As I watched the white bar scroll slowly across my screen, I realized how surreal this moment was. To think that after 9 years of waiting, I was finally going to experience Final Fantasy XV. The last few percentages loaded up… 98%… 99%… and I recalled an experience with another demo many years earlier. This was a time when gaming magazines were found in the mail and demos were on discs. One demo I still own to this day, Final Fantasy VII, initially ushered me into a genre I didn’t know existed. As the installation process began I had that same sense of wonder, but this time it was mixed together with avid curiosity and a touch of apprehension.
After what felt like another 9 years the demo finished installing. When I got to the main menu I was greeted with a beautiful music piece from the one and only Yoko Shimomura. It was Final Fantasy, but you could also feel inspirations from her work with Kingdom Hearts. Rest assured, from the featured track in the demo and the battle themes, this soundtrack is shaping up to be incredible. There’s simply no other way to put it. Once I realized I could actually start playing, I hit “New Game” and spent the next several hours in FFXV’s world. There are aspects of the game Square Enix nailed and some that they need to improve before release. Since this is a demo it’s hard to gauge how much Square Enix showed off and how much they tucked away regarding gameplay mechanics, exploration, etc. Most of the issues I found rest within the gameplay mechanics, but they can be fixed without overhauling the battle system. With Hajime Tabata (Final Fantasy XV’s director) reporting the game as being 60% complete they have ample time address any the remaining problems. Square Enix has mentioned their intent to they will be reading as much feedback from the game as possible so I’m optimistic that they can fix their problems.
Square Enix sliced the demo so you don’t know whats occurring in the overarching plot. Besides a minor spoiler during the ending video after the demo is completed, players should worry about spoilers. Since Square has been slowly pulling back the curtain on the game, many fans have coined it a bro trip. In Episode Duscae the main protagonist, Noctis, and friends are cruising around the world in a swanky car, fighting monsters, and camping out. Episode Duscae is without a doubt a bro trip, but I’m definitely okay with that. While the game will be much more than hoping in the car and exploring the countryside, it’s a nice change of pace. The main part of the demo itself involves raising enough money to pay for car repairs. There’s not much too it, but the demo can last for a few hours if you want it to. Your progress can also be saved in the demo so you don’t have to worry about doing everything in a single sitting.
For a while now the franchise has been pretty hit or miss with its characters. It’s one of the many things the franchise has been known for, but is currently struggling with. In general I got a good vibe from the characters so far. The opening scene consists of the party waking up at camp. The scene itself is a good portrayal of a real life situation, with annoying phones blaring and your friends refusing to get wake up. This scene portrays the characters in a more realistic light. Throughout the demo your party members will point out areas of interest to you, make side comments and interact with you and the environment in general. Ignis, the British sounding strategist, will point out new monsters and give a brief description. I enjoyed this as Square Enix tends to stick all of their monster info in appendices. Your party will repeat phrases inside of battle and out. While this wasn’t a problem in the demo, it will be interesting to see how 40+ hours will test player patience if and when these phrases are repeated again and again. The character designs are good, each character is unique in that regard despite the fact they are all clad in black. The upside is that Nomura decided to drastically tone down on the volume of belts he sometimes includes in his character designs. On the voice acting side, Noctis sounds like a young Japanese Batman and Prompto can be annoying at times. Collectively it’s not the best cast ever assembled but they’re pretty good and the voices to fit their personalities well. The demo did include an option for the Japanese voice track, so fans who detest English voice acting in JRPGs have another option. It is unclear if both audio versions will be available when FFXV finally hits store shelves. If Square Enix can deliver on the story and add character depth and development, the cast is guaranteed to be better received than the entire XIII cast (sans Sazh). In battle your allies felt present, not as lifeless A.I. Subtle nuances such as this are extremely important to Final Fantasy XV’s success.
