Archives for posts with tag: RPGs

After months of teases and rumours, Square Enix have finally announced an HD remaster of PS2 RPG Final Fantasy XII.

First teased by conductor Arnie Roth at a Distant Worlds concert last August, and then again in a new Prima guide a month later, the Japanese publisher today confirmed the title in a two-minute trailer, below. Called Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, the new release is heading to PS4 in 2017 and will be based on the International Zodiac Job System version of the game, which has until now remained in Japan.

In addition to the changes to the license board and battle system, Square Enix is also promising a full 1080p remastering of all assets and cutscenes, a re-recorded soundtrack in 7.1 surround (including the ability to switch between the original and new soundtracks), and a host of quality of life improvements, such as auto-saves and shortened load times. We’re also promised “high definition voicing” so hopefully the slightly tinny delivery of the original release will be a thing of the past.

While the Final Fantasy fanbase is generally pretty divided when it comes to discussions around the best game in the franchise, Final Fantasy XII tends to be among the most divisive entries. Whether it’s the ‘offline MMO’ game structure, the more languid style of storytelling, or just plain old Vaan, there are plenty of series fans that just didn’t enjoy XII. Conversely, those that love the game really love it, often citing it as the best in the series. For my part, I played just 14 hours of it before giving up – I just couldn’t get into it. Because of that, I’ve been hoping for an HD remaster for a fair while so that I could give it another chance. I had really hoped for a Vita version though, and so far it looks like the game is only coming to the PS4. It’s understandable, but a touch disappointing nonetheless. Given Square’s recent PC strategy though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it arrive on that platform some time after its PlayStation 4 release.

With E3 just a week away, we’re heading strongly into video game silly season, and with announcements like this, it seems the party’s getting started early. Here’s hoping we get a closer look at Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age next week.

Advertisements

FFXV Leviathan
One of the most exciting announcements at last week’s Uncovered event was the news of a new playable demo for Final Fantasy XV. After the many thrills of the conference, it was an enticing thought that we’d be able to actually have a crack at the game shortly after.

Of course, we’ve had a decent look at the game already, or at least those of us who bought Final Fantasy Type 0 have. Last spring’s Episode Duscae was a nice little glimpse at how Square Enix expected their new game to play out, giving us a short, multi-part quest to follow and a fairly large expanse of land to traverse. The message was simple; here’s how the game plays, and here’s what you can expect the environments to be like. The message we get from Platinum Demo is much less clear.

We begin as Noctis, only it’s not the same slightly moody guy we might be used to. After some unexplained event (maybe that Marilith attack we see in the beginning of Brotherhood?), a young Noctis awakes in a sunlit glade. He’s greeted by an incredibly cute incarnation of recurring series summon Carbuncle who tells him – via text message, of course – that he’s stuck in a dream, and serves as our young protagonist’s guide as he runs, jumps and fights through a few short, linear environments. It’s an odd demo, to be sure, as Noctis travels towards the Royal Citadel in an attempt to wake up. Far removed from Episode Duscae‘s wide-open plains, Platinum Demo plunks our diminutive hero into three small areas where all he really has to do is find the exit.

Carbuncle

Beginning in that peaceful glade, we follow a forested path out into a rocky canyon, collecting some shining orbs along the way. These unlock strange metal plates embedded in the ground that, when stepped on, trigger various effects. We can change the time of day, watching the lighting adjust in real-time, or switch up the weather, going from bright sunshine to cloudy skies, and finally to a grey downpour. Other plates trigger very short cameo appearances from summons like Titan and Leviathan, while in the second area, in a scene surely inspired by 1989 classic Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, a tiny Noctis can transform into a pickup truck (yes, really) and drive around the table legs in a huge dining room, before climbing stacks of books to reach the exit on the tabletop.

Next, we find ourselves in the streets of Altissia, a striking city on the water, and while there’s still not much to do it’s nice to get a feel for what towns might be like in the full game. The chunk of the city we’re given to run around in is fairly small but dense, with plenty of stairways and alleys to search but again, our only objective is to find that exit, and to that end Carbuncle tells us to look for a long corridor (insert Final Fantasy XIII joke here). Of course, we have a few more of those transformation plates dotted about, and here they turn Noctis into one of three animals. No, I don’t know why, either. Stepping on a plate triggers a random transformation into either a crocodile thing, a buffalo thing, or a giraffe-antelope thing, and you can use these forms to rather clumsily attack the handful of enemies that litter the streets.

Noctis can of course fight through these three areas, but with only a toy sword and squeaky hammer to defend himself for the most part, it’s not the most engaging thing in the world. It effectively boils down to holding circle to win, with the occasional tap of square to evade. There are a handful of funny, childlike spells to find, such as ‘raindrops’, which pours a shower of neon sparks over the affected area, or Firework, which goes off like a firecracker and deals damage to nearby enemies, but there’s little here to set pulses racing.

