It took slightly longer to build Rome than develop Final Fantasy XV. The game was first unveiled over a decade ago, as a spinoff that was then titled Final Fantasy Versus XIII. After that, we didn't know much more for years, other than that it would star some brooding dude named Noctis and feature gameplay reminiscent of the Kingdom Hearts series.
Years passed, the game shuffled through directors, and eventually adopted the XV suffix in 2012. This was criticized by some as a mere marketing ploy—but now that the game is finally out, it’s clear that the mainline title befits this Final Fantasy's massive scope.
After installing Final Fantasy XV’s day-one patch (what’s another 45 minutes after a decade?), you’ll be greeted with white text against a black screen that reads “A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers.” What developer Square-Enix is really trying to communicate is that, for better or worse, this is the first thoroughly “Westernized” Final Fantasy. Just as American gamers weary of traditional JRPGs (which, by now, is most of us) will be pleased with the series’ new direction, diehards will likely balk at what they view as a simplified experience.
Some of the prominent changes XV brings to the franchise are either awkward in the context of a Final Fantasy game or too little, too late. The game’s fully open world, for example, is definitely an improvement over XIII’s claustrophobic structure—but actually populating its boundless, gorgeous terrain wasn’t something developer Square-Enix put a lot of effort into. The overworld in Final Fantasy XV is totally vacuous; excluding enemy monsters and nondescript, synthetic NPCs who mutter the same grating soundbites over and over again, the world of Final Fantasy XV feels devoid of sentient life.
By extension, the game’s side quests—which are mostly divided into random fetch missions and bounty hunts that require you to track and kill a specific enemy—aren’t so much exciting diversions from the main quest as they are the modern manifestation of grinding. By completing these missions, players accrue both experience points (XP) and ability points (AP), the latter allowing you upgrade specific skills through the “ascension grid." That'd be fine, but these side quests are pretty much mandatory: Progressing through the main quest without spending at least some time participating in auxiliary quests will leave you ill-prepared when it comes time to face a major boss.
While the game’s exploratory aspects leave a lot to be desired, its battle mechanics have been fine-tuned—thankfully, XV’s battle system foregoes any semblance of vintage, turn-based combat. (JRPG purists will, again, feel betrayed, but it’s necessary progress for a series that has long felt stale.) XV’s battle system was reportedly the source of internal strife and the game's countless setbacks—but it turns out to be one of the best in the series, and that alone justifies its tortuous development cycle.
Surprisingly, the game’s other big strength lies in its writing, particularly between the four principal characters. With some exceptions, RPGs typically unite main characters through circumstance or obligation (which is, perhaps, why the genre has always employed the term “party member” as opposed to “partner” or “friend”). But the leads in Final Fantasy XV are old pals, and that’s reflected in their playful, realistic repartee. The game begins with this motley cast—the prince Noctis, who you control; Gladiolus, your faithful bodyguard; Ignis, your royal advisor; and Prompto, your BFF from a lower social echelon—embarking on an innocent road trip that quickly turns to tragedy. There’s a general haziness that mars XV’s overarching narrative, but the relationship between these four is its reliable, beating heart. Western RPGs like Mass Effect encourage players to forge their own relationships with digital characters, but Final Fantasy XV’s approach is almost backwards by design: Noctis shares an unbreakable—and distinct—emotional bond with each member of his party right out of the gate, and the more nuanced aspects of these relationships are illuminated as the story progresses.
There’s a consensus among gamers that the longer a game is in development, the worse it will end up being. This is (usually) true with all media, but especially with video games, as games are, more than music and film, at the mercy of transient trends, and often graded by their ability to conform to current technological conventions.
And yes, it's clear Final Fantasy XV has been in development for a long time: There are moments, such as when you’re exploring the game’s lonely overworld, when it feels like this is actually a beta build for a game that’s 10 years old. But at the same time, Final Fantasy XV is filled with enough emotional realism to offset its outdatedness. Taking down a massive boss with your three in-game best friends evokes playing Dungeons & Dragons in a murky basement with your three real best friends. In a weird sense, this is the hallowed series coming full circle: Final Fantasy XV's best moments flawlessly simulate the role-playing game experience. That’s a pretty tremendous success in and of itself.