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‘Final Fantasy XV’: a road trip worth taking

“A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers.” This is the first sentence that appears upon starting “Final Fantasy XV.” Right from the beginning, the game makes it clear that this is the most accessible entry yet in a series that’s spanned 15 main games and several spinoffs. The games are JRPGs (Japanese role-playing games), a genre typically consisting of a linear storyline, an intricate fantasy-based plot and turn-based combat.

The “Final Fantasy” series not only fits into this genre, but is also one of the genre’s most famous examples. Those who are worried that they’ll have to play through 14 entries to enjoy this one will be pleased to know that each core game contains its own isolated story. Still, the series has a number of recurring themes and elements. This has allowed each entry to feel familiar and reliable to those who have played other games in the series, but this has also led to many of its story tropes becoming cliches.

There is a joke that every entry’s story consists of a group of teenagers who go on a quest for a magic crystal after their kingdom is attacked by an evil empire. While “Final Fantasy XV” revitalizes the series in many ways, its story is not one of them. I’m sorry to say that its plot involves a group of teenagers who go on a quest for a magic crystal after their kingdom is attacked by an evil empire.

That mysterious person whose motives seem questionable? That’s the final villain. That character you just know will not make it to the end? They die. The story is predictable, not fully fleshed out and does not always make much sense.

However, as weak as the story can be, it nevertheless has some great moments and phenomenal characters. Its world is an amalgamation of fantasy and modernity, as dragons and magic exist alongside cars and cellphones in a fascinating combination that works much better than it has any right to.

The four main characters are distinct in their personalities and feel like real people. By the end of my playthrough, each of them reminded me of at least one of my real-life friends. They travel across a gorgeous landscape, taking pictures and going camping as they continue on their journey. The small touches such as choosing what the friends will have for dinner or which of their pictures to include in their photo album added a sense of realism to the game that kept me invested in the lives of the characters even when the overarching story had me scratching my head.

Released in November for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, “Final Fantasy XV” fits into the long-running series but also tweaks it to add a fresh feel to it. I confess that I was never a big fan of the series before this one, as the only other one I ever played was the third, which I quickly grew to dislike due to the slow turn-based combat. For the first time in the series, combat in “Final Fantasy XV” is no longer turn-based and rather is mostly played out in real time. There is an option to switch to “wait mode,” in which the game pauses during combat to allow players to plan their next course of action. This option may be appealing to both veterans and newcomers, as it resembles the traditional turn-based combat in some ways while allowing players to set their own pace. As averse to turn-based combat as I am, I actually used wait mode for most of my playthrough.

Whether you pick active mode or wait mode, the combat itself is satisfying, consisting of holding one button to attack while pressing others to unleash combos and respond to enemy assaults. Even though you play as one specific character in the group, the others fight alongside you and may be collaborated with as needed. It is immensely satisfying to successfully pull off a “link strike” with another character, in which they start a string of attacks and then you jump in to finish it. Noctis, the main character, has a warp ability that lets you teleport across the battlefield as you see fit. The combat has a certain rhythm to it that is easy to pick up on and exciting to engage in and allows you to tailor it to your own preferred style.  

Combat is just one of the many aspects of “Final Fantasy XV” that aims to please both those who are familiar with the series and those who are just trying it out. For the most part, the game succeeds at striking this balance. The first half of the game is open world, in which players may travel where they like and postpone the main storyline to pursue one of the many side quests that the game offers. The second half becomes linear, as the player is put on a set path to complete the story.

Although an unorthodox choice, it does makes sense. The open world is beautiful, and I enjoyed exploring it at my leisure. However, once the story raised its stakes, it made sense to switch to a mode of playing in which I was presented with a core objective to accomplish. Leaving the open world was a bit jarring, but some of the most exciting sections in any video game I have ever played followed right after. One of the more boring ones is present in this stretch of the game as well, but it is a relatively short section and is followed by an epic conclusion.

Overall, “Final Fantasy XV” stays true to its opening tagline, welcoming both fans and first-timers. Even if some of its compromises don’t always give either side exactly what it wants, it still delivers gameplay that is accessible yet nuanced and a world that is a thrill to explore.

Score: 9/10

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