We’ve been waiting for Final Fantasy XV for a long, long time. The game, which was originally announced in 2006, started its life as a PlayStation 3 exclusive spin-off of Final Fantasy XIII entitled Final Fantasy Versus XIII. It was announced at E3 of 2006 via a short, intriguing trailer, and then largely disappeared from the public eye until 2013, when it was announced that development had shifted to the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, and the game had been rebranded Final Fantasy XV.
Final Fantasy XV suffers from the burden of expectation. Like many others, I bought a PlayStation 3 in anticipation of the title, and waited, and waited, and waited, and the game simply never materialized. Sure, we got hints of what the game looked like – a quick teaser here, a brief mention by game director Tetsuya Nomura there – but we never really got a good feel for what the game might actually play like until 2013. Square followed up the game’s re-announcement with an appearance at 2014’s Tokyo Game Show, and the reveal of a playable demo based on an early section of the game known as Episode Duscae, which would ultimately ship with pre-orders of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD.
"The first thing you’ll notice, aside from the genuine feeling of camaraderie between the characters, is how good it looks. Everything in Episode Duscae, from the hair on the characters’ heads, to the weapons, the environmental effects and the models for the enemies, is rendered in excruciating detail.
And so, nearly ten years, a full console generation, and two game directors after the game was first announced, we finally get to play Final Fantasy Versus XIII. Or Final Fantasy XV. Or whatever you want to call it. The question is, does it live up to nearly a decade’s worth of hype and anticipation? Well, if Episode Duscae is any indication, then the answer, shockingly, is yes.
Our journey begins with our quartet of heroes awakening in a tent in the region of Duscae. You play Noctis, a prince with Final Fantasy’s trademarked spiky hair and a surly attitude. Noctis and company – Ignis, a royal advisor (and damn good cook), Gladiolus, Noctis’ longtime friend and bodyguard, and Prompto, a childhood friend from a lower social class – are on the run from powerful enemies (who seem to be from a neighboring country) that want you dead when their car, a badass sports limo that rocks suicide doors, breaks down in Duscae because of something Prompto does. After giving him a hard time, the group breaks camp and heads off to raise money to get their car fixed.
The first thing you’ll notice, aside from the genuine feeling of camaraderie between the characters, is how good it looks. Everything in Episode Duscae, from the hair on the characters’ heads, to the weapons, the environmental effects and the models for the enemies, is rendered in excruciating detail. What’s even more impressive is that, outside of the initial loading time, the game never stops to load or features a segment where the game slows down to process a new area. It’s as open and seamless as you can get, and all of it looks beautiful, even if it’s not running at 1080p. Yet.
"Most of the series other entries have focused on turn or time-based battle systems, but Final Fantasy XV has dropped that in order to focus on an action-oriented system that places the character in full control of Noctis, a la Kingdom Hearts.
The second thing you’ll notice is how big Duscae is. The region runs the gamut in terms of geography, offering forests to comb, fields to cross, and caves to plunder and, best of all, you can explore everything you see. And again, Duscae is a very big zone. It takes a few minutes for the party to run from one end to the other, and that’s with a straight shot and without fighting any enemies. If you have to take a side path through a forest or around a craggy cliff face, it can take significantly longer.
All of Duscae is available to you in the demo, so how you approach the task of collecting the money to fix your car is up to you. The area’s main quest tasks you with slaying a Behemoth known as Deadeye who has been ravaging the countryside (a wanted poster knowingly describes him as one-eyed, one-horned, purple, and people-eating), but you’re free to explore and really tackle anything you want.
Final Fantasy has never really prioritized huge, open areas emphasizing player freedom before, and this change brings another with it: Final Fantasy XV’s realtime battle system. Most of the series other entries have focused on turn or time-based battle systems, but Final Fantasy XV has dropped that in order to focus on an action-oriented system that places the character in full control of Noctis, a la Kingdom Hearts. Naturally, this means forfeiting control of the rest of your party, but don’t panic; it’s not as bad as it sounds.
