I just spent two hours playing Final Fantasy XV, which I can confirm is a real video game that actually exists. The good news: it's brilliant in a lot of ways, and from what I've played so far, it really does feel like a Final Fantasy game. The bad news? Well, it's got some serious technical issues and I'm worried it's too ambitious for even today's current-gen hardware.
First, some context. At PAX East in Boston this weekend, the folks at Square Enix invited reporters to go check out the FFXV demo, which is finished and will be released for PS4 and Xbox One on March 17 alongside Final Fantasy Type-0 HD. (You have to buy Type-0 to get your hands on the demo, of course.)
After nine years of development -- or three if you're counting from when the developers changed focus and decided that Versus XIII would become the big one, Final Fantasy XV -- this is the first time that this game has ever been played outside of Square's secret laboratory.
I'm still kind of stunned that I actually just played it.
They told me I could play FFXV for about an hour, so naturally, I stayed for two. I played through the entire demo, tracking down a giant behemoth and watching prince Noctis and his band of bros try to figure out how to murder it for its tusks. I'm avoiding spoilers in this write-up, but I will say that the battle ends with a "HOLY SHIT" moment the likes of which I expect we'll see many of in Final Fantasy XV, followed by a spoilery tease for the main game, which still has no official release date.
I have a lot of thoughts. The short version: Final Fantasy XV is full of smart ideas, and although the tropes are all there -- phoenix downs, gysahl greens, peppy victory music -- it feels totally different than any Final Fantasy before it, more akin to Skyrim or Far Cry than any JRPG we've seen to date. But can Square Enix's tech live up to their vision? The demo I played was janky, peppered with distracting jaggies, and full of framerate drops that made exploring FFXV's open world feel like more of a chore than it ever should have been.
At least they have time to fix it.
Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae opens with four bros in a tent. These bros, who are camping out in the wild because their car has broken down and they need to fix it so they can get back on their brotastic road trip, are immediately a blast to watch, a boy band with silly faces and even sillier names: There's the smart one (Ignis), the boyish one (Prompto), the beefy one (Gladiolus), and the moody one (Noctis). They have got a surprising amount of chemistry. I want to hang out with them more.
When you're given control of said moody bro -- the only character we can control, sadly -- you're given a brief control rundown and then told to go spar with Gladiolus for a brief combat tutorial.
This is where it becomes immediately clear that Final Fantasy XV is not your grandpa's Final Fantasy game.
As you probably know already, Final Fantasy XV has decided that turn-based combat is an antiquated practice, so instead of selecting options from a menu, you'll use the controller to issue commands directly -- hold down the combat button and you'll swing around a sword and start smashing away at an enemy, watching its HP drain as Noctis slashes back and forth. There's a satisfying weight to each hit, and landing attacks on enemies has the heft you'd expect from a well-made action-RPG.
Noctis also has a set of techniques attached to each of his weapons (five, in the demo) that do more damage at the cost of MP. It's very typical Final Fantasy fare -- there's the lunging Full Thrust, the health-absorbing Drain Blade, and even an ability called Dragoon Jump that lets you pretend to be Kain and leap on enemies from above. For plot reasons, Noctis can summon these weapons out of thin air, so in the game, you can assign different weapons for different circumstances -- one for your main attack move, for example, and another one for counterattacks. Lots of potential depth there, though there isn't a ton of room to play around with it in the demo.
And, yeah, don't worry: this isn't a game of button-mashing. Kingdom Hearts this ain't. You can defend (by holding L1 in the demo) and parry/counter-attack enemy moves, though I'm not sure how viable that is as a strategy when you're trying to slash through fifteen goblins at once. As I played through the demo -- which is not easy by any means! -- I found that staying on the offensive was way more effective, especially when fighting through herds of obnoxious little cat-tiger-like critters that refused to stand still.
Defending costs MP. So does warping. So do techniques. This is critical information, because one of the most interesting things about Final Fantasy XV's combat is that when Noctis runs out of MP, he enters a state called Stasis in which he's crippled, unable to even run until you get his mana back up. Mana points regenerate automatically, but it's very, very slow -- unless you have Noctis take cover behind a rock or other obstacle, where he'll take a breather and gain back MP faster.
So getting good at the combat, from what I can tell, means doing as much damage as possible, dodging and defending as much as possible, and somehow ensuring that Noctis doesn't run out of MP and accidentally cripple himself. After two hours, I was not very good at this. I imagine that when Final Fantasy XV comes out for real (2018?) I'll have gotten better.
Oh, hey, we should spend some time talking about the music.
The music is amazing.
Back To The Combat
The other bros move around and attack automatically, for the most part following your lead. When you stop walking, they will stop walking. When you run away because you're sick of fighting enemies, they will flee right alongside you. They will make quips and swagger around and do all sorts of entertaining things for your amusement. They are true bros.
They will also help you out if you run out of health. See, when Noctis or any of his other allies run out of hit points, they will start staggering around and accessing a new red health bar that may or may not have an official name I didn't write down. Let's call it backup HP. If Noctis runs out of backup HP, you're screwed. Game over. Start over from the last checkpoint.
