The anticipation behind a game almost a decade in the making can prove to be a tremendous undertaking, as history has shown to not be kind to games like Duke Nukem Forever. Square Enix had a lot riding on their latest installment, Final Fantasy XV, to land with an impact while living up to the hype generated around itself and simultaneously rejuvenating the franchise that seemed to be spread very thin over the years. I’m glad to say the long wait was very worth it, and Final Fantasy is back to top form as the series’ most exhilarating, fulfilling journey since Final Fantasy XII.

Final Fantasy XV is set in the Earth-like world of Eos, putting players in the role of Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum, the heir to the throne of the ruling nation of Lucis. Political tension is at an all-time high when the advanced kingdom of Nilfheim overrules Lucis, and it’s up to Noctis and his entourage of companions, Prompto, Gladiolus, and Ignis to battle against Nilfheim and reclaim the throne. Or, that’s the just of the story. While the central conflict between warring nations might be central to the plot, Final Fantasy XV presents several layers of storytelling that expands upon the characters and its world. The unfortunate part is how it chooses to balance out its story as the first half of the game is almost void of any crucial plot advancements, focusing on its open-world RPG aspects with an abundance of side-quests to keep you distracted, while the second half becomes a divisively linear experience and dumps exposition in the truck loads, sometimes confusingly rushed. However, the climactic moments of the story are spectacular, and does plenty to reward patient players.

The real heart of Final Fantasy XV’s journey lies within its four main protagonists and their relationship. You really get a sense of camaraderie between Noctis and his travelling trio, each complementing their strengths and weaknesses as you journey across Eos hunting various staple monsters of the series and occasionally enjoying the amazing views over a campfire and dinner. The first half of the game gives players a vast open world to explore, taking full advantage of its explorative setting to drive the emotional connection between these characters. First and foremost, it’s a road trip with plenty of time to bond, and ends up delivering some of the most memorable moments of the game, even if it was just playful banter.

Final Fantasy XV overhauls its turn-based combat for a more streamlined system, emphasizing a single button command to perform a string of deadly combos. Noctis is able to carry up to three weapons at a time, and can switch between them with ease in the middle of a combo for dealing greater damage. Another slot is reserved for magical attacks, using elemental strikes such as fire and lightning for more wide-spread damage when cornered by several relentless enemies. Each weapon and magical ability can be upgraded in an intricate levelling system that gives full control over each characters special traits, though it never feels like the main focus or goal like most RPG’s. Instead, Final Fantasy XV prefers the player to connect with its protagonists on an emotional level, thus giving it its greatest strength as a video game.

The game ultimately falters in its storytelling aspects, perhaps a bit too reliant on its previous extended source materials in the forms of the Kingsglaive CGI film and the Brotherhood anime, which are musts if players wish to invest in the real crux of the story. Otherwise, it may come off as slightly confusing, but even then, the pacing is uneven for a large majority of the game, especially in its second half which gets the ball rolling in terms of narrative, but sacrifices the open-ended world in favor of more linear, corridor-based action. The spectacular action set pieces in the second half do save it from becoming completely divisive, as several moments had my jaw dropped to the floor from the sheer scale and insanity of its monster battles and classic Final Fantasy stand-offs between heroes and villains. The fan service is plentiful in the later parts of the game, but the journey towards it is both rewarding for players hoping for plenty of character development and intentionally stilted in the way that it approaches major plot reveals.

In the technical department, Final Fantasy XV shines. The careful attention to detail in graphics and astute visual appeal make it one of the most beautiful open worlds I’ve ever played. The land of Eos is littered with plenty of incredible boss battles and lower-level monsters to desecrate at will, with standouts being when Noctis and crew have to venture down into caves holding a few nasty surprises along the way. The world feels truly epic and populated by wildlife and locals, who offer plenty of interesting side quests. Thanks to clever dialogue and some emotional heft, they never feel detrimental to the main story, instead presenting a welcomed rest from some of the more convoluted aspects of the plot.

The soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura is, for lack of a better word, perfection. By injecting classical Final Fantasy fare with a distinct modern touch of bombastic opera and soaring orchestra, the soundtrack escalates every single encounter, with the standout tracks being “Apocalyptis Noctis” and the dubstep-infused dance anthem ‘Braver” by Afrojack. There’s a clash of various styles here that all fuse naturally and work in the games stylistic favor, bringing the fantasy aesthetic to life.

Verdict: Final Fantasy XV is the game we’ve been waiting for. While it may stumble in a few narrative aspects and require the players knowledge of its external source material, it relies on a divisive two-part story structure that may come as a surprise at a first when the open-world is completely taken from the experience, but it quickly gets back up on its feet and hurriedly drives the plot forward into a superbly epic climax only rivaled by Final Fantasy VI’s whiplash of a final act. Most importantly, Final Fantasy XV is a story about the bonds created between comrades in the face of insurmountable danger. What you leave with isn’t entirely expected of an epic tale worthy of the Final Fantasy formula, but rather a more subdued, powerful tale of perseverance, friendship, and love, and the results are in a league of its own.