A recent hands-on with Final Fantasy 15 has convinced us the delay to November is in game’s best interest, despite its brilliance.
On Tuesday of last week I visited Square Enix at their London HQ to get my hands on with the first three chapters of Final Fantasy 15. That amounted to a little over four hours of gameplay, a pretty significant chunk of time and necessary for an RPG of its size. Square PR deserve credit for giving such a substantial hands-on.
I played the game and I liked it. In fact, I liked it a lot. I suddenly realised that handled with care it could become a classic Final Fantasy. But there’s a ghost at the feast – performance. Square warn the code is early, but I’ve seen plenty of games two months from launch before – it still didn’t sit right. Underneath it all the game felt great, but its performance set off alarm bells. There were hiccups and even outright crashes. It wasn’t ready.
Then seemingly out of nowhere came the delay. I get the impression that when I had my hands-on the delay wasn’t part of the plan, but days later it was. Fans were disappointed, but my experience underlines its necessity. FF15 seems brilliant, but it needs a bit more time.
Here’s the rub with Final Fantasy 15: It’s a sometimes weird and sometimes wonderful mish-mash of Japanese RPG traditions and Western game concepts. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t, but the game has a hell of a lot of heart. After spending months being sceptical about FF15 from Episode Duscae to its frankly embarrassing E3 demo, I walked away from this demo drastically reassured.
But it also ran poorly. This build presents a Jekyll and Hyde of a game that looks fantastic at one moment and tosses an ugly texture in your face the next. It had incredible animation, but there’s also quite a lot of clipping. The game is open, but somehow it also isn’t. There’s good, bad and ugly all, but the good far outweighs the other parts.
Let’s kick off with what I loved. First and to many most important to FF is its narrative, and the opening hours of FF15 do a stellar job. The basic story is this: protagonist Noctis and his three buddies are sent on a road trip to a faraway country. Noctis is prince of his nation, Insomnia. He’s being married off a Princess. Aside from a ‘Chapter 0’ stinger of an older-looking, stubbled Noctis and friends fighting a demonic figure this is how FF15 opens: A prince and his three friends heading out on a road trip to his marriage.
I actually think the Chapter 0 opening is sort of rubbish, a poor attempt at Uncharted’s impressive cold opens, but the opening that follows with the guys trying repair their broken-down car is a slow burn but an enjoyable one. It really drew me in, as a good opening should.
“This build presents a Jekyll and Hyde of a game that looks fantastic at one moment and tosses an ugly texture in your face the next.”
After some tutorial missions that send you out monster hunting things quickly escalate. It turns out Noctis being sent away is an excuse – his father knows an invasion force is coming and finds a reason to send his son away, to safety. Insomnia is under siege (a story told in the Kingsglaive tie-in movie) and its protection falls to Noctis.
I shan’t go any deeper into spoilers, but the basic premise seems to be clear in the first few chapters: Noctis will travel the world of FF15 to gather power until he’s strong enough to retake his home. Initially you’re pushed towards a couple of tombs of ancient Insomnian kings. Maybe there’ll be a deeper wrinkle from there, but the idea of heading to landmarks to build power is a good, classic video game structure.
This is a structure that FF13 lacked, and smacks of the driving force of chasing Sephiroth, racing to gather crystals or Yuna’s Pilgrimage. It gives the crew’s journey a driving thrust that’s already potent in the first few chapters. The world map seems sizeable, so there seems to be a fair amount of scope for exploration and discovery.
The localization is great too. Don’t get me wrong: This is anime stuff in terms of both script and voice delivery. It’s not going to be the Bloody Baron, but I really enjoyed the banter between Noctis and his friends. They’re a group it’s fun to be around, and I’m incredibly keen to spend more time with them.
When I think of FF15’s open-ended nature many other games come to mind. There’s the obvious inspirations like The Witcher and Skyrim… but strangely I also think of Shenmue.
That game was incredibly large and unprecedented in scope, and FF15 seems similar even if in places it treads ground that its Western peers have already. Both pull influences and ideas from all over – so much so that written down on paper it seems a bit crazy.
Take the car for instance: it’s a common feature in Western games, but an open-world car design in a JRPG is a pretty big deal. I love the idea behind it.
In execution it’s just one place where FF15’s weird side comes out. My first idea with the car is to try to drive off road: you can’t; the game just stops you from leaving the road. If you want to drive on the wrong side of the road you can, but when another car approaches the game will quietly push you into the right lane to avoid hitting them.
The car can’t be turned sharply enough in the road to perform a three-point turn, so U-turns are handled by a single button press. The computer takes over. Likewise for pulling over; a single button press will make the crew pull over with incredibly neat parking, resulting in a slow parking sequence every time you want to hop out and check something in the world out.
I see a gigantic Iron Giant enemy in the middle of the road and try to ram him. Instead the AI pulls me over and kicks me out to engage in regular combat. When enemies are aggroed you can’t enter the car even to try to make a hasty escape, so I have to run away and pay 100 gil to have the car warped back to me. Open but not.
