Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae Impressions

It was said a long while ago (when the game was supposed to be Final Fantasy XIII Versus) that Final Fantasy XV was going to be one of the darkest instalments in the hugely popular Square Enix series yet, with a more realistic tone similar to our own world. It’s now nine years since it was first revealed, and, on the basis of Episode Duscae, that claim appears to be true.

After the three-hour demo, there’s much that diehard fans and series newcomers have to be both excited and anxious about. After all, Final Fantasy is a series built from a long line of games with certain traditions carefully placed throughout. These traditions include stories told through heavy fantasy elements, turn-based battles and a soundtrack that can knock the socks off of even the most experienced composers. It’s these characteristics that many have come to expect when purchasing a FF title.

Thankfully, it would seem that the masterful soundtrack fans have grown accustomed to remains intact. From the demo’s intro screen to the boss battle at the end, the tunes Square Enix has outfitted its newest adventure with scream Final Fantasy to their very core.

The game’s character design is also incredibly authentic to what we associate with Final Fantasy, and protagonist Noctis sports the bright blue eyes and impossible hairstyle that characters in the series have become known for. Chocobos, of course, have also found a place in FFXV, as well as potions and items of the sort. However, that is where the familiarity ends.

Battles take place in real time, similar to those of Kingdom Hearts. In this, players can deploy combos by pressing the square button and pull off special attacks with triangle. What makes this combat unique, though, is the fact that Noctis can summon weapons mid-battle to come to his aid. Players have access to two swords, a great sword and two spears in the demo. By way of a combat menu, Noctis can equip each of these items for separate duties. For example, if the player wants a faster fighting style with a strong finishing move, they can equip a one-handed sword as the initial attack, another one-hander for the combo attack slot and the more sluggish great sword as the finisher weapon. These weapons can be mixed and matched to the player’s liking, ensuring that users have differing experiences.

The main complaint I have with this combat is its inherent slowness. Although special attacks are intuitive ways to keep combat fresh and exciting, they also don’t flow very well in the heat of the moment. When the special attack button is pressed during a combo, Noctis will momentarily step back, pause, and then use the attack. While this does make the player have to plan out their strategy a bit more, ala typical Final Fantasy combat, it slows down an otherwise intense battle.

Another attempt at strategy comes in the form of the game’s “magic” system. Dodging, special attacks and teleporting will all consume MP. When Noctis’ MP reaches zero he gets momentarily stuck in place in a state called stasis. While I can see how it helps blend turn-based strategy with real-time reflexes, it becomes a hindrance more than anything, as you’re slowing down your pace to “catch your breath”. Although these are minor complaints, I think they could be big enough to chase away fans of real-time combat, while keeping traditional Final Fantasy fans at bay as well.

The demo’s visuals are impressive, and renders of characters, enemies, environment and weapons all pop on screen. Take this with the fact that the final game will run smoother and at a higher definition, and there’s something to be excited about in the eye candy department. The look and feel of the world the demo is set in seems more realistic than previous instalments, in that the only aspect of the environment that comes across as fantastical is the enemies, and even some of them seem far more based in reality than what we’ve seen in the past. For example, at one point in the demo, goblins attack the group in small group. While goblins seem right at home in this universe, it was the detail at which they were rendered and lack of cartoonish features that made their appearance seem foreign.

This doesn’t stop with enemies, as one of the coolest moments in the demo goes even further to showcase how something extraordinary could be made to appear normal. In the game’s final fight, Noctis uses the lightning deity to take down a behemoth. This encounter lasts about 20 seconds, and has the summon picking up Noctis in one hand as he uses his signature “Judgement Bolt” to take down the beast with the other. The whole sequence, while remarkable in nature, seemed to make the summon seem a bit more tangible. It’s hard to put a finger on just why this feels so different from the typical summons in the series, but it seems that the detail of the renders mixed with the more realistic designs creates the darker, grittier Final Fantasy that was promised early in the game’s development.

The four chocobros that make up your battle party in the demo.

Lastly, the small bit of plot gathered from the demo seems to point to the fact that this story really is a glorified road trip – or a bro-cation, if you will – with four buds waking up next to each other in a tent to the sound of a persistent cellphone. One of the characters is the strong guy, one is the calm dude with a British accent, and the other is the zany one who never learns. But for whatever reason, I absolutely loved the group. I found myself embracing the seemingly silly story within the first hour and hoping to learn as much as I could about the four friends. Just leave it up to Square Enix to turn a seemingly boring road trip into a gripping adventure.

All in all, we must remind ourselves that this is just a demo – but a 3-4 hour demo nonetheless (and a very sought after one, by the looks of the amount of codes hitting eBay). The aspects I enjoyed far outweighed the questionable bits, and will have me picking up the final copy without question. That doesn’t mean this game is for everyone, though. If you’re a fan of the fast action of a quick, button-mashing real-time game, you might be disappointed with some of the slower moments that combat has to offer. If you’re a FF traditionalist and can’t see the series as anything but turn-based battling, this might not be the title for you, either. But if you go into the experience with an open mind and a penchant for masterful storytelling, inspired visuals and general uniqueness, make sure to keep your eye out for a release date. Worry not, despite its differences, FFXV is every bit as Final Fantasy as I through XIV.

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