Archives for category: Hironobu Sakaguchi

regalia
Little more than two weeks before the release of Final Fantasy XV, Square Enix released the third and final demo for their ambitious open world adventure. First there was Episode Duscae, our first proper look at Final Fantasy XV that released more than 18 months ago, as a bonus for those purchasing Final Fantasy Type 0. Then, as the company held a lavish event this past March to announce the (now missed) original release date for the game, we were, ahem, ‘treated’ to the Platinum Demo. With each demo, there has been as much to complain about as there has been cause for celebration, but this time the good massively outweighs the bad; this latest taster, Judgment Disc, shows not only that the game has come along in leaps and bounds, but that the two months Hajime Tabata’s team bought themselves back in September have been wisely spent indeed.

Of course, before we get into the gameplay and technical details of Judgment Disc, it’s important to note that it is a Japan-only demo. As such, if you want to play it, you’ll need to either change your Xbox region to Japan, or create a Japanese PSN account. As there’s no English text or speech, you could also do with some working knowledge of spoken and written Japanese. I have neither, but managed to stumble through the demo regardless (though not without a couple of issues, as I’ll get into later).

Getting into the demo itself, the first thing you’ll note is that it both looks and performs much better than either of the previous releases; offering nice clean image quality and steady frame rates, Judgment Disc shows Final Fantasy XV looking and feeling better than it ever has before. It’s even noticeably improved from the Gold Master footage Square Enix made available in the days after the delay announcement, so there’s no doubt that pushing back the release was absolutely worth it. The chunk of the game we’re given picks up right from the start, with the unexplained (and somewhat bewildering) chapter 0 flash-forward giving way to the present day as Noctis and chums must push their broken down car along a sun-baked highway to Hammerhead, before moving onto Galdin Quay in hopes of catching a boat to Altissia so that the prince can make it to his wedding in time.

Before long, you’re set free and out into the sandy region of Leide, to hunt monsters as payment for your car repairs, and it becomes immediately obvious that the chunk of world we’re given to run around in is absolutely vast, the generous demo recalling memories of Panzer Dragoon Saga‘s entire first disc being given away on the cover of Sega Saturn Magazine back in May ’98 (I still have that disc!). Indeed, it’s a shame that this demo hasn’t been made available to everyone, such is the positive impression it leaves; few will have played the promising Episode Duscae, tethered as it was to first print purchases of Type 0, and Platinum Demo really wasn’t something that deserved to be most people’s first point of contact with the game. Granted, it’s easy enough to get your hands on Judgment Disc – especially on Xbox One – but the fact that all text and voice is in Japanese will be off-putting to some.

If there’s one concern I do have at the moment, it’s that, at this admittedly very early point in the game, I think I preferred the combat in Episode Duscae – well, certain aspects of it at least. The systems are broadly similar of course, with Noctis switching between four weapons, stringing together combos as he goes, all the while dodging enemy attacks with an MP-draining defense stance or a more traditional dodge-roll. What’s different here is that, rather than building your combo by placing weapons in specific spots, influencing when and how they’ll show up in your ongoing assault, you now have the ability to switch weapons in real-time, a change originally seen in the Platinum Demo. This is absolutely A Good Thing. What’s less welcome, however, is the absence of Duscae‘s weapon-specific Techniques. In that first demo, each weapon in Noctis’ armoury had a powerful ability attached to it – his Blood Sword, for instance, offered Drain Blade which, after a short wind-up would hit the enemy and transfer some of it’s vitality to Noctis, while his Dragon Lance would grant you access to that iconic Final Fantasy Jump command. While we’ve known about this change for a while – they were also missing from the adult Noctis battle at the end of Platinum Demo, for instance – it’s still a rather disappointing change, and can serve to make combat feel a little more one-note than it previously did; while the game still isn’t a case of ‘hold circle to win’, as many detractors would claim around Duscae‘s release, it does now feel a little closer to that than it previously did. That being said, these Techniques do have a replacement here, of a sort. They’ve been given to your allies.

