It’s hard to write about Final Fantasy 15 without first acknowledging the journey it took to arrive in our hands. It is not an easy feat to take a game out of ten years of production hell the way director Hajime Tabata did, to sort through scraps and concepts left behind in the wake of three other games (Final Fantasy Agito XIII, Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy Versus XIII) and knit together a new and cohesive narrative, all while feeding voracious fans and media as much information as possible. Final Fantasy XV is unquestionably a major achievement, and the tangled story of its development alone gives it a historic place in the Final Fantasy franchise because it feels like a miracle that we even got this game.

On top of that, Final Fantasy XV is a feat of love, a paean to the whole Final Fantasy series and “a Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers.” From the way the main characters’ hair falls flat in the rain to the rock textures throughout Lucis, small details in every part of Final Fantasy XV reveal how much love and labor was poured into this title. It’s hard not to respond to such love and dedication with an equal outpouring of gratitude and acknowledgment to Tabata and his team.

Best and most important of all, this does not feel like a half-assed, rushed attempt at banging out some Final Fantasy tropes by rote. Final Fantasy XV is a game with a strong vision and aesthetic, grounded in four appealing and three-dimensional personalities with a main storyline that takes you clearly from beginning to end. It pays homage to some great Final Fantasy moments of games past, while still feeling very much like both a new game and a Final Fantasy game. It can sit with honor and distinction in your shelf along with the other series titles, and I don’t believe its place there can or should be questioned.

None of that means that I don’t have reservations or critiques about the game, especially its plot. But let’s be real, is a Final Fantasy game without game-breaking plot issues even a Final Fantasy game?

Combat

Combat is what I was most worried about in the months leading up to Final Fantasy XV ’s release, especially after the ugly and boring “Trial of Titan” gameplay segment I had the opportunity to try out at E3. While “Trial of Titan” in the actual game remains unchanged, this set piece against the Earth God is not representative of Final Fantasy XV ’s combat at all. (I still question its choice as a combat showpiece, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Say goodbye to the antiquated turn-based JRPG style of yore, because Final Fantasy XV has realtime combat. Its “Wait Mode” allows you time to strategize by freezing combat when Noctis stands still, at least until the timer runs out, allowing you to see which enemy is targeting whom, scan and analyze your opponents’  strengths and weaknesses, select your targets and otherwise breathe during frenetic fights.

Noctis has a slew of weapons and Royal Arms at his disposal in addition to magic, but he is limited to only four gear slots. Considering all the different effects magic spells can have, the different qualities of the Royal Arms and the wide variety of weapons Noctis can use, being limited to four can feel like a pain, but you can adjust your gear even in the middle of battle if need be.

Your party members are more limited than Noctis, but can be customized by unlocking different techniques for them to use when the tech bar is full (yup, it’s the new limit break - and you get to use them a lot more often, too, depending on what abilities you choose in Ascension). Each can equip two weapons and their techniques can level up, increasing in power the more they’re used.

Though Noctis is by far the most adaptable of the four, he relies on his chocobros to perform link-strikes and blindside-strikes, which multiply his damage through the power of friendship. There are lengthy gameplay segments without your friends present, and man, it sucks to lose out on those sweet strike damage multipliers.

I do have one big bugaboo with the combat. There are three major, mandatory bosses whom you must fight. These boss battles are little more than spectacular set pieces, visual marvels with no need to utilize any strategy at all. In a combat system where you can focus on breaking appendages for strategic impact, tweak your weapon and magic effects to take advantage of your enemy’s weaknesses and circle back for blindside bonuses, I was quite annoyed to see that I could not use my skills against the most plot-relevant bosses. I want to fight gods with strategy, not resorting to Baby’s First Boss Battle with “press X for awesome” as the only available mechanic. I should not use more skill against optional bosses like a giant turtle than I do against the antagonist who has done everything possible to destroy my life and the entire world.

