Obvious spoilers. If you don’t want to know, don’t read.
I will try my absolute hardest to never crack another joke about Final Fantasy XV’s infamous black car again. Like a good many other elements in the game, I have a new found appreciation for Noctis’ and his friends’ ride that I simply did not have before playing Final Fantasy XV’s free demo, “Episode Duscae.”
In fact, the entire plot of this demo revolves around the black car in that it has broken down, and the group must raise the funds to fix it. How do they choose to go about raising the money? Obviously, they find the biggest baddest brute plaguing the Duscae Region and take the job to kill it. A behemoth by the name of Deadeye, due to one of his eyes being carved out, has a bounty on its head for 25,000 gil.
Coincidentally, the “little too sexy” mechanic Cidney and her garage Hammerhead are charging 24,000 gil to fix the car. Thank goodness we live in a world controlled by fate and contrivances.
“Episode Duscae” will certainly not win anybody over with its story, but that’s not the point here. The point is just to give a small slice of what Final Fantasy XV has to offer, and after beating it, I am walking away far more excited than I was before.
As I mentioned before, the car makes its importance known in the demo despite not even being controllable. The Duscae Region is a sprawling area filled with jagged rocks, expansive lakes, wetlands and mountains. With no ride to speed things up, Noctis’ crew will spend a lot of time running through this place, back and forth and back and forth between campsites, shops and quest destinations. Final Fantasy XV doesn’t sport such a thing as a fast travel mechanic.
If you want to go somewhere, you better be prepared to high-tail it.
Thankfully, this demo doesn’t throw too many random monsters into the fray to further bog down the travel time. The only enemies that will provide a problem on the surface are packs of wild Sabertusks, horrible wolf creatures with blades jetting from their faces. Not exactly pretty. Herds of wild Garula, which might be familiar to Final Fantasy V fans, also roam the region, but they will only pose a threat if they themselves are threatened. No reason to kill them unless you want to savor their meat.
Speaking of which, I also have a new found appreciation for the game’s cooking mechanic, an idea I initially laughed at but now totally respect. The demo’s dungeon, a deep cave populated by goblins, proved utterly impossible after my first attempt miserably failed. One too many critters ransacked and poisoned my party.
However, all three stat bonuses granted by a hearty meal of Garula meat and eggs the night before proved to be a major difference. With immunity to poison, increased attack power, and a higher chance of getting critical hits, the goblin mobs scattered at the touch of Noctis’ blade.
I’ll be mastering my cooking first and foremost in the main game, thank you very much. I can guarantee that these gracious bonuses will not available right away.
Combat also had to show itself off big time in this demo, and the game is certainly no slouch in that department. Players will have to focus on a whole lot more than just hacking and slashing their way through trash mobs. Even random battles can prove fatal without a basic knowledge of its inner RPG mechanics. This is not a straight action game.
First and foremost, striking enemies is more like Super Smash Bros. than anything else. A simple press of the attack button will allow Noctis to do a normal attack, but pressing the analog stick in a certain direction while attacking causes a different weapon to magically appear in his hand. Different weapons add an extra attribute to the attack like “ravage” or “crush.” My guess is certain enemies will be weak to different attributes in the main game, forcing players to seriously consider equipment options when taking on a boss or a dungeon.
Special abilities come included with the five weapons Noctis can equip, and they are selected via the left and right buttons on the d-pad. A simple press of the triangle button and good timing are all it will take to unload these attacks. I started with a preference to the Dragoon Jump but found many enemies easily dodging it with a mere step or two to the side. The swirling Tempest attack eventually proved to be the most useful by far.
Another aspect of battle comes from dodging and parrying enemy attacks. Holding the L1 button will allow Noctis to dodge any incoming attack thrown his way. However, stronger attacks will drain more MP when the dodge activates. Should Noctis run out of MP, no more dodging and no more special attacks. A constant balance of MP will be needed to survive Final Fantasy XV’s fights.
With proper timing, attacks can also be countered and parried for massive damage, but this is a mechanic I am still getting the hang of.
The demo provides a risk-free environment to practice combat against one of Noctis’ buddies, but the best place to get down and gritty is to run along the streets. Those who stick to the streets and choose not to trek cross-country will be targeted by airships that supply wave after wave of imperial Magiteck soldiers. These heartless fiends are the most satisfying to put out of commission, especially fighting groups of eight or so.
