Final Fantasy XV is mostly a game about four guys driving around in a car. Sometimes, they get out and kill monsters. Other times, they don't want to drive at night and seek shelter around a nearby campfire, where they look over photographs and recall their journey so far. Lead character Noctis can be stubborn, moody, and lazy. Brains of the operation Ignis can sound like an overdone parody of an Englishman. Burly bodyguard Gladio can be frustratingly abrasive. And Prompto, the only party member not of high social standing, can seem like a total wimp. Already, the game's flawed cast is more relatable and endearing than any melodramatic character that the divisive Final Fantasy XIII introduced. Final Fantasy XV is not the return to the series' roots that so many have been yearning for, but it's still an experience that resonates with one of the property's core elements: adventure.

For years now, Final Fantasy as a whole has been struggling to stay as relevant to the gaming sphere as it once was. It still has its legions of fans – there's no doubt about that – but the brand has been damaged by numerous titles that lack the heart and soul that was once so important to the series' identity. 30 years of history weighs on the shoulders of Final Fantasy XV, and that's no easy weight to carry – especially when this latest entry has been in and out of various development cycles for a decade.

At times, the wait has been nothing but a detriment to the franchise's already bruised reputation, but now that it's over, it feels as though the property can breathe a sigh of relief. Now that Square Enix's massive marketing machine has stopped pumping out a new trailer every ten minutes, and fans finally have the game in their hands, it's almost like the end of an era. We're very fortunate, then, that this ten-year saga is punctuated by a Final Fantasy title that goes a long way in restoring our faith in the franchise.

The majority of your journey will be spent exploring Lucis – a vast country consisting of dusty deserts, rolling green hills, and picturesque mountain ridges. Lucis is an open world that, for the most part, embraces realism, which makes its fantastical elements – like the gigantic meteor that sits at the heart of the country – all the more impressive. When it comes to providing a sense of scale, we'd argue that the game's unmatched on today's market. Even though the size of the map isn't the biggest that the genre's seen, it's packed with awe-inspiring views that'll have you scrambling for the share button. From truly colossal rocky structures to breathtaking, sprawling cities built on water, the environments make Noctis and the gang feel like specks of dust by comparison.

Needless to say, making your way through Lucis – by foot or by car – is enjoyable. There are times when areas will seem a little empty, and there aren't quite as many secrets or details to discover as there are in, say, a Bethesda title, but the concept of leading your best buddies on a road trip across a nation gives the game an undeniably unique flavour. Whether you're trekking across the wilderness looking for a nice spot to set up camp or you're carefully hunting a dangerous creature, Lucis offers a richness that isn't defined by the density of its map. It's a world that doesn't exist for you; it's a world that Noctis and his friends simply exist within.

That's not to say that Noctis is merely a cog in the machine, however. Our often grumpy protagonist is crossing the country with a purpose, and that forms the basis of the story that Final Fantasy XV attempts to tell. We use the word 'attempts' because for the majority of your journey, the game almost seems to forget that it has a plot. Instead, it has you travel from place to place with your three companions as you follow a string of very loosely connected events in order to progress further across the map.

To call the story disjointed during this substantial portion of the game would be an understatement. Dialogue feels like it's constantly cut short, with characters rarely questioning what they're doing or why they're even doing it. You'll meet secondary members of the cast that come and go in what feels like an instant, you'll fight against villains who are given no time to establish themselves as threats, and you'll witness awkwardly placed flashbacks that don't add anything meaningful to current affairs. It's a mess, but the disappointment is at least dampened by the chemistry that Noctis, Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto share. Indeed, the four heroes are able to carry the narrative – you'll keep playing to see what becomes of them, rather than what becomes of the plot.

Having said that, it gets increasingly difficult to ignore the story as you get further into the game. Around three quarters of the way in, the release suddenly remembers that it has a plot, and funnels you into a more linear set of chapters that push Noctis and the gang towards a conclusion. It's worth noting that you do have the option of returning to the open world when resting at camp, but by this point, you may actually find yourself too invested to do so. In the space of a couple of chapters or so, Final Fantasy XV decides to kick things into gear, and the story finally finds momentum – it almost becomes an entirely different game.

However, not too long before things wrap up with what can only be described as an epic and fitting finale, Final Fantasy XV baffles and frustrates with one of the most poorly judged gameplay sections we've ever seen. Shunning established gameplay mechanics in favour of half-baked, tedious nonsense for the sake of variety, this segment, for whatever reason, decides to do its best survival horror impression – and the result is ghastly for all the wrong reasons. It's not quite enough to ruin the bombastic set pieces that come before and after, but it's unforgivable design all the same.

It's a terrible, terrible shame that Final Fantasy XV's story doesn't step forward sooner, but at least the game can fall back on an engaging combat system. At its most basic, you're holding down one button to attack and one button to defend, but the system is nicely layered with contextual mechanics. For example, hitting an enemy from behind does extra damage, and you have a chance of activating a link strike, which sees Noctis partner up with one of his allies to dish out a deadly blow.

Battles are stylish, too, thanks to a suite of crisp animations and flashy visual effects. Noctis can also warp around the battlefield at the cost of magic points, allowing you to either close the distance on an enemy or quickly teleport out of danger. Once you've wrapped your head around the general flow of combat and the advantages of each weapon type, a really satisfying rhythm begins to emerge. It's not quite full-blown action, but it's a fun, fluid blend of positioning, tactical use of special moves, and knowing when to strike.

As is usually the case with Final Fantasy, the soundtrack is the icing on the cake here. It's been a long time since legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu worked on the series, but those who have followed in his footsteps have done a great job so far – and that doesn't change with Final Fantasy XV. Heading the music this time around is Yoko Shimomura, who's crafted an absolute stunner. The battle themes in particular are sublime.

The visuals are similarly accomplished. Main character models and animations tend to look great, while the detailed enemy designs are truly top notch, putting the comparatively generic foes found in so many other titles to shame. As mentioned earlier, the world itself can be a joy to behold, but there are some jaggy textures knocking about here and there when running on a standard PlayStation 4 – especially when it comes to vegetation.

Fortunately, on the technical side of things, the finished game runs a lot smoother than its demos do. While the frame rate does sometimes dip slightly in busy areas, it never drops to a point where it takes away from the experience. And, aside from the long load screens that appear when loading your game or moving onto a new chapter, it's nice knowing that you can travel from one side of Insomnia to the other without encountering a single pause.

Conclusion

Final Fantasy XV is a strange, patchwork beast that's made up of countless different components. Having been in development for so long, things could have gone far, far worse for Noctis and the gang, but as it stands, this is an engrossing journey that delivers a unique experience – and that's something that can rarely be said about today's open world games. When it's at its very worst, Final Fantasy XV is mind-bogglingly misguided, but thankfully, those moments are very few and far between, and are soon forgotten when you're running off on adventures with such an endearing band of brothers. As a whole, Final Fantasy will likely never recapture its former glory, but Final Fantasy XV fills us with hope that the series can still carve out its own path, even after all these years.