To say that Final Fantasy XV has had a ‘troubled development history’ would be a huge understatement. The ten cent one-liner bandied about on the game’s launch date was to say “I’ve been waiting 10 years to play this game” – a bewildered and slightly self-deprecating semi-joke acknowledging the games initial announcement as a PlayStation 3 exclusive called (at the time) Final Fantasy Versus XIII. For many, it was a game long forgotten or given up on – a footnote on the Wikipedia page of Final Fantasy XIII proper. Yet here we are – 10 years, a console generation, and a change of creative directors later – able to play one of the most unlikely video games ever to journey through development hell and make it out alive. But perhaps more unlikely still, despite all the struggles to simple exist, Final Fantasy XV is actually kind of amazing. “The Tale of the Chosen King, Saviour to the Star.” These are the words that set the scene. Followed up with a short scene of the protagonists struggling against a fiery demon, flames licking at them as they do battle, these together form the prologue for the story. The dramatic battle, for which we don’t know the outcome, transitions into an earlier moment in time – a scene where a King bids farewell to his son, and his boyband looking entourage of protectors, as they embark on a journey to a neighbouring kingdom so that Prince Noctis may be wed to the Princess Lunafreya. It’s a complicated, negotiated political event between several great global powers, but make no mistake, Noctis and Luna are very much in love. In some ways it’s a lot to soak in during the first 5 minutes of a new game, but it conveys the key important detail quite effectively; this is one last bachelor stag do – a road trip with the boys. Another scene change sees the boys by the side of the road, car by their side, attempting to flag down the other vehicles that occasionally pass along this stretch of road in the middle of the desert. With a last ounce of strength, and a lot of complaining, they start to push the car themselves to the nearest garage on the map as the beautiful Florence and the Machine cover of Ben E King’s ‘Stand By Me’ begins to play over the car radio. Final Fantasy XV opens incredibly strongly: From here the massive game world begins to open up. At its best it feels a lot like Red Dead Redemption – with its long stretches of empty roads and wilderness, punctuated with towns, rest stops, and folks hard on their luck yelling for help at passers-by. It’s a world that’s alive and filled with randomized, unscripted moments that surprise and delight you on your journey. From here you’re free to indulge in a wealth of optional quests or beeline it straight through the key story events. Unlike previous Final Fantasies and other contemporary JRPGs, the main storyline in Final Fantasy XV can be beaten in under 30 hours (as opposed to the usual 50-60 hour story campaigns that usually plague the genre). Side quests vary quite dramatically in terms of entertainment value, with more tedious ones involving the collection of frogs, minerals or food items out on the field. The best side quests are the hunts, which are given to you by various restauranteurs around the world and involve going to a location and taking care of a particularly pesky monster. Going out with your buds to hunt monsters and collect the rewards – what more could you ask for? The battle mechanics of Final Fantasy XV are, well, they’re unusual. I tend not to like turn-based/reflexive action combat hybrids at the best of times, and Final Fantasy XV leans quite heavily into mode of play that the series has been iterating on since Final Fantasy XII. The system in this game actually strips away a lot of the strategy and depth that is normally associated with the genre and instead leans heavily on action and timing. It’s not exactly what I think they should have done, but it’s a system that seems to serve the game well enough – even if I mostly found myself utilizing the one strategy of ‘spending all my money on potions and outlasting all my opponents through sheer attrition’. When all else fails, you can always just <Capitalism>. It’s dumb, but it’s fun. Final Fantasy XV is also incredibly inconsistent. The game has been in development for 10 years and under two different creative leads – and it shows. Characters you’ve never heard of will suddenly drop into the story and be treated with great significance before vanishing again without any further mention. There’s a juggling act between a story of ‘royal destiny’ and the world’s modern aesthetic. These two elements alternate between clashing and gelling well. It’s a game about fishing, camping, road trips, and getting entangled in the lives of everyday people you meet along the way. It’s also about political intrigue, deception and destiny. It’s a game of magic and monsters, but also of smart phones and modern infrastructure. In terms of character design, Prince Noctis and his pals look like an anime J-rock band whilst his father – the king – looks more like he’s styled after a wise old monarch from a Tolkien adaptation. It’s a game of dualities that sometimes overlap convincingly, but also drifts apart to the point of dissonance. I did say it was “kind of amazing” in the opening paragraph after all. Well thankfully the ending is just as strong as the beginning of the game. So even when the quality and clarity of the story veers off into some absurd directions, you’ll probably walk away feeling satisfied with the emotional beats the story hits. This is largely achieved through the cast of characters – at least the main ones – who will endear themselves to you completely throughout the game. The idle, ambient banter of Prompto being goofy or Ignus being pompously sensible will sustain you as you traverse the world. Each character is brought to life with unique mechanics, such as Ignus’ cooking on the road or Prompto’s keen eye for photography – documenting all the highs and lows of the journey. At first you will see these as trivial little quirks of the game, but they become so entangled with the characterisation of each of the boys that later on in the story the game is able to take advantage of the gameplay quirks and twist them in ways that will really fuck with your emotions. It’s strange that a game with so many colossal fuckups can also have so many incredibly subtle moments pulled off with incredible finesse. In the end, it’s a shame that Final Fantasy XV wasn’t more of a straight up ‘road trip adventure game’. It made me imagine how cool it would be to drive through this world and just jump from crazy caper to crazy caper. A whole game of being run out of town by a local gang or having to come up with bail after a circumstantial misunderstanding. A game where hitchhiking might land you in some hot water, but nobody counted on you and your goofy buddies being both highly resourceful and incredibly lucky. I’d like to see that game please. But even if it doesn’t quite get all the way there, Final Fantasy XV still manages to be a great entry in a series that hasn’t been as good as it should be lately. It’s not always a good game, but at least it comes with great friends that will stand by your side throughout it all.