For a series that is seen as the masthead for Japanese RPGs, particularly in the West, developer and publisher Square Enix has never shied away from axing sound mechanics, leaving beloved characters behind and opting for 'the new' over tradition, ever since its golden years in the mid 1990s.
Ironically, this approach has kept a sense of finality away from the behemoth franchise. After gestating in the murky depths of development hell for 10 years and following a vicious backlash against its painfully underwhelming direct predecessor, Final Fantasy 13, it would have been understandable if Final Fantasy 15 took the safe road – a strategy adopted for Square Enix's bland spin-off handheld series, Bravely Default.
Yet whether planned from the off, or originating from its well-documented transitory period between console generations and game directors, the artist formerly known as Final Fantasy Versus 13 splits its loosely connected DNA once again. Getting on board with its boldest change, however, turns what is an otherwise cluttered, unwieldy, unfocused shamble into a "fun time with the lads".
Part of the appeal of embarking on Final Fantasy's many grandiose quests across mystical plains governed by crystals, magic and world-ending MacGuffins has always been befriending a diverse cast of characters, with many joining your adventure to form a rag-tag retinue of motley do-gooders.
FF15 throws this idea in the bin, and a handful of brief, story-essential exceptions aside, sticks with its neatly-coiffured quartet of 'Best Boys' for the long haul, which for most will span around 20-30 hours from start to finish (add another 20 for the massive quantity of fetch-heavy side-quests).
Each of the four are well-worn tropes, strapped to skinny jean-wearing legs - the leader (Noctis), the brains (Ignis), the muscle (Gladiolus) and the jester (Prompto) – but if you can stomach the 'bromantic' cheesiness of the camping, fishing, cooking, road trippin' open-world exploration, then the game's cosplay fodder leads make the extended jaunt around the world of Eos worth the ten-year wait.
Partly this is because you'll spend a heinous amount of hours listening to their back-and-forth banter while on-rails-travelling between quest markers in the Regalia – a car that vehemently refuses to let you actually drive it, instead sticking to an invisible track. But, mostly it's because the actual story in FF15 is pure, unadulterated bobbins.
While it's not as egregiously awful as the mindless "l'Cie", "Cie'th" and "Fal'Cie" drivel in Final Fantasy 13, the jovial camaraderie between Noctis and co. is frequently undermined by strictly one-dimensional villains and allies, ill-defined motivations, and the necessity to watch a feature film and an extended CGI trailer to have any grasp on the climactic struggle at the heart of the tale.
Although fleshing out a number of NPCs would improve matters to an extent (which may be on the way as free DLC), FF15 suffers from relying on tell not show storytelling, or just doesn't bother to tell you at all.
This is especially true in the execrable closing chapters, in which the game flips the "it gets better after 10 hours" criticism of FF13 on its head, funnelling an angst-ridden Noctis down narrow corridors of goons and reintroducing a bit-part antagonist with unbeknownst importance in the most clumsy fashion imaginable. Here in particular, FF15 documents its own fractured development cycle, feeling as it does like conceptual ideas mashed together with all the subtlety of scantily clad, Daisy Duke-wannabe Cindy's work attire.
Returning to FF15's carefree open-world, however, reveals its dorky, tender heart. Square Enix's re-imaging of Tents exemplifies its latest take on Final Fantasy-style exploration, inviting players to gallivant around its vibrant, picturesque environments slaying beasts, exhuming treasures and snapping photos via Prompto's camera, all before setting up the most twee campsites imaginable.
Making camp under the moonlight distributes Experience Points gained throughout the day, saves your game, offers temporary stat boosts via Ignis' gourmet cooking skill, and presents Prompto's Instagram-style snaps in completely superfluous, but somehow brilliant slideshow. Noctis' fishing and Gladiolus' survival expertise round out the party's unique individual skills, with each encouraging you to hit the road, ride a Chocobo, or simply journey on foot and breathe in the surroundings and chuckle at the part-scripted, part-dynamic man-chatter.
The trade off of abandoning additional party characters in favour of 'the lads' is familiarity, if not depth. Despite cataclysmic shifts along the way, each of the four leads remain largely unchanged – a band of brothers to the bitter end – but the happy-go-lucky tone and mechanical simplicity that supports stepping off the Regalia's tracks is a delight.
Unfortunately, the actual crux of the gameplay, the combat, is a bit of a mess.
On a basic level, FF15's real-time Active Cross Battle system resembles and functions like the oft-maligned (but far superior) Final Fantasy 12, albeit without the pre-set Gambit scripts. Player control is restricted to Noctis, although your allies will happily wade into battle and pick you up after a heavy blow.
Aside from support abilities that can, among other things, break armour, heal the party and attack multiple enemies, your main goal is administering as much Noctis-led carnage as you can from up to four weapons at a time combined with a powerful, stamina-draining warp attack, and staying alive with timed dodges.
In theory, this Arkham/Souls-cocktail should work, but it too often descends into holding one of two buttons – block or strike – with little of the strategy or nuance that has previously graced the series.
This is less of an issue against a singular, larger beastie, where dodging telegraphed attacks and regrouping favours a tactical approach, but the majority of encounters introduce a swarm of ranged and melee combatants that regularly descends into a frenzy of button mashing and damage trading in well-choreographed, but pointedly frustrating tussles.
The uselessness of the optional Wait Mode – where the action halts when Noctis stops moving – highlights that the issue here is the battle system's flustered, uncultured design. This also includes the woeful camera which veers around with reckless abandon, projecting the action through a shrub or rock formation as often as it does Noctis' balletic sword-flailing.
While unlocking extra nodes on the game's "Astralsphere" grid gives small, usually passive boosts to the combat that can occasionally result in a decent scrap, there is little satisfaction to be had from FF15's reduction of magic to area-of-effect grenades, craft-able in drab sub-menu and the visually stunning summons which only trigger under specific, stringent circumstances.
Considering its development history, it's unsurprising that Final Fantasy 15 lacks crucial focus and depth when it comes to its largely stodgy tale of Oracles and Crystals or its unspectacular combat, with both found particularly at fault during the game's dour concluding chapters. Yet like Prompto's incessant nagging to go ride Chocobos, it's easy to give in to the breezy charm of the game's luscious open-world and the whimsical antics of its Tumblr-baiting bro-tagonists.