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Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae Impressions
It’s here. After nine years since its announcement as a completely different game, Final Fantasy XV is here.
Well, not quite. A sprawling, four-hour demo of this long-awaited entry into the series is here, subtitled Episode Duscae. Named after the region in which players can explore with Noctis and his buddies, Episode Duscae is exciting, disappointing, and downright baffling in mostly equal parts.
We’ll start with the good news. This is not Final Fantasy XIII. As if to atone for the massive fan backlash over the controversial entry, Episode Duscae marginalizes most of the RPG elements to be found in FFXV and focuses on open-world exploration. Did you miss vendors and NPCs in FFXIII? There are two small outposts in the Duscae region, filled with chattering, well-dressed NPCs. Angered by FFXIII’s infamous linearity? The demo starts with a short cinematic and tutorial, and then drops you into a large gameplay area to do whatever you want.
If anything, Episode Duscae shows off Final Fantasy XV’s devotion to building a large-scale world with real breathing room and impressive vistas. Massive stone spires reach into the sky, standing at least 15 or 20 stories high. Dinosaur-like monsters wade through the lakes in the center of Duscae, big enough to stomp our heroes flat. The demo’s boss monster is the aptly-named Behemoth, with claws the size of Noctis himself.
Even after spending four hours in Duscae, I’m still guessing about the deeper aspects of gameplay, though. Unlocking new abilities is disabled, as is any real sort of progression system besides just leveling up. I couldn’t even pull up a status menu to see details about Noctis’ attributes or equipment, other than an obtuse weapon screen that still makes little sense (more on that later).
In Final Fantasy XV, players will have to camp at night to tally their gained experience and level up. The screen is similar in function to the post-battle screens in most other Final Fantasy games. EXP bars fill up, characters’ levels increase, and the victory theme plays with a flourish. Camping also saves the game and allows the group’s cook, Ignis, to prepare any number of meals with found ingredients. Different meals confer different status boosts for the next day, but only one dinner option was available to me in the demo.
Exploring Duscae feels great. This is the result of a number of different systems coming together nicely: smooth, detailed animations for Noctis and his friends, fun banter between the party, and a unique, fully-realized world. Duscae does well resembling a “fantasy based on reality,” which has been the game’s mission statement since day one. Players can go from chatting with NPCs wearing scarves and designer jeans, cross a road where an old 1950’s pick-up truck rolls by, and then go fight some monsters. These disparate elements blend nicely into a fresh take on a Final Fantasy world.
Much of the Episode Duscae’s personality comes from an emphasis placed on the relationship between the four main characters. Ignis is the cook and the straight man in the story. He likes to push up his glasses, speak in a condescending English accent, and rocks killer white gloves. Ignis has a foil in Prompto, the pretty-boy blonde with guns and sarcastic quips for every situation. Gladiolus is the one who looks like a Village People reject, with his open vest and huge biceps. Finally, there’s the player character– Noctis. He’s the exiled prince, and the one with the least amount of dialogue. When he does speak, it’s mostly growled words of annoyance or angst.
I had a hard time telling these four characters apart, during the flood of FFXV news in the past few months and even in the beginning of Episode Duscae. Thankfully, Square Enix smartly paints these characters in broad, sitcom-style strokes for the demo. There isn’t any really deep characterization here, but each character has a clear role in the group dynamic. Square Enix nailed the feeling of four best friends on a road trip– Noctis and his pals make fun of each other all day long, use nicknames for one another, and comment frequently on the alien world around them. Jabs and jeers turn into sincerity during battle and other intense moments, which is a dichotomy I thoroughly enjoyed.
At Episode Duscae’s core, though, is an unpolished preview of a game that I can only hope is much further along. Obviously, Final Fantasy XV is still very much a work in progress. There isn’t even an official release date yet. This demo is based on a presumably old build of the game. The Behemoth boss himself could be proof of this, as his model has been present in pre-release footage for a while now. Graphically, the demo is unpolished. The anti-aliasing is pretty much non-existent, and I encountered frequent slowdown during everything from combat, special moves, and area transitions.
