Final Fantasy XV opens with a screen saying that this game is “A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers”. And I’m not sure that I agree with that. It’s abundantly clear – even from the first minute – that this a Final Fantasy game. Sure, we’ve heard about the massive changes: the open world, the real-time combat and the ostensibly all-male cast. But once you peel back the layers, you’ll find that this is very much an archetypal Final Fantasy game. You’ll still spend a lot of time doing not too much. You’ll stare slack jawed at the landscape and you’ll fall in love with the characters and their tale. What I’m saying is, in FFXV, the Final Fantasy game hasn’t changed so much, as evolved.

I’ll start by discussing the combat system. The pre-release talk was all about real time combat. Combat was hyped up to be an action based affair. And it is – at least at first glance. When the combat works, it feels amazing. You’re able to interact with team mates to launch link strikes, which will deal extensive damage. When these land it’s rewarding and effective. More than this, it really works well with the whole ‘band of brothers’ thing the game has going. Sadly, when the combat isn’t great, it feels awful. More often than not, this is the fault of the camera. It’s hard enough to hit a punching bag if you’re looking somewhere else. So trying to fight a daemon with your head in a bush is almost impossible. Furthermore, the roles of magic and summons are so small that you’re confined to a melee-based approach, which can make FFXV feel two dimensional when compared to other titles in the series.

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That’s not to say that magic and summons are useless. They definitely play their parts. But these parts are so small that on the surface, combat seems quite simple: attack with B, warp-attack with Y and dodge with X. There’s also a myriad of special attacks, reminiscent of the overdrives of old, that can be used to deal massive damage when they’re charged. Items are integral to combat. They’re more important than ever because white magic is virtually non-existent. After a few battles, you’ll realise that the ‘real time’ combat is very much a guise. Combat might be different but it’s not a big change. Once you get a feel for how things work, you’ll be able to fight just like you had in any other Final Fantasy game. Throw ‘Wait Mode’ on and you’ll barely notice a difference. For the record, this is good. There are hundreds of games with amazingly refined real-time action combat system. And as far as I’m concerned, Final Fantasy shouldn’t be one of them. The combat has been a series trademark; it’s fine for that trademark to evolve – as it has done here – but it shouldn’t change entirely. And I think, in this way FFXV has really succeeded.

The story continues that success, portraying a rather simple tale – or at least a tale less ridiculous than those of other recent instalments. The downside is that it’s slow to start. The age old adage says to start strong and this is something that FFXV definitely forgot, because the opening scene is of you pushing a broken car down a highway. From there you take it to a mechanic, run a few trashy errands and continue to do a bunch of stuff that you don’t like to do but have to do in real life – in short, the stuff we play games to avoid. Now, don’t get me wrong, once the story picks up properly it really is excellent. As a narrative it’s fairly simple, but it weaves intricately around a score of memorable characters and breathtaking locations. And that’s where its excellence lies.

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After the introduction, when the stakes are raised and the empire invades, you’re free to roam the open world, exploring and undertaking side quests. During this stage, the game is truly sensational. It’s empowering and enjoyable to be able to attack the story at your own pace while having the open world at your disposal. However, linearity ensues in the final chapters of the game. You’re confined to a set area, running down narrow pathways killing one enemy at a time. It’s a stark juxtaposition to the freedom and diverse battles that preceded it. Admittedly, the linear sections are integral for storytelling, but it’s hard to like something when it’s such a blatant step backwards. Of course, once you trudge through this section, you’re free to roam the world again. Simply experiencing the world is enough of an incentive for exploration. But if that doesn’t do it for you, the side-quests, monster hunts and locations that can be discovered through exploration are dazzling.

Of course, none of this would be as satisfying without our central protagonists. Despite looking like a boy band, Noct, Ignis, Prompto and Gladio are great characters. And their interactions are amazing. Whether its bickering on a road trip or summoning courage in the face of adversity, the boys spouted dialogue that was unpredictable yet natural. In the spirit of Final Fantasy protagonists, they felt like actual people. I mentioned the game’s slow start before, but it doesn’t take long to warm to the characters. In fact, these characters provide enough spice to make even the game’s dullest moments interesting.

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Let me end on a positive note by saying that, graphically, FFXV is probably the most impressive game I’ve ever played. The characters – from the protagonists to fleetingly encountered AI – are created with unbelievably intricate detail. There’s pigmentation on the skin and there’s feeling in the characters’ eyes. The world is vivid, colourful and, more importantly, diverse. From the countrysides to the cities, FFXV’s environments have set a new standard. Not only is this world gorgeous, but its constituent parts are important both individually and as part of the greater world. They fit together and they’re involved in the story. Visually, FFXV is a head and shoulders above the other instalments in a series that has been heralded for stunning visuals.

But what’s the final verdict?

Well, the bar was set almost unbelievably high for FFXV. No matter how amazing this game was, it was never going to fulfil 10 years of expectations. Is it as good as the long-time-waiting fans had hoped it had be? Probably not. But I don’t think that’s a fair basis to judge the game. FFXV had a troubled journey from its inception to the shelves. It’s impressive that we even got a game and it’s almost unbelievable that we got a game that’s this good. Final Fantasy XV is a worthy instalment in one of gaming’s longest running franchises. The game hosts some show-stopping spectacles and a narrative that I’m sure will be remembered as one of the year’s best. It’s a magnificent game. And while it does have its problems, its virtues are so great that those problems are quite easily overlooked.

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