I've finished the demo build of Final Fantasy XV, which Square Enix have dubbed "Episode Duscae". As a long time Final Fantasy fan I'm optimistic about the franchise for the first time in a long time.
Square Enix have been soliciting player feedback on the demo, which was bundled with Final Fantasy Type-0 for PS4 and Xbox One. Here are my gameplay impressions, gripes, and pleas to Square Enix for Final Fantasy XV moving forward.
Reining in the rainbows: Character design takes a measured approach
Final Fantasy games are often renowned for both graphics and design, but more recent additions to the franchise have drawn criticism for impractical (and often ridiculous) garments worn by the characters. This is often put down to a difference in sensibilities between Japan and the West, but Tetsuya Nomura's obsession with belts, chains and other accessories is often parodied on Japanese messaging boards like 2ch.
Thank Bahamut then, that in both Final Fantasy Type-0 and Final Fantasy XV this r̶i̶d̶i̶c̶u̶l̶e feedback seems to have filtered through. Episode Duscae's character designs are not the technicolor explosion of Final Fantasy X or XIII, but are instead grounded in the game's more measured art direction. Although some have written off Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto's suspiciously co-ordinated high-fashion style as a boy band-esque, it's at the very least a step into a realm of something a tad more relatable.
Western characters are typically devoid of any sort of fashion consciousness, and if they are its usually written in as a plot device. The Final Fantasy XV boys are very metro, complete with leather lapels, jewelled gloves and perpetually styled hair which certainly doesn't appeal to me, but Square Enix seem to at least be gunning for compromise.
Magical realism: Gorgeous world design
I think it'd be fair to compare Final Fantasy XV to Final Fantasy 8 in terms of world design. There's a lot of present day realism in the demo. The full game will feature a drivable car, as such automobiles feature heavily. The car designs marry the art the franchise is known for with the familiarity of contemporary tech. There's a lot to be appreciated, and every glimmer from the Final Fantasy mythos is presented well in a world that wants to achieve a more mainstream appeal.
The playable landscape in Duscae is massive and breath taking. Giant crystal spires adorn the horizon, completed with gigantic alien beasts roaming in the distance. Amidst all the contemporary trappings, Square Enix are keen to remind you that you are indeed playing a Final Fantasy.. It's probably best if you take a look for yourself.
On graphics at a technical level, its pretty clear that its poorly optimised right now, but they have an incredibly strong basis in this early build to work from. I'm fairly confident that nobody will be disappointed when it comes to shipping day.
Combat mechanics need a lot of work
The combat in Duscae is expectedly limited. You're afforded a subset of attacks and given a tutorial of how to perform in battle, but what I've seen thus far isn't particularly inspiring. You hold down a button to attack, and providing you aren't interrupted by other enemies you seem to be able to just bash targets until they slowly die, without them being able to attack in return. Occasionally you may be prompted to perform a counter, which have devastating effects - but the set up for this is incredibly unresponsive. The result is that you often have to wait long in advanced to perform a parry, rather than react to it dynamically.
Holding down the left bumper allows you to enter a defensive stance to block incoming attacks automatically, but the switch from attack to defence takes far too long, and doesn't cancel attack animations in progress, meaning that you simply cannot really react in the vast majority of situations.
Besides this, combat is simply chaotic and doesn't seem to sport the tactical feel that Final Fantasy is typically famous for. I should add that this is a limited demo, and tactics will likely (hopefully) be present in the main game, but in Duscae you effectively scramble around whilst landing blows in a brawl completely devoid of finesse. Since you can revive party members indefinitely, fights often devolve into a spamfest regardless of how many enemies you decide to take on, which thus far feels like bad design. You cannot control any members of your party besides Noctis, which furthers the sense of chaos.
Targeting can only be described as a nightmare. Once one enemy drops, your targeting mode does too, and locking on to a new enemy can often take longer than it does to kill it. The targeting reticule doesn't stick until you hit the right joystick, by which time it might've automatically flipped onto something else. It's a frustrating experience I pray Square Enix will rectify in future builds.
Besides these systemic issues, there are design decisions which leave me feeling a tad disappointed. In Duscae you can obtain Ramuh, the iconic lightning summon from previous games, only, the way he's utilized is a tad deflating. Ramuh is effectively an unlimited "I WIN" button you can use to obtain victory when fights aren't going your way. It makes me wonder if summons will actually be part of your arsenal when it comes to general battles. Using Ramuh to win will prevent you from obtaining EXP as well, making him nothing more than a spectacular escape animation.
Despite the flaws in the demo's combat system, I can easily see how it could eventually work out. Allowing players to parry/counter regardless of their current target or attack could make combat very fun and responsive. Square Enix need to strengthen the elements of combat they've borrowed from slash 'em ups, and inject a little more of the command based tactical combat from the Final Fantasy's of old. The combination works fairly well in Final Fantasy Type-0, but is far from the intuitiveness of Dragon Age Inquisition's squad based active tactical combat.
The sense of grandiose adventuring is there, expansive open world areas, gorgeous graphics (even pre-optimisation) and thoughtful art direction all coalesce to fill me with a sense of hope for Final Fantasy's latest outing.
The demo's ending offers a glimpse at things to come; war, blood shed, regicide and conspiracy - far removed from the light hearted Behemoth hunt you undertake whilst playing. I am curious, optimistic, and finally ready to step back into the world of Final Fantasy.