And of course, there is the Behemoth itself, which is an impossible boss fight upon all three encounters. The first attempt to bring it down is a scripted trap designed to show off how Square Enix plans to shake up the battle formula once in a while. The second is a normal fight that Noctis must lose in order to summon Ramuh to destroy the beast. Clearing the demo allows the Behemoth to run freely across the region, but as an optional super boss that is still impossible to defeat without the aid of Ramuh.
Power leveling to 99 won’t even be enough, so I wouldn’t suggest that to anybody except the most dedicated.
Combat isn’t all depth either. It also feels good. Noctis is a fairly mobile character with a lot of weight to him. He’ll be able to dodge and scurry, but not fly through the air like Kingdom Hearts’ Sora. Controlling Noctis on the field and in combat falls comfortably in between the pin-pointedly unrealistic Bayonetta and the ball-and-chained Niko Bellic.
And of course, there are the two biggest concerns most people have about Final Fantasy XV: its unique aesthetic and its brotastic party of dudes. Trailers have portrayed this group of four fugitives as being on a kind of road trip throughout their war torn country. They’ve been mocked to pieces because of their Metallica reject get-ups and passionate hatred of anything that has color in it.
Truth be told though, they aren’t offensive and are actually quite likable. Our main protagonist Noctis had the potential to be the biggest bust with his forlorn expressions and mopey attitude, but he has yet to do anything to rub me the wrong way. He’s an underdog victory so far in that regard, like Final Fantasy X’s Tidus. His Japanese voice comes off as stereotypical as it possibly could for a man of his character, but Square Enix has done a decent job picking out an English voice I didn’t expect to hear from his lips.
A bit gruffer and more confident than you might expect.
The trio of other dudes — Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto — do their jobs as supporting members, and again are not offensive in any way. The most annoying of the bunch could have been the blonde Prompto, but he’s been reserved so far. The downside of not being offensive is that none of them are particularly memorable either. Their clothes do little to help them stand out, and their personalities are those we’ve seen in video games before. Gladiolus cracks a few solid lines, but nothing to really make him shine.
Final Fantasy XV has yet to establish a Kain, an Auron, a Vivi, a Vincent Valentine or an Aerith. I can’t pick out which of these guys will become “that” character. The fan-favorite with a special, inexplicable aura that everyone remembers.
The most enjoyable new face is of course the new “lady Cid” Cidney, and it’s not just her revealing looks either. She actually has color to her clothing, a twang to her voice, and dare I say, a sense of a character.
And then we have the world. Final Fantasy XV’s “urban fantasy,” as I have been calling it, has turned off many fans, but it’s come to grow on me over the course of the last half a year or so. Playing through it cleared any of my doubts that it will be nothing short of breathtaking. You really have to hand it to Final Fantasy, the franchise can create a unique setting unlike any other out there. Final Fantasy XV’s world is unlike any Final Fantasy game before it, any generic fantasy RPG world before it, or pretty much any video game at all before it. It’s one of a kind, and it benefits greatly from this sense of style.
My only concern now is that it might be a little too ambitious. Frame rate issues jump in all over the place when enemies and effects clog up the screen. I even sparked a glitch one time when Ramuh vanished from my screen. The world did not reload its textures properly, allowing Noctis to run at the speed of sound all the way across the map. Maybe it wasn’t a glitch, but it was entertaining nonetheless.
Regardless, I don’t speak from a personal grudge on framerates since that has never been an issue for me. I know a lot of people put stock into that though, so just to let you know, it’s there in the demo. The final package might be different because trailers have been far smoother.
It’s a little too early to declare Final Fantasy as “back.” The past two games have been met with praise, and nothing I see here should lead fans to expect any different. Like the rest of the franchise, Final Fantasy XV is refusing to follow any rules or any conventions, paving its own course into the history of video games. Some might begrudge the death of menu-based battles once again, but Final Fantasy is at its best when it tries new and exciting ways to adapt to the ever changing world around it.
I was already sold on Final Fantasy XV, but this demo just makes the wait feel that much longer. At least I have Type-0 HD and almost every other game in the franchise on my PlayStation 3 and PS Vita to keep me occupied until then. I’m going to burn through a few this summer. I can already feel the flame rekindling.