Fortunately, members of the party can restore one another's normal HP bar by standing next to them and healing them with the power of bro-love. As Noctis, if you get knocked out, the best move appears to be to take cover and hope one of your allies comes and gives you a hand. This is when it would be particularly nice to be able to switch to another party member, but alas, it's not to be. At least the AI seems pretty good.
Also worth noting: Noctis can access an ability called "Armiger" that's essentially his version of a limit break, putting him in warp mode and letting him beat up enemies at super-speed. If you saw the E3 2013 trailer, you saw this in action:
You might be wondering: if enemies attack you in real-time, how do you get away from them? What if you don't feel like fighting? The answer is… well, there are two answers. When you're out in the open, it's pretty easy to get away from an unwanted battle by pointing your joystick in one direction and hightailing it out of there. When you get far away enough from the enemies, you'll automatically exit combat mode. But what about when you're inside a dungeon or other enclosed area?
Here's a story. In the demo, there's a big cavern that serves as the obligatory Scary Dungeon and will give you A Special Power when you finish it. When I was close to the end of this cavern, I got kind of sick of fighting goblins and decided to just run for the goal marker. (Yes, Final Fantasy XV has goal markers. It's great.) But when I got to the end, I couldn't interact with the quest object because the game believed my party was still in combat. I had no way to progress further without finishing the battle.
So I turned around and ran back up the narrow tunnel in which I had entered, where suddenly I found myself face to face with two dozen friggin' goblins, grunting and massing together like a nest full of cockroaches. It was hilarious. And terrifying. They almost killed me. Final Fantasy XV! (Maybe the final game will give us a better way of running from encounters we don't want to face.)
The last mainline single-player game, Final Fantasy XIII, was polarising in many ways, but even those who loved the game would have to agree that its biggest flaw was that walking and fighting were the only things to do. Gone were the mini-games and sidequests that were so integral to other Final Fantasys. Your job was to walk, fight, and walk some more.
Final Fantasy XV is different. Very different. At one point in the demo, Noctis has to sneak behind a giant enemy and follow it to its lair without getting caught. Later, you have to help the boy band execute a plan that involves setting aforementioned giant enemy on fire with a barrel of gas. It's clear that there's more to this game than just running in a straight line and watching cut-scenes, which is lovely. (A bonus: Prompto shows more personality in a single attack move than Lightning did in three damn games.)
The Duscae demo is full of landmarks and objectives, and as you walk through the world, your gang members will point out various points of interest, many of which lead to sidequests and activities. The map takes clear and obvious influence from games like Far Cry 3 and Skyrim, and the navigational menu lets you set up waypoints at outposts or campgrounds throughout the region. From what I've seen so far, the amount of sheer Things To Do isn't on the same level as, say, Fallout 3, but for a Final Fantasy game, this whole open-world thing is unprecedented. Sadly, there are no big towns in the demo -- and most of the NPCs just grunt when you try to talk to them -- so only time will tell if they have nailed the grandiose cities that Final Fantasy has always been so good at creating.
Troops of enemies -- called Magitek Soldiers but definitely not riding Magitek Armour -- will drop down from airships that seem to pop up randomly as you explore. (At one point, I passed a big road and watched a random car get stopped and held up because of a troop patrol. I wonder how many moments like that are generated procedurally -- and how many there will actually be in the final product.)
There's also a day and night system, because of course there is. When it's night-time, you'll be prompted to go find a camping site, where you can set up tents, eat dinner, and rest your party. One interesting twist on a genre convention pops up here: instead of levelling up as they fight, your party members will accumulate experience that will only actually apply when you camp out, so if you do a bunch of stuff between rests, you'll find your party members gaining 2-3 levels every time you set up camp. Bizarrely, camping out also makes you lose any sidequests you didn't finish, which will perhaps make more sense in the final version of Final Fantasy XV. It also gives you stat boosts for the following day, depending what you have for dinner -- and yes, your food is lovingly rendered in all of its polygonal glory and shown every time you rest.
So, yes. I walked away from the demo with two important thoughts:
- I am optimistic about the future of Final Fantasy.
- I wonder how much processing power is used on their hair?
I'm concerned, too. Director Hajime Tabata and crew are clearly ambitious, and they have done some fascinating things here, some of which I haven't mentioned or have been purposefully vague about in the interest of letting you experience them yourselves. But I'm worried about the framerate drops, the blurry distances, the jaggy edges. I'm worried about the way that jumping feels unnecessarily heavy, and how fighting through minor enemies can take just a few seconds too long. I'm worried that the development team's vision will be compromised by the technology they're stuck with.
Those are all problems that can be fixed, though. They have got plenty of time to polish, to refine, to keep tweaking and taking feedback and eking as much as they can out of the PS4 and Xbox One. What's way more critical -- and what I'm way less worried about after today -- is that Final Fantasy XV feels like a Final Fantasy game. And it does. It's grand, yet it doesn't seem to take itself too seriously. It's totally unorthodox, totally weird, and, from what I've played so far, totally welcome.