The area presented to you in Final Fantasy XV is big. Square Enix wants to make it apparent that this game is not a hallway or a series of hallways. They want to make it perfectly clear they’ve ended their relationship with hallways. Although for dungeons or more scripted missions, it won’t be surprising to see more linear areas. It is important to remember that Final Fantasy in general has never been an entirely open world RPG like its western counterparts. From a graphical standpoint, the game doesn’t look like the next gen-graphical powerhouse. Before Episode Duscae was released Square Enix that the demo will not be a final representation of Final Fantasy XV’s graphical limits. The demo sill looks good, I thought the lighting/shading, enemies, and vegetation looked great and had a good amount of fine detail. With that being said I did experience frame rate problems, as well as texture issues like when Noctis first emerges from the tent and you get to see the first view of the landscape at a distance. I didn’t encounter any glitches in combat or with objects in the environment. Say what you want about the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, but they had no issues in glitches, gravity problems, falling through floors, etc. The same can be said for Final Fantasy XV. The fact that the code is solid throughout the demo hints to the fact that development has come a long way and despite being only 60% done, seems they’ve ironed out major technical problems. My main gripe with running around the demo would be the invisible walls surrounding the ponds/marshes. I’m not sure whether this was by design specifically for Episode Duscae or not. Hopefully the invisible walls won’t exist for the full game… come on, those Adamantoises aren’t going to fight themselves. With the power of these next generation consoles there should be no excuse for the game to ship with invisible walls in the middle of open areas.
Gameplay in Final Fantasy XV is more akin to an action game than an RPG. It’s definitely inspired by Kingdom Hearts and is another step away from the turn based/active time battle systems. The reality is the series has not had a traditional battle system since the PS2 installments, and Square Enix is trying to find out what they think works for the series in an ever changing gaming landscape. Square has struggled to find its identity in its gameplay and has experimented with a lot of mechanics in the XIII series. While I don’t think Square Enix will truly abandon the traditional RPG battle systems, for the immediate future including the guaranteed Type-0 and the Final Fantasy XV sequels will be action-RPGs. The important question is whether Square Enix will be able to deliver great gameplay. Does Final Fantasy XV deliver? In a way, yes. However it does have some problems it needs to address before release.
The two most important aspects of gameplay are here; combat is both fun and engaging. Regardless of what needs to, and will actually be fixed, added, or changed, the game is on the right path. Players take control of Noctis and have access to a regular attack combo, which can be edited, special techniques associated with each weapon, and the ability to dodge and parry enemy attacks. To pull of regular combos players can mash or hold down the attack button. I already foresee complaints involving attack controls. It is streamlined and does not require an elegant array of button inputs to pull of combos found in pure action games such as Devil May Cry. After spending some time with the combat it becomes apparent battles are not only attack, attack, attack, attack. It is imperative you manage your MP, time dodges, execute parries correctly, and rescue injured party members. Special attacks are present and require a hefty amount of MP to use. The attacks are varied enough that certain attacks should be used in certain situations. Drain Blade helps to recover some HP, Tempest for when you are surrounded by enemies, Dragoon Jump to cause damage to stationary enemies etc. Dodging is based on whether or not an enemy attacks you, so you won’t be dodge rolling around the area like Sora. Dodge can be held down in anticipation of enemy attacks, but will eat up more MP the longer you hold it down. In some instances you’ll be given a prompt to hit dodge (not a quick time event) and enter into a parry then counter attack, which is a quick time prompt. Parrying and counter-attacking are satisfying to pull off.
The battle screen is not littered with menus, which is great from a presentation perspective and also allows you to see what is going on clearly. Square Enix should look to increase the font size on the MP bar, as its sometimes hard to glance at and get an exact reading on your MP levels. The MP bar does a good job of using colors to give you an indication of how low your MP is getting. With the ability to edit your combo layout, memorizing which weapon is next in the lineup relative to the one you have equipped could be hard to do. Instead of cycling though techniques (only shows the currently equipped on screen) blindly, Square should display which technique is next. Because you can either cycle through to the left or right using the directional pad, both technique names should be displayed relative to the currently selected technique.
