The story of Final Fantasy XV is a tricky one to unpick. There's the story about how it took ten years to actually come out, transforming from a Final Fantasy XIII spin-off into the boyband roadtrip-stag-do adventure we know today. There's also the story of what happened after it came out, where a large chunk of its third act was almost completely rewritten and streamlined after people started complaining about how linear it had suddenly become after spending hours and hours on the glorious open road.
Then there's the story of the game itself, which, at this point, has been spread across so many different forms of media, including a film, four anime episodes, four bits of DLC, a mobile spin-off and a multiplayer expansion (with even more to come, no less), that only three people in the entire universe actually understand it and would be able to recite it to you from start to finish.
But the story of four lads saving their home from an invading imperial army isn't really what Final Fantasy XV is about. In fact, it's arguably the least memorable thing about it. That might sound blasphemous for a JRPG, where the story is traditionally one of the most important parts of a game, but every conversation I've had about Final Fantasy XV over the last sixteen months always boils down to one of three things: food, photos and friendship. And it's those that make it one of the best and most interesting goddamn JRPGs of the last decade.
I'll be delving into some of the more PC-specific bits of Final Fantasy XV over the coming days, including a more detailed look at all those lovely graphics options as well as its mods and online multiplayer expansion. Right now, though, I want to talk about those three core pillars that make this game so special and how they keep this indulgent, behemoth-sized monstrosity from collapsing in on itself.
At its heart lies the unbreakable bond between prince hero Noctis and his three mates, the cheery selfie-obsessed Prompto, walking beefcake Gladio and sensible squad dad Ignis. No other game has even come close to portraying male friendship in quite the same way as Final Fantasy XV, and it's this endearing, earnest relationship that continues to drive the game forward even long after the plot's gone decidedly south in the second half.
Noctis himself is a sullen kind of chap, almost to the point where his offhand, indifferent goodbye to his dad (aka the king of Lucis) at the start of the game makes him seem downright obnoxious. But unlike the whiny heroes of Final Fantasies past, it quickly becomes apparent that there's a lot more to this pampered prince than meets the eye, and the reams of incidental dialogue he trades with his mates, both on and off the battlefield in major and minor quests alike, go a long way in making him feel like a believable, nuanced human being with a proper personality.
Whether it's Ignis teasing him for not getting his lazy ass out of bed in the morning and then having Gladio cajole him into going for an early morning run on the beach to prove Ignis wrong, or having Prompto confide in him about his doubts and worth as a Kingsguard soldier around a late night campfire, it's these recurring little moments of dialogue away from the BIG PLOT about SAVING THE WORLD that stick with you, and the ones you'll remember long after the credits have started to roll. These aren't three guards doing their duty to protect a prince they're escorting to his wedding; they're buddies you've known since childhood who are here to take care of you and make sure you don't embarrass yourself in front of your new bride-to-be.
It's largely why I ended up camping out with them under the stars so often over the course of my journey, even when hotels and camper vans offered much more tempting EXP-multipliers when I eventually decided to call it a day. For unlike previous games in the series, EXP must be banked in Final Fantasy XV, and it's only when you close your eyes that you can consolidate your hours of monster murdering and level up.
An unnecessary chore and archaic throwback to RPGs of yore, perhaps, but forcing you to take five every now and again is secretly the most progressive thing that's ever happened to a Final Fantasy game, and a large part of why I continue to love it despite its many, MANY flaws.
One of the other big reasons why I kept pitching my tent instead of flopping down on a nice comfy bed, for instance, was so I could savour yet another one of Ignis' delicious home-cooked recipes and stare longingly at close-up shots of mouth-watering stews, towering burgers and artisan toast in glorious 4K.
Cooking isn't new to games, of course, and neither are the plentiful stat bonuses they bring to your party. But in Final Fantasy XV, cooking is an event that ties everything together, from the way you approach your next fight to how you explore the world around you.
It starts when you're poring over the menu deciding what to have, as the type of food available depends on what ingredients you've gathered during the day. There are always a handful of dishes you can make without any extra foodstuffs (hello endless toast dinners), but more exotic items you find strewn around the world will naturally yield much tastier stat buffs, giving you more than enough reason to get out of your ludicrously large car and venture off the beaten track.
It pays to look a bit further afield, however, as Ignis can also crib new recipes off other meals you eat at the local Crow's Nest diners scattered about the world (the plagiarising bastard), or come up with brand new concoctions that are all his own whenever you find an edible bit of monster flesh in your battle spoils, indulge in a bit of fishing, or catch a glimpse of something mentioned on a town poster. It's a highly natural and organic way of developing your skill set, and when you see your tasty treat finally being set down on the table in front of you, the camera lingering over its glistening sauces for a moment while you drink it all in, you instantly know that the time it's taken to get everything together for it has been absolutely worth it.
