You've gotta wonder how much it cost to make Noctis's hair. I mean, look at it. It's a tangled black crown of spikes that sometimes seems to have a will of its own, its strands flowing like octopus tentacles every time Noctis moves. How many animators did Square Enix hire just for those sweet locks?
These are the things you think about when you're playing Final Fantasy XV, a new video game from Square Enix that will be out on November 29. At PAX in Seattle last week, I played two hours of the next marquee Final Fantasy, and I left with two main thoughts:
1) This game is kind of janky, but also kind of amazing?
2) Just how much product does Noctis use? And when do I get to play more?
It's remarkable to see just how much things have changed. This was the fourth time I had played Final Fantasy XV, following 1) the Episode Duscae demo in March of 2015; 2) the Platinum demo in March of 2016; and 3) the Trial of Titan demo at E3 in June of 2016. All those demos left me optimistic, but cautious. Each of them was flawed in some way. Duscae was poorly balanced and felt like it was missing some core features, like minimap icons; Platinum was delightful but very basic; Trial of Titan was just kind of a mess.
But after two hours with FFXV last Friday, I'm way on board with this game. The story is promising, the lore is fascinating, and the combat is a lot of fun. Director Hajime Tabata and his crew have clearly listened to feedback and iterated on everything in the game, from battle mechanics to car steering. (Right before I started, Tabata came over to make sure I was playing the most recent build, which he said they'd tweaked to make the car feel less "on rails.")
There are some technical issues — frame rate hitches, bad lipsyncing, terrible camera movement while you're inside buildings and dungeons — and I imagine even two months won't be enough to fix everything, but hey, it's an ambitious game. After playing it for this long, I'm very high on its potential.
Some thoughts, presented in the order I jotted them down as I was playing:
- The game opens up with a very Final Fantasy prophecy: "When darkness veils the world, the King of Light shall come... Now, four brave warriors begin their journey, prepared to fight." Then we see what appears to be an old version of Noctis, fighting with his bros against a gigantic boss in a room covered with flames. After a bit of confused dodging, the four of them take cover behind a table, and then we cut to white. "BEFORE THE FALL," reads the screen.
- From there we get a quick scene of Noctis and crew departing their home city of Insomnia and setting off their journey to go find Luna, Noctis's bride-to-be. I'd strongly recommend that anyone who cares about Final Fantasy XV go take a couple hours to watch Kingsglaive before the game starts. The movie offers some helpful context for why Noctis is going off on his journey in the first place. It also explains what the deal is with Noctis's dad, Regis.
- A quick intro to Noctis's gang: There's Prompto, the hyperactive millenial who says things like "totes adorbs." Ignis is the smart, reserved one who cooks and takes care of the rest of the team. And then there's Gladiolus, the strong one. Feel free to insert your own N'Sync references.
- After a few introductory scenes, we cut to Noctis and crew pushing their broken car along the road in an area called Hammerhead, just outside the capital city. Just like in the Episode Duscae demo, they have to take the car to a mechanic named Cid (and his granddaughter Cindy, whose outfit continues to be horrible) for repairs. This means going off on a few monster-hunting quests to raise some money as Cid takes care of business.
- It's at this point, 10 or 15 minutes into the game, that the world opens up. While your car is in the shop, you can go explore the entire Hammerhead region, going on sidequests and fighting monsters as your party banters about nothing. The main quest, meanwhile, will give you a brief intro to Final Fantasy XV's combat system.
- As you probably know, this game has real-time combat. You control Noctis and can roll around and slash enemies with one of several weapons you conjure using your directional buttons. You can block, parry, and charge up a buddy meter that will allow you to call upon the other bros for combo attacks. Each combo attack presents a rudimentary QTE that asks you to hit the circle button at specific points in time, which I can see getting annoying, though I didn't mind it during the demo.
- The best part of combat is Noctis's warp strike, which has been around since the Versus XIII days and is still a ton of fun to use. By throwing his sword at enemies or key points on the world, Noctis can teleport wherever it lands. You can use this ability to strike enemies or teleport out of combat to recover your HP and MP. When you're sneaking around, you can even warp-strike to get an instant kill on an unsuspecting bad guy.
- The whole system has a great rhythm that felt lacking, or at least incomplete, in previous demos. One element that people may not have realised: You can unlock new combat abilities throughout the game. The core levelling system, which is called Ascension, allows Noctis and his fellow troops to pick from various skills on a branching screen that resembles Final Fantasy X's sphere grid. All four characters share a pool of ability points, and you can use them to unlock different nodes as you play through the game. One ability I unlocked for Noctis, 'Airstep,' allowed me to move around in mid-air after attacking, which made combat feel more floaty and Kingdom Heartsy. Another ability, Phase, allowed me to hold the block button to automatically evade enemy attacks.
- On my PS4 build, the L2 button opened up the map, which was very annoying. Every time I put down the controller to take notes, I'd accidentally open up the map screen. There were two control configurations, but as far as I could tell there was no way to remap buttons in this demo.
- It seems that Tabata and team were very influenced by old Final Fantasy games. The magic system is inspired by Final Fantasy VIII in a big way. As you travel throughout the world, you can draw magical materials from different energy points, then combine that material to create spells. I didn't experiment too much with this system, but the spells I did use were very overpowered, which might be why they're very limited.
- At one point I found a book called 'Cosmogony' that described a bunch of summon creatures: Titan, Ramuh, Shiva, Leviathan, Bahamut, and Ifrit. I would guess those are the core summons we'll see in FFXV, although I'm sure there's also a hidden beast or two. (Here's hoping for an Ultros summon.)
- There are dialogue options, which are interesting albeit shallow. During many conversations you can choose between three options, one of which is always 'consult with your friends.' At one point, for example, Noctis and crew ran into an unscrupulous journalist named Dino. Dino, the press sneak fuck he is, threatened to tell everyone that the crown prince was wandering around the Duscae wilderness unless Noctis went and got him a rare gemstone from a nearby mountain range. Your options are to acquiesce, say no, or ask your friends for help. I chose to say no, but Ignis butted in and insisted that we do it anyway.
- The writing is, uh, very JRPG. Some lines are funny. Others are interesting. Others don't feel like they were spoken out loud by a single English-speaking human until the voice actors started recording.
- The car is definitely on-rails. You can't drive off the road or crash into other cars — the game will gently steer you away from either of those possibilities. GTA this ain't. I'm fine with this, and in fact, driving around the car is incredible because you can listen to old-school Final Fantasy music as you go.
- One little quirk: You have to cycle through music song by song; there's no easy way to access an entire menu of tracks, make playlists, or switch CDs directly. It'd be nice to get some UI tweaks there.
- The music is incredible, as you'd expect from a Final Fantasy game. Composer Yoko Shimomura and her crew have killed it once again.
- I won't walk you through the entire demo — go watch the 50-minute gameplay footage for the gist of it — but I will add that, on my way through Chapter Two, I played through a wonderfully creepy dungeon called Keycatrich Trench. Keycatrich is a small maze of dark tunnels and cells, made horrifying by the fact that it's all totally empty. Until you find the giant spider.
I came into PAX not really knowing what to expect from Final Fantasy XV. I left more optimistic than I've ever been. It's got so much potential. Even if they did blow most of the budget on Noctis's hair.