Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4

Final Fantasy XV has been in the making for more than a decade with production starting and stopping, teams changing, gameplay being reworked, and then jumping to new consoles. Plus the game’s endless promotion for years and the Episode Duscae tease, fans were more than ready for the game to launch this fall.

There were some concerns if the game would stay true to the Final Fantasy franchise or veer off into some other action-RPG style game. But after more than 40 hours of gameplay, I can safely say, yes, it’s a true-to-form Final Fantasy game, and then some.

When the homies call

If you’ve been paying attention to any of the trailers for Final Fantasy XV the past few years or so, you noticed that the story revolves around Noctis, a prince, and his group of friends as they traverse the world is a slick luxury convertible. But it’s a bit more than that.

Noctis is the heir to the kingdom of Lucis and is taking one last major road trip with his buddies, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto, before he gets married to Lunafreya, princess of Tenebrae. Although we don’t learn much about the background of Noctis’ homies, we do learn about their current relationship. These guys have a tight-knit bond that not only allows them to crack jokes at each other’s expense, but also call out selfishness or dangerous behavior within their clique. The bottom line, is that they have each other’s back through thick and thin, even when they’re mad at each other. The game does an overall great job of showing true friendship. Sure there are some corny moments, cheesy dialogue, and awkward moments of silence, but what’s a Final Fantasy game without any of that stuff anyway?

Things get serious early in the game when Noctis’ hometown is attacked and taken over by an evil empire called Niflheim. Of course this requires Noctis and his boys to change course a bit to save the planet along with discovering a bigger and badder evil that needs to be destroyed. I’m trying to be spoiler free here, but the markings of all the classic Final Fantasy games are here. Despite the guys traveling in a car, using MP3 players, and being able to sleep in RVs, the Final Fantasy magic is still here. There are still Chocobos to ride, fire, lightning, and blizzard spells, summoning, ability points, experience points, skill/ability trees, and characters named Cid and Luna(freya). It’s a full-fledged Final Fantasy experience.

Fighting the powers that be

What is different from previous Final Fantasy games is the combat system. Like many Final Fantasy fans, I was a bit skeptical of the combat system until I tried it. While it looks like the combat would be a button-mashing, beat ‘em up, the gameplay is more multifaceted than that. Noctis is the only character you control and he is able to equip up to four weapons or spells, while his companions are able to equip a primary weapon and a secondary weapon or spell.

When an encounter begins, holding down the attack button allows Noctis to deliver a continuous attack, until the enemy tries to hit back. Pressing the block button either makes Noctis dodge the attack or block the attack, which sometimes allows him to parry and deliver a counter attack. One of my favorite moves during combat is warping and warp attacks. This ability, which uses your magic, allows Noctis to “warp” or teleport a strong attack on an enemy or teleporting out of the fray to recharge your health or magic.  There’s some timing required here, however, to make the battles go smoothly and in your favor. Noctis is able to change weapons and spells on the fly with the directional pad, and you can even pause mid-battle and craft spells and equip different weapons in case your current setup isn’t handling business.

To assist you in the battle, there's also a wait mode. Wait mode activates when you stop moving and you scan your enemy for weaknesses. Wait mode can be turned off or on in the settings. I chose to keep it off for most of the game because, honestly, it felt like I was being interrupted during my fight with information I wasn't really asking for at the moment. Plus, isn't it more fun to try and find out your enemy's weakness by trying a number of strategies anyway? There were a couple of times I did turn it on though, because some of these enemies seemed to have no weaknesses at all. They do, they're just tough.

On the other side, your bros are helping you on their own beating down demons but you can command them to do certain attacks. During a battle, your tech bar fills up where you’ll able to command your friends to launch a special attack. Gladiolus has very powerful sword attacks so I employed him to perform some finishing moves on some of the stronger opponents as they neared death. While Ignis was handy with a lance, I usually had him use a Regroup tactic which gathers the team and refills health and magic bars. Prompto on the other hand, while mostly underpowered for a lot of the game, is skillful with pistols and other machinery so I had him taking out weaker enemies.

