “I’ve come up with a new recipe!” and use some of the meat in a dish. All of the meals are rendered with a startling attention to detail, even though they serve little gameplay purpose other than a few slight stat boosts. This focus on the mundane aspects of the quest keeps it and the group grounded. These aren’t just guys who are fighting together to save the world. They eat together and joke around. They cry together. Each has a favorite food and a special talent that helps define them.
Thanks to a series of missteps and huge gaps between new games, Final Fantasy is no longer the iconic name it once was. That pressure is a lot for any game to deal with, let alone one with the long and troubled development history of FFXV. Yet the game not only manages to deliver exactly what you’d expect from a great FF experience — an epic quest, memorable characters, a beautiful world to explore, stunning visuals, and soundtrack — but goes a step further.
This is a Final Fantasy that merges the decade of progress established by its contemporaries with the series’ iconic blend of storytelling, art, and music. And more than any game in the series before it, FFXV feels personal, creating the kinds of connections with fictional characters that few games manage. I may forget parts of the story, the hows and whys of the grand adventure, but I won’t forget those intimate moments. It’s a journey where the characters grow in more than just stats.
As I approached the end of the game, I dreaded the final confrontation, knowing that after the credits rolled my time with these characters would come to an end. I’m just happy I have all of these photos to remind me of the good times.