Well, kind of. You see, above your weapon UI, there’s a green bar with a few notches along it that fills as you battle enemies. Attaining a notch on this metre allows you to perform a party attack, ordering one of your entourage to carry out a specific ability. For instance, Gladio, Noctis’ beefy bodyguard, will perform Tempest, a wide-sweeping sword attack that pulls enemies together and was last seen attached to Noctis’ Engine Blade in Duscae. Ignis and Prompto have their own abilities of course, with Prompto firing a piercing shot at the targeted enemy and Ignis throwing his daggers out to mark a number of enemies, which Noctis will then warp between. These actions are always enjoyable to use, and successfully landing one triggers a QTE which allows Noctis to follow up with a tap of a button. And while they are definitely an addition I like, as they make the otherwise-uncontrollable members of your party feel a bit more involved and under your control, I must question whether they had to come at the cost of Noctis’ own weapon techniques, which were, more often than not, a risk/reward mechanic in Duscae, as they needed both a long wind-up and a good chunk of MP. Without this mechanic, the rhythm of battle has changed from one where you’d constantly be looking for a bit of time and space to slip in a damaging technique to one where you just attack until you build enough meter to trigger a party member into action, which then takes you out of the fight for a few seconds. Again, it’s very early in the game at this point, and I’m sure there’ll be later additions to the core combat system that shake up that rhythm somewhat.

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What’s a little more concerning is the somewhat unresponsive nature of your button presses. There’s a noticeable delay between pressing a button and having a command carried out; running through the world and jumping over obstacles will see you needing to press jump before you actually reach that obstacle, for instance. While this is something you’ll get used to fairly quickly, it’s exacerbated by the combat system’s reliance on animation priority, making it very easy to get stuck in the middle of a sword swing – especially with a slow weapon like the Engine Blade – and then take a hit despite holding down the defend button while you wait for the animation to finish. Animation priority alone would make the combat a little more ponderous, as you wait for an opening before committing to an attack (think The Witcher 2‘s sword combat) but marrying this to unresponsive button presses can and will cause frustration. Enemies are weak to specific weapons, so if you’re fighting a monster that requires you to use a heavy sword – like the crabs near Galdin Quay you can see in this article’s second video – you’ll probably end up getting knocked about before you land a hit. I’m hoping that the responsiveness will be improved for release (we will still be getting a day one patch, of course), but otherwise it’s something I’ll have to adapt to by playing much more cautiously, watching enemies for an opening rather than just wading in with a massive sword.

There is actually a mechanic in the battle system which seems to exist to give you a bit of breathing space, however: link attacks. Should you land a parry or a back attack while standing next to an ally, you might trigger a cool, cinematic co-operative attack with that party member. These segments always look fantastic – witness Gladio throwing Noctis into the air from the point of his sword, before the prince comes crashing down to earth with his spear – and like the aforementioned party actions, these also take you out of the action for a second or two. I can imagine that attempting to manoeuver yourself into a position to make link strikes happen as often as possible will be a big part of your combat strategy, giving enemies less of a chance to attack.

We got a brief look at magic usage in the Platinum Demo, and Judgment Disc gives us an opportunity to try out the game’s new spell-crafting system. Gathering magic is somewhat reminiscent of FFVIII‘s draw system, as throughout the world you’ll find naturally occurring deposits of elemental energy that you can absorb and then use to craft magic spells. Unfortunately, I couldn’t manage to wrap my head around the crafting mechanics, whereby you select an equippable magic bottle, an amount of elemental energy and then modifying items from your inventory to create spells with differing effects, such as a fire spell that will also poison your target. As I couldn’t read the text prompts, I had to settle for pressing all the buttons in hopes of making something happen but sadly, elemental mastery eluded me. It’s a system that should help add a few wrinkles to combat, and I can’t wait to get to grips with in the full game, but Judgment Disc does at least gift us a few uses of the base fire spell partway through the demo. Try not to throw it at your team mates. Or do, if you want to see them panic a bit, as magical friendly fire is a thing that exists in Final Fantasy XV.

