I have to be honest here and confess that Final Fantasy XV was pretty low down in my expectations, in terms of videogames to be released this year, and has largely been overshadowed by hype for other massive releases like Persona 5 and Dark Souls III. In fact, despite picking up Final Fantasy Type-0 HD mostly for the Episode Duscae demo, I’d not played it; dismayed as I was by the experience of playing the largely lacklustre Type-0 HD and the uneven mess of the XIII trilogy (I’ve also *still* not played through Lightning Returns despite downloading the Japanese language pack). It’s fair to say that the once great videogame series had taken a few knocks in recent years, lost a lot of the magic that once made it special, and largely been replaced by other more competently made JRPGs that scratched the same itch – such as Square Enix’s own Bravely Default series. Well… that was until the announcements that have been rolling out of Square Enix recently: a new freely downloadable demo, new trailers, tie-in movie, tie-in five-part anime to freely stream off YouTube, etc. They’re going all out to market this game (which apparently needs to sell 10million copies or something ludicrous!?) and so I thought I would finally jump in and see what all the fuss is about.
First off, I downloaded the brand new Platinum Demo, a very short slice of gameplay related to but not included in the main release of Final Fantasy XV. This slight experience is presented as a dream sequence where main character Noctis returns to his childhood self and explores a fractured dreamscape with his animal spirit guide; a Carbuncle that you get to name at the end of the demo and which will carry over to the main game later in the year. Mostly this all acts as a tech-demo for the game engine and lets the developer show off the real-time lighting, detailed characters and environments, and dynamic particle effects. As a result, the Platinum Demo looks absolutely *gorgeous* and really shows off some impressive rendering – I was blown away by the visual fidelity, even if the framerate takes a bit of a hit sometimes. It’s still way off the final release date though, so there is still room for optimisation and improvement regarding the fluidity of the graphics. Sound design is also wonderful, with some truly lovely music, and some good (but sparse) Japanese voice acting. I’ve not played in English because given the choice I will always go full-weeaboo with a sub.
During the demo you can jump onto switches that can change the time of day in real-time, or cycle through weather effects, and there are even some locked switches that require certain conditions to trigger. One turned Noctis into a large toy truck! And another into some sort of mental-headed giraffe creature!? It’s a dream sequence afterall, so some trippy stuff happens in places. Of course, another thing that Square is eager to show off is the refined combat mechanics, and despite some odd button choices (I can only guess that the PS4 circle button attacks because it’s the default “OK” button in Japanese) I found it to be extremely intuitive and fun to use. I know a lot of people bemoan the move away from turn-based combat in Final Fantasy, but to be honest I have no problem with the direction that they’re taking; I still have Bravely Second for traditional Square JRPG goodness. Final Fantasy feels good playing in in a real-time action RPG fashion. There is a final “boss fight” to end the demo before triggering a final sequence of cutscenes, and this gives a better demonstration of combat compared with the smaller nightmare baddies from earlier in the game. All in all, despite the very short length and mostly tech-demo focus, I enjoyed the Platinum Demo and intend to give it another go, to see if I can collect more hidden gems and open more of those enigmatic switches. It gave me the impetus to finally download and play the Episode Duscae demo too, which has been updated since launch to an improved Version 2.0.
Episode Duscae is *WAY* more meaty than the Platinum Demo, although it’s content that will be included in the final game, and thus not original like the new release. Here we have a large slice of gameplay that takes place at an undeterminable time during the events of Final Fantasy XV, although I have to assume it’s pretty early on judging by the events that transpire and all the tutorial style missions. Right off the bat, Episode Duscae impresses with the large open world sandbox area you’re given to play around in, and although the vistas aren’t as beautiful as the new Platinum Demo, it’s still very well rendered and full of visual spectacle. The characters too are very well done, with a grown-up Noctis and his band of brothers being the four principle characters (that judging by the promotional material constitute your party for the entire full game), who all chit-chat amongst themselves, and occasionally rib each other. This all serves to not only build up the characters, who are all very likable, but also ties into combat mechanics as strengthening their bonds in this ways opens up opportunity for devastating linked battle actions. Speaking of combat, the Episode Duscae demo is obviously an earlier iteration of the battle system than the more recent demo, and it’s not quite as fluid (and the button layout is quite different) but it’s still excellent and a real joy to play. I loved warping into a group of enemies and unleashing a ‘tempest’ special move to knock them down whilst my teammates jumped in to wail on them! Because of the expanded scope of this earlier demo the combat actually goes into a bit more detail and gives you more options with how to deal with different enemies. It’s all a lot of fun!!
There are main missions, all involving hunting down a savage behemoth called ‘Deadeye’ in order to claim enough money to fix your car, as well as copious optional sidequests that can be completed before resting at the various campsites dotted across the map. Sidequests are never more complicated than travelling to an area, fighting along the way, and claiming an item. But, sometimes after resting at the campsite the game will trigger the opportunity for a ‘tour’ with one of your teammates and this opens up special sidequests that are usually more involving, such as one that gives the chance to challenge the giant creatures in the lake – spoiler: they will *kick your ass*! Playing Episode Duscae is a strange experience in that it doesn’t really feel like a Final Fantasy game, instead it feels like an almost-western open world RPG, but with Japanese twists and idiosyncrasies, such as the pornographic close-ups of the meals you eat at camp. Infact, it feels like CD Projekt Red and the Yakuza Team got together and made a Final Fantasy!? Either way I *loved* it and it really got me excited for the main game, especially since it’s such a different take on the series, both in terms of gameplay and also in terms of aesthetics; with the fast cars and Americana all over the place (truckstops, trailer parks, music blaring out of radios as diners, etc). You even get to mess about with a summon, which is *EPIC* and nothing like the eidolons of the XIII trilogy. Finally, to seal the deal of hype I decided to watch the Brotherhood anime that was released on YouTube, which is currently just episode one with more to follow.
Final Fantasy XV is a game that went from near the bottom of my “excited for” list and shot right up near the top, so much so that I immediately pre-ordered the deluxe edition so that I get the full tie-in movie on Blu-ray for the whole experience. I now have high hopes for this entry and although I think it has moved the series significantly away from what some fans expect from Final Fantasy, this is nothing but a good thing in my book. Other JRPG series have kept the old traditions alive, and Square themselves are still creating and publishing these type of games – Star Ocean is even out this year too – I think people need to let Final Fantasy move into new territory and try to reclaim some of the lustre it once had. I for one am *VERY* excited.