It’s 2006, and Square Enix has big plans. Big plans, I tells ya! After riding high on the wave of high grossing mediocrity that was Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, the development company decided to keep going with this series thing. They announced Fabula Nova Crystallis Final Fantasy, a fancy way of saying Three Kinda Related Final Fantasies. The idea was simple — three games taking place in distinct worlds, but sharing a common mythos of powerful crystals tied to deities. When it was originally announced, the three games to be in this series were Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and Final Fantasy Type-0.
Of the three, Final Fantasy Versus XIII held the most promise. It was headed by Tetsuya Nomura, the designer behind Final Fantasy VII and lead behind Kingdom Hearts, the gameplay team was to be the one that worked on Kingdom Hearts II, and the cinematics team was to be the one behind Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. It was like a super group of game development rock stars!
But as the years wore on, we got very few confirmations that the game was still in progress. Besides a few screen shots here and there, the project was all but slated as vaporware. But then in the summer of 2013, Square Enix showed off new footage of the game. It looked slick, the gameplay was unique from any other Final Fantasy, and the graphics were gorgeous. And at the end, the title Final Fantasy Versus XIII gave way to its new moniker Final Fantasy XV.
They then announced that Final Fantasy Type-0, the bloody, more mature entry in the Three Kinda Related Final Fantasies series was getting an HD remake on PS4. And if opening cut scenes of people actually dying (with actual blood) wasn’t enough to get you hyped, a preorder of the game included a demo of Final Fantasy XV called Final Fantasy XV Episode Duscae.
Not only was this a genius marketing move to try and garner more sales for Type-0 HD, but it ties back in to the Fabula Nova Crystallis series nicely and give the development team an insight in to what works and doesn’t work about this radical departure from the classic JRPG series.
I told you that story to tell you this story.
So far, what we know about Final Fantasy XV you play as a prince named Noctis who’s on a road trip with his friends Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus. I’m assuming the world is ending or something and they’re going to go save it, since that’s the plot of every Final Fantasy, but the other title of this game could be Four Buddies Take a Road Trip for as much as we know.
This demo is an example of how to do a demo right. We’ve been given a part of the game that has nothing to do with the story, featuring all the things we wanted to know about like combat, leveling, and quest systems, set in a humongous map. By my estimates, you can spend well over six hours just finding stuff to do, exploring new areas, or challenging monsters. I know full games that aren’t this detailed or extensive, and this came free with another game!
In this demo, we find out friendly foursome with a broken down car trying to find ways to earn the money to get it fixed so they can keep getting Slurpees and playing punch buggy. The first thing you’ll notice about this game is how Final Fantasy it both is and isn’t. The clothes and hair of the protagonists are a little out there, but not overly strange. They look like you could reasonably see one of them and think, “That guy’s dressing really flashy” instead of, “That guy loves LARPing.” This vibe carries over to their interactions with one another. They don’t yell things at each other like “WE’RE FRIENDS, SO THAT’S WHY I’M HERE TO PROTECT YOU!” or “WE’RE GOING TO SHOW THE EMPIRE WHAT WE’RE MADE OF!” They talk to each other like a group of adults, and that’s so terrifically refreshing for a series that’s notorious for its overacting. There’s very little over the top gestures or snarky one liners to nobody in particular. It actually feels as if Square Enix had some tact with this one. Either that, or their English voice cast is pulling a lot of weight. Trust me, it’s a lot better than the trailers.
And now we dive in to the big differences. The ways in which you’ll think “Did they really just make a Final Fantasy game with Kingdom Hearts gameplay?”
Yes. Yes they did. And here’s why that’s not bad.
A lot of people enjoy turn based RPGs. My most favorite games of all time are turn based RPGs. Hell, one of Square Enix’s bestselling RPGs in years, Bravely Default, was a turn based RPG. And of course you’d expect Final Fantasy to follow suit. But just like a favorite pair of underwear, that formula has worn too thin. Final Fantasy has almost been a joke the past eight or so years. The series that refused to push itself in to new areas. The company who found a formula that worked on NES and thought it’d keep working all the way to Playstation 3. Sure, combat systems had been updated a little here and there. Attempts were made to conceal its turn-based nature behind moving characters or MMO-esque battle systems. But at its core, Final Fantasy remained a game about a group of ragtag adventurers going up against impossible odds to do something (likely with crystals) to save the world by beating the crap out of enemies, waiting until they took a turn or two, then beating them up again.