That being said, normal combat feels fun and fluid. And the summons are incredible. They feel appropriate to the power, might and will of a god. Summons are available when they choose to be, not whenever you’re just too lazy to flatten a swarm of pesky imps on your own.

Characters

The brotherhood shared between Prompto, Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto is the beating heart of Final Fantasy XV. When the plot falls short or the gameplay gets tedious, their banter and bond keep both game and player grounded. Their brotherhood is so strong and their personalities all so well-established that the icon for Final Fantasy XV should have been the four of them crammed into a Yoshitaka Amano-style selfie (which I now really want to see…).

Individually, we spend the most time with Prompto, Gladio, Ignis and Noctis, so of course they’re the most well-developed. We see them at their best and at their worst, warts and all, so even without watching Brotherhood or Kingsglaive, they feel fully realized. The Chocobros feel the most like real people by far.

Their realization as developed characters actually works against almost every other character, most especially and egregiously Lunafreya. Luna might as well be Yuna’s sister, in the same way that Garnet feels like Rinoa’s sister, but she suffers from an extreme lack of development that can only be rectified if we get to see her do more than be nebulously brave and vaguely kind for a scattered series of flashbacks. It’s hard to take the romance between Noctis and Luna seriously, though the voice actors do their damnedest to sell it, because the character development of Noctis versus Luna is so lopsided.

Does Luna like veggies? Has she ever worn anything that isn’t symbolic of purity and chastity? Does she even like Vivienne Westwood? Do her heels make her feet hurt? Does she know how to do her own hair? Do she and her big brother generally get along? Was she ever one to run around in the outdoors or was she always a sedentary kid? Did she take naturally to her role as Oracle or did she struggle with it? When she looks in the mirror is she proud of what she sees? In a life so charged with fate and divinity, what are her simple pleasures?

Contrast this against our main four: Gladio and his love of Cup Noodles, Ignis constantly noting new recipes in his handy-dandy notebook, Prompto whining and dying and taking selfies, Noctis dragging his feet after days out in the wilderness. We spend so much more time with these four that it scarcely seems fair to compare other characters to them, but Lunafreya feels like a giant, virtuous blank. Noctis and Luna’s relationship and wedding is supposed to be massively thematically important, but it is impossible to be as deeply invested in it as the game asks us to be.

Cindy, Aranea and Iris at least have the outlines of more three-dimensional characters (Cindy’s cheerful but married to her work, Aranea is hard-nosed and driven by money but has a moral limit and is loyal to her men, Iris is spirited and courageous and wishes for adventure too), but Luna is a cipher of virtue on a pedestal far too tall to make her real. And we don’t have nearly enough time to even begin to decipher her before spoilers occur that make further development impossible.  

This same lack of character development for those outside of the main four extends to Ravus (Luna’s brother), the Emperor of Niflheim and even Ardyn himself. Plot shenanigans are forgivable when characters are strong enough. Final Fantasy XV grounds itself in four main characters, and the players’ investment in those characters drives them all the way through to the end, but almost every other character is a missed opportunity. It’s not something for DLC or outside movies and media to flesh out; it should have been included from the start.

But you gotta love the main four… you just gotta . It is not a surprise how hard that last closing scene hits; it’s a testament to the work done on these characters, and a credit to Ray Chase in particular, Noctis’ voice actor.

Plot

In its broadest strokes, Final Fantasy XV has a coherent plot. Noctis is on his way to get married for political purposes to his childhood friend as an evil empire encroaches on his country. Escorted by his bodyguard, his butler, and a blond, he makes it there only for Major Events to occur. Now he and his Chocobros must reassess what they are doing and gather power against the Big Bad all while surviving the growing darkness and, well, each other. There’s lots of crying.

But when you inspect the plot too closely, things fall apart. It’s mostly in the fringes that things start making sense. Spoilers ahead!

(I SAID SPOILERS AHEAD)

(SPOILERS!)

