It’s hard to believe that I first heard the theme song for Final Fantasy XV (then Versus XIII), “Somnus Nemoris” by Yoko Shimomura, almost nine years ago. Actually hearing it played within a real game (at the main title screen), however, is probably one of the most surreal moments in gaming I think I’ve ever experienced. I realised at the moment just how long Noctis has already been a part of my life. I clearly remember how hyped I would become from each new trailer, and how I would lose my head hypothesising about the possibilities that lay in store for this “dark horse” of the franchise. Furthermore, the rebranding as XV at E3 2013 is arguably my favourite E3 memory of all time. As an adult, excitement doesn’t come the way it used to, and the emotions that it stirred within me were almost child-like in nature.
Over the years, a lot of things about this game have evolved. And while Noctis isn’t exactly the same silver-haired, brooding protagonist that we first met during the debut trailer from 2006, there are still many elements about his world which stay true to Tetsuya Nomura’s original vision. At TGS 2014 last year, we were again re-introduced to the world of Final Fantasy XV, but this time under the direction of Final Fantasy Type-0’s creator, Hajime Tabata. It was here we learned how the game had changed mechanically since the gameplay shown in 2009, and, famously, the “road trip” theme soon to become the next big meme of the internet. It was both an exciting and unsettling time for fans, but one thing Tabata promised was to keep us in the loop; with regular updates and the first playable demo: Episode Duscae.
Arriving in conjunction with the day-one edition of Final Fantasy Type-0, the demo for Final Fantasy XV allows players to explore a large section of the Duscae region; which has, of course, been the focus point of the recent trailers. The first thing to know about the demo is that it’s quite large and will take players several hours to complete, as well as countless more for those keen to explore as it’s an open-world game. Narratively speaking, the demo is deliberately vague; pretty much providing us with no plot beyond what we’ve previously seen in the trailers, besides maybe a little character exposition. Essentially, It’s designed around learning the core mechanics of the game, testing out the open-world and how the quest system should work, and providing a few snippets of bigger things to come in the full game.
The demo opens with the travellers: Noctis, Ignis, Prompto and Gladious, being woken up by a mobile phone alarm after a night of camping. Basically, the car has broken down due to some unclear event involving Prompto, and the crew needs to raise some money in order to move forward on their journey. From this point, you are thrown into the open world to pursue one major quest which involves hunting a Behemoth, as well as one side-quest involving a mysterious, goblin-filled cave. Immediately, you can see how the scope has grown from earlier games; where instead of simply locating the monster on the map and battling it, everything is now so much more grandiose. This demo mission, for example, involves tracking the beast, stalking it in order to find its lair, and forming a trap as conventional combat doesn’t stand a chance. It’s a fresh angle for JRPG questing, and something I’m very excited to see more of.
One thing I want to highlight about fundamental approach to design of Final Fantasy XV is how elegant and polished it feels. The menus are sleek and simple to use: questing, inventories and destination management are all very easy to manage, and battle wrap-ups seamlessly appear on-screen after winning an encounter. Furthermore, I really like the way that the day/night cycle comes into play with the dynamics of the world, and how players must make camp to bank experience points and cook food to raise buffs for the following day. Of course, you can also choose keep going too because camping will sacrifice progress made on any partly completed side-quests. Overall, everything about this approach has a strong feeling of wanting to keep you grounded in the world, with as little distraction as possible. The game provides smart opportunities to break, and actively avoids overwhelming us with redundant micro-management.
When it comes to the combat mechanics, XV is going in a fresh direction for the series – sitting somewhere between Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy Type-0. For the purpose of the demo, it’s clear that not everything was on display (for example, magic); however, I still got a very strong impression of how it would work. Basically, there is one primary button for melee attacks which can be used to attack with individual presses or held down to continue the combo automatically. I know this was a concern of fans, but the reason it plays this way is because it allows you also to plan out your special moves which are tied to each weapon and managed during real-time with the d-pad. These moves consume MP (along with warp-strikes), and once depleted will leave you in a vulnerable state temporarily. There are also dedicated buttons for jumping, warping, and dodging attacks (which can also be used to set you up for a parry).
While I can see great potential in this new system, it’s far from flawless at this stage in development. The biggest problem overall is the camera, which often makes it very hard to focus on where you are within the action. Pretty much, you have to lock onto an enemy and trust that it’s going to do its job. Most of the time, it will, but, because you can’t quite focus properly, it really pulls you out of the experience and makes promising mechanics feel overly clunky. What I’m most curious about, though, is the tactical menu which actually pauses the combat while open. Within this menu, you can use items, configure Noctis’ set of weapons (which determines his combos/special abilities), and to manage the group gear (currently locked). The final option, however, is mysteriously listed with question marks. I’m interested to know if they’re considering breaking up the real-time combat with a few strategy components, i.e magic?
Another niggling issue which also impacts the way you play is an inconsistent frame-rate. Being a demo, I understand that it’s not yet fully optimised, but it’s going to be absolutely critical to ensure this problem is resolved before release. Otherwise, graphically speaking, the visuals are just as phenomenal as the trailers. I really, really like the art direction in this game, and the way they’re mixing modern, medieval and fantasy elements together to create a universe that is both familiar and yet very alien at the same time. The Duscae region itself is absolutely stunning, and filled with a fair sample of unusual wildlife; a few of which I recognise from much earlier instalments. Furthermore, you get to visit a Chocobo ranch (though you can’t ride any), as well as a gas Station run by Cindey, whom we can now assume is the daughter of this game’s Cid. It certainly has differences, but at heart, this is just as much a Final Fantasy game as any.
Final Fantasy XV is as beautiful as it is ambitious, while spouting great potential due to the elegance in its fundamental design. Currently, the frame-rate is still choppy and the camera needs some attention, but, being a demo, I feel I can push those concerns aside for now. I really appreciate the “fantasy based on reality” approach, and enjoy how XV feels both familiar and alien at the same time. Everything about the game just has a much more grandiose feel to it, which you’ll clearly see demonstrated throughout the Behemoth hunt mission. However, as core features are still being withheld, I think I’m walking away from Episode Duscae with more questions than answers, and I am keen to see how Mr. Tabata will handle our feedback. Overall, this is the most progressive game in the series yet, but I also think it successfully captures the essence of Final Fantasy too. If you’re not convinced yet, just wait until you see a summon.