What I’m Playing: Final Fantasy XV Episode Duscae

Final Fantasy XV has had a tumultuous history, but it’s held a whole lot of interest since it was first announced way back in 2006 under the name Final Fantasy Versus XIII. Intended to be part of a nebulous pseudo-series entitled Fabula Nova Crystallis, the game would draw on mythology from Final Fantasy XIII for its base setting. Since then it has undergone dev team changes, a platform change, and even a name change to become Final Fantasy XV proper. The game stands out in the series as well. While Final Fantasy has been pretty willing to play with new settings and systems, XV marks an even further departure from the series’ fantasy roots by taking place in a fairly modern world. The game follows four male protagonists in a kind of road trip story, with a tight focus on a small group.

With the launch of Final Fantasy Type-0, we got a fairly robust look at XV with the included multi-hour demo, Episode Duscae. While the game could still change quite a bit before launch, it’s an intriguing peek into what’s being cooked up.

The goals laid out for your characters in the demo are pretty straight forward. You need money to fix your car, and conveniently, a behemoth is kicking around the area you’re in with a sizable bounty on its head. You’ll have to hunt down the beast, which takes you across a large open area as you hunt for clues and level up enough to be prepared for the battle. You won’t find a lot of plot in the demo, though you will start to get a feel for the main characters. At first shake, however, they’re a bit dull. While each clearly has a personality, they all fit pretty comfortably into boy band stereotypes. There’s the dark and broody one, the smart one with glasses, the young spunky one, and the older one with the tattoos, the one who’s just old enough to act as a mentor, but not too old to be totally dreamy. With a dense RPG structure in the full game, we’ll hopefully get some extra depth on top of the well worn tropes, but most of what we see is four attractive young dudes with a deep and unyielding love for black leather. Gone are the colorful and unique clothes of Final Fantasy past, replaced with a more modern style. I hold out hope for more visual variation as the game progresses, but the new aesthetic isn’t a deal breaker.

The large, open areas seem to take cues from recent Western RPGs. There is plenty of native fauna kicking around, some aggressive, some passive until you throw a sword directly into their friends’ skulls. In the demo, there’s not much else dotting the landscape- I spent around three hours playing the demo, but a solid third of that time was running across the expanse. There seems to be an MMO-style side quest system that rewards you for exploration at the least that will hopefully break up some of the tedium in the full game. In the demo, the main activity to break up travel is battle.

The battle system is definitely new territory for the main series, though it takes some cues from Type-0. The combat focuses around three pillars- attack, defense, and teleportation. Attacking is accomplished by holding down a button, though some interesting play is injected with your weapon load out. You can equip several weapons at once, the demo showing off one handed swords, two handed swords, and spears. Each weapon is equipped to a different attack type, so you might pull out a different weapon when closing in on an enemy vs your standard attacks, with another still for enemies with low HP. Weapons also add abilities to your action palette, allowing you to leap like a dragoon or perform a whirlwind attack with a two-hander. You don’t acquire new weapons or abilities in the demo, but the opportunities for character progression here are promising.

Defending is also a single button activity- holding down a button will cause you to evade attacks when one comes your way, at the cost of some MP. In theory, this makes MP management and the balance between attacking and defending key in strategy. Within the demo, however, it didn’t quite work out that way for me. I found defense sluggish, and as it didn’t quickly cancel out attack animations, my attempts to dodge were usually met with a hellhound gnawing on my 700 dollar shoes. The lack of a dedicated dodge seems like a calculated move, keeping the game from becoming a full action RPG, but I found myself opting for potions rather than defense. When you are drained of HP, you can move slowly and your teammates can get you back into the fight with a helpful back pat. Further attacks will drive your max HP down until your next rest, giving you a concrete failure state where your character can die and send you to a game over. I got in over my head a few times and knocked my max HP down to about half, but I could always find my way back to camp and opted to just let myself drop and get revived rather than pick up on the defense mechanic. In the full game, mastery of the mechanic may be required, or perhaps they’ll retool it to feel a bit more intuitive. As enemies can come in huge waves, standing and waiting for hits from off screen to drain your MP does not seem the quickest way to victory.

Teleporting is certainly the most interesting mechanic in combat. With a tap of the X button, you can throw your sword into an enemy, to cover, or to a high tower and warp directly to it. This allow you to enter and exit combat quickly, and was definitely fun- though again, the controls felt a bit sluggish on it and I had trouble reliably using it to get out of heavy combat with multiple opponents. More often, I used it to tag some irritatingly nimble enemies that seemed to enjoy dancing just out of reach. It’s pretty satisfying to leap directly to one and start hacking away, though the MP cost of teleportation ensures you can’t spam the attack. The mechanic is the most likely to bring about those memorable combat moments, where you can either slip out of certain defeat or organize an strong plan of attack against unique enemy formations. The environment for the demo, as an open plains area, wasn’t perfectly suited to show what the mechanic can do. It will be interesting to see how it’s incorporated in the main game.

I spent quite a bit of time in combat- much of which was due to me attacking groups of friendly critters that seemed like they’d be EXP pinatas (spoilers: they totally were). In an interesting twist (and something of a callback to old school tabletop RPGs), experience doesn’t take effect immediately as you defeat enemies. Camping is a big part of the game, and when you rest for the night your EXP is tallied and you gain levels. There are a few systems that play into the camping mechanic. First, food matters! Whenever you rest in a camping area, one of your party members will cook a meal based on ingredients in your inventory. These will provide buffs to stats and experience, making you stronger for the next day’s battles. There are also caravans, which cost money and do not provide buffs, but provide bonus EXP, providing a nice trade off. While the camping scenes feature no dialogue, these were some of my favorite moments in the demo. You get to see your characters huddled around, energetically chatting over a meal and a campfire, sitting in their ever-so-comfortable Coleman™-brand camping chairs. This down time really helps the road-trip vibe, as you get a chance to see your characters simply be human. A day/night cycle brings tougher enemies at night, as well as the threat of food buffs wearing off, encouraging you to camp regularly. This cycle of play was thoroughly entertaining and helped to break up exploration, serving as possibly my favorite mechanic in-game.

So how do I feel about the demo, as a whole? Despite my criticism, I quite enjoyed it and the possibilities it shows. What I saw of the road trip vibe seems fun and relatable, and the focus on a smaller cast should allow for more development- though I still worry over the lack of female characters making the group too homogeneous. The combat was satisfying if flawed, and the progression systems in play show potential for truly entertaining advancement. The game wasn’t as pretty as I expected, though there were a few events near the end of the demo, omitted for spoilers, that dropped my jaw in the best possible way. The game looks to be filled with enormous monsters to fight, which opens up the possibility for unique combat scenarios. Within the demo, fighting the behemoth involves quite a bit more than the “point sword at enemy; place sword in enemy” of most RPGs. I see the demo dividing people, however. While it does great at showing potential, a lot of what is on show feels a bit off still. Controls are stiff, the camera isn’t quite there yet, and the environments feel a bit empty. Traditionalists will be put off by another major change to gameplay, and newcomers looking for a tight action game will feel restricted. Looking at the game with benefit of the doubt, however, there’s a lot to be excited for when Final Fantasy XV releases… what are we thinking, 2016? 2017? 2038?

The game has been in development for a pretty long time. That’s the joke here, people.

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