To put it lightly, Final Fantasy XV has been a polarizing game since its late November release. Though this latest Final Fantasy earned high scores from critics, some particularly vocal naysayers haven’t been shy about voicing their complaints. And that’s to be expected: since XV stands as the series’ first experimentation with a truly open world—if you don’t count 2013’s Lightning Returns—some of the choices on display were bound to tick off longtime fans. But despite a few glaring flaws, Square-Enix’s take on this type of experience gives XV’s open world a unique and fresh quality that sets it apart from the competition.

Empowerment Through Disempowerment

A screenshot of the Final Fantasy XV team driving down the highway.

To be fair, XV’s open world isn’t without its problems. Frankly, from an ease-of-use perspective, some design decisions add up to pure frustration. If anything, Final Fantasy XV has a real fixation on wasting your time. If you don’t feel like driving or Chocobo-ing to your next destination, sitting through an interminable loading screen to fast-travel there doesn’t make things any better. And why do I need to face an equally long loading screen when I want to summon my car, but don’t have to do the same when I summon a Chocobo? It’s kind of baffling.

On a macro scale, though, these issues only add up to minor annoyances—ones that can be addressed through patches, or an inevitable PC version. Ultimately, Final Fantasy XV’s refusal to let the player accomplish their goals instantly gives its open world a sense of restriction that makes every reward even more rewarding. (Even if it requires a bit of patience.)

A Ticking Clock

A screenshot of the Final Fantasy XV team camping out.

Most open-world game simply set you free to do whatever, and even if they feature a day/night cycle, this system only affects things in a superficial way. Final Fantasy XV, on the other hand, gives you a fairly realistic timetable to stick to. After waking up, you have roughly 12 in-game hours until nightfall to get things done. You can still finish quests and hunts by moonlight, but XV ups the stakes by forcing you into encounters with powerful monsters that only come out at night.

Ideally, when starting a new day in Final Fantasy XV, you want to come up with some plan of attack. Since even fast-travel eats up valuable hours, each destination you choose matters. And because you collect but don’t actually earn experience until turning in for the night, each day turns into a race against the clock that entails getting as much done as you can before the sun starts creeping behind the horizon. This time-based restriction gives Final Fantasy XV an addictive quality not found in most open-world games, but more akin to something like The Sims. Succeeding within these limitations feels much more satisfying than it would in a world that offers total freedom.

Choices that Matter

A screenshot of the Final Fantasy XV team taking a group shot.

While your daytime planning matters in Final Fantasy XV, figuring out your final destination also makes for a very important choice. Different locales offer different experience multipliers, so you can really cash in on those earned points if you can make it to the right hotel. And this factor can create a few wrinkles in your planning: Do you want to wrap up your final quest for the day near a spot with a nice multiplier, or risk the drive there after sunset? Since XV loves to throw tough enemy encounters in the road after nightfall—ones you simply can’t speed by—you may end up finding yourself hoofing it the rest of the way. And it could be a long way.

Final Fantasy XV also features a nice push and pull on your resources to make every choice more important. Camping stands as a free option for resting, and while it doesn’t provide an experience point multiplier, you can cook ability-boosting food for just the cost of a few resources—the perfect way to prep for the next day’s quests. On the other hand, some of XV’s better hotels provide great multipliers, and it’s always satisfying to see the points earned from a day’s adventures double in number in front of your eyes. This approach takes its toll on your bank account, though: Hotels cost a pretty penny, and you’ll also have to pay for food the next morning if you want those important ability boosts. Even if your daily schedule goes off without a hitch, executing the final part of your plan relies entirely on your remaining resources.

An Acquired Taste – But a Great One

Granted, the design of Final Fantasy XV isn’t for everyone. If you’re looking for a freewheeling, open-world sandbox to jump into and instantly have fun, its restrictions may grate on you. But, if you’re willing to meet XV halfway, its laid-back focus on bro-ing out set against a strict schedule, you may find yourself ending your real-life night at 3:00 A.M. after saying “just one more day” about a dozen times.

Bob Mackey
Bob Mackey is Games Editor at Fandom. Since joining the games press in 2007, he's written for sites like 1UP, Joystiq, The A.V. Club, Gamasutra, USgamer, and many others. He also hosts the weekly podcasts Retronauts and Talking Simpsons. Follow him on Twitter @bobservo.