Conversely, Final Fantasy XV is about motion and fluidity. The four face buttons are mapped to attack, special, jump, and warp. You can customize your attack patterns within a menu and your special is selectable on the fly during battle, allowing for change of strategy where needed. Noctis has a couple of special things about him. For whatever reason, he materializes different weapons to fight will at will. This ability means you can lead off your attack with a powerful greatsword attack to break their defense, follow it up with quick successive shots with a short sword to get in multiple hits, and then finish them off with a pike to push them away, all in the same combo. And the weapons seem tied to him somehow, so if he materializes a sword somewhere far away, he’ll warp to that sword. Using warp, you can quickly attack enemies that are far away, transport yourself out of battle quickly, or even use it to dodge. Holding L1 will keep Noctis dodging for as long as he has MP to spare, which is an invaluable tool if your teammates are healing up while you distract the enemy.
Speaking of your teammates, one of my favorite features is what happens when you’re KO’d. Once your health gets to 0, you can no longer attack and enter a kind of emergency mode. Your life bar fills red and if you continue taking damage until you’re at 0 again, you get a game over. However, in that time, your teammates can come by and rescue you, bringing your health back up and putting you back in the fight. And don’t worry, if they’re all incapacitated too, you’ll come back to life after enough time has passed anyway. It’s similar to Army of Two or Call of Duty in that you have to rely on your teammates to bail you out if you get overwhelmed and make a bad combat decision.
So what’s the common theme here? It’s all radically different from every other Final Fantasy. You can exit fights without entering in commands, you can dodge if you’re fast enough, your attacks depend more on speed and reaction than planning, and you have to rely on AI to do the right thing because you’re too busy trying to stay live yourself. The common thread?
In games like Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy, or most other RPGs, you’re not acting dynamically. You’re telling your characters what to do and watching them do it. There’s no opportunity to change strategies in the middle of an execution because you’ve already written the script of how this is going to happen. And that’s a completely valid formula, one that’s worked for many years, and one that a lot of people enjoy. However, by doing a more dynamic combat system, you’re not telling characters to do things, you’re doing them. If in the middle of what you think is going to be a barrage and the boss does that one move that you hate, you can change your strategy simply by no longer pressing attack. If one of your teammates crits and knocks the boss in to a prone position or stops them when you weren’t expecting, you can let loose your techniques, attack as hard and fast as you can, then warp away when he realizes you’re the one who’s been stabbing his butt when he couldn’t fight back. At every point during combat, you’re engaged, and that’s not something Final Fantasy has seen in some time.
The demo takes place in a huge, continuous area that seems to maybe have other areas connected to it that you could access through certain points, but can’t because of the limits of the demo. Think Borderlands. You could easily spend upwards of six hours just exploring the whole map. There are main quests highlighted on the map and side quests that you can pick up by being in proximity to the quest start, incentivizing exploration by rewarding you with the chance to get more loot or experience.
You can camp overnight at any of the campgrounds around the map, get in a good dinner and replenish your health. Campsites also act as areas to use the levels you’ve gotten throughout the day to get different abilities or choose how your character will grow through their system. The meals you eat also give you slight buffs for the next day. All the meals I’ve eaten so far look like they came out of a restaurant, I’ve been getting some nice buffs. But you can imagine a situation in which the Friendly Foursome are in some desolate area eating bread and drinking water, so there aren’t any buffs, or maybe there are even debuffs.
As with all demos, there are some issues. At one point during a mission, I got on to a platform I shouldn’t have been able to get on and into an area I wasn’t meant to be in yet. The result meant that I actually had to die and redo the whole area before being able progress. I’ve also found issues running in to trees and not being able to get around them effectively, having my teammates ignore me when I was dying, or not facing the right way and attacking nothing because the camera was being weird. All these things can be improved by the time the game is released next year.
If you haven’t gotten your hands on Type-0 HD yet, hope you can get a Day One copy of it so you can get this demo. I didn’t think I could get more excited for this game, but after this, I’m actually confident in the next game. I don’t have to say things like “Well, let’s hope the next one is okay.” Because the next one is going to kick ass. So much ass.
If you don’t have a PS4, I’ll be streaming the game later on this week, so keep an eye on our social media pages for when that’ll be up. Trust me, you’re going to want to see this.