After a few hours with the gameplay, two issues became apparent. The first issue is somewhat substantial and deals with the depth of combat. The combat featured in the demo is extremely melee heavy. While I love giving a good beat down, it would be nice for Square Enix to incorporate various buffs and debuffs in the game. The only debuff was poison, which was used by enemies. Adding in these aspects of combat would give it more depth and could be a way for Square to break up some of the monotony of holding down (or mashing) the same button for attack combos. From the demo I cannot tell how deep the gameplay will be. The techniques do have Tiers associated with them, which might indicate you can level up those techniques. The demo does have a “Group Gear,” and “???” sections in the tactical menu that we cannot access in the demo. Although you can edit Noctis’s abilities you weren’t able to edit party member abilities. It is impossible to control more than one character in an action-RPG but you should be able to edit your party member’s abilities. Adding in more RPG elements in areas such as ability, weapon, item editing for characters would offset the action heavy combat, giving a better balance to the action-RPG gameplay.
The second issue is a small one and deals with the lock-on feature and camera. Battles can be very chaotic and a lock-on feature is a must. Fortunately Square Enix has realized this and promptly included the ability to do so. Holding down the button will target an enemy and pressing in the right stick (i.e. R3 on the PS4) will lock onto that enemy. However the camera cannot follow the enemies or angle itself behind Noctis quick enough. Often times you’ll lose sight of the enemy despite the fact you’re locked onto it. The camera will try to orient itself towards the enemy, but needs to be a bit faster. This could lead to frustration in combat with frequent misses against fast moving enemies, or if you wanted to focus on defeating a specific enemy. It does seem strange that the option to switch your lock-on to other enemies is absent when it appears in both Type-0 and Final Fantasy XIV. The shoulder trigger buttons were not mapped to anything in the demo and would be a good way to cycle clockwise or counter-clockwise through available enemies. This would allow for players to quickly orient themselves when an enemy runs to far away from Noctis range of attack, to focus on a closer enemy instead. This would result in avoiding the need to re-lock onto enemies again and again, or hunt down a specific enemy if lost the lock-on. Warp strike is a way to cover ground fast on an enemy but also uses up MP. It’s important to watch your MP consumption using warp strike as it could leave you vulnerable. While Noctis will warp strike to an enemy you’ve targeted, without targeting or locking-onto an enemy you’ll likely warp strike into the ground and waste valuable MP. Being able to cycle through enemies quickly would help prevent this.
There are two levels to the HP bar. The first bar is white and the second bar is red. The white bar is a normal HP bar. When that bar reaches 0, you’ll move much slower and will be unable to attack. At this point when you or a party member is hit, maximum HP is lost. This HP cannot be regained by natural HP regen or when the battle is ended. When in this state the party member will cease to fight and will move to leave the dangerous parts of the battle. It’s a nice inclusion that your party members won’t just stand there and take damage like idiots waiting to be rescued. Granted if an enemy is constantly attacking them in this state they will be unable to get away effectively. They can be “rescued” either by you or another party member restoring some of the white HP bar and letting them fight again. I really enjoyed this mechanic of the gameplay. It forces you to monitor the status of your party members our in battle, rushing to their aid if need be. Overall this set-up works very well and is balanced to boot. The only problem I have with this rescue mechanic is that it can be annoying to execute. For clarification, getting to a party member and waiting on a button prompt is not the most fluid way to do it. Especially when you miss time the prompt and end up warping striking far away from your injured party member. It is a good idea to give players the option of locking-on to that injured party member, making it easier to track them down and execute the button prompt. While you do gradually heal in battle and you will completely heal upon running from battle, or winning the battle, over a period of many battles you’ll likely to suffer from a decreased maximum HP bar… making battles much more difficult. Plus the wilderness is deadly, enemies can hit pretty hard and can attack in large numbers. Not to mention situations can occur where you think you have the enemies beaten… a drop ship can suddenly appear with Magitek Soldiers and make winning the battle much more difficult. You have two options to get back that lost max HP, either by burning through healing items or by making camp for the night.
