Going into Final Fantasy XV’s first playable demo, Episode Duscae, I did not have high hopes. It has been a long time since Final Fantasy has wowed audiences the way it did in its heyday. The past decade has been a mixed bag filled with disappointing sequels and failed (though later resurrected) MMO’s, creating an aura of cautiousness around any product branded with the Final Fantasy logo. I felt this cautiousness keenly going into this demo, and that may be why I was so utterly blown away by it.
Though Episode Duscae provides only a glimpse at Final Fantasy XV, keep in mind that even a glimpse of a Final Fantasy game is still several hours of open world goodness. The demo begins with our protagonist Noctis and his companions stranded in a sprawling, gorgeous woodland area. Their vehicle has broken down, and they need to raise the funds to repair it. Thankfully, there is a bounty out in the area for a behemoth, and so our adventurers set out to claim the bounty and repair their vehicle. The demo focuses on this plot point, however you have free rein in the woodland area, allowing you to explore many aspects of the game including combat, side quests and new systems such as camping.
It'll come as no surprise when I tell you the game looks stunning. The character models, environments and enemies are all interesting in their design, and flawless in their execution.
What did surprise me, however, was how quickly I began to love the characters and the dynamic of their group. With past Final Fantasy titles, it has typically taken a significant amount of time with the cast of characters before I began to relate to them. Plus, there are many more characters from the franchise that I dislike - I’m looking at you Wakka. Episode Duscae had me digging these characters from the first cinematic. Their dynamic is fun, casual and totally charming.
Exploring the with this group map is also a treat. They often have funny and interesting interactions and observations that further endeared them to me and fleshed out the world. The exploration itself is effortless fun mostly because of the new waypoint system that has been implemented, which allows you to easily understand what the objectives are and where to find them, but which also gives you freedom to find your own way there.
The map is littered interesting and exciting points of interest. Great beasts roam the map, adding a sense of beauty and grandeur to the world. Of course the map is also full of baddies, some of which will actively pursue you, and others that you can avoid or confront depending what strikes your fancy.
This leads us to the combat. IFinal Fantasy purists may be disappointed to learn that this is not a turn based strategy game. Instead, the game's combat feels like an evolution of the real-time action-strategy combat of Final Fantasy XII. The combat was my least favorite aspect of the demo, however, I'm under the impression that this was more because of my inexperience than it was poor design. A tutorial at the start of the demo introduces the combat, which so far mostly consists of attacks, dodges and parries. These concepts are easy against one opponent, but combat in the game is quite often against large numbers of nimble, and impressively intelligent enemies. This makes dodging particularly difficult, as attacks often come unseen from behind while you are concentrating on an enemy in front.
[The new experience system makes this kind of combat simultaneously complex and frustrating. At the end of battle you are rewarded XP, but then factors such as how much damage you took calculate what XP boost you receive. The complexity of this is that combat becomes far more strategic as you try and complete an encounter as skillfully as possible. The flipside is the frustration you feel at needlessly being damaged due to unseen attacks you were never given the opportunity to avoid. Even so, in my short playtime, I started to find strategies and approaches that made me more successful in the combat. This is a system that requires practice, and given the average run time of a Final Fantasy game, there should be no shortage of that.
The mechanics in this demo all felt like such an evolution, yet the game still felt uniquely Final Fantasy. Of all the elements of the demo, the one that impressed me the most was the game's focus on creating moments of interactive spectacle. That isn’t to say that past Final Fantasy were lacking in that regard, but that the spectacle felt impersonal as they often consisted of a cut-scene before a boss. Episode Duscae demonstrated how the build-up to boss battles can be incorporated into gameplay. The build-up to the demo’s boss, the Behemoth, involved a lengthy and tense stalking scene that superbly amped up the gravitas of the situation.
When the demo finally came to a close I was genuinely disappointed that my time was over. It’s an exhilarating for a game to go from nowhere on my radar, right to the top of my most anticipated games list in a handful of hours. The demo raised so many questions that I am desperate to have answered and introduced so many mechanics that I want to play with for many hours to come. It’s early days, but we may be about to experience a Final Fantasy Renaissance.