Final Fantasy has always been at its best in its more personal moments. Apocalyptic meteors, time-travelling sorceresses and fishy floating physical manifestations of your sins are all well and good, but they mean little if the story doesn’t give you something a bit closer to home to relate to. Finding out it’s who you are rather than where you came from that matters, learning to trust other people no matter their background, navigating tricky love triangles and attempting to get the girl even when she’s busy conjuring monsters out of living statues – those are the story beats to remember. Stopping the bad guy and saving the world are rarely the most memorable moments from a Final Fantasy game. Characters like Vivi, Nanaki, Cyan and Galuf are the beating heart of these fables, characters in whom we see a nugget of truth or a moment of kinship, whether they’re a talking, tattooed wolf-lion thing or not.
Final Fantasy 15, in many crucial ways, understands this. Central to every smaller story it wants to tell is friendship; the kind of coming-of-age friendship that feels like, and often is, the most important thing in the world to those bound by it. It was a brilliantly underrated stroke to frame this Final Fantasy so decisively as a road trip – of course that’s what Final Fantasy games always have been – but it proves to be a compelling device that fits this more modernised take on a Final Fantasy universe particularly well. It provides a moreish loop during the open-world sections; roll up to a new outpost, chat to a local tipster to uncover nearby side quests and monster hunts, and then turning in a couple of bounties before settling down for the evening, cooking up some stat-boosting meals with your boys at camp and cashing in the day’s EXP.
The open world section, where you’re tooling around in your car with your best buds and taking on assorted tasks at your leisure, is where Final Fantasy 15 is at its best. The world, while perhaps smaller than some fans may be expecting, crams an impressive number of activities into its imposing peaks and murky depths. Seek out hidden dungeons in the far-reaches and you’ll take on unique bosses to unlock Noct’s 13 ancestral Armiger weapons, and in your downtime you can spend some quality one-on-one time with your friends, getting up early in the morning to help Prompto with an impromptu modelling session, or assisting Ignis in stealing his specs back from a naughty black Chocobo hoarder. Different locales come with their own ecology and weather forecasts, and though you’ll soon tire of driving the car (GTA this isn’t – you have such little control it’s often just simpler to have Ignis drive for you), cruising from town to town, spotting nostalgic series references and watching the wildlife pass by with an early Final Fantasy soundtrack twinkling over the car stereo is a cathartic experience for old-school fans.