We finally go hands-on with Final Fantasy 15: Episode Duscae

Saturday, 7 March 2015 21:30 GMT By Alex Donaldson

Nine years later and having gone through a whole lot of evolution, how is Final Fantasy 15 shaping up as an action game?

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“This is an action RPG, and is as far removed from FF’s typical turn-based mold as the series has ever been.”

I sit in a darkened cinema-style room, the light bar of the PlayStation 4 pad in my hands the only dull illumination on offer. It’s a little grandiose and strange, but this dream-like setting feels strangely appropriate. Up on the big screen in front of me curtains slide back and reveal the controller’s purpose: Final Fantasy 15. In a sense, the temptation is to pinch oneself: But I am awake, and this is actually a video game that I’m about to play first-hand.

Even though Square Enix has constructed a marketing blitz over the past year with newly-placed director Hajime Tabata regularly speaking to the press and hosting a series of detailed live streams, it still feels surreal.

I’ve experienced this sensation a few times before – that first listen of Chinese Democracy, or the first time I laid hands on Duke Nukem Forever a ridiculous fifteen years after its announcement. Final Fantasy 15 hasn’t quite reached that stage – May will mark nine years since its E3 2006 announcement as Final Fantasy Versus XIII – but it’s getting there. The question I’m here to answer by going hands on with its upcoming demo, Episode Duscae, is if after all this time it’s any good.

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While it isn’t clear precisely where in the game the demo takes place, it certainly isn’t the absolute start. The set-up is pleasantly brief for a Final Fantasy game, with lead character Noctis and his androgynous anime archetype buddies waking up in a tent, their car damaged. They need to get together enough cash to repair it, and the best way to do that is by becoming temporary big-game hunters.

The demo has its hunting-based core quest line, but one of the most initially striking things about FF15 – apparent as soon as the demo hands you control – is how open it is. The region of Duscae from which the demo takes its name is of a decent enough size that it takes several minutes to traverse across length-to-length, and though a quest marker points you in the general direction of your next objective, you’re actually free to roam about.

There’s some fun landmarks that give a taste of the world the final game promises – up high in one corner there’s a contemporary-looking garage where truckers are hanging out, but a few minutes across Duscae’s open plains on foot is a far more rustically-styled stable that’s home to several Chocobo, FF’s iconic yellow steed. Just a little further out still is a dungeon-style cave, and between all of this there’s a mixture of shallow lakes, forests, and plains.

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The world is beautiful and varied, and the game really is rather ridiculously good looking so far. I encountered a couple of errors – a glitch in the skybox and some chunky slowdown when battles got really hectic – but neither take much away from how brilliant the demo looks on a moment-to-moment basis. I’m not much of a fan of the trendy boy-band character design, but the world on offer is a fantastic example of Square Enix’s art design at its most impressive and tightly executed.

“While solid, if the game relies too heavily on the melee basis displayed here it could stumble.”

Littered throughout this land are enemies and wildlife – the former coming in the guise of robotic soldiers dropped off by airships hunting Noctis down, and the latter coming in a number of shapes and sizes, neutral at first but potentially deadly if you choose to attack them.

Players only control Noctis, with his three allies handled by AI that seems decent if unfocused. There sadly isn’t any method to adjust how your allies act similar to FF12’s Gambits or even Mass Effect’s basic toggles – they handle themselves, and so do you. This is an action RPG, and is as far removed from FF’s typical turn-based mold as the series has ever been.

On PlayStation Square is your regular attack and Triangle a special attack that fills the typical ‘heavy attack’ role but also consumes MP. Cross lets you use your special ability, which here takes the form of a warp attack. Jumping is handled with Circle, R1 locks you on to an enemy, and L1 is your dodge and block, which are one unified function.