FFXV ’s story will raise many, many questions along the way and never answer them. Such as: why is Gladio a freelance hunter who literally fucks off with no explanation for a full dungeon when his job is to bodyguard the Chosen One, the last and final King of Lucis? Why is Ravus so set against Noctis and Luna’s wedding? No, really, how did Ravus come to lead the armies of Niflheim? How did Ardyn insinuate himself in with the Emperor, who we only see once before we’re informed in an easily-missed note of his fate? Was Ardyn the corrupted healer and the king rejected by the Light for his good deeds because for real, screw the Light, that’s messed up. Why have I seen kid versions of every character except Ignis? Where is baby Ignis? Why did he choose to become a butler? Baby Ignis!

(Takes a breath for more spoilers)

Why do we only see Hillary Clinton of Altissia once? I was promised intricacies of world politics! The Niffs breaking treaties! Hillary Clinton secreting away Baby Yuna in her pantsuit! What is this?! Why do we have to get her to trust us when it doesn’t matter to the game at all whether or not she does? Is Prompto really an MT? Was he bred to be an MT and then planted in Lucis as some kind of chubby useless sleeper agent kid? What is going to happen to Lucis now that the line of kings is at an end? Is there never, ever going to be anyone to threaten the Light of the world ever again? Is the Crystal like, dead? When Noctis went into the crystal for 10 years, did he come out as an adult with the emotional maturity of the teenager who went in? So he’s a kid in a grown-up body sent to die and he just accepts this fate, that he was born to die, and this is supposed to be noble and grand and tragically beautiful instead of a terrible waste? Fantasy authors have been skewering the concept of Ineffable Destiny for decades in favor of human spirit and willpower, but Final Fantasy XV is gonna die on the hill of this musty trope?

(Another deep breath for more spoilers)

Why is Gentiana constantly in my selfies? Why can’t I teach Umbra new tricks? Will any new Oracle ever be born? Are magic and the gods gone from the world? Do dead gods dream? Where’s the other dog? Why did the Omen trailer suggest Noctis could be the evil undoing of the world rather than its savior but this fascinating turn of events was completely not present in the final narrative? Who is Lunafreya really , damnit? Why the hell is Tenebrae just a pit stop? Why do I never get to explore the Crown City before leaving it? How am I supposed to care about the ruins of Noctis’s home if I never get to spend any time with it and see it in its glory? Is Cor just there to sell copies of Kingsglaive ?

(End spoilers.)

Well… it’s not a Final Fantasy if it doesn’t leave you with questions, right?

The Open World

The first eight chapters of the game are a marvel, a sun-drenched wonder full of fun in the sun, the gleaming Regalia and hunts against fabulous beasts wherever you find them. Best of all, you can return to those sunny days of wonder whenever you want with the Call Umbra mechanic, an inspired choice when the heaviness and linearity of the subsequent chapters weighs on you too heavily.

As always, be careful with an open world: you may stumble upon secrets too high-leveled for you. When I went into the sewers to find the headlights for the Regalia as an alternative to Chapter Freaking 13, I got super lost and wound up fighting a sub-boss way above my pay grade. Getting lost in the sewers for five hours or playing Chapter Freaking 13? Talk about a Sophie’s Choice.

I want to take this time to praise the game’s visual aesthetic here. The Magitek Troopers as medieval knights is an inspired look that is somehow made to fit in perfectly with the Empire’s ominous floating Engines. Equally impressive are all the different demon types, from the statuesque Mindflayers and Yojimbos to the wiggly-jiggly Flan to the massive, muscled Iron Giants whose wretched groan strikes fear into the heart of me trying to drive at night. The different regions of Lucis are stunning, from scrubby desert to tangled forests, with all manner of intriguing ruins dotting the landscape and regional landmarks always in view to remind you where you are.

I loved Lestallum’s distinct feel and wish I could have enjoyed at least one more city in that style aside from Altissia, which was gorgeous but incredibly annoying to maneuver around. The plot dungeons are short but beautifully crafted, and the optional dungeons (like the sewers I got lost in) are much more difficult and intricately designed. (I’m not a minmaxer and dungeon crawling isn’t my favorite thing to do, so the merits of a tough dungeon dive are mostly theoretical for me.)

