The value of a trip is in the journey, not the destination. That is an age-old adage—bastardized, admittedly, from Ralph Waldo Emerson—that is eerily appropriate for Final Fantasy XV. One of its greatest strengths is its road trip conceit, throwing you into a jarring but loving shiny black convertible with three of your best buddies and pointing you to the open road. It creates an incredible experience of growing and bonding with your friends and this world of Eos.

But there’s also the question of Final Fantasy XV‘s development history. Troubled as it was, it eventually made it to its destination, but its journey is important to understanding some aspects of the game. The mindset of many of its systems are indicative of when it was originally conceived and a then-relevant combination of mechanics from games recently past. The journey further informs the rapid and unfortunate decline of the latter parts.

It’s good, however, that it opens strong. You play as Noctis, prince and heir to the throne of the kingdom of Lucis, on the eve of his wedding day. He and his three friends/bodyguards hop in an absurd but stupid cool whip and drive to the capital city of neighboring nation-state Accordo, the location of the impending nuptials. Issues quickly complicate, however, once the long-warring, antagonistic, and militaristic empire of Niflheim ruin things before Noctis and crew even arrive.

The setting is, in a word, striking. It’s bucolic while being industrial, a cocktail the series hasn’t quite nailed since Final Fantasy VII. All you have to do is look around at your insane-looking, aphotic ride and your group’s modern collection of mobile phones and roadside motels juxtaposed against the rolling green hills and endless blue skies. And despite the open world and freedom to drive your car wherever you please, it’s more often that you just sit back and enjoy the ride.

It’s only ever a linear point-to-point trip, even in the exploratory moments of the opening act where you simply wander around, kill monsters, and collect money. (Noctis may be a prince, but he is stupendously broke.) You’ll keep this rhythm up in an interesting cadence of fighting and resting and, occasionally, maintaining your car either by fueling up or totally breaking down and requiring a tow. It creates a delightful ebb and flow of highs and lows between action, inaction, and quietly steeping in Lucis’ sights.

This gives you plenty of time to soak in your time with your bros, which is vital to investing yourself into the game. As you pull off the road into a swanky hotel suite or forested campsite—a crucial component to banking your accrued experience points and avoiding the massive and massively overpowered nocturnal critters—you’ll cook with your pal Ignis, chill with Prompto, and try not to set off Gladio. Each character is distinct and grows in different ways across the story, revealing themselves in surprisingly subtle and complex turns.

Final Fantasy XV

Their individual hobbies, for instance, showcase facets of their respective personalities. The otherwise flavorless Ignis is full of it when it comes to cooking, and Prompto’s penchant for photography and selfies is a full extension of his unexpectedly touching backstory. (It helps having watched the Brotherhood series prior to playing, but it’s not totally necessary.) His reel of snapshots in particular helps build the world and these relationships. Between these little superficial and mechanical touches, revolving through gas stations and motels to build camaraderie and strategic status boosts, FFXV‘s open world is a refreshing change to the deluge of contemporaries.

Combat is also a welcome shakeup from traditional turn-based or active time battle systems, though certain elements might seem familiar, feeling most like a smashup of FFXIII and FFXII. Rather than sit in static positions across from your foes like Civil War columns and ranks, you are flitting about the battlefield, utilizing Noctis’ warping abilities and possibly ethereal multitude of swords to phase through attacks and strike from a distance. It’s rather straightforward, but there are still layers.

You may just hold down an attack button to continually slash and bash at baddies, but you have to temper your magic points (MP) with resting at warp points above the arena, swapping weapons to get elemental damage bonuses, parrying incoming bouts, and doing more traditional party upkeep. In this real-time environment, it’s hectic yet deeply strategic. The camera may have the occasional problem with framing the action in any comprehensible way—especially in tighter, indoor spaces—but the action is always there and enjoyable.

Final Fantasy XV

The depth extends into how magic is managed, which is somewhat akin to the spell harvesting of FFVIII. You’ll bop around to various springs around Eos to collect energy, energy that you’ll mix into fiery, icy, lightningy gumbo that you can expend during battle. The interesting thing is that, while they are exceptionally powerful, spells are potentially dangerous. They land with tremendous area of effect, not only damaging foes but friends as well. It makes their use necessitate either immense strategy or immense desperation.

More reconstitutions are abound in the series-defining summons (this time called Astrals), which can swing between hair-raisingly slick and frustrating as hell. They often tie directly into major plot points that coincide with battles, but they can also be triggered directly. Each Astral has very specific requirements, usually including completing a certain quest and then being in extraordinarily dire straits. But even with knowing those requirements, purposefully trying to get them to trigger is more miss than hit.

Similarly exasperating, unfortunately, is the eventual state of the story. It’s not necessarily the fact that it proceeds in an unflinchingly linear line but more that it’s just…bungled. Antagonistic forces are uninteresting, payoffs are tepid and undeserved, and plot points seem to land in a predictable–inexplicable dichotomy. The fractured development timeline tends to rear its ugly head, too, once you start to get funneled into punitive, cramped spaces which fail to capture the free-range jubilance of the early parts.

Final Fantasy XV

You can see this easily in the fact that you have to travel back in time (literally) to get back to this open world of side missions and sprawling spaces. It’s an intense hewing of what makes any part of the game enjoyable into a stark, dark, and bland conclusion of cutscenes and gameplay. Once the 25-hour story is over, however, you return to the fantastic form of yore and it’s a good game again. There are new areas and new, monolithic battles, reinvigorating you long after the narrative has come to a close.

This sudden and unsavory shift is crucially broken, but laid against the rest of the game, it’s more of a blip than a terror. It renders Final Fantasy XV supremely uneven and somewhat messy, but what props up the entire experience is terrific, often in surprising and novel ways. The game opens with what might be the most appropriate thesis of any of the series. This is a Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers.

+ Fantastic characters and development through the road trip framework
+ Listening to the Final Fantasy IV soundtrack while driving
+ Combat is simultaneously action-packed and strategic
+ Eos is a beautifully rendered place
– Story and design falls apart in the latter acts

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Final Fantasy XV

Game Review: Final Fantasy XV
Release: November 29, 2016
Genre: Action role-playing
Developer: Square Enix
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $59.99