The Nutshell version: It feels like a Dragon Age inspired Final Fantasy experience. While it’s easy to say it’s a response to western RPGs that have forced JRPGs into the shadows, it really seems like the natural progression from Final Fantasy XII. I started off hating the characters. I had a bunch of amazing moments that made my jaw drop in awe of the game. I felt combat was wildly chaotic and fun. I started coming around to like the characters. Game still needs some polish, but it delivers in a big bad way on the promise of what XV will be.

A Small Bit Before Play… 

I started the day excited more to play the FFXV demo than running my usual Destiny raid, or even to boot up the game I paid for to get my hands on Episode Duscae, Final Fantasy Type-0. That got soured a bit after being unable to download it to my PS4 remotely, and then getting home and waiting about two and a half hours to play the demo. I just mention this to point out at this point the shiny new “yay” of a new game had worn off. Dubious, skeptical, I booted it up and was ready to see what was going on here. I had been blind to all the trailers up to this point, and have only seen a few screenshots so it was really starting with a blank slate.

The boot screen felt sharp with a somewhat familiar melody. The opening music felt eerie and epic. I’m pretty sure it’s an alternate form of Somnus, a song that was made available on Theatrhythm via DLC. It gave me the chill I get when booting up FF7 after a long period and hearing The Prelude, or Dearly Beloved with Kingdom Hearts. Might sound small, but the feeling really centers me on the game. We are playing fantasy games to be absorbed into a different world after all, right?

Episode Duscae in Motion… The technical aspects.

It starts by dropping you into the middle of a scenario. Without having seen any trailers, I know nothing of this world or what’s going on. They do little to remedy that, as you open to four guys camped in the middle of some plains talking about how they wrecked there car. Cell phones are buzzing. Nomura’s character design looks like a lot of what he’s done the last few years… Black leather clad guys with gravity defying hair. The same as Advent Children’s villains, Organization XIII from Kingdom Hearts, etc. Instantly it’s hard for me to connect because it’s a bunch of guys bro’ing off while Noctis, the character you play as, refuses to wake up. I’m hoping the events leading up to this point are significantly invested in establishing these four, because I have a feeling I’m going to spend a lot of time with them. All shopping at the same tailor made them hard to distinguish during battles as combat is zippy as hell for a Final Fantasy. No pun intended. Thankfully you start off with a tutorial dueling one of them. It helps distinguish him a bit and give you plenty of time to learn the ropes of combat… Which is different.

While I compared this initially to Dragon Age and Final Fantasy XII, the combat is entirely it’s own beast. It’s real time with visible enemies on the map before you engage on the field, akin to those games. Unlike them though you can’t just queue up attacks and let them unfold. Outside of going into your menus to find items there is no pause in fighting. Mostly it’s based in a defense / parry / opportunity attack system. Holding your block button will have you automatically evade attacks and burning a bit of MP. Normally this leaves the enemy open to strike. During certain attacks if you’re facing an enemy and block, and indicator pops up and gives you a prompt to parry, then counter attack which puts a hefty defense penalty on the enemy for few seconds. This also burns MP. Your attacks are mapped to a basic attack and special attack buttons. Your special attacks have maneuvers like Dragoon Jump, a whirlwind spin attack, and a lifesap… All of which use MP. This gets confusing for me because MP has always meant “mana” or “magic” points. I just kind of thought of it as “Technical points” and it made more sense to me. Running out of MP means you won’t be able to dodge oncoming attacks which in turn means you’re going to get stomped into a black leathery pulp.

Your buddies will operate freely during combat. One in the group seems like the kid brother of the group, out of place and unsure of himself. Prompto? Well he also fights using gunplay at a range, has little HP, and sounds a lot like Tidus’ American voice actor. He dies, a lot. I stopped wasting potions trying to save him because it was fruitless. Health is funny in this where they don’t die when they hit zero HP. They limp around waiting to get a comforting shoulder hug and then spring to life with full HP again. If you let them hang about and get thwomped on though they start taking wounds and their max HP decreases until the next time you camp. A good rhythm I got into was just watching for them to hit 0 HP, then hug the life back into them, then continue attacking what was most convenient.

When I say most convenient, what I mean is what I’m able to target. One rough spot right now is targeting something specific. Battle is chaotic. Sometimes I was engaged with 15+ enemies for fights that lasted 5+ minutes. There are times you want to weed out a specific threat but just can’t get a good view of the field. If the cameras were pulled out further, with a bit more tactical overhead view it wouldn’t be nearly as rough. Maybe that’s the point though? Combat definitely felt frenetic. I was having fun just surviving and learning the ebb and flow. With the exception of Lightning Returns or Crisis Core, I’ve never been especially drawn to battles in a Final Fantasy game. It feels fun. When I’d get confused I would use the focus button to find any enemy, and then launch a special attack that flings myself at that enemy for a quick hit and suddenly I’m back in the fray. I’d describe the combat as scrappy, almost in a Dynasty Warriors kind of way… which it also shares another Dynasty Warriors trait. When there was a ton of stuff going on the frame rate would drop significantly. By absolutely no means a deal breaker, but I know the expectation for locked FPS is quickly becoming a huge thing. Bare in mind this is a demo of a game that likely won’t be released until 2016 either though.

