Final Fantasy is a series of many great highs and the few unfortunate lows. First started all the way back in 1987, the Final Fantasy series has seen growth and change with the climate of the gaming industry much like many golden classics including Metal Gear, although that was always backed by Hideo Kojima while Final Fantasy seemingly switched directors and writers more times than an HBO series. So when Final Fantasy XV landed in 2016 following the release of the film Kingsglaive and the anime Brotherhood, after almost a decade of hype and anticipation, many expected the game to be on equal footing with the likes of VI and VII. I can assure you, it really wasn’t, but XV might actually be my third favorite in the entire series given how much time I sunk into it along with the emotional impact it had on me. So why was Final Fantasy XV the best game of 2016?

To start, one has to understand the rocky history of the development of XV. What first began as a mere extension of XIII, titled XIII-Versus, the game had seen several facelifts throughout the years before eventually becoming a standalone adventure. Noctis and his merry group of Japanese boy band members have always remained in tact, and it seemed one theme had stuck through the decade: brotherhood. This was beautifully illustrated in the final product as you really got invested in the group. They were friends, but most of all, felt like a collective family that fought together, ate together, and… I guess slept together but in different tents or rooms of course.

Final Fantasy XV began with just that; a broken down car and the witty exchange of dialogue and banter between the guys – a strong set-up of the brotherhood dynamic to come. It was a surprisingly mellow but effective way to begin the game, not opening itself up like an overblown romantic fairy tale which past games were guilty of. Instead, Square Enix graciously humanized its central characters, each with a distinct personality and fighting style that was easy to get behind and relate to. It made every adventure in the massive open world all the more rewarding to experience, not because of the XP or new abilities you would obtain, but because this constant theme of camaraderie and brotherly dynamic between the group always felt natural and not forced. You grew attached to them, just as the game intended you to, and it definitely added layers and dimensions to each fight – something that was severely missing from previous iterations that tried too hard to force romantic subplots or contrived stories.

Besides the feeling of belonging you got with the travelling brotherhood in leather, you also were gifted with some of the most epic, standout moments from any Final Fantasy game I’ve ever played, even when they came at the cost of an inconsistent pace or forced event. The standouts were definitely battles involving the deities which would later become summons, such as the jaw-dropping battle of Altissia and your first encounter with the Adamantoise. These grand-scaled battles were given weight by the emotional bond with the characters, and instead of being a shallow fight to the death, it was an intense and very emotional battle of survival.

Square Enix didn’t quite dabble in the mutual bonds between fellow friends before, which made the experience all the more unique and different from the rest of the Final Fantasy roster. Noctis, for example, may come across as a bit arrogant and seemingly have the most convenient plot devices dropped on his lap for the sake of “development”, but his bond with the rest of the group is distinguishable between each person. With Prompto, Noctis lets out his inner child and enjoys letting loose in the same way the camera trigger-happy blonde would, while his bond with Gladiolus is one of strength and battle spirit. This dynamic is not only applicable to Noctis, though, as each person in your party bonded in their own particular way with each other. It made the characters not just mere objects of affection or crazy Japanese anime designs, but depth and extraordinary, but subtle, character development.

Final Fantasy XV is not without its flaws, but it comes few and far between across this 40+ hour journey that lands more of an impact than any other game in the series, save for VI and VII. The gameplay mechanics are admittedly fun and the game does an especially masterful job of immersing you in the massive open world and interesting creatures along the way, but it does suffer from a nasty second-half where the plot dives into an inconsistent oblivion – something I am well aware of, even judging it as my third favorite entry in the Final Fantasy series. However, I do believe many critics who were initially harsh on the game and missed the point. Unlike previous Final Fantasy titles, games, this wasn’t a game about the inevitable end, it was a game about humble beginnings.

Read our Final Fantasy XV review here.