Final Fantasy XV ($23 at Walmart) is a mess, but it's a beautiful mess worth experiencing. Searching for a way to explain it, I keep coming up with paradoxes. It's unwieldy but touching. It's sloppy, yet satisfying. It'll make you raise your eyebrows, but you'll also lose your breath.
First unveiled as Final Fantasy Versus XIII at E3 2006, the game takes place in the world of Eos, amid a war between the Niflheim empire and Lucis -- the one region it's yet to take control of. The two sides have agreed on a peace treaty which stipulates that Noctis, the crown prince of Lucis, marry Lady Lunafreya of the imperial Tenebrae. This is a happy coincidence as the pair were childhood friends.
Naturally, things don't go so smoothly, and a journey of sufficiently epic proportions ensues. I say "sufficiently" because Final Fantasy fans expect a certain depth and expansiveness from the franchise, and XV lives up to that.
The story is far from perfect. At around 25 hours, it's much shorter than many games in the series, some plot points aren't given the impact or payoff they deserve and to fully appreciate it you'll need to watch "Kingsglave: Final Fantasy XV." But the game covers a lot of ground in that 25 hours, and my emotions were well and truly stirred by the time it was all over.
Hitting all the right notes during that time was the game's piano-heavy orchestral score. It punctuates Final Fantasy XV's key moments, enhancing the moments of sorrow, mirth and danger. If you're like me, you'll be adding the game's OST to your playlist.
With a little help from my friends
The game's thematic and dramatic foundation lies in the relationship between Noctis and his three companions: the brainy Ignis, the brawny Gladiolus and the chirpy Prompto.
None of them can compare with memorable past characters such as Auron, Vincent and Balthier, but their relationship is something new. Unlike other Final Fantasy games, this isn't a group rife with self interests united by a common enemy. Rather, it's an existing brotherhood hurled into chaos.
They care for each other, banter like friends and have a believable connection. Much is accomplished here by the believable dialogue and quality voice acting, which avoids the cringey emotional moments you may remember from previous games in the series.
Their bond is something different for the franchise, and it works. It's reminiscent of Sora, Donald and Goofy from the. That makes sense, since the game's director from 2006 to 2012 was Kingdom Hearts creator Tetsuya Nomura.
Fight for your right to party
The combat, too, is more Kingdom Hearts than Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy is famous for its turn-based combat, though XII and XIII both altered the formula. XV sees the formula done away with altogether, instead using a real-time combat system.
The foundation of the combat is basic: Hold one button to chain attacks, hold another to block and parry. But there are many layers of flash to keep things interesting, including Noctis' warp ability that he can use to attack enemies and a variety of team attacks between Noctis and company.
Final Fantasy XV also breaks with combat conventions. There are no white or black mages, which means most of the healing is done with potions, and spells are cast by lobbing balls of fire, ice or thunder.
As with previous Final Fantasy outings, you'll gain the power to summon powerful allies in battle. But in XV you have no control over when you'll be able to use them. Every now and then you get a prompt to summon one of the Astral Gods of Eos -- but which God you call up and when this prompt appears seems up to the whim of the game. Summon prompts appear quite rarely, so they no longer really feel like part of your arsenal. But since you won't see them in every battle, it makes them feel like more of a spectacle to marvel at.
The magic is also stunning. My favourite spell is Blizzard, which causes the entire field of action to be engulfed in an ice storm. If your allies get caught in lightning caused by the Thunder spell, they'll walk around with charred hair and skin for a few minutes.
The combat, always fluid and stylish, is generally satisfying to watch, and the game's CG cutscenes look terrific.
If you're not interested in side quests, you could see the story's final scene after 20 hours of play. That's short for a Final Fantasy game, but Square Enix has prepared a rich post-game world to explore. Between the dizzying amount of side quests, fishing, bounty hunts, extra dungeons and superboss fights, the games really only begin once Noctis' story has been told.
But there are still design flaws that can't be ignored. Take travelling around the world: Running from place to place takes far too long at the best of times, but even riding a chocobo or driving in the squad's Regalia car can feel slow. You can quickly travel from town to town, but there are also times where you'll have to endure up to 10 minutes of bland driving to get from one side of Eos to the next.
It feels like Square wanted to use this as an opportunity to showcase the world, but the world just doesn't hold up to such scrutiny. And worse, the process is a buzzkill.
All that driving around highlights that much of the game, riddled with unrefined textures, looks like it was developed for Playstation 3. It's a pity because the setting is artistically breathtaking. And while the character models generally look good, there's the odd rough detail, like sharp hair texturing.
So was Final Fantasy XV worth the decade-long wait? A wait that long builds the kind of anticipation that almost nothing can live up to. But Final Fantasy XV is absolutely worth playing. The story is fulfilling, especially if you invest in the expanded universe, and RPG fans will find plenty to love in this imaginative entry in one of gaming's most iconic franchises.