A lot of fuss has been made about combat, specifically of the fact that to combo all you have to do is hold down Square. Attacks come out successively when you do – but that doesn’t necessarily make FF15’s combat simplistic. Instead of combos, the lesson quickly taught in the demo is that the player should instead focus on looking at the bigger picture. Dodging is crucial, as doing so allows for counter-attacks and follow-ups that are vital in taking down larger creatures. The headline is this: If you just hold down Square, you’ll die against the more challenging enemies. Simple.

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Also concerning was that that the block button is also held and activated by context, not timing. In theory that means you can just never stop blocking – but attacking takes priority, so no matter how hard you jam on L1, if you’re attacking you’re vulnerable. When activated, dodges also take a smidgen of MP – meaning it can’t be done infinitely.

It’s here that the RPG creeps more fully into FF15’s action trappings. Keeping an eye on MP as well as HP is important, as depleting it fully locks Noctis into a nasty mode that leaves him hugely vulnerable. Combat doesn’t end up feeling boring, but quite often rather hectic and stressful – and that’s a good thing.

Once you get a handle on its attack-dodge-counter flow, there’s a fun rhythm to the combat. That rhythm can be adjusted by changing what weapons are used for what roles. While you can’t select weapons individually, you can tell the game you want your first attack to be with the large, two-handed Zweihander sword, the second to be with a short, fast dagger and the third to be with a dragoon-style lance – and that significantly changes the flow of your attack string compared to another set-up.

I’ve never found the combat of Kingdom Hearts to be particularly fulfilling, and when Versus XIII was announced as an action-focused title from the top staff of that series, I was skeptical. Thankfully, what’s on display here takes the best elements of that but finesses it with an additional layer of depth that makes a far better foundation.

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It feels good when you dodge an attack successfully. When you nail a counter attack and an ally joins for a context-sensitive combination attack, it feels even better. By the end of my demo, I was engaged in and enjoying a ridiculous brawl with some local wildlife, goblins and hostile soldiers all at once – and the flow finally made sense to me. It works.

I said foundation earlier, however, and that’s what this is. I had a tonne of fun, and I’m looking forward to playing more of the demo, but this still doesn’t feel like combat that can shoulder the weight of a full forty-hour Final Fantasy experience.

“I encountered a couple of errors – a glitch in the skybox and some chunky slowdown when battles got really hectic – but neither take much away from how brilliant the demo looks on a moment-to-moment basis.”

Despite the lengthy development, there’s lots absent from the demo – traditional magic such as fire and ice spells and summon creatures are examples of skills we know will be in the game but seemingly aren’t yet ready for public consumption. Even the car, shown a lot in trailers, can’t be driven here. Likewise the menu system is fairly restrictive and threadbare for an RPG, limited to switching weapon order and using items – but one hopes there’ll be more traditional RPG menu work in the final game.

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With a strong foundation for sword-based combat and a gorgeous, open and dynamic feeling world, if Square Enix’s team can offer enough satisfying additional options in combat, they’re likely on to a winner. While solid, if the game relies too heavily on the melee basis displayed here it could stumble – and that’s an area I’ll watch with great interest.

If there’s one nagging regret I have about the demo, it’s that so much of it has already been shown. Moments would have been much more impressive, spine-tingling and surprising had they not been shown in countless streams and trailers beforehand. After years of being criticised for being an impenetrable fortress, Square Enix may actually have swung back too hard in the opposite direction. Much of the surprise of Episode Duscae has been shown and dissected in detailed analysis by fans and the media already.

In many ways, Final Fantasy 15 seems to be living up to its original name. ‘Versus’ has its origin in Latin, where it means to turn or to change direction – and that’s what this feels like. It’s a new action-based twist for Final Fantasy that still just about manages to feel reverent to the series’ expansive past. Episode Duscae proves a strong starting point to such a different vision – and now it’s up to Square to double down and expand on it significantly for the final game.

Final Fantasy 15: Episode Duscae is included with first-print copies of Final Fantasy Type-0 for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 as a bonus download while stocks last. Type-0 HD is out on March 20th.

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