Another aspect of the game that I look forward to finding out more about is sidequests. In the chunk of game offered here, you can take on hunts at local diners before heading out into the open world to exterminate troublesome mobs, but other than that side content seems a little thin on the ground. Again, not being able to understand the language puts me at a disadvantage here – for all I know, it’s possible to pick up additional quests simply by overhearing NPCs or reading in-game items – I’ll find out for sure when I have an English copy of the game. We’ve also seen some side content in the material Square Enix and various press outlets have put out in the last couple of months, it just remains to be seen how impactful that content will be; will it boil down to fetch quests and monster hunts, or is there something more interesting in there?

What is interesting is that we finally get to play with the Regalia this time. We came tantalisingly close in Episode Duscae, with the demo ending just as we were ready to get behind the wheel, but here we get to finally take our flash set of wheels for a spin. You can choose either to drive manually or let Ignis take control, and this mode is surprisingly enjoyable, as you’re left free to spin the camera around and enjoy the scenery, all the while listening to classic Final Fantasy tunes on the car radio. I can see myself driving all over just to enjoy some old school Uematsu magic, though if I have one piece of advice, it is this: do not forget to fill up on fuel!

Story remains my biggest interest, though. In a sense, I’m quite glad I can’t understand any of the text or dialogue in this demo – though I have seen all of this content in English, thanks to Square-Enix’s aggressive video policy post-delay, the language barrier has kept me from getting too interested in the goings-on of Noctis and his retinue, allowing me to focus solely on the gameplay. But this has always been one of the biggest draws for me in a Final Fantasy – following the narrative beats, getting to know the characters, and losing myself in the world – and having avoided all spoilers, I know just enough to be very interested in where things go from here. One thing I had been worried about was the absence of the imperial invasion of Insomnia – originally slated for the game and now only appearing in Kingsglaive – fearing that the events of the game might feel a bit disconnected from that really quite important story detail. Thankfully, the day one ‘Crown Update‘ will add scenes from the film (as well as the excellent Omen trailer) to flesh out the current state of the world, so that should help. As I mentioned in my Kingsglaive review, I am a little sad we’ll never see the Insomnia invasion in-game, but I’m ready to see where this version of the story takes us, and I can’t wait to join Noctis and crew on the road. After ten years of waiting, I can’t believe its merely days away.

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Blue Dragon is now backwards compatible on Xbox One.

Announced on Twitter today by Xbox Live’s Major Nelson, Blue Dragon has been a much-desired title for the console’s legacy support program and follows hot on the heels of Mistwalker’s other Xbox 360 exclusive jRPG Lost Odyssey, which hit Xbox One back compat a little over a month ago.

Like Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon is a very traditionally-styled multi-disc Japanese RPG, though while Lost Odyssey hews closer to the Final Fantasy template, Blue Dragon feels more like that other juggernaut of the genre, Dragon Quest, right down to the designs by Akira Toriyama. Like Lost Odyssey and a few others, the game is currently disc-only as no digital version exists. Phil Spencer has commented that the BC are looking into making this possible, so we’ll have to wait and see if that happens. In the meantime, we can expect second hand prices to rise in response to the announcement.

This brings both of Mistwalker’s big Xbox exclusives to the current gen, both of which were part of Microsoft’s early push to try and make their console a success in Japan. The 360 saw a number of exclusive Japanese games in its early years, including Tales of Vesperia (which is absolutely the best jRPG of its generation and you should play it right now) and a few others, and it’s a shame that it’s a strategy that never really paid off. We’re certainly seeing the results of that now, as plenty of Japanese games are skipping the Xbox One, from smaller titles like the recently announced Danganronpa and Nonary collections all the way to larger publishers like Square Enix, who are skipping the console for games such as the upcoming NieR Automata.

No Automata :(

No Automata ;_;

I’d like to see Microsoft invest a bit more in Japanese games again – not necessarily to make inroads in Japan, because I don’t think anyone believes that’s even the remotest of possibilities now, but to diversify their line-up a bit. So far, we’ve only seen a collaboration with Yukio Futatsugi that resulted in a pale imitation of his cult favourite Panzer Dragoon series in Crimson Dragon, and the multi-team partnership that gave us ReCore, even if Keiji Inafune’s Comcept only really consulted while the US-based Armature handled development duties. Scalebound is yet to come, and I’m really looking forward to that, but I’d love to see Microsoft throw handfuls of cash at Hironobu Sakaguchi again to get something like Lost Odyssey made.