I didn’t mind all this, to be honest. Even the older FFs aren’t as open as rose-tinted memories lead you to believe, but this is still a jarring choice and one I can see frustrating a lot more casual players used to other games with open-world driving. It’s strange.
There’s lots of this in FF15, and this is where it reminds me of Shenmue: It has this wild, bravely broad focus but in doing so is also a little plodding and methodical in its execution. Sometimes these things work and other times they don’t.
Changing clothes, taking photos of your adventures, characters getting muddy from fighting, buying new CDs for your car, the hugely detailed food menu at camps and the sheer number of tiny additional gameplay mechanics and touches showcase an attention to world detail that evokes the sense of wonder Shenmue gave me. The clunky and restrictive car mechanics remind me of the other, plodding side of Shenmue. If the game suddenly asked Noctis to man a Lucky Hit kiosk for a couple of hours, I’d hardly be surprised.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for the record: Shenmue failed to find a market but is also one of the most interesting and ambitious games ever made, and maybe FF15 can do better with this breadth where it failed. I’m left interested how its many ideas will hold up over the course of a full game.
“The delay was the right call. Without it this is a good game under the yoke of rough performance. Delayed, it has potential to be something truly great and maybe even groundbreaking.”
Combat feels way better than in every previous demo. After some initial confusion I felt fully in control, and while the game pits you against monsters early on I felt it really came into its own once it started giving you humanoid soldiers to fight.
Behind-the-scenes Noctis can equip up to four weapons (or three and magic) and can switch between them on the fly. Noctis chains together attacks by just holding down one button, so the flow becomes less about Bayonetta-style combo timing and more about deciding when to attack, when to relent, and when to switch weapons.
While Square Enix wouldn’t be drawn on if it was the final number, a typically FF skill tree that seems to be a streamlined descendant of FF10’s sphere grid and FF13’s Crystarium features nearly 30 abilities for Noctis and a number for each of his non-playable compatriots. Noct’s abilities are mostly less about giving him all-new skills and more about adjusting or improving his basic combat, while your ally’s trees allow you to adjust how these AI characters act by changing their available skill set.
Magic has been slimmed to three elements (Fire, Ice, Thunder) and is executed in a way that feels more like tossing a grenade in Uncharted. There’s a great spell crafting system that allows you to feed items into spells to make them more potent, and raw magic power is drawn from sources in the world. Rather than MP spells are crafted from magic energy and have limited uses, again matching a grenade comparison.
It feels a little like Rikku’s mix ability from FF10 mixed with FF8’s draw system, and while I’m not convinced by the grenade-like use of magic, the RPG systems behind it seem incredibly solid with a lot of exciting opportunities.
I really enjoyed the combat once I got used to its flow, though I’m also curious how widely accepted its approach will be. It’s a middle ground: it’s nowhere near as action-focused as a Witcher but is also not as obviously thought-provoking and tactical as old FF. It’s been suggested to me that Square Enix need not worry about selling FF15 to their core community of FF fans, but I beg to differ: I feel they could just as easily be driven away as the Western RPG audience the game seems keen to court, especially in the wake of the delay.
Throughout this demo it becomes quickly plain why the delay exists. To release the game in this state would be a disaster, since I struggle to believe a day-one patch could fix the breadth of issues both small and large I encountered. Square Enix made a difficult choice but it’s also the smart and brave choice: based off this build FF15 needs more time in the oven.
The delay was the right call. Without it this is a good game under the yoke of rough performance. Delayed, it has potential to be something truly great and maybe even groundbreaking.
I’m most curious now how that time will be spent. Crashes, frame rate, IQ, textures and so on are one thing, but FF15 is weird in other areas. The camera (my major issue with the E3 demo) remains pretty fiddly and the way some mechanics such as the car work raises eyebrows. I’m also unsure if the high-end of combat will build the necessary RPG depth to really hit strong even though I really began to love the early-game combat.
That’s the weird, but then there’s the wonderful. FF15 builds the type of fantastical world that I definitely want to explore and features a cast of characters who seem to share a close and believable relationship. The world is gorgeous, the story intriguing, the localization surprisingly restrained and best of all the combat immediately fun. I’m super eager to play more.
I came out of my hands-on more excited about Final Fantasy 15 than I’ve ever been. I also came out of it more curious. This is a strange and bold game with brilliant ideas in places and big ambitions. Whatever you make of its protracted development it’s plain Square Enix has thrown all they have at this.
That background feels like Final Fantasy 7 and the arguably equally ambitious Final Fantasy 13. The main question now is — which way will it go? Square Enix has until November to determine that, but this build is a solid starting point. You got me, Square – I’m interested again.
Originally slated for release on September 30, Final Fantasy 15 will now arrive on PS4 and Xbox One November 29.