Once Ignis allows you to drive around at night, doing sidequests becomes much more rewarding as well, especially if you power-level using the Leville in Altissia. You can teleport around all over creation or simply set the Regalia to auto and bank some AP if you’ve unlocked the Ascension ability to do so. If you’re playing on a giant TV screen, this is a great opportunity to rest your eyes as well.

The Linear World

The linear world was inferior to the open world by far, and I say this as someone who is not necessarily the biggest fan of open worlds. You’re literally railroaded from one place to the next, and the areas you explore are so much smaller than the open world that you really strongly crave the freedom you’ve grown used to from the many hours spent roaming about in the early chapters. By the time the railroading stops, you’re trapped in one of the worst final dungeons ever in Chapter Freaking 13, a whopping seven levels of the same schtick over and over but without your bros or even your weapons for the most part, with some weird half-baked stealth mechanic and jump scares that really don’t belong in this game. Chapter 14 is just Tears For Fears time, so Chapter Freaking 13 is your last chance at extended gameplay.

The linear world is supposed to be linear because it’s leading you from plot point to plot point, unfolding important bits of story, but it fails at that. Every subsequent plot point feels dumber.

(More spoilers ahead)

(I said spoilers!)

Gladio is mad at me in Chapter 10. He’s mad at me because I’m sad my fiancee died. Is he projecting his own grief and helpless rage or is he the world’s biggest dick? Gladio is mad at me because I’m moving too fast for Ignis, but also mad at me because I’m moving too slowly towards my Kingly Destiny. Gladio is also mad at me because he doesn’t think I’m taking my destiny seriously, despite the fact that he’s schlepped around with me for eight chapters of me taking my destiny seriously and moving forward towards my goals. Come on, dude: either Gladio’s a dick or this makes no sense.

We’re in Tenebrae to mourn Poor Dead Luna, Fridged Too Soon, but all I’ve got is some dusty old retainer who babbles briefly about Ravus and an extremely tryhard little girl chirping about how much Poor Dead Luna Really Loved You in a classic example of telling rather than showing. I can’t explore because here there be monsters. I can only dimly see some elven-looking architecture in the distance. Luna’s home is accorded about as much importance and development as Luna herself. What is the point?

What is Ardyn really? How did the MT troopers go so berserk and did Ardyn have some role to play in all that? Why is the Emperor’s fate hidden in some report on a random floor of Chapter Freaking 13? Why did I never encounter the name “Starscourge” in game? Why can’t I explore the unbelievably awesome World of Ruin? I want to meet Daemon Slayer Iris! I want to see what Cindy thinks is appropriate attire for the end of the world! Did no one retrieve and fix the Regalia with those daemon-repelling headlights I suffered so long and hard to find? Let’s surf through a hundred years of darkness fighting daemons, y’all!

(End spoilers!)  

Look, it’s not that the game doesn’t try to address these issues, it’s that their explanations are insufficient, beggar belief, or demand follow-up the game doesn’t (yet) provide. I need to know more. I want to know more. And yet here I am, railroaded down a track that doesn’t answer my questions.

In Conclusion

Despite my major criticisms of the game’s flaws, including my dissatisfaction with the plot-mandated boss fights/set pieces and my displeasure with the linear world and the direction of Noctis’ personal story, Final Fantasy XV is a milestone achievement: not just for being completed, but for being completed with polish, aplomb and love.

My questions about the plot and characterization come because I am compelled to care about and understand these characters and this world. I sank fifty hours into Final Fantasy XV and will doubtless sink more as I explore the post-game, including its legendary dungeons, and future DLC. I’m also confident that these open questions will keep the game’s fandom alive for years to come. Noctis and bros absolutely belong in the Final Fantasy Heroes Gallery, and Final Fantasy XV belongs in this series.

At long last: it feels good, man.