In addition to the graphical glitches, the Noctis’ jump animation is stiff and probably incomplete. There is no swimming, instead just invisible walls at the end of knee-high water. Deep water might not be accessible in the final game either, but its exclusion seems antithetical to FFXV’s mantra of open-world exploration. Menus and other UI elements don’t seem unfinished, but definitely minimalist compared to Final Fantasy XII’s gorgeous menus. Additionally, there’s no mini-map or custom waypoint system. I lamented the absence of such fundamental open-world game features. Maybe I’m just spoiled by Grand Theft Auto V?
FFXV’s combat takes cues from other action-RPGs, most notably Kingdom Hearts. Fights occur in real-time, with multiple options for special abilities. Items are used through a menu screen. Noctis can have five weapons equipped at once, each in a different slot with meaningless names like “crush” and “ravage.” Players must hold down the square button to attack. The longer the button is held, the longer the combo. Triangle activates the equipped weapon’s special ability. This can be changed on-the-fly with the directional pad.
After some fiddling with the weapon loadout screen, I found that the order you equip weapons affects the types of combos Noctis can perform. The weapon in your “crush” slot is the weapon that Noctis uses for the beginning of a combo. Your “ravage” weapon is the follow-up, and then finally the “vanquish” choice deals the final blow of the combo. I hope this is explained better in the full game, because SE declined to do so in Episode Duscae.
In its current state, the combat system is sloppy and loose. I spent my first dozen encounters wildly swinging at air, holding down the square button until I could stun-lock the closest enemy into a corner. The enemies in Episode Duscae start tough, and the game consistently outnumbers your four-man group with wild animals, poison goblins, and gun-toting Magitek soldiers. These sorts of odds demand a lot of precision from an unpolished gameplay system.
Both regular and special attacks are unresponsive enough to have nearly gotten me killed a few times. They never seemed to react to my button presses when I wanted them to, and this is very important when surrounded by six nimble enemies at once. Holding square to attack just isn’t very satisfying. There’s nothing especially visceral about the dodge system either, where players just hold L1 when they think they’re going to get attacked, and Noctis dodges automatically. That’s not to say it’s fool-proof. I would take hits even if I was on-time with getting my finger on the dodge button. There simply wasn’t enough feedback in the demo to tell me what I was doing wrong.
Parrying is also a viable option, and does a ridiculous amount of damage as compared to your regular attacks. What’s worse is that even throwaway enemies have gigantic health bars at first. This turns what should be quick, thrilling engagements into wars of attrition. My only option was to grind out a few levels, which made the combat much more enjoyable in the long run.
“Let’s be done with this riff-raff,” Ignis shouted during one particularly tough battle that had gotten boring five minutes ago. I couldn’t agree more, old chap.
That’s not to say anything about the schizophrenic camera. Sometimes, it’s way too close, giving me a nice view of Noctis’ elegantly disheveled hair. Other times, it’s spinning wildly around me in a desperate attempt to keep up with my locked-on target. Early fights involved running in circles, holding the square button to swing at nothing, while being attacked by five other enemies I couldn’t see because of the camera. The combat can get chaotic, and not always in the good way. The most enjoyable fights I had were outside in the wide-open fields, with slow enemies that didn’t freak out the camera and no geometry to get stuck on.
Episode Duscae raises more questions than it answers. It is ultimately unclear how much of Episode Duscae is an actual slice of the full game, and how much is an experience stitched together using pre-existing or ad-hoc assets. At the very least, the Final Fantasy spirit is alive and well when compared to recent entries. The title music is all dramatic piano strikes and melancholic strings. Chocobos are back, along with an amazing country rendition of the Chocobo Theme. Playing Episode Duscae has made me excited to dive into a new world filled with mystery and discovery. I want to uncover Final Fantasy XV’s secrets and be swept-up in an epic story with larger-than-life heroes and villains. I want a true Final Fantasy game, and I think number 15 can deliver.
Square Enix has done some great work so far, but they still have a ways to go. The combat needs to be tightened up if encounters are going to remain balanced like they are in the demo. The Luminous Studio engine needs to be optimized to crank out the visual fidelity and smooth performance that Square Enix has been promising.
If you’re itching for more Final Fantasy XV, you’re in luck. Some intrepid players have found a way to bypass the demo’s glowing blue border and explore an even bigger chunk of the world.
Episode Duscae is available only via the Day One edition of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, which made its western debut this past Tuesday. Episode Duscae won’t be available any other way, so make sure you pick up Type-0 if you want to hang out with Noctis and the gang.