It’s no secret that the Final Fantasy franchise has fallen on tough times over the past several years. The critical reception for every mainline game has been mixed since Final Fantasy X, leaving fans confused or dismayed by an endless string of bogged-down sequels, spin-offs, and disheartening directorial decisions. Now XV’s release seems primed to tip fortune back in Square Enix’s favor just when it needs it most.

But the game has its own interesting behind the scenes story to tell, and more importantly it will likely be the introductory entry for many to the grand, sweeping worlds and dramatic storytelling Final Fantasy is known for. Here’s everything you need to know to get started.

It’s Been a Long Time Coming

Final Fantasy XV has been in development for so long that it didn’t even start as a main numbered series entry. Originally introduced a decade ago at E3, what XV would become began life as a spin-off to Final Fantasy XIII dubbed Versus XIII. Then the brainchild of Kingdom Hearts creator Tetsuya Nomura, the little that was ever shown of Versus XIII’s design seemed to crib heavily from Square’s Disney-partnered RPG series. While FFXIII came and went in 2010, followed by two direct sequels, Versus XIII was still nowhere to be seen.

The game was presumed dead, more or less, until E3 2013 when it was reintroduced (and rebranded) as XV. Nomura left the project a year later — his attentions needed elsewhere — leaving the game in the hands of Hajime Tabata, only known at that point for the FFVII PSP spin-off Crisis Core and Final Fantasy Type-0, another former XIII spin-off. With the sheer scale, cost, and importance of FFXV’s success, Tabata deserves a lot of credit: He’s seemingly taken his role with the utmost seriousness, taking painstaking care to implement feedback over the course of several iterations of XV’s gameplay.

It’s Relatable, But With the Series’s Epic Scale in Tow

Unlike the past several FF games, largely mired in convoluted setups and shallow storytelling (looking at you again, FFXIII), XV takes is a coming-of-age story about a young prince and his trio of boy band-looking best buds. Ostensibly, the game is a bit of a road trip — at least, that’s what been most publicized about it — with Prince Noctis and his pals on a journey to meet his betrothed, the princess from a neighboring kingdom.

Back home in Lucis, the domain of Noctis’s father Regis, war looms with a rival nation; as you might expect, the boys’ journey soon abruptly becomes one of growing up and life’s emotional bonds, with family and friendship being the main thematic draws as the casts’ adventure continues. Of course, this being Final Fantasy there is plenty of travel to far-flung places involved, not to mention climatic battles with huge monsters and such as well. Just be aware that some background aspects of the game’s story — in particular Prompto’s friendship with Noct going back to when they were kids and some further background from Regis’s past — are largely contained within XV’s anime spin-off Brotherhood and CG film Kingsglaive, respectively. Jury’s still out on how well the game makes up whatever ground might be lost there.

Built for Everyone

Know much about Final Fantasy’s gameplay history? It doesn’t matter. Tabata and team have adopted an approach that’s meant to appeal to everyone from hardcore JRPG players to action fans, open-world gamers, and people who like western RPGs in the vein of Fallout. Much has been made over game’s free-roaming design (again, road trip) where players are given every opportunity to watch the boys goof around, listen to past FF soundtracks in the royal roadster Regalia, take on side quests, talk to NPCs, or just soak in the environment itself.

The battle system has been streamlined, too — since XVs first demo early last year, the core combat has been tweaked and refined quite a bit. The basics are fundamentally the same though: While you’ll still level up and make use of an RPG skill tree, balance equipment parameters, and do most everything else present in standard genre fare, this is Final Fantasy as seen through the lens of an action game. In other words, it’s extremely easy to pick up and play regardless of whether you’ve ever touched the series before. It has stealth bits as well.

There’s a Lot Riding on It

Tabata has been very open about the game’s development as it’s progressed, in particular being surprisingly upfront about how critical the game’s success is to the future of Final Fantasy. The director basically laid it all on the line in a frank conversation with Game Informer earlier this year. “For Japan, I believe it is a make or break for the franchise,” he said. “And if the Final Fantasy brand is on its demise in terms of numbered mainline series within Japan, then I feel like it would also follow suit globally.”

Aside from the sheer amount of cash needed to bring XV to life in its final, finished form — while no hard numbers have surfaced, you can look at the practically on-rails FFXIII’s $65 million pricetag in 2010 as a comparison —- the console market in Japan has been on the decline for some time, replaced almost entirely by mobile games (of which Square itself has no shortage).

While the fanbase is certainly there for these grandiose, huge budget games, they’re becoming bigger and bigger risks on principle; add in FF’s less than stellar reputation from the last few years and you’ve got a game where anything less than a smashing success would probably be a crushing defeat. Whether that might affect development or completion of the insanely anticipated FFVII remake is unknown. Still, given the incredible amount of work Tabata and his team have put in, and the rabid anticipation for a new Final Fantasy that’s good, failure seems like a remote possibility.

It’s Still Final Fantasy

Yes, XV is a massive departure from your traditional FF — it’s a Japanese take on a western game, with a darker and more serious narrative set in a more realistic world. That doesn’t mean this isn’t Final Fantasy, though. First and foremost, look at the character designs, bleeding the stylized excess of Nomura’s Harajuku-esque, anime belted couture.

Of course, there are plenty of other expected staples, including moogles, cactuar, and plenty of other iconic monsters, plus rideable Chocobos and a generous dose of magic. Concerned that your favorite apocalyptic deities aren’t around to help out in battle? Summons are back. How about that trademark personality that straddles the line from self-serious to ridiculous and back? Check. Even when Noct and the crew go camping, it’s a winking nod to the series’s trademark “Tent” item that revitalizes you at save points. It’s as important to consider the past as it is to change, something that XV never forgets.

Steve Haske is a Seattle-based writer and sometimes a creator of stupid art. His work can be found on VICE and Playboy. Iain Glen is his Virgil.