Thankfully due to being lucky enough to work within the games industry, I was able to play an early demo of Final Fantasy XV at E3 last year. I absolutely hated it. I didn’t understand how the game’s blocking worked, I was thrown into a boss fight where I was the size of the bosses pinky finger and the PS4 the demo was running on crapped out on me before I could finish. It’s was a fairly awful first impression of a game that had taken almost ten years to develop.

Fast forward to December of that same year to find me standing in line with a collectors edition copy in hand. (It was the last copy of the game the store had) I’m not sure what prompted me to go out and purchase the game after that initial experience. I remember very clearly telling my co-worker I had zero interest in the game after what I had seen. However I will admit I’m very happy I did end up picking up the game. Final Fantasy XV is easily in my top three games I’ve played thus far in the year, reminding me that a game doesn’t have to be all about character levels, checking off markers in some big open world and unlocking a new tier of abilities.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the game for me was how alive the writers and developers made the game feel. There would be moments between the characters that felt like real conversations, not forced or driven, just natural dialog. In one example Prompto, the more upbeat member of the group, randomly breaks out into song and another character grunts his annoyance at this. Nothing specifically prompted this, I was randomly running around the open world but it felt natural and “real”. In a more scripted moment, the main character Noctis, has spent the last 10 minutes of game play complaining about pretty much everything. Complaining so much to the point of annoying you the gamer, but when Noctis’ “guard” (Gladiolus) snaps and yells at Noct to stop whining and acknowledge the rest of them are struggling as well, the game makes it crystal clear these other people in your party serve a bigger role than just supporting you in battle. They are just as important to the game as the main character is.

This leads me into a big reason why Final Fantasy XV is in my top three games I’ve played this year so far. Final Fantasy XV reminded me of how videogames can tell amazing stories in ways that books, comics, movies or TV shows aren’t able to. Over the course of countless side quests and main storyline quests, I was able to learn the personalities of these characters that you just can’t achieve outside of videogames. You learn bits of their back stories, their fears and what excites them, all through passive actions done during game play. Due to that, I felt far more invested in how things played out. The ending of the game was far more emotional for me than I honestly expected and I wasn’t ready for it.

All that said, it is in no way a perfect game. I can accept the criticisms like the driving to get around is a waste of time and boring or even arguments that the game becomes too linear towards the end. Truth be told, I can forgive a lot of that because the game play and experience was beyond what I was expecting. Once you grasp how to dodge and block, the combat becomes fluid and super enjoyable. A majority of the side quests did not feel like the same mission with a different coat of paint over and over. The story was deep and can easily lose people if you aren’t paying attention. If I wanted a challenge, the game was ready to provide me one. When you boot up the game, you are presented with the message “A Final Fantasy For Fans and First Timers” and I can’t think of a more perfect way to describe the game.