The first thing you notice upon starting up Episode Duscae is ‘Somnus’. That beautiful old theme we’ve been hearing since the game’s very first reveal as Versus XIII plays over the title screen, yet something’s different. The vocals have been replaced by a violin, in a subtle move that seems to suggest that, while this is indeed the game we’ve all been waiting the better part of a decade to play, there are going to be some changes.
Of course, the most obvious of these changes, bar the name, is the shift in platform from PS3 to PS4 and Xbox One. The game was spectacularly thrust back into the limelight when it was announced for the new-gen platforms back at E3 2013 with an action-packed trailer that caused some to worry that their beloved jRPG franchise had gone all Uncharted. Episode Duscae then, is clearly a statement of intent.
Final Fantasy XV is set to be something of a shake up for the long-running series. After waking up to a phone alarm (this is a fantasy based on reality, after all), Noctis and his retinue stumble from the confines of their tent into the bright sunlight to see a huge, wide-open expanse laid before them. With the restrictive corridors of Final Fantasy XIII still fresh in our minds, it’s certainly something of a wow moment, and perhaps a sign from Square Enix that they’ve taken fan criticism over the last few years to heart.
Characters, too, seem to be offering something a bit different; while many found Lightning and co somewhat overbearing and melodramatic, Noctis and his friends – royal advisor Ignis, bodyguard Gladiolus and childhood friend Prompto – are all a little more restrained, at least in this playable slice. Rather than being a group of heroes thrust together through circumstance, these are people that are comfortable in each other’s company, and though some of the incidental dialogue borders on the inane (“What’s your plan if your glasses break?”, Noctis asks Ignis, who replies in his cut-glass accent, “I’ve got another pair.”), it helps to sell the idea of a group of friends on a road trip.
Quite why they’re on that road trip isn’t made clear in Episode Duscae. It’s suggested that they’re searching for Titan, the iconic Earth-elemental summon, but before the episode starts the prince’s flash car breaks down and the party are forced to make camp in the wilds of Duscae while confusingly-underdressed mechanic Cindy repairs it. Of course, they’re going to have to pay their way, to the tune of 25,000 gil, and what better way than to take a bounty on an enormous behemoth called Deadeye? Unfortunately, Deadeye is not so easily slain. After searching the wilderness for signs of his passing, Noctis and his friends finally discover where the beast makes his lair, and set a plan to take him down. A plan that spectacularly fails, because of course it does. You’re going to need a bigger stick. Fortunately, you can find one, and the bearded man that wields it, in a deep, dark cavern in the woods.
Final Fantasy XV is only the second game in the main, single-player series not to use the Active Time Battle system since it was introduced in 1991’s Final Fantasy IV. Instead, what we have here is a real-time action-based system with configurable combos and switchable weapons. If that sounds like it’s closer to a button-mashing fighting game or character-action title, well, it’s not. In battle, you’ll generally be doing a whole lot of holding one button (X on Xbox One). This will perform a combo that you can personalise to a decent extent; Noctis has five blades and five different slots to put them in, and shifting them around will change up the combo that Noctis perfoms. The first slot is your opener, the weapon you start your combo with, while the next is Ravage. This will form the core of your attack combo, contributing most of your hits, and it’s here that you’ll find much of the flexibility; if you’re about to wade into a large, tightly-knit group of enemies, it might be a good idea to switch in the enormous Zweihander to hit multiple targets with wide-arcing sweeps, whereas if you’re facing off against a powerful single target, the spear Partisan is probably a better choice, with its higher damage and MP-leeching abilities.
You also have slots for Vanquish, which is what Noctis will perfom against a low-HP enemy on the brink of death, Counter, which determines the weapon used to hit back after a successful parry, and the last slot is reserved for jumping attacks – something you are unlikely to even use in Episode Duscae.
Each weapon also allows access to a special Technique, switchable via the d-pad and executed by the Y button, which consume a fairly large chunk of MP. These need to be used sparingly then, but offer an array of useful effects: the Buster Sword-like Zweihander allows you to use Tempest, hitting and flooring multiple targets, while Noctis’ Blood Sword offers Drain Blade, letting you leech some HP from a target – useful if you need a quick hit of health – soaking the prince in a fine mist of claret in the process. Partisan’s unique skill is Full Thrust, an absolutely beastly single-target, multiple-hit spear thrust, while the Dragon Lance will of course allow you to Jump, just like Kain Highwind or Freya Crescent. Most of these abilities require a bit of a time to spool up, meaning it’s easy to miss your target if you haven’t planned for its use. A big part of using Techniques is knowing when to throw one out; winding up a Full Thrust on a stunned opponent is always a good idea.
On paper, this all sounds a little ‘hold A to awesome’, but that’s a touch unfair in practise; there’s a fair bit more to think about than simply holding X to attack, and considering that, unlike the vast majority of games in the series, Final Fantasy XV gives you control over your own movement and positioning, you’re going to have to actively defend and evade enemy attacks – both those you’re going one-on-one with and any of their buddies nearby, who will absolutely not wait for you to finish what you’re doing before lunging in. Assassin’s Creed this is not. You’ve probably seen plenty of video of Noctis nimbly dodging and sidestepping out of the way of enemy attacks, and this is achieved by holding down a button to enter a defensive state. While defending, Noctis will auto-dodge most enemy strikes while also being able to parry and counter certain big attacks.