While we don’t control each individual party member like previous Final Fantasy games, I like this system a lot because it’s optional, easy to manage, offers great contributions to a battle, and doesn’t feel overwhelming. You can however, equip your party members with better weapons, magic spells or secondary weapons, and equipppable items like bangles or anklets that improve things like HP, MP or protects them from different spells like fire, ice, petrify, confusion, etc.

One of the things I wasn’t too happy about was the way summoning works. Of course, in past Final Fantasy games, you earn the summon monsters usually battling and defeating them or some other required quest. After completing a battle or quest, they join you and at times during the game, you can summon them during battle to fight on your behalf, usually in a menu option. In Final Fantasy XV, yes, you battle the summon monsters, called Astrals, and they join you, but you don’t have the power to summon them any time you want. The Astrals show up only in certain circumstances, like when your entire party is knocked out and you’re low on health. Or if you’re in a specific area, like water or an open space, and the battle has been going on for a long time time. Keep in mind though, they’re not always guaranteed to show up when these conditions are met. There were times where I was on my entire party was dead and I was on my last elixir, running around an enemy hoping for someone like Shiva, or Ramuh to show up but… nothing. The absence of being able to summon the Astrals at will is definitely a disappointment.

Things to do, people to see

The questing system is similar to many open world games, where you have main storyline quests and then a number of optional side missions. The way the game is setup, however, is that you really can’t move forward in the main quest storyline without doing a lot of side missions, otherwise you’ll just be obliterated time and time again by stronger bosses because of your low level.

It’s a good thing Final Fantasy XV makes it easy to do this at any point in the game. Once you get up to chapter 10 (there are 15 chapter in the game), the game changes drastically, you leave the open world and it becomes a bit more linear. Yet at various save points, you’re able to travel “back into the past,” or basically open world areas you’ve already visited, to complete side missions, earn gil, and level up. At some points during the game, I was so underpowered, I was using up all my potions, elixirs, and other remedies on one battle. So I had to go back, level up, earn gil to buy more supplies and buy more powerful weapons for Noctis and the rest of the guys.

I’ve heard some players compare this to “grinding” but I didn’t really feel that way. They’re not mindless, repetitive, grindy missions. Each mission has a little story of their own and the tasks vary from mission to mission. Some are as simple as hunting down and taking out some beasts in a Beast Hunt or as complicated as finding a bunch of steam pipes to repair or turn off in a highlighted area. One of my favorite side missions was going on photography runs for a publisher/editor for his magazine. Sure, I had to drive long distances to get these pictures, but he paid pretty well and I was quickly able to stock up on potions and new weapons. Doing this can feel a bit tedious however because driving to locations takes time and if you choose to do Fast Travel, loading times takes just as long. If you drive at night, there’s a good chance you’ll run into some monsters blocking the road and have to get out and fight.

Seriously, if I’m in the middle of a field, want to fast travel to my car, then fast travel to a quest location, it’ll take seven to eight minutes. Not cool. Oh, by the way, the driving in the game isn’t on some GTA or Need for Speed type of gameplay. It’s just “on the rails” gameplay with you controlling the speed and turns.

A beautiful dark twisted fantasy

Final Fantasy XV is a return to all the things we loved about the Final Fantasy series despite some odd storytelling and gameplay choices. Gorgeous landscapes, fascinating creatures, awesome abilities, and amazing animation are all over place. But there’s also a weird moment in the story regarding an injury to one of your friends that makes you think you skipped over a cut scene or chapter – don’t worry you didn’t. Plus, a very tedious chapter near the end of the game. Don’t worry, it’s worth getting through.

For me, the game took a little more than 42 hours to complete with some tremendously epic boss battles and a very satisfying ending that allows you to go back into the world with all of your newly acquired XP and abilities to tie up some loose ends. There’s one dungeon in particular that I’m angling to get back into after a giant medusa-like snake beast continually bested me and my team. I’m coming for you medusa thing!