Between all the Type-0 HD and Bloodborne excitement, I also managed to squeeze in some time with Episode Duscae, the special preview demo of the long awaited Final Fantasy XV. Since this isn’t a traditional game release, I want to approach this playtest a little differently than usual. I’m going to talk about three major components that stood out to me from playing the demo, and give my thoughts on what I think works and what I hope will be improved for the final release.
Fighting in Final Fantasy XV looks deceptively simple. Holding the square button attacks, holding L1 dodges (and also allows for a parry move), and locking on to an enemy while pressing X will allow you to do a warp attack to their location. On its surface, those are the three main actions you’ll be performing for every fight and they’re certainly not complicated to pull off.
Beyond those base skills, you have access to special attacks and the Armiger. These cost MP, but are easily the most powerful tools in your arsenal. These special attacks range from things like Drain Sword, which is a single stab that gives you some health back, to my favorite, the Dragoon Jump, where Noctis jumps off screen for a few seconds to land on enemies with great impact. The Armiger basically serves as an ultimate attack, costing all of your MP but allowing you to take out enemies quickly with powerful attacks that change depending on the weapons you have equipped.
Mixing the base elements with your special skills and using the environment around you brings the combat to life. Awareness of your surroundings is a big deal. An early encounter with a giant behemoth that hunt throughout the main plot of Episode Duscae features a lot of opportunities to warp around the environment and lead the beast into traps. Even when those options aren’t available, being aware of how many enemies are around can be vital. Some skills are better for crowd control than others, and sometimes you need to make the decision to wait for a parry or run away before you get overwhelmed.
While disorienting at first, mastering the warp proves to be an invaluable tool for both getting to enemies and saving your skin. Warping allows you to cover a lot of ground, and can be great for quickly moving from enemy to enemy. A few structures around the environment allow you to hang on to them, perfect for recovering your MP before warping back into the fight with a surprise strike. Once you get the hang of things warping around is both effective and stylish. It’s my favorite aspect of the combat overall.
One of the coolest and most annoying things about the combat was how different enemy groups would end up combining. It’s really interesting to see all of the enemies interact, sometimes hitting each other and sometimes focusing purely on pulverizing you. Of course, that leads to some of my issues with it, too. Sometimes battles can get really hectic and hard to keep track of. It also makes you think twice about initiating battles with random wolves, as the situation can quickly escalate and become more than what you bargained for.
Beyond that, my main concern right now is the amount of health enemies have. They take repeated sword slashes to the face a lot better than you’d expect. Enemies are shockingly sturdy even after leveling up, almost to the point of frustration. There’s ways to drain their health quickly and stun them for a better advantage, but I don’t feel like basic attacks should be as weak as they appear to be.
Episode Duscae gives a solid showing of what combat in Final Fantasy XV is like, and I’m excited to discover more about it. They give you a lot of tools in Episode Duscae, and I have to wonder how much of them will available at the start of the game. It will be interesting to see how the developers manage to keep the combat fresh throughout the entire experience.
At first glance, I thought the open field that Episode Duscae takes place in was awesome. In some ways, I still think it is. That said, it has two major flaws that I really hope are addressed in the full game.
First, it’s a pain to traverse. Noctis tries hard, but he doesn’t run that fast. The only thing he’s really quick at is getting tired and stopping to pant. My problem with a lot of open world type games is that they’re just not that fun to get around in, and unfortunately I think Final Fantasy XV is a pretty big offender.
The other problem is that there’s simply not that much to discover. You’re given a few side quests and landmarks at the start, but once they’re gone that’s pretty much it. The highlights of the map are a cave hidden in a corner of that map which leads to a cave dungeon and a chocobo farm full of chocobos you’re not allowed to ride. Enemies are littered around the map, but all of the fights seem to fall into about 3 to 4 variations of battles. I don’t think traversal speed would be a big deal if the map were denser with content, but currently Duscae feels empty.
Complaints aside, I do think these big open areas have a lot of potential. I love the idea of finding camp out spots to use as landmarks and rest points. The way exploration and battles seamlessly transition works great. Also, while heavily scripted to the scenario Episode Duscae presents, tracking the giant monster by his footprints and path of destruction around the map was pretty neat. All the map really needs is more density and variety. And maybe a chocobo or forklift or something for Noctis to ride around in.
Noctis and his compatriots may look ridiculous, but I really like the concept of a group of close-knit buddies going on a fantastical trip around the world. Based on my time with Episode Duscae, I’m feeling pretty good about this dynamic.
A lot of people seemed shocked when it was announced Final Fantasy XV would star an all-male party, but personally I think it has a lot of potential. One, that means the cast will be small, and two, it means that their relationship will be fairly relatable and easy to understand.
Final Fantasy plots have grown increasingly more complicated and full of jargon as time has gone on. Anything that brings things back down to basic human understanding can only be a good thing for the story as a whole. Additionally, most RPGs tend to throw a huge mix of styles and personalities together, to the point where there’s always at least one character that people find jarring and end up hating. Dialing down the size of the cast and types of relationships means that there’s more time focus on each individual character and how everyone interacts as a group. Could they throw in a bunch of other characters and create the expected diverse cast of strangers who grow to like each other by the end? Probably, but I think simplifying things down is an interesting and smart choice to make. At least for this particular game.
Of course none of those advantages would matter if these characters didn’t feel like friends, but Episode Duscae does a great job of portraying them as such. From the opening scene where everyone wakes up together to the dialogue that constantly goes off while you’re traveling, these guys always have something to say to each other. Listening to all of the groups’ random comments in an hour of Episode Duscae did more to make the characters likeable to me than 30 hours of playing Final Fantasy XIII did for its characters.
Things aren’t all great, however, particularly in battle. In contrast to the banter presented throughout the game, Noctis and company barely seem to contribute to each other when fighting. Sure, party members can revive each other, but that’s about it. Everyone seems to just do their own thing. You can’t tell everyone to focus on a particular enemy or help you if you’re in a bad spot. Things just happen and it’s on you to sort it out yourself most of the time.
A big part of this problem is that you can only control Noctis. I’m fine with Noctis being the only main playable character, but having no control whatsoever of your party members makes everyone seem really detached. I almost wonder why there’s even a party to begin with. It’s like if the auto-controlled party members in a Persona game were suddenly completely irrelevant to battles. Sure, it’s a little easier and more convenient that way, but it feels soulless.
Food for Thought:
1. I’m not sure I like what they’ve done with summons. Turning them into a get out of jail free card kind of ruins some of the magic that prior Final Fantasy games gave me. I liked hitting Sephiroth with Bahamut Zero because it looked awesome and did a lot of damage, not because I wanted the battle to immediately end because I was dying too hard. At least they still look awesome in Final Fantasy XV, I guess.
2. I’m similarly mixed on the decision to limit level ups to rest periods from camping or staying at a caravan. On one hand I think that’s a great way to convey leveling: the party just relaxing and reflecting on everything they experienced during the day feels a lot more effective than suddenly becoming stronger because you killed your 500th random wolf of the day. On the other hand, it’s really not that convenient from a gameplay perspective. I like to reap the rewards of my grinding right away, so I think I might end up finding the delay more obnoxious overall.
3. There are some strange pop culture references that I wasn’t expecting in Episode Duscae, from Indiana Jones to flying purple people eaters.