Still, one thing Microsoft do deserve massive amounts of kudos for is their support for backward compatibility. The catalogue grows every week, and in the last few months we’ve not only been given access to some big hitters, but others that weren’t performing quite so well have been updated to run even better than they did on native hardware. It feels like Team Xbox is really hitting its stride now with BC.

One of the Xbox 360’s most beloved titles has finally made its way to the current generation, as Mistwalker’s Lost Odyssey launches today for Xbox One’s backward compatibility programme.

Directed by ex-Squaresoft legend Hironobu Sakaguchi – the father of Final Fantasy – with music by fellow Final Fantasy icon Nobuo Uematsu, Lost Odyssey is something of a rare breed: a jRPG exclusive to a Microsoft platform. It stars the immortal warrior Kaim Argonar, who has wandered the world for a thousand years, yet remembers little of it thanks to a bout of jRPG amnesia. It’s an incredibly traditional example of the genre, complete with a turn-based battle system – albeit with a dynamic touch thanks to a timed ring-matching system – that many fans hold up as being truer to Final Fantasy‘s legacy than the last decade of titles in the series that effectively spawned it. Also of note are the ‘Thousand Years of Dreams’, lost memories of Kaim’s that you can find throughout the adventure which contain some of the best writing you’ll find in the genre.

LIRUM ;____;

Lirum!!! ;____;

Lost Odyssey has been one of the most wanted games for Microsoft’s backward compatibility programme since it was announced back at last year’s E3 conference, though the lack of support for multi-disc games (Lost Odyssey comes on four of them) held up its availability. Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director’s Cut was the first multi-disc game to launch for the programme earlier this year, so it had been assumed that it was simply a matter of time until Mistwalker’s game saw release.

Lost Odyssey will remain a strictly physical release, as a Games on Demand version does not exist on the Xbox storefront, so you’ll need a copy of the game if you wish to play it on your Xbox One. Inserting disc 1 will prompt a 22GB file to download and, according to a post on NeoGAF, the game is only playable with that first disc in the drive; discs 2, 3 or 4 simply will not work. While this sounds a bit odd, it also means you will no longer need to switch discs while playing, which can only be a good thing.

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Also announced for backward compatibility today are Disney’s Toy Story 3 and Guwange, a Muromachi Period-set vertical shoot ’em up from genre legends Cave. They come hot on the heels of the addition of Call of Duty 3, World at War and Sega’s Virtua Figher 5: Final Showdown and it’s excellent to see continued support with more big name, much-loved titles making the generational jump. There are now more than 250 Xbox 360 titles available to play on Microsoft’s current machine, and apart from the benefit to end users, it’s a great way to ensure some degree of preservation for games otherwise locked on old systems.

So, it’s official: Final Fantasy XV has been delayed. Rumours sprang up over the weekend, based on conversations with retail sources and backed up by photos of marketing materials, but yesterday director Hajime Tabata confirmed it to be true, with the long-in-development title being bumped from its original date of September 30th to November 29th.

In a video, which you can see below, Tabata explained that, while the game went gold a few days ago and the team had begun work on a day one patch, they had ultimately decided to push the release back to make sure these fixes could be pressed to the game discs that we’ll all be buying at retail. “Our objective with Final Fantasy XV was to deliver a Final Fantasy of the highest possible quality, to every single person who buys the game,” said Tabata, who went on to explain that, because not everyone who buys the game would be able to apply the patch, the team felt the best course of action was a short delay. Not only will the patch improve the game’s performance and overall polish, it will also contain “pretty substantial content,” added Tabata.

And so, we’ll be waiting a further two months to get our grubby mitts on the game. And while it might seem a ridiculous thing to say about a game that was announced ten years ago, it’s probably for the best they don’t rush this one out before it’s done. Not only are there a decade of fan expectations riding on it, but possibly the Final Fantasy brand itself, which has taken a bit of a battering in the wake of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy and the disastrous launch of Final Fantasy XIV Online. While XIV 2.0 has seen an enormous turnaround to become a massive success, the brand is still in a bit of a precarious situation. Square Enix needs this one to be a hit.

