(This post was published a bit early so that I could include it in Square Enix's survey! It will soon be updated with a smoother focus, screenshots, gameplay footage, and a short video at the top showcasing the topic, like my other posts have.)
(Edit 1: I want to say that it was extremely hard choosing only one wallpaper option at the end of that survey. I went with Noctis and Gladiolus!)
So, here’s my deep dark secret. I finished Final Fantasy XV - Episode Duscae. I’ve put over 8 hours into it and I’m still playing. Sneer all you want, but the credits scroll would literally have to include a Leona Lewis pop song before I’d consider telling you not to play this utterly fantastic, amazingly epic adventure.
Ahem. Glad that’s out of the way. Before I talk about the game though, let me talk ‘history' for a bit.
Final Fantasy XV is a game long in the making. It was announced at E3 2006 as ‘Final Fantasy Versus XIII’. It had only just begun development before the announcement and Square made it clear that the game was a long ways away. Oh, how we’ve waited. Then comes E3 2013, seven years later, where the game is renamed Final Fantasy XV. It’s now a true Final Fantasy title with any and all connection to Final Fantasy XIII severed. Good riddance.
Even with a new trailer, new gameplay footage and a new name, Final Fantasy XV had no release date in sight. Not even a release window was given. Hell, not even a release year. It still doesn’t. Thankfully we wouldn’t be waiting long for the chance to play it. Square announced that they’d be releasing a high-definition remaster of a previous title, Final Fantasy Type-0, and that along with it would be packaged a Final Fantasy XV demo called “Episode Duscae”.
Episode Duscae, according to Square, was put together to calm the notion that Final Fantasy XV wasn’t coming along well and that the long development cycle was a sign of trouble for the game. Few games are in development for nearly a decade and turn out well, but I can tell you confidently that Final Fantasy XV isn’t likely to be among the games in that list. Finally, let’s talk about the demo itself.
Episode Duscae is set in the Duscae region of the game world. Noctis and his friends Ignis, Gladio and Prompto have wrecked their car. The adorable Cindy, a mechanic largely assumed to be XV's take on Final Fantasy's ‘Cid' obsession, is repairing the car at a gas station that the player can visit. However, the four friends are unable to pay for the repairs and plan to track down and kill the mighty behemoth “Deadeye” and claim the reward for killing the beast.
Duscae is only a small part of the much larger over-world that we’ll be exploring when the final game releases. There are blue barriers of light that prevent you from exploring further than you’re allowed, and your party members will ‘King of Red Lions’ you away from the demo’s borders. This is the only time you’ll ever feel that you aren’t playing a completed game. With that said, Duscae is massive, and breathtaking in beauty.
A subject of frustration for me is that many games use “next generation” hardware to make a game prettier, but largely stay in the same scope of its predecessors. Assassin’s Creed Unity is a prime example. There’s more detail than ever before, but the city isn’t any larger or much more interactive than it was on the previous hardware. Uncharted 4 is beautiful and I’m certainly reserving judgement until I’ve played it, but I’m not seeing much in the gameplay previews that I wasn’t doing and seeing in the previous Uncharted games.
Final Fantasy XV - Episode Duscae does not have this problem. Final Fantasy XV - Episode Duscae is the game that will remind you why this industry comes out with new boxes every eight or nine years. Massive monsters roam the landscape freely. Party members and other Non-Player Characters have insane amounts of detail, not just graphically but in terms of animation, clothing physics, and the types of things they’ll do while running, fighting or even standing idle. The game is gorgeous, and might as well be the definition of “next generation”. I can gush over the detailed visuals and animations all day, so let’s move on.
Wait, one more thing. This game looks better than Advent Children, that silly Final Fantasy VII CGI movie. Okay, now I’m done.
-=-=-=- The Combat -=-=-=-
The combat behind Final Fantasy XV has been more action oriented than Final Fantasy usually plays. This has been true since day one, where the Kingdom Hearts franchise was used as a inspiration. After all, Final Fantasy XV is developed by the team behind Kingdom Hearts. This also makes Final Fantasy XV the main reason why Kingdom Hearts III didn’t release on PS3 in the year 2011 like Square said it would when Kingdom Hearts II had come out, but I digress.
The Kingdom Hearts influence is still very much apparent, but if you want an idea of what the combat is like you’ll have to think further back into Kingdom Hearts history than you’d likely prefer. Attacking in Final Fantasy XV is slower and each hit is more meaningful than any Kingdom Hearts game but the first one. I prefer it this way, up until the game dumps too many enemies on you than the combat seems to allow you to deal with. Let me explain:
When fighting creatures out in the fields of Duscae you will often see the wind begin to blow violently and a loud engine will be heard overhead. You have been spotted by Magitek Troops, ugly armored soulless beings, ready to tear out their own exploding hearts and shove them into you just before they die. These guys arrive in large numbers and chances are you haven’t finished off the enemies you were fighting before they showed up. You are utterly unprepared to deal with this situation. Enemies will wail on you until you’re down and if you were separated from the party, likely continue to attack until you are dead.