FFXV

FFXV: Episode Duscae

Finally for the technical aspect – As night befalls the land the game encourages you to camp for the night. This lets you prep some food for buffs for the next day and levels up your characters from the XP you gained that day. It also saves the game and restores any lost health from being wounded during combat. The mood is kind of nifty as it dedicates a few screens to watching the group camp out together and the food they prepped for the night. Afterwards you start a new day and are free to roam the world again, bouncing from checkpoint to checkpoint doing sidequests and getting into skirmishes with the local wildlife / oppressive empire. This is the part that really channels it’s inner Dragon Age for me. Massive overworlds with lush environments, side quests, bands of enemies, random items to collect, etc.

The scope feels enormous by the way. You get a real sense of scale in the world when facing massive creatures like the behemoth or summoning Ramuh. This is something I haven’t felt in any Final Fantasy since escaping Midgar and realizing that was just one city in the world of FF7. It’s borderline daunting, in a Shadow of the Colossus kind of way, when you first face off against the behemoth. I can’t imagine how great it’ll be to come across a Giant Marlboro or Ironclad in battle.

Episode Duscae emotion… How it feels.

If this is how Final Fantasy XV is going to feel upon release they can have my $60 now. The demo has about 2-3 hours of content in the form of a campaign. As I mentioned, four dudes crossing the wilds have a broken car. Your quest for the demo is simply earning enough cash to pay the auto repair bill so you can continue on your journey of… something. It drops you into the middle of a story with no attempt to explain it. You, Noctis, are a prince. Your buddies refer to you as “your highness” a lot in the demo whenever they address you. During the demo you learn that without the car you’re likely to die in the wilds. The only way you can front the money to pay for the car is to hunt a behemoth that has been terrorizing the area. Risky venture, but you face death without the car anyways.

It seems corny out the gate. The mesh of magical creatures, sword summoning attacks, and robotic soldiers against the more familiar mainstays of real life such as a mini-mart, national park campground, and streets cutting through the wilds oddly works. A bit jarring at first, yes. I kind of liked seeing the human aspect of everyday life being portrayed in a Final Fantasy again. I think that’s why Final Fantasy 6-10 worked so well. Towns had people just doing what they do. They exist without need of interaction of the player. The lack of NPCs in 13 made the whole game feel like an isolated experience, despite dramatically altering the world permanently. XV is feeling like an alternate reality where this stuff can co-exist though. I was completely engaged for the duration of the demo once the training wheels were taken off in the first 20 minutes.

Moments. Moments are what you remember stories for. Luke losing his hand in Empire Strikes Back. Bill Murray whispering goodbye for Lost in Translation. John McClane jumping off the Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. Sure you remember a bit of dialog through out, or some of your more beloved scenes to completion. Even with games you remember stuff like racing chocobos in the Golden Saucer or learning to “Fus Ro Dah” in Skyrim. Chances are you can’t recall the color of chocobo you were riding or how many people were in the room when you learned “FUS!”. Details get lost. I’m not saying they’re irrelevant, but delving deep into lore and minutiae is what killed 13 for a lot of people. Fal’cie, L’cie, primers, datalogs, etc. No one remembers any of that despite how elaborate or well done it may seem. So again, moments…

Final Fantasy XV’s already created a handful of moments in this short demo. I stalked a behemoth with a stealth event. We planned and executed an elaborate strike to kill it. We fled for our lives. We got lost in some magical caves (with amazing lighting effects). We fought hordes of goblins that actually felt dangerous. We summoned the god, Ramuh. All of these things were amazing. I felt completely enamored by the events I was partaking in. From fear and anticipation, to excitement and joy – The demo was filled with moments, both large and small, that I think exemplify what it means to be a Final Fantasy game. I’m beyond excited to experience the full game if they are planning to deliver this on a complete scale.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the story of the demo you get your car repaired with a scene involving Cindy, the female mechanic. It’s a wicked fan-service providing an early case of waifu for those interested. What was nice was the quality of the scene though. While I started off not knowing / having disdain for the four friends I was cool with them at the close of the episode. I was excited to see them get their car back, one of them trying to flirt with Sidney like an idiot, and hit the road to continue their adventure. I felt they developed their personalities enough to where I was okay with their goofy names and lack of varying wardrobe. This closing scene felt like they might be able to tell a story using actual people and a wide array of emotions. Both the cut scenes and the gameplay were engaging. It’s been since 2006’s Final Fantasy XII since that’s happened in unison for me.

The big question everyone wants to know is if Final Fantasy is past it’s prime. Will it continue to decline? I don’t know. I can admit that Final Fantasy XIII took a chance at being more streamlined and alienated a lot of fans through that decision. It’s not for everyone and was somewhat insulting to old school fans. I still enjoyed it for what it was though. I don’t think I’ll have to make that disclaimer for Final Fantasy XV at all though. The bits of story teased in the post-demo cut scene laid a groundwork that I was interested in. It felt epic, but in a completely approachable way. I think western audiences are going to be really receptive of XV when it’s released. I know I will. As long as they manage to capture the magic of the moments in this demo, avoid copious amounts of padding, and deliver a focused story I think we honestly may see a return to form in Final Fantasy XV.

And oh my god… The Ramuh summon. SO good.

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