Perhaps as some form of consolation, we have been treated to some new content to tide us over for a bit. First off, we now have the first twelve minutes of CGI tie-in movie Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV available to watch on YouTube. The film, which takes place just before the start of the game, begins with a scene-setting narration from Lunafreya Nox Fleuret, the princess of Tenebrae, who brings us up to speed on the state of the world, and the conflict between the magical nation of Lucis and the militaristic empire of Niflheim, who desire the crystal that powers Lucis’ prosperity. As a young Noctis visits Tenebrae with his father, the kingdom is attacked by Niflheim soldiers in an attempt on the Lucian royalty’s lives. Noctis and his father escape, but Tenebrae comes under imperial rule.

Later, we see a battle between Lucis’ Kingsglaive, an elite force of soldiers bestowed with the power of Lucis’ crystal, and the invading forces of Niflheim, made up of human and mechanical soldiers, as well as an assortment of quite horrific looking monsters, including enormous behemoths. There’s even a cameo from a ‘daemon’ that fans of Final Fantasy VII will recognise. It’s been a fair while since we’ve had a CGI film out of Square Enix, and it’s clear to see the upgrade from Advent Children; Kingsglaive simply looks photorealistic at times, especially where character faces are concerned. The editing can feel a little schizophrenic during action scenes, as if the director was on a days-long Red Bull binge, but it does serve to give this first huge battle a frantic feel, and it’s certainly a hell of a spectacle, as the two forces clash over an abandoned town on the edge of a huge, precipitous rock bridge.

Ultimately, this quick look at Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV isn’t going to sate your thirst for anything FFXV-related, as it’s likely to just leave you wanting more. At least the full film will be available to download in just two weeks’ time.

The second bit of new content has just been made available to coincide with the start of Gamescom in Cologne, where the game is playable from the start. Unsurprisingly, it’s a gameplay video from the very beginning of the game, and it runs for almost an hour. This footage has been taken from the gold master version mentioned in Tabata’s apology video, so we can get a look at how the game runs at this stage in development, before the addition of what would have been the day one patch. Fans who played last year’s Episode Duscae will feel immediately at home as, after a rather interesting bit of foreshadowing, the game begins with Noctis and his retinue arriving at the Hammerhead garage to get their broken down car fixed. Luckily, this time Cindy isn’t asking them to hunt down an enormous behemoth, and instead charges them with a bit of simple pest control to pay off their debt.

There are changes though. The party meet Cid almost immediately, and the Hammerhead itself isn’t actually in Duscae this time, but the neighbouring region of Leide. So if you’re sick of seeing the green fields and shimmering lakes of Duscae, at least now you can look at some parched, mountainous scrubland instead. Result? Throughout the fifty-minute clip, we get to see plenty of features of the game, taking in combat, quests, camping, driving, and even a smattering of cutscenes, though with some judicious editing to make sure we aren’t spoiled too much. The footage comes from the first three chapters, which Famitsu report took them 25 hours to get through, so we’re getting a pretty in-depth look at the early stages of the game here.

Final Fantasy XV looks to be in pretty great shape from this extended look, and though it’s a pain to see it delayed just as it was getting close enough to grasp, we can’t complain about a bit of extra time to polish it up to a pristine shine. And besides, after ten years, what’s a couple of extra months?

Announced at Square Enix’s Uncovered Final Fantasy XV event in Los Angeles, Brotherhood is a five-part anime miniseries that leads into the main game. We’d heard rumours of both a CG film and a new demo to be unveiled, both of which came true, but apparently no one saw this coming, so it was a surprise to say the least. In my write-up of that event, I talked about how Square Enix seems to be extremely bullish about Final Fantasy XV‘s prospects – creating a cross-media sub-series right off the bat surely signifies their confidence in the game’s success.

Brotherhood focuses on Noctis and his three chums Ignis, Gladio and Prompto and aims to give fans a closer look at these four young men and the bonds of friendship between them. Fans have long questioned whether they’ll be able to get behind these characters, pointing out that they look like a Korean boy band in matching clothing, so hopefully we’ll be able to get a good feel for them over the five episodes. With the first eleven-minute episode available to watch now, we decided to take a look.

