Final Fantasy XV wears its tumultuous development history on its sleeve. Announced under the title Final Fantasy Versus XIII, development began in 2006. Somewhere along those 11 long years Square Enix created an unforgettable experience, the elusive bridge between classic and modern that the stagnant Japanese RPG genre so desperately needed. If only that 11 year development cycle bore the fruit of 11 years of solid work. FFXV is a disjointed humunculous with one foot stubbornly planted in the past. And yet, somehow even at its ugliest, its a towering achievement. A game that hasn't left my thoughts days after finishing it, an experience I won't soon forget.
The core of FFXV is a story of four best friends. When the obligatory crystals and warring nations and existential evil are introduced they all seek to detract from the real story—four inseparable childhood friends on a roadtrip. When I was introduced to Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto, with their horrible names and horrible attire, I counted myself out. These were four people whose stories I immediately had no interest in taking part in.
One of FFXV's greatest achievements is how quickly it absorbed me in these character's deep platonic bonds. Their friendship is so all-consuming that by the time I was handed control of Noctis as he and his friends pushed their broken down car down an endless stretch of deserted highway to Florence + the Machine's haunting cover of “Stand by Me” I had already begun to see why Square Enix trusted the name of their beloved series with these four goofballs.
Even though the party of protagonists have relatively shallow personalities alone, together their friendship is remarkably deep and engaging. FFXV is always worse off when the people on screen aren't the main cast. Critics and fans have always lauded the Uncharted franchise for tackling slower moments in gaming, where characters walk slowly through ruins, quipping back and forth. Whether it's a camping scene with the boys playing cards or a quiet drive through the countryside, FFXV handles its slowest moments with an intangible serenity unlike any in gaming. Just as old friends can enjoy a moment of silence without the slightest hint of awkwardness, the protagonists in FFXV clearly have such tremendous history that whatever alien land they traverse, whatever insurmountable odds they face, they're always home together. And so too is the player.
The first two thirds of the game presents a sprawling open world that is powerfully realized. The last time I was this engaged by an open world was Red Dead Redemption. Around each mountain, another gorgeous vista. Exploring the world on foot, on chocobo, or in the backseat of the Regalia—the crew's trusty, slick convertible—is an absolute treat. The open world is vast with myriad distractions between monster hunts, sidequests, fishing, treasure hunting and the frequent battle between diverse fauna or Imperial troopers.
Combat is simple—boiling down to an attack button, a blink attack, and a dodge/block button—but there's enough skill in chaining attacks at opportune moments, and knowing when to wait for a chance to block and counter that it never dulled. It helps that combat has an incredible flow. It's a spectacle to behold, especially when the bipolar camera isn't working against the player. Combat is also a time where the four heroes shine, helping each other up when someone takes to much danger, or link striking a target with a flourishing cooperative attack. There's repetitive dialog in combat, with the cast bantering about strategy or yelling words of encouragement when someone lands a killing blow. I never tired of Gladiolus screaming “You're on fire today!” after I dispatched an enemy with a massive critical backstab.
Those opening twenty or thirty hours are so full of surprises and spectacle that they almost make up for what's to come. They lay a blueprint for the series and the genre as a whole, completely invigorating my interest for what's to come from Square Enix. How I wish it stuck to its guns, how I wish that formula was found earlier in development and I could continue to heap glowing compliments till I was out of words. But there's a very jarring moment where FFXV ceases to be FFXV and becomes Final Fantasy Versus XIII.
The final portions of FFXV are so incongruous with the joyful adventure that came before them and most unfortunately, that's where the game leaves off. Noctis is separated from his friends and the open world, divorced from everything that made the game so remarkable and funneled down a seemingly endless procession of drab hallways and bumbling, undeserved story beats. To add to the cavalcade of baffling fumbles that go into the wondrously player-hostile climax, Noctis is stripped of his abilities. The game becomes a poor excuse for a stealth game (no, really) with a peppering of exhausting survival horror tropes before faithfully limping to a conclusion that's inseparable from the awful aftertaste left by the last five or so hours.
FFXV is a horse that bursts out of the gate with such infectious energy that you may forgive that by the end of the race it's broken all of its legs and been euthanized right there on the track. The greatest thing that could come of it is Square Enix or another developer taking its lead and following through, beginning and ending development with what FFXV could have and should have been from the start. This didn't have to be a grandiose adventure through time and space with tired twists of crystals and ancient evils, it could have just as easily been the story of four lovable friends and their road trip through distant, fantastical lands. And to me, that's what it always will be. I won't remember FFXV for it's incongruous narrative, I'll remember driving down the coast with my friends. I'll remember the dark times that tested their friendship and how they always bounced back with a love that was even greater than it was before. So let me say it. Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto. You guys are the best.