Remaining in this state isn’t an effective long-term strategy however, as your MP pool will continue to drain while you defend, and dropping to zero MP puts Noctis into ‘Stasis’, leaving him unable to defend, dodge or perform weapon techniques. It’s here where the ability to take cover begins to make sense; drop behind a nearby rock and both your HP and MP will begin to climb back up (and Ignis, loyal retainer that he is, will run over to guard you and try to keep enemies at bay). A more effective use of Noctis’ defensive abilities is to use his manual dodge, enabled by pressing the jump button while defending. This will also spend MP – ten per dodge – but, combined with the slightly-shonky lock-on, it’ll get you out of harm’s way and right where you need to be to continue your assault while also allowing you finer control over your MP resources.
Even if you’re a dodging ninja, you are going to take damage occasionally, and there’s a mechanic at work here reminiscent of Final Fantasy XIII-2‘s wound damage. If a party member loses all HP, it’s not the end of the world; other members can run over and revive them as they stumble around, putting themselves at risk for a couple of seconds while the animation plays out. But should that character take another hit while in this state their total HP will be diminished, leaving them at a permanent disadvantage. It’s possible to get your HP bar shortened multiple times if you’re really unlucky (or just plain bad), and, at least in Episode Duscae, there’s no way to remedy this handicap – like XIII-2‘s wound potions – without resting at a campsite.
There are a couple of other things notable by their absence too, such as magic and party AI management – as things stand, Ignis, Gladio and Prompto will all just take care of themselves. For the final game, director Hajime Tabata and his team have promised both usable magic and something akin to Final Fantasy XII‘s gambits to enable fine control over the party’s actions – a welcome addition, considering that Noctis is now the only controllable character.
That’s not to say that Episode Duscae doesn’t offer some surprises though, and the first of these are the hidden Armiger weapons, old blades found throughout the region – one embedded in a rock, Excalibur-style, another deep within a cavern in the woods, and one more jammed into Deadeye’s shoulder. These blades unlock new functionality for Noctis; when we first gain control, he already holds one that allows him to manually dodge, as well as perform that nifty warpstrike we’ve seen in all the trailers, whereby Noctis flings his blade like a spear, teleporting to wherever it sticks a moment later. Other blades offer the ability to dramatically increase Noctis’ damage output and movement speed, swipe at enemies with those iconic ‘phantom swords’ while warping from target to target or sheath himself in a spinning shield of ghostly blades – all at the expense of rapidly draining mana, and all things we’ve seen teased in trailers going way back to that first 2006 reveal.
There’s a bigger, altogether more awe-inspiring surprise awaiting those that venture into the forests of Duscae, however. We’ve known for a while that summons are going to appear in some form – witness Titan’s appearance in the Jump Festa 2015 trailer, for instance – but in case you didn’t get the memo, Final Fantasy XV‘s summons are going to be insane. In case you’re in any doubt, after trekking through the aforementioned deep, dark cave, you’ll be able to summon Ramuh and rain lightning down on that pesky behemoth. Because, although it’s thrilling to go toe-to-toe with such an iconic Final Fantasy monster, facing up against Deadeye is like fighting one of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s High Dragons, except with double HP. You’re going to need help. And that help is glorious.
It’s rare that we get such a deep look at a big upcoming title, and while that’s exciting, there are caveats to this optimism. Combat is a huge part of a Final Fantasy game, and though it takes a couple of hours to really get a good feel for, it never really evolves from the start of the demo to the end – you’ll still be doing the same things at level forty that you were at level four, you’ll just be better at it. What happens instead is that as you become more familiar with enemy movements and attacks, you start to learn the best way to approach each combat situation. Your weapons play into this too; with Partisan in the main Ravage slot, you’ll tend towards separating enemies out and taking them on in single combat, whereas with Zweihander you can push your luck a bit more in a group. The battle system remained satisfying even after ten hours, but whether it will keep players captivated for the dozens of hours a Final Fantasy adventure tends to last remains to be seen. Hopefully, the addition of magic, new Techniques, party management and a wider pantheon of summons to call down should help to keep it fresh throughout.
And then there’s that open world. As liberating as it feels after the painfully linear Final Fantasy XIII, Duscae itself feels a little empty. It’s somewhat reminiscent of The Calm Lands or Archylte Steppe, a vast, verdant area of natural beauty, and though it leans towards realism, with its gas station, it’s smattering of shacks, roads and transmission towers, there are more fantastical touches, like the enormous rock arches and the now almost-iconic astral shard that pierces the land in the distance. As you explore, party members will point out things that may lead to a new sidequest, though these seem to be a bit lightweight at the moment; passing near a lakeside hut, Gladio called attention to something that began a quest to find the ‘Jewel of Alstor’. Following the waypoint, the party discovered a piece of ‘glacial magicite’ lying on the ground, and that was it: quest complete. No dialogue, no explanation. No context. What was the point of this quest, or indeed the magicite itself? No answer is forthcoming. With Episode Duscae being a taster of the full game however, it feels like these quests have been included simply to make the point that the final game will indeed have more to do than fight from point A to point B. Given the paucity of additional activities in the last single-player, numbered series title, that’s got to be a plus.
By the time Noctis, Ignis, Gladio and Prompto drive off into the sunset, you’re left feeling that Episode Duscae isn’t really a demo after all. And though it offers a representative look at what Square Enix want the final game to be like, it’d be unkind to call it a proof of concept; character animations are up there with the best, and what systems are present are highly playable and surprisingly polished. So it’s more of a sneak peek then, a promise of what to look forward to when Final Fantasy XV finally arrives. And now I’ve had glimpse, I can’t wait to see more. Please be excited.