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The series begins with a short flash-back scene, in which we see a young Noctis, bloodied and seemingly at death’s door thanks to an enormous sword-wielding snake monster. Luckily, he is saved by his father, King Regis, who appears with his glittering Phantom Swords and engages the beast. We soon join an adult Noctis, asleep in the Regalia as he and his friends make their way to Caem, and we learn that they’re on the run from Niflheim’s forces in the wake of the empire’s defeat of the Kingdom of Lucis and occupation of the Royal City. It seems that Noctis and his party were on their way to his impending wedding to Tenebrae’s Lunafreya Nox Fleuret when the Empire attacked, meaning they were out of the city when it fell. The Empire has told the world that all members of Lucis’ royal famiy were killed during the fighting, and they’re now hunting Noctis to make that lie a reality, sending Magitek soldiers to track him down.

As the four friends stop at a diner to grab some food, we sense that they’re at ease with one another, comfortable in each other’s presence despite Noctis’ royal blood. Ignis is a little stiffer than the rest, which is to be expected from his position as Noctis’ royal advisor, but Prompto – constantly hyperactive, taking pictures and wanting to play games – and Gladio – more laid back, confident – seem to enjoy engaging in a little friendly teasing when it comes to the Prince. Noctis himself is portrayed as a little immature; he’s rather unwilling to talk to his friends about his betrothed, Luna, and refuses to eat the salad in his burger, which both Gladio and Ignis gently chastise him for as he carefully extracts pieces of lettuce and tomato and discards them on poor Ignis’ plate. Given the circumstances he finds himself in, I’m sure we’ll see Noctis grow and mature somewhat across the following four episodes, though going by what we’ve seen of the game so far I wouldn’t be surprised to see him retain a hint of childish petulance.

Oh, Noctis...

Oh, Noctis…

Near the episode’s conclusion we’re treated to a nice battle scene, as Noctis and friends try to break through an imperial roadblock, and it’s a nicely-drawn scene, if a bit lacking in peril. It manages to showcase a number of Noctis’ abilities from the game, like his now-iconic Warp Strike, which he uses to stab a Magitek soldier in the head from extreme distance, as well as some of his other weaponry that materialises out of thin air and his almost ethereal dodging of enemy attacks. At one point we even see Noctis use Tempest, a wide-arcing Zweihander technique that you can use in last year’s Episode Duscae playable demo. For their part, the Empire’s Magitek soldiers don’t appear to pose much of a threat; they’re slow to react to Noctis and friends’ assault, and slow-moving and ineffective when they do.

These guys are pretty damn lethal in Episode Duscae, adept at punishing your mistakes and soaking up a ton of damage, but here they’re simply fodder: as the battle rages on, it becomes clear the empire have set a trap for our heroes. As a dropship thunders into the scene, dropping a reinforced metal crate onto the battlefield, out comes – you guessed it – that very same monster that nearly killed young Noctis years earlier. Consumed with anger, Noct charges the creature, sword in hand, and our first episode of Brotherhood ends on a cliffhanger.

It’s a good start to the series, with decent animation courtesy of A-1 Pictures, the studio behind Sword Art Online and Blue Exorcist. It does a good job of setting up our protagonists, offering a decent bit of interplay between them despite its brevity, and it’s nice to see that they’re all distinct enough to want to get to know them better. We have four more episodes to look forward to before the game releases, and it’ll be interesting to see how it leads into Final Fantasy XV itself. I’m certainly eager to find out. You can watch episode 1 of Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV below.

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Though GameSpot managed to spill the beans mere hours before Square Enix’s Uncovered: Final Fantasy XV event in Los Angeles last night, spoiling the upcoming title’s release date in a since-removed YouTube video, they certainly didn’t manage to ruin all the surprises. Square Enix’s social media accounts had promised that fans of the long-running Final Fantasy saga should tune in regardless, promising they’d be missing out if they didn’t watch. And, as it turns out, they were absolutely spot on, as Uncovered featured a bevy of reveals, announcements and surprises, the first of which was Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy, opening the show.

