Final Fantasy XV - PlayStation 4
Final Fantasy XV is a road trip that comes dangerously close to running out of gas, coasting on fumes long enough to deliver a rich and rewarding open-world experience that embraces the bond of friendship just as much as the thrill of hunting for rare treasure and beasts. The concept of hitting the open road in a convertible with three friends is largely successful, consisting of pit stops at roadside dinners, detours to lakes for a quiet evening of fishing, campfires under the stars, and expeditions through the wilderness to find a landmark for a group photo. Final Fantasy XV captures the atmosphere of cruising down an American interstate, but also the boredom that comes from staring down hundreds of miles of open road, or not having anything more to say to the people in the car. If you can tolerate a baffling amount of time where nothing but travel happens, Final Fantasy XV is a good game that upends series traditions and stands as a uniquely satisfying adventure.
Although much of the focus is on the road trip, this isn't a traditional coming-of-age story for the four young gentlemen in the car. Protagonist Prince Noctis is hitting the road to attend his wedding not by his own will, but the order of his father. Noctis is to wed Lady Lunafreya to bring two kingdoms together and end the threat of war.
The narrative sticks to basic beats and doesn't try to overwhelm the player with lore or branching threads, something Final Fantasy XIII struggled with. The story ends up being a fun and emotional ride. The camaraderie between Noctis and his pals is beautifully told, as is the turmoil plaguing the kingdom. Like a car rolling along the highway, the story doesn't dwell on particular moments for too long, and moves along at a fervent pace. Some big, emotional scenes are hurt by the push to move on, but the political jargon is kept to a minimum, and the focus is instead placed on developing the characters.
I was a big fan of Final Fantasy X's ensemble, but thanks to the smart (and often funny) dialogue, Final Fantasy XV's characters are my favorite in the series. Prompto is loud and full of bad jokes, but he is sweet at heart and easy to root for. Ignis is the father-like voice of reason. Gladiolus is quiet and reserved, but ends up being the perfect wingman. Noctis is a bit of a cipher (which deepens the disconnect in emotional moments), but is a great leader, and an interesting, conflicted character, torn between his duties to the kingdom and wanting a different life.
The characters are made stronger by their interests, which are brilliantly sewn into the story and gameplay. Prompto is a photographer, and he snaps as many photos as he can throughout the trip. Whenever the group of friends rests for the night, the player can view all of the images he's taken, and can even save them. Ignis' love of food is just as fun to follow. Whenever he sees someone eating a new dish, or discovers an ingredient, he has a "eureka" moment, and jots down a recipe, which can benefit the group with significant (albeit temporary) attribute bumps.