I have an odd little theory about Final Fantasy games. You've heard, no doubt, of the odd/even Star Trek theory - or, as posited by Tim in the sitcom Spaced, how every odd-numbered Star Trek film turns out to be shite. With Final Fantasy, I've always thought it's a bit more complicated than that. There's a lot more shite to get through, for one thing, but when you find those highs they can be utterly sublime.
In my mind, you can figure out the best entries by simply busting out your three times table. Final Fantasy 3 saw the original formula begin to mature into something more emotive and engaging, and by the time Final Fantasy 6 rolled around it felt as if Square had perfected the art of the 2D RPG. With Final Fantasy 9 it provided a rip-roaring celebration of all that had gone before, and then there's Final Fantasy 12. Sweet Final Fantasy 12, which took a skewer to so many of the conventions and was a infectiously upbeat adventure that ran seriously deep.
If you're any good at maths - or even simply just counting - you'll have realised that 15, by my own workings, should be something special. Just over a dozen hours in, I'm pretty sure it is something special, a mad, grand and crazily ambitious RPG where you can see ten years of development come crashing joyously together. The end result is frequently a mess, but the chaos is rarely anything less than enjoyable.
What's endearing it to me right now, as I tinker around in its vast open world, is its similarity to Final Fantasy 12. Here's a Final Fantasy where it's a pleasure to grind, picking up quest after quest and hunt after hunt before stepping into the Regalia for a solid day's work out in the wilds, then setting up camp for some gloriously rendered food - seriously, whoever is responsible for bringing Final Fantasy 15's meals to life isn't getting paid anyway near enough - and banking all that XP. There's a lulling rhythm to it all I'm more than happy to succumb to, and at this point I don't care if Final Fantasy 15's second half falls apart. I'm having so much fun out in the open I'm not sure I'll ever even get there.
Like Final Fantasy 12, this is also a game that's also willing and able to play itself. Maybe that's by handing over control of the Regalia to Ignis and taking in the sights as you move from one objective to another, or maybe it's in combat that offers maximum spectacle from minimum input. Final Fantasy 15's combat is missing the depth and nuance of 12's gambit system - wherein you were able to code your team's behaviours, tinkering and toying with outcomes and probabilities until you had a well-oiled machine that could push through any encounter - but it's a joy to play nevertheless. From the opening dozen hours at least, Final Fantasy 15 could well prove my theory that this is a series that is at its best if you only play those entries with a number in their title divisible by three.
But that theory is complete hokum, of course. You'll likely have figured as much right back at the start, when clenching your fist and muttering under your breath what a travesty Final Fantasy 12 was, how Final Fantasy 9 falls well short of the majesty of 8 and how nothing could ever top the era-defining beauty of Final Fantasy 7. Everyone has their own opinion on where Final Fantasy's peaks lie, and it's impossible to find a consensus among fans.
Final Fantasy 15's biggest strength is its willingness and ability to straddle the many facets of the series. Its biggest flaw is its eagerness to please, from the almost apologetic statement you're met with upon booting up the game that this is a Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers to the more recent announcement that the story is being patched in response to fan feedback - sentiments with the best intentions that are a little too blunt in their execution. When you're looking to satisfy so many varied tastes, it's inevitable that many will walk away disappointed. (Aoife, a more studious fan of the series than myself, certainly felt the same conflict in her excellent review).Can a £300 PC match PlayStation 4 performance? Digital Foundry builds and tests its own budget build.
That desire to please so many leads to something of a split personality in Final Fantasy 15, and something of a sprawl of different ideas and mechanics. Some of them mesh, some fall flat while many others are discarded before they're ever allowed to take root. It's another inevitability, really - ever since Naoki Yoshida made his tearful apology on-stage as Final Fantasy 14 underwent its painful metamorphosis, the real stewards of this series are now the fans who Square Enix and the likes of Final Fantasy 15 director Hajime Tabata have placed themselves so dutifully in service to. When so many voices are directing, the results are always going to be chaotic.
It's a small miracle, then, that Final Fantasy 15 still emerges with its own sense of character. Noctis himself is as bland a lead as Final Fantasy 13's famously insipid Lightning, but in the group dynamic that's at the heart of Final Fantasy 15 there's something truly touching. It's a relationship that bleeds into so many parts of the game, from the links in combat where two friends stand briefly back to back before unleashing a flurry of damage to the asides tossed to one another as you explore the world. Most powerfully, it's there in the photos Prompto presents you at the end of each day, little snapshots taken surreptitiously during the action that are at once goofy and heartfelt. Final Fantasy 15's systems may be shallow, its story may well fall short yet I can't think of any entry in the series that's as endearing as this.
There's another theory I'm fond of that holds more water than any of my own, embodied by Peter Graham's well-worn quote. "The golden age of science fiction," he once said, "is 12". That's the age where you're most susceptible to all that fantasy and wonder, I've always thought, and when those distant worlds are at their most potent. Final Fantasy's no different - you'll find its golden age syncs up with the point in your life when you had countless days to get lost in the grind, or when your own daily dramas made you more vulnerable to the emotional swirl of its sweeping melodrama. Final Fantasy 15 has its faults - and in its sprawl, perhaps it has more than most other games in the series - but there's enough magic, enough wonder, to convince someone out there this Final Fantasy could well be their golden age.