It's highly unlikely we'll see Final Fantasy XV released this year as it's apparently only around 60% complete. So it was a great surprise to hear that Square-Enix were releasing a lengthy demo for it. Well, if you bought an copy of Final Fantasy Type-0 that is.
So let's dive into this vertical slice of the game that lets us play around with some basic combat options and also provides a large area to explore. Seriously, this thing is huge, no wonder they called it an Episode rather than a demo.
This lengthy taster begins with a brief introduction to the four main characters of your party. There's some serious box ticking of RPG-tropes here. There's the muscle head, the smart guy, a Junkie-chic version of Cloud wearing a weird vest jacket that looks like a tartan skirt at first glance and then there's you, Prince Noctis, a skinny ultra emo haircut. There's not enough story or dialogue scenes offered to provided a fully rounded opinion I'll admit. But as first impressions go, they're fairly dislikeable. I've noticed that FF party members have been a wonderfully diverse group over the years, so it's odd to see this Japanese equivalent of the Backstreet Boys.
Like Kingdom Hearts, your party will sometimes be joined by other characters (in the final game) for a while, so fingers crossed we get a bit more racial and gender diversity in the group. Given the series' popular appeal with male and female gamers, it's odd to see Square-Enix shun half of their audience by having no default female party members. In episode Duscae, the only female of note is the cleavage-centric mechanic fixing your car.
After the opening cutscene ends and the early resentment fades, you step outside your tent to be greeted with a stunning vista of a lake with huge dinosaur-like creatures wading in the middle of them. The lakes are surrounded by meadows where large rounded sheep-like beasts graze in herds and there's a forest over to your left. And the best thing? You can go anywhere you like.
Waiting at least 20 hours to go free-roaming in FFXIII was a disaster the XIII series never recovered from. Episode Duscae seems like it is making a very important statement that freedom is back on the menu. Consider us relieved and impressed.
I'll get to the missions later. Chances are the first interaction you're going to have with this world is to bash it with a sword. Handily, there's a quick tutorial to ease you into the new combat. Turn-based purists may want to brace themselves, we're looking at an action-RPG this time.
The closest Square-Enix comparison would be Kingdom Hearts, but seeing as this is a demo, not all of the combat features are available. There's no spell-casting for example. The Square button handles melee strikes that can be bashed out or used with held presses for a variation (I had to look that latter feature up online though).
The MP bar feeds dodge moves by holding L1 and pressing a direction on the left stick. Time a dodge correctly against telegraphed attacks and you'll have a chance to initiate a powerful counter. Different special attacks are activated via the Triangle button, such as the drain attack that absorbs HP/MP or the Dragoon Jump that launches you into the air to smash back down with a powerful blast - great for groups of goblins or getting out of harm's way for a few seconds. These specials also use MP, but they recharge with successful melee strikes, when you back away from the fight or use the warp teleport to climb nearby towers to take a breather. A warp-strike move is also incredibly helpful to zoom straight towards your target, which you'll really appreciate during encounters with nimble enemies.
This brief sparring session put the combat in a good light, the melee moves were reasonably responsive -you're not getting it confused with DmC anytime soon- and the dodge mechanic works well. Once you get into the field to take on groups of enemies though, things are a little different.
The target lock system is going to need a lot of work by the time Final Fantasy XV releases. In its current state, you press R1 when facing an enemy for a soft lock and you'll need to press R3 to get an apparent hard-lock on an enemy, indicated by an extra layer on the targeting reticule. Holding R1 is also an option. The right stick controls the camera and swaps targets, which can be problematic when you're just trying to get a better view. Whichever option I used, I found the lock-on would come loose all too easily against larger numbers of enemies. When trying to work on one enemy at a time to thin out their numbers, accidentally swapping targets all the time made fights much harder than they needed to be.
Against small groups of three or four enemies, I was able to wrangle the system into a manageable form, but against any larger groups, its becomes very annoying. With so much development time remaining though, we wouldn't be surprised if Square-Enix continue to adapt the combat, especially with some of the feedback they'll get from Episode Duscae. Hopefully at least.
Weapon equip options available in this slice of the game were mainly locked down. Essentially, your melee combo is made up of five different swords with different properties. The special abilities only matter when you activate them via the Triangle button, but you can swap the swords around if you fancy opening a combo with a lance for example rather than a short sword. The final blade in a combo is ideally a finishing weapon, so you'll want to equip one that does massive damage. Not that this demo tells you any of this. I had to go online to find information on that too. So again, hopefully the full game will fill in the blanks better.
So, when you're not stabbing oversized sheep, what else is there to do in Episode Duscae? The overall mission is to earn 25,000 Gil to fix your car. While one of the larger yellow sheep monsters will net you 3000 Gil for a horn, you're better off taking up the bounty of defeating the local behemoth, Deadeye, who has wanted posters all over the region. Probably for eating the locals, he doesn't look like the bank-robbing type.
From the map, you're able to trek to distant locations to look for clues on his location, like huge footprints or smashed up sections of forest. These missions are very much a case of walking to a location and pressing X until you've done enough to find the entrance to his lair. Side-missions along the way may pop up, but all the ones I found involve walking a hundred metres from the start and picking up a clearly indicated item. So yes, the mission design is pretty poor. But they do feel a bit like placeholders, so again, we're keeping our fingers crossed for something a little more exciting in the final game.
When you do decide to head into the forest to chase down the behemoth, you'll get a change of pace with a stealth mission where you have to creep behind the huge creature in the fog to follow it to its lair. While initially quite atmospheric, it's let down by cheap fails if you get too far behind (despite still being able to clearly see it), or when it spots you despite having its back to you or when moving on its blindside (it's missing an eye and the game tells you it can't see on that side too).
It's about the EXPerience
EXP earned during fights is based on a few factors, like speed, number of parries and any boosters added through eating specific meals at camp. Meals can boost not only your XP bonus, but also critical chances or immunity to poison attacks. The longer a day goes on, the less XP you will earn once these boosters wear off, which can be a little annoying to be honest, as even hard-won fights against tough opponents can provide little reward if done at the wrong time of day.
If a party member's HP reaches zero during battle, they'll stumble around until someone heals them by running over and pressing X (the AI will look after you here too). However, each time this happens their overall HP meter shrinks. Camping will restore the meter's maximum capacity though, making it an essential part of your day. It's too bloody dark to enjoy hunting at night anyway.
You're only actually given your XP from the day when you rest at a campsite overnight. Here the XP automatically levels up everyone on the team. There's no option to choose specific stats to update, but fingers crossed there will be by the final game. Hmm, I'm crossing my fingers a lot here.
Despite the issues with the camera lock-on and the generic mission types, Episode Duscae shows that Final Fantasy XV has enormous promise. The Duscae region is but a tiny sample of the world we will be able to explore and feels like the first proper Final Fantasy experience I've had in years. Emerging from that tent and being free to run off and explore in any direction of my choosing was fantastic fun and after four hours I may have finished the behemoth storyline, but there's still more to do. Like finding all the parts of a hidden sword or using my new Eidolon to overkill the smallest of enemies just for the hell of it. And yes, it is possible to break out of the demo's map barrier and explore more than you're supposed to. You might even spot a Titan if you know where to look. Even at this demo stage, people are finding lots of hidden depth and extra things to do, just imagine how much there will be to discover in the final game.
*All images captured by author on PS4.