Taking the stage to rapturous applause, Sakaguchi-san talked about how he views the series as his child, and much like a child, a parent often wonders whether they are on the right path or not – a not so veiled reference to the franchise’s recent struggles that sent some ripples of laughter through the 6,000-strong audience, and set a playful, self-assured tone for the rest of the night. Though he hasn’t been involved with Final Fantasy for quite some time now, leaving Square Enix over a decade ago, he spoke about how he had a chance to sit down with Final Fantasy XV director Hajime Tabata, who told him that he planned to take the series back to its ‘challenger’ roots. This reassured Sakaguchi, who had always thought of Final Fantasy as something that always sought out new challenges, and it certainly looks like that’s what the team are hoping to do with Final Fantasy XV.

The main takeaway from Uncovered is that Square Enix seem to be incredibly bullish about Final Fantasy XV‘s chances at recapturing the public’s imagination. They’re going all out with this property, treating fans to a lavish event streamed around the world, with Final Fantasy royalty in the house – as well as Sakaguchi-san, long-standing series artist Yoshitaka Amano, FFXV composer Yoko Shimomura and director Hajime Tabata were all in attendance. Last night’s event wasn’t just to generate hype for the new game, which we now know will be launching worldwide on September 30th (yes, this year); it was also to announce that Final Fantasy XV will be accompanied by its very own compilation of expanded material. Years after Final Fantasy VII’s release, with its legacy already assured, Square Enix began the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. With Final Fantasy XV, they’re establishing it as its very own metaseries right now.

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In an astonishing display of confidence, last night Square Enix, via presenters Greg Miller and Tim Gettys of Kinda Funny Games, announced that Final Fantasy XV will be getting a five-part anime prequel series, a feature-length CG movie, and a mobile app minigame. They’re going all-in with this, turning Final Fantasy XV into a complete cross-media sub-franchise of its own, so let’s talk about each of those in a bit more detail. Brotherhood, the anime prequel, stars the game’s four main characters – Noctis, Ignis, Gladio and Prompto – and serves as a direct prequel to the game, promising to elaborate on the history and bonds between our heroes. Made by A-1 Pictures, the animation house behind the likes of Sword Art Online, the five episodes will be free to watch on Square Enix’s YouTube page, and the first one is already available to watch now. I’ll be writing about that in more depth in a separate piece.

Kingsglaive is the name of the CG movie, a feature-length film in the vein of 2005’s Final Fantasy VII sequel Advent Children, and it focuses on the characters of Noctis’ father King Regis of Lucis, Noctis’ betrothed, Lunafreya Nox Fleuret, and the soldier Nyx, a member of the titular Kingsglaive, an elite unit commanded by King Regis as they try to push back Niflheim’s imperial army. In another show of confidence, the film will feature an all-star cast, with Sean Bean, Lena Headey and Aaron Paul starring as Regis, Luna and Nyx respectively, though it’s not yet clear whether these same actors will reprise their roles in the game itself (or whether Nyx will even appear in-game). It certainly doesn’t seem to be the case, going by the game’s latest trailer, in which Regis sports an American accent, but time will tell. Kingsglaive will be available to stream and download worldwide sometime this year, and you can see the trailer below.

And then there’s Justice Monsters Five, a minigame that appears and is playable within Final Fantasy XV. Existing within the game’s fiction – we see our heroes excitedly come across a table in a diner – Justice Monsters Five appears to be some kind of pinball/battling hybrid featuring iconic Final Fantasy monsters. Leading up to its unveiling, names like Tetra Master, Triple Triad, Blitzball and Chocobo Racing were bandied about, so we can assume that Justice Monsters Five will be the main minigame in Final Fantasy XV. But it won’t just exist inside the game of course, as it will be coming to iOS, Android and Windows 10 as a standalone app, so you can get your Justice Monsters Five fix on the go.

While there was quite a focus on the supplemental, expanded universe content during the Uncovered event, that’s not to say we didn’t get a good look at the game itself. Viewers were treated to a few short gameplay clips featuring things such as chocobo riding (chocobos can jump, glide, and even drift around corners), and driving in the party’s car, the Regalia. Of course, an open world game with driving wouldn’t be complete without radio stations, and Final Fantasy XV doesn’t disappoint here, offering a selection of classic Final Fantasy songs from across the franchise’s entire history to cruise along to – we heard short snippets of the overworld theme from the first Final Fantasy game, as well as Sunleth Waterscape from XIII. As a huge fan of Final Fantasy music this is something that will make me very happy indeed, and I can imagine driving around the world for hours just listening and humming along to some classic FF tunes.