Now might be a good time to describe how you lose the game, because it’s not exactly straightforward. You only control Noctis, but you don’t lose if his HP reaches zero. Instead you are placed in a state where you can’t attack or dodge, and every hit you take shrinks your total HP bar. Interesting! The ways out of this state are to heal yourself with a potion, hope another party members comes to help you, or just wait it out and Noctis will recover on his own. It’s only after your health bar shrinks to nothing that the game is over. The same applies to your party members, though I believe a Phoenix Down will save them if you have one. I haven't had to try as of yet.
Back to the point though, enemies can gang up on you and you cannot attack fast enough to fight them off, and the only “area of effect” type attacks that you have are abilities that require a build-up that can be interrupted by powerful attacks. You’re done. There’s no way out. You’ll be lucky to even get up off the ground. Thankfully this only happened to me once while out in the field but it’s against Deadeye himself that this problem really made itself known.
The first encounter with Deadeye is not a winnable one. The party tries fighting head on. When it’s apparent that this isn’t going well the party runs, leaving little indication that the player must stop fighting the monster and follow the party. This got me killed, then I died twice more because Deadeye caught up to me as I ran and smashed me against a wall. I couldn’t escape because the creature is huge, the party wouldn’t help, and Noctis couldn't get up before the next blow knocked him back down, let alone use a potion or begin to dodge anything. This was unendingly frustrating, and it took the game from magnificent heights straight down to the level of any other action game.
Unlike every other death I had experienced in the demo, I didn’t feel that I was these two deaths were my fault or were even death that I could learn from. I can't run any faster, The camera fought me when I tried turning it to watch Deadeye to anticipate his attack, and after a single hit I was trapped in an inescapable cycle of claws, teeth, horns, and a spiked tail. The only reason I ever made it out was by running straight to the escape route and waiting on Ignis, Gladio and Prompto to damage Deadeye to the point that the escape route became usable. This entire experience brought the entire demo to a screeching halt for me, though it eventually recovered when I discovered how I was meant to survive the fight. We’ll get to that in a moment.
The game lacks air combat, very much unlike Kingdom Hearts. Noctis doesn’t jump high and jumping is strictly for navigation. The only combat ability that Noctis can perform in the air is a warp that will take him to the locked on enemy or an environmental structure. All combat take place on the ground, though one ability you start with, Dragoon Jump, has Noctis jump and disappear as one would expect of the infamous Final Fantasy ability. Air combat could be a thing in the final game but I have no way of knowing.
What I do know is that things drastically improved. After a short line of side quests I came upon a cave. Upon leaving this cave I had obtained a new power and my first summon. Let’s talk about the new power first. It’s called “Armiger” and it can be pretty easily equated to Kingdom Hearts II’s Drive Forms. Two extra swords, “phantom swords”, float around Noctis and attack as he attacks, dealing much higher and faster damage. Other tasks in the demo rewarded me with additional phantom swords that powered up Armiger even further. This made fighting enemies in the field a breeze, and for the first time I felt that I was adequately prepared for Magitek Troop ambushes.
Armiger takes up your MP at a steady pace and deactivates when you’ve run out. After that you’re at zero MP, which might be a good things to go over. Attack enemies or take cover behind a nearby object to regain MP! If you attempt to use up MP when you have none there’s a consequence! Noctis will hold his head and be stunned for a moment, leaving you open to attack. This can be much more dangerous than it sounds and it’s on you to make sure not to overdo it with the warps, dodges and abilities.
I just played 'Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix +' which featured a magic system so broken that I can only assume the design document was taped back together after an unfortunate trip through a wood chipper, so coming off of that Final Fantasy XV’s MP management is simply amazing. It’s not intrusive, it’s easy to keep track of, and it has simple yet meaningful consequence for failure. Compare that to Kingdom Hearts II where failure means- Y’know what? Forget it. The MP system in Episode Duscae is fantastic and that’s about all I need to say. Except this:
Episode Duscae features no actual magic. Fire, Fira, Firaga, Blizzaga, Curaga, Stopza, you name it. It’s not yet implemented. It will be in the final game, but the graphics weren’t prepared in time for Episode Duscae. I bring this up so that I can mention that the flawless magic system described above may get a wrench thrown into it in the final game once the combat system contains magic spells taking up MP.
OTHER THOUGHTS BEFORE WE CLOSE -
Locking On -
Like Kingdom Hearts you can lock on to enemies. Unlike Kingdom Hearts, the game doesn’t seem to want to stay locked on. The only benefit to locking on is that Noctis will directionalize his attacks and your warp ability will always target the locked-on enemy. That’s about it. Locked on enemies
Final Fantasy XV is looking utterly fantastic. I cannot contain my enthusiasm for the final game.