"All of this – special moves, warping, and dodging – cost mana, meaning you’ll have to balance avoiding, and dealing damage lest you run out, which puts Noctis into an extremely vulnerable state called Stasis, leaving you unable to use any abilities that require MP, and making you easy prey for nearby enemies.
Noctis has the ability to summon different types of weapons during his attacks, and you can customize which weapon will appear in certain situations. You might, for instance, open a combo with a couple hits from a longsword, then pull out a greatsword for the meatier hits, and finish an enemy with a well-placed thrust from a spear. Or you might want to open with your great sword, and then move to the spear, and finish things off with your longsword. The choice is yours, and you can customize your setup on the fly to deal with the enemies you’ll encounter. There’s also a number of special moves, ranging from abilities than drain health to dragoon style jumping lance attacks, all of which can be, you guessed it, mapped to specific weapons.
Noctis also has the ability to warp around the battlefield, which makes it easy to close the gap between enemies as well as warp out of danger. He can even warp out of the battle entirely, usually to a ledge or tree, and hang from his sword and allow his health and mana to regenerate. Perhaps the most important aspect of the new system is on the defensive end. Holding down a button allows Noctis to dodge any attack as long as the attacker in question isn’t behind you, and certain attacks can be parried for big damage if you time your shots well.
All of this – special moves, warping, and dodging – costs mana, meaning you’ll have to balance avoiding, and dealing damage lest you run out, which puts Noctis into an extremely vulnerable state called Stasis, leaving you unable to use any abilities that require MP, and making you easy prey for nearby enemies. It’s a bit of resource management that adds a lot of depth to an otherwise fairly simple system, and forces you to be on your toes at all times, even against small-time foes.
"Episode Duscae also features a day and night cycle. You’ll spend your days out in the world, fighting monsters and completing side quests, but at night, you’ll want to set up camp and have Ignis prepare dinner.
If you do run out of health, however, it’s not that big of a deal. If Noctis, or one of the other party members, drops to zero health, they enter a downed state, similar to the down-but-not-out state in Gears of War, giving your allies (or you) a chance to place a reassuring hand on their shoulder and bring them back into the fight. This means that being aware of your surroundings matters just as much as the amount of health items in your possession, and the system provides an opportunity to succeed, even after you’ve run out of healing stock.
Still, there are advantages to being in this state. For instance, it gives you access to summons. There’s only one in the demo, Ramuh, a giant lightning deity that you acquire by clearing out this cave of poisonous goblins (yes, it’s as horrifying as it sounds). The results are well worth it, however, as Final Fantasy XV’s summons are easily the most impressive to date. Ramuh blots out the sky, and his Judgment Bolt is capable of reducing even the most fearsome enemies to dust. As an added bonus, it makes the surrounding area all sparkly glowy via some pretty impressive visual effects. I did say it was a pretty game.
Episode Duscae also features a day and night cycle. You’ll spend your days out in the world, fighting monsters and completing side quests, but at night, you’ll want to set up camp and have Ignis prepare dinner. Making camp serves two purposes: first, it lets you save your game. Secondly, and more importantly, it allows your party to level up and share a meal, which provides stat buffs for the following day. The stats you’ll get are based on the meal Ignis decides to prepare. Effects range from bonus experience to an immunity to poison, and all are helpful. Then, the new day dawns, and it’s back to traversing the countryside.
"As a demo designed to whet our appetites and reassure us that Final Fantasy XV is, in fact, a thing, Episode Duscae delivers in spades.
In all, Episode Duscae provides a tantalizing look at the future of Final Fantasy without giving too much away. The limited nature of the demo means that you won’t be able to gain new abilities, so we still don’t have a good idea of how the leveling system works. I also didn’t come across any kind of traditional magic in the demo – the closest thing to it were the offensive abilities Noctis had access to – and despite having access to Ramuh, I’m still not entirely certain of the ins and outs of the summoning system.
Still, as a demo designed to whet our appetites and reassure us that Final Fantasy XV is, in fact, a thing, Episode Duscae delivers in spades. Square’s got something special here; now all we need is a release date. Let’s hope that we won’t have to wait another ten years to get one.
This game was previewed on the PlayStation 4.