While driving around, we also see a car stopped at the side of the road, its occupants trying to flag down help, and it’s suggested that this is an example of some of the side content we’ll be seeing in the full game. Following that was a short clip of the party in battle, mostly showing off stuff that you’ll be familiar with if you played Episode Duscae last spring, with the addition of a short look at magic as we see Noctis manage to scare off an enormous Behemoth by casting Blizzara. Then we’re treated to a brief glimpse of an absolutely titanic Titan, and at this point it’s worth remembering that the summons in this game are going to be insane. We also saw a clip showcasing some of the beautiful, sprawling environments that we’ll be visiting throughout the world of Final Fantasy XV, including our first in-game look at the gorgeous, Venice-inspired city of Altissia. Final Fantasy XV has long been billed as “a Fantasy based on Reality’, but fans of the fantastical need not worry that the game will appear mundane; there seems to be plenty of fantastical elements and environments in there to justify the name, and you can see the clip shown last night below, courtesy of Youtuber YongYea. Honestly, it’s worth watching for the music alone, which is stunningly beautiful.

Before our final surprise of the night, there was time for a couple more announcements. First heard in the opening trailer, the theme song for Final Fantasy XV is a lush, orchestral reimagining of Ben E. King’s Stand by Me, performed by Florence and the Machine. I must admit that I thought it sounded incredibly out of place when it suddenly began, halfway through that trailer, even if does seem like an obvious song choice for a story about four friends heading out on an uncertain journey. But I think it’s going to grow on me. Florence Welch’s powerful vocal performance certainly sells the emotion of the piece, and as the trailer goes on it seems to fit more and more. If Square Enix must insist on this kind of thing, at least it’s a much better choice than Leona Lewis’ My Hands was for Final Fantasy XIII.

Perhaps most exciting of all, however, was the announcement of a new demo. This one isn’t tied to a purchase, unlike the Episode Duscae demo that accompanied Final Fantasy Type-0 HD last year, so it’s available for everyone to try on both PS4 and Xbox One. Titled the ‘Platinum Demo’, it begins with a strange premise; you control kid Noctis as he journeys through a dream, guided by Carbuncle as he makes his way to the royal citadel, armed only with a toy sword and a squeaky hammer. It sounds odd, but the good thing is you don’t have to wait to find out just how weird it is, as the demo is live on both storefronts right now. I haven’t yet had a chance to play it myself, so, like with the Brotherhood anime, I’ll be writing up some impressions, complete with video, a little later, much like I did last year with Episode Duscae.

And so we were coming to the end of the Uncovered event, with Director Hajime Tabata taking to the stage to announce the release date that we all already knew. This didn’t mean the stream ended without a surprise, however; Tabata had recently teased that the team had determined how to include airship travel in the game, a core FF motif that has been essentially missing from the last few main series titles that fans really want back. At the very end of an epic, extended trailer, we see the party’s flash car sprout wings and take to the skies. If I’m being honest, I found it to be a little goofy, as the car begins to transform and a pair of wings fold out before it rather quickly takes off. Hopefully it’s just one method of transport – the same trailer shows the boys speeding across the water in a yacht, for instance.

Still, the thought of driving, boating and flying around this massive world is tantalising, and with all of last night’s announcements still ringing in the ears, today is a good day to be a Final Fantasy fan. Square Enix seem hugely confident about the prospects of this long-in-development epic and its chances at winning back the limelight and returning to the enormous, world-conquering franchise it used to be. And I for one cannot wait to dive right in and experience it. I’ll have to wait until September of course, but what’s another six months when you’ve been dreaming of it for ten years?

See the epic extended trailer for Final Fantasy XV, complete with flying transformer car, below.

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┬áplays 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.

FFXV party Duscae garage

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.

Noctis FFXV Episode Duscae

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.