The longer you spend poking around the corners of Lucis, the more time Prompto has to document it all with his camera, too. This is easily one of Final Fantasy XV's greatest masterstrokes, and another ingenious way it strengthens, magnifies and consolidates the bond you share with your band of boys. From candid camera shots during important cutscenes or a cool picture of you fighting back to back in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment in the heat of battle, having the space to breathe and look back on your journey like this just makes everything seem that bit more real and personal. Yes, you might have fought dozens of garula mammoths that day, but the time you tripped up and almost fell on your ass trying to roll out the way? That one you'll remember forever.
Admittedly, I was worried the new first-person mode, activated with a tap of N on the keyboard (presumably for Noctis), might destroy the magic of Prompto's camera work, as part of what made the photos so appealing in the first place was their ability to capture those details that weren't really visible to the naked eye. Switch to first-person, however, and I can now look those hulking garula in the face and watch every last Nvidia Hairworks-enabled follicle flop about on their furry backsides (which works even if you've got an AMD graphics card, I might add), letting me see another side of this world I never thought possible.
In practice, though, the first-person mode only adds to Prompto's hobby rather than take anything away from it. It's great for getting up close and personal with the world and admiring all the mad little touches that have gone into it (especially if you're playing in 4K with the high resolution texture packs), but it also lacks Prompto's sense of style and personality, as he's still the only way you're going to get a selfie with Gladio in the back of the car ruffling your poofy, poofy hair.
Fighting in first-person also feels disappointingly flat, as you not only lose your peripheral vision for spotting incoming foes, but you also miss out on the grand, sweeping shots of your friends when you initiate one of their special combo attacks, leaving you nose-deep in a wall of fuzz while all the action plays out behind you.
Combat is fast and fluid in Final Fantasy XV, and maintaining an overview of the battlefield is absolutely vital if you want to come out of it alive. Foes will run circles round you when you're dealing with them in packs and herds, and most will attack at any time given half the chance. At night, you've got to be even more alert, too, as you'll often find extra nasty ones suddenly bubbling up out of the ground once the sun's no longer there keeping them at bay.
Fortunately, Final Fantasy XV's interpretation of real-time combat borrows more from the realms of real-time strategy than action-adventure games, giving you more head room to analyse and survey the options around you instead of worrying about annoying things like targetting and timed button combos. Noctis, for instance, will attack automatically with one of his four weapons as long as you're holding down the left mouse button, while Prompto, Gladio and Ignis are all perfectly capable of looking after themselves and are quick to come to your aid when things start getting hairy. Get into the right position on the battle field and you'll also execute special attacks that can break an enemy's guard, make them stumble or deal extra damage.
Your prince's extensive arsenal also provides plenty of room for experimentation, and those on mouse and keyboard can easily cycle through them with a scroll of your mouse wheel. You could be whaling on a downed enemy with a short, sharp sword one minute and switch to a lolloping great broadsword or long-range pistol the next, and still feel like you're in control enough of the battle to unleash one of those aforementioned combo attacks with a quick tap of Shift and WASD at the end of it.
Noctis also has the handy ability to warp around the battlefield, with damage multiplying the further he flies. This not only makes battles feel more cinematic than other more modern RPGs, but it also gives you a handy escape route should things prove too tough. Switch to first-person, however, and all its choreographed flair and sense of showmanship goes out the window, leaving you with decidedly less interesting-looking battles that fail to capture what makes fighting alongside these daft fools so thrilling and exciting.
If anything, Nvidia's Ansel tech is more of a threat to Prompto's photography, as this really lets you go to town on capturing the game your way without having to rely on an AI to do it for you. Ultimately, though, it all accomplishes the same thing, and that's giving you the time and space to really look at this bonkers world and your journey within it with fresh eyes and see it for what it really is - not a hodge-podge plot line that doesn't make any sense and goes seriously off the rails half way through, or indeed a long to-do list of quests whose specific NPCs must all be spoken to again in order to complete them (even when they live at the end of an 800ft pier miles away from the nearest car park), but an honest, charming, endearing adventure with your bestest of mates who are just a pleasure to hang out with and spend time in their company.
It's by no means the best Final Fantasy game there's ever been, especially once it forces you to bid farewell to your easy-going road trip and sit on a literal train for the rest of the story, providing tiny, tantalizing glimpses of other open worlds that might have been if only they'd had another ten years to actually finish the damn thing, but I'll eat my chocobo hat if it isn't the most interesting, experimental and important one the series has ever seen. And it's all down to food, photos and four lovely lads.