There are various areas to camp out for the night and regain your health. Ignis prepares your meal and passive buffs are applied depending on what you eat. You are not able to choose what he cooks and it was not clear if the better (i.e. food that gives the best buffs) are used first or if it is completely random. You do have control over what ingredients are in your inventory that Ignis can use. Square Enix also uses this opportunity to show the group around a campfire having a good night out. As I stated previously subtle nuances such as this will add up and make the characters more memorable. That’s not the most interesting part of camping however. I didn’t notice this until camping for the first time, but although I defeated enemies and earned experience points, they are not applied until you make camp. This is when you can level up your characters. At first my reaction was mixed, but the more I thought about it the more it makes sense. When you go to the gym or for a run, you won’t reap the benefits the second that workout is over. You do need rest to recoup and camping does mirror that rest period. However, the camping mechanic is occurring in an open wilderness. It will be interesting to see how they incorporate this mechanic with more scripted events, such as important plot points that will be much more linear in nature. Will you camp out right before that mission? Can you camp during the mission? What if you’re in a large dungeon that might take a few hours? Logically, I think you will have the option to camp before doing important story related mission and you probably won’t be able to camp during them or while in dungeons, we don’t know for sure how this will be implemented throughout the rest of the game.
With bigger map to run around in means more time is spent… running around. While there will be modes of transportation such as your sweet wheels and Chocobo’s, you’ll do a lot of running on foot. Noctis is quick but his sprint is too short. While I do appreciate the attention to detail when Nocits becomes tired and wipes the sweat from his forehead it would be great to sprint longer distances. It might get annoying to watch him do this motion over and over again running around open areas. At the same time with a fairly short day and night cycle, getting around faster is necessary for completing more things. Enemies are much more difficult at night and could force you to make camp. The downside is that side quests are abandoned once you do so. This means you wither have to do the side quests before making camp or find them again after camping. Side quests do not carrying over might be a bit annoying going forward, but that ultimately depends on how long those side quests are and what they involve. Within the constraints of the demo it’s hard to determine how this will play out in the long run. It might be inconsequential that missions are abandoned, but within that same train of thought, what is the point of abandoning side quests if you can find them again tomorrow? Lastly, I want to mention the summon you’re given access towards the end of the demo. If that summon is any indication Final Fantasy XV is going to incorporate a lot of great and powerful cinematics not only in cutscenes, but within battles as well. The summon can be accessed when Noctis health hits 0 health on his white HP bar. There was no immediate tradeoff to summoning, but I don’t think Square Enix could let players summon anytime they hit zero health. It would break the game. Likely summing in this way was built into the demo itself to simply things, or as a work-around since other gameplay elements were left out of the demo summing is involved in.
If you purchased Final Fantasy Type-0 and are wondering if you should play it, I suggest you download it and see for yourself. Ignoring the turn-based vs real time combat argument for the time being, yes the gameplay is streamlined, but might offer a surprising amount of depth once everything is revealed. Buffs and Debuffs could bring a more tactical aspect to the predominantly melee combat, while having access to your party’s abilities and weapons opens the door for more RPG elements for increased depth in the gameplay. While you’ll mainly mash or hold down the attack button, other emphasis is on dodging, MP management, and rescuing team members makes you constantly engaged in the combat. The input might be simple, but it’s a wait and see on how varied or deep the combat will actually be. The ability to use magic is notably absent as well, whether this omission is by design for the demo is not clear. However, Noctis does not have a magic stat so that might mean he won’t be throwing around Firagas any time soon. Final Fantasy XV wants to be a more open game, but it won’t be a truly open world in the western RPG sense. The story will follow a linear path and there will be scripted elements throughout the game. It’s going to be interesting to see the final product and how Square Enix will balance the game. After completing the demo I’m about as excited for the game as I was before the demo which is a good thing. There are some aspects to gameplay that need to be addressed in the camera and lock-on system, and a demo can only show so much to players. A lot also hinges on the ability of Square Enix to build a compelling world, memorable characters, and a solid story. Episode Duscae left me optimistic that the game will be able to pull all its parts together and deliver the Final Fantasy game players have been waiting for.