Final Fantasy 15 pushing car
An image of Noctis and pals pushing their broken-down car along the road. Square Enix

If you were asked on the spot to name some of the Final Fantasy series' core elements there are a lot things that might spring to mind - big hair, bigger swords, overwrought NPC dialogue, full-blooded melodrama, exploration, apocalyptic events, magic, monsters or even Chocobos.

If the first four hours of Final Fantasy 15 are anything to go by, then Square Enix's long, long awaited next installment in the venerable series is very much a Final Fantasy game in the spirit of these traditions, but is something else entirely in practice.

After the mixed critical and fan reception for the histrionic slog that was Final Fantasy 13, the change feels necessary. Yet those expecting a grand adventure full of creatures to slay and spells to wield may be surprised.

In what may come as a shock for die-hard fans, Final Fantasy 15 is shaping up to be a mellow, contemplative jaunt, more concerned with watching the glow of a sun rising and setting, than the Meteor-summoning antics of a leather-clad, alien-cell-injected nutter.

My brief time in the shoes of the game's slighty dopey lead Noctis, his skull-emblazoned threads and his band of merry men spanned two and a bit - three if you count the incredibly short "Chapter Zero" prologue - Chapters that will kick off the game when it finally releases - now 29 November after a two month delay.

Like all good road trip movies - a well-documented inspiration for game director Hajime Tabata and his development team - Final Fantasy 15's opening hours are about the journey through its Americana-soaked outback and quasi-European towns rather than the story-driven destination. Equally, while we hear about a binding pact that will see two states joined by marriage, the relationships between Noctis and his three pals is far more interesting.

Final Fantasy 15 group selfie
(L-R) Gladiolus, Noctis, Prompto and Ignis posing for a goofy snap in Final Fantasy 15. Square Enix

While the tropes are clear to see - the musclebound, gruff Gladiolus, the dorky sidekick-like Prompto or Albert Wesker's malevolent distant cousin, the 'clever one', Ignis - the 'banter' between the fellow gents is cheesy, hackneyed, but oddly endearing. If the reported 40+ hour final release can develop their four-way 'bromance' further, Square Enix may have hit gold here.

On the NPC front it's a mixed bag, however. A (possibly inadvertently) hilarious newspaper reporter who moonlights as a jeweler, spouts gangster-slang and engages in casual blackmail is one thing, but petrol station attendant and bonfide Daisy Duke wannabe, Cindy, is something else entirely.

Perhaps her barely visible denim shorts are standard attire for a 'grease monkey' in Eos, perhaps she needs to writhe and contort while bending over to clean car wheels. Either way, let's hope there are some more well rounded female characters.

Quests are given by these same NPCs, with side missions distributed by "Tipsters" - usually local diner or restaurant owners. Some offer seemingly inconsequential multiple-choice dialogue options, but you'll soon be on your way either by foot or by car.

The car mostly runs on auto-pilot along strictly laid out roads, with acceleration and slight wheel swerving the only way to effect the journey to a set waypoint. You can, however, fiddle around with the radio, leaving you to cruise around and soak in the impressive visuals set to classic series tunes like Final Fantasy 7's One-Winged Angel or, bizarrely, the Gold Saucer music.

The quests early on tend to stick to "find this and kill it", offering a quick introduction to the real-time Active Cross Battle (ACB) system. While fiddly at first, especially against sniper-like enemies, ACB has the potential to be a rich combat system where weak points, support attacks and a stamina bar are interwoven to create a semi-Souls, semi-Arkham-lite feel that still fits with Japanese RPG strategy.

New abilities and passive traits are unlocked via each character's upgrade tree dubbed an "Astralsphere". Each nexus is unlocked with Ability Points that are earned through quests as well as more mundane achievements like chatting to your friends.

Magic appears too, in a loosely explained mechanic that requires resources drawn from crystals in the game's world and a crafting system that stacks Fire, Ice or Lightning to create stronger spells. Elements can also be combined, while throwing traditional items into the boiling pot changes its effects - a Phoenix Down, for example, lets you cast a single spell multiple times.

Final Fantasy 15 seems to reveal its real interest in this regard, as the in-depth tutorials are reserved for moonlit camping and superfluous activities with your buddies. Even XP gained throughout the day is held back until you've had a good old natter with the gang around a campfire.

Each lead character has a specific "Skill" that relates to these camp sequences, with Ignis' gourmet cooking (which provides daily stat boosts) or Ignis' Instagram-style snaps featuring the most early on. Some of the wacky photos that the game presents in a slide show after each camp out have to be seen to be believed.

It's this gleeful silliness that stuck with me, even after witnessing some of the more significant world-changing events and overdressed villains start to creep in and Noctis temporarily shift from a carefree hipster to a mopey Final Fantasy protagonist.

The huge world-map teases a large open-world, ripe for discovery down the line, while the game's E3 demo teased large-scale encounters with God of War-esque giants. Perhaps the latter was an attempt to appease those suffering from what Tabata called the Final Fantasy "disease" - a preconception about what the franchise should and resolutely should not be.

As Noctis and his motley crew push a broken down car along a dirt road, chatting away with Florence And The Machine's melodic cover of Stand by Me in the background (referencing the themes of camaraderie and friendship in the seminal 1986's film of the same name), the message was clear to me, however:

Reset your expectations.

Note: The specific preview build IBTimes UK sampled suffered from notable frame-rate issues and a few bugs. We were told that the game is currently being optimised and polished, a claim which chimes with Tabata's comments following the game's delay.

Final Fantasy XV - Gamescom gameplay footage Square Enix

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