The young Noctis gameplay is all rather lightweight and uninvolving, and it’s built on an odd premise, too. Really, this is a tech demo, built to show off the time of day and weather systems, while giving us a brief look at how magic and things like driving will work in the final game – both things that were conspicuous by their absence in Duscae. Tying it up in a strange dream narrative in environments that surely bare little-to-no resemblance to the wide open world map we’ll traverse in the full game is an incredibly bizarre choice; as someone who played Episode Duscae to death, it’s nice to get a sneak peek at some of those mechanics that were missing, but this is the demo that Square Enix have chosen to make available to everyone – it’s not behind a paywall that only the most dedicated fans would be willing to scale. If this was my first point of contact with the game, I have to think I’d be rather put off.

Thankfully, the final part of the demo is a little better. As Noctis reaches the Royal Citadel, he’s faced with an enormous Iron Giant that wishes to prevent him from waking up. Realising that he is in control of his dreams, Noctis promptly grows up, becoming the young man we all know, and we finally get the opportunity to properly get to grips with the battle system.

The first thing to note is that fighting has seen some changes since Episode Duscae. In that demo, you’d set different weapons in a series of slots, which would then determine where those weapons would appear in your combo, carried out by holding the attack button. While you’ll still be holding the attack button in Platinum Demo to effectively auto-combo, we now have real-time weapon switching, with weapons taking up the four direction slots on the d-pad, allowing us to tailor our combos and mix up attacks in a more pleasingly-manual way. Here, we have the Airstep Sword, new in this demo, that allows Noctis to use that iconic Warp technique – whether that’s to swiftly close distance or escape – and the Zweihander, a massive Buster Sword-alike that swings slower but deals more damage, and has a nifty charge attack. Look around the Citadel, and you can also find a couple more weapons, the Cross Shuriken and Hero’s Shield. The Shuriken in particular is good fun to use, allowing you to attack from range and start your combo from a distance, before, perhaps, warping in to continue your assault with one of Noctis’ swords, while the shield allows you to stagger opponents with a well-timed button press.

PLATINUM DEMO – FINAL FANTASY XV_20160406152443

As in Duscae, you can hold square to enter a defensive state or manually dodge-roll with a press of the button and a directional input. In Duscae, entering a defensive state allowed to you automatically dodge pretty much everything, at the expense of a rapidly-draining MP meter. Holding the button here doesn’t drain MP anymore, but that trade-off does mean that you no longer dodge everything – you’ll still get hit a fair bit if you only really on holding the button down, but it does allow you to parry certain enemy attacks. The way these are telegraphed has also changed since Duscae, and I preferred the system in that demo, where enemies would briefly flash and a discrete spider-sense-type icon would appear on-screen. Here, we get a huge red “DEFEND” sign pop up in the middle of the screen. I guess it’s easier to notice, but it doesn’t look great.

We also get to use Fire in this battle, and there are a handful of explosive barrels (yes, really) dotted around the battleground for you to blow up – luring the Iron Giant towards one of these before flinging a spell at it is always a good idea, engulfing the enormous boss in a massive fireball in the process. Magic feels good to wield, allowing you to aim and throw it exactly where you want it, but one complaint I do have is that any magic spells you have also need to be set in one of those four d-pad slots, meaning you then have less space for weapons. I would like to see one button – maybe L2? – act as a modifier; hold that and you’d get a second set of four d-pad slots, allowing you eight in total, for instance. Four slots for both weapons and magic just feels too limiting. Perhaps this will actually be the case in the full game, where we’ll have access to far more weapons and spells than we’re afforded here.

Overall, combat feels like one step forward and another one back; while the Armiger mode – essentially Noctis’ limit break, available when he’s at full MP – returns here, the weapon-specific Techniques that existed in the Duscae demo are completely gone in this build. They were an enjoyable wrinkle in Duscae‘s combat, offering a bit of a risk-reward mechanic as they could hit hard or siphon HP while leaving you open to retaliation if you missed. The fact they’re gone here, in a demo far closer to release, is rather concerning, even as the Platinum Demo combat offers its own advances. It’s a bizarre state of affairs.

Once you’ve defeated the Iron Giant, you can choose to respawn him and fight again, and it’s worth doing so to get a proper handle on the battle system. Combat isn’t explained all that well for newcomers, so you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking that combat boils down to holding circle until you win. There’s actually a reasonable amount of depth, even here, with only one character, a handful of weapons and one spell, but there’s no real reason to explore that depth except for your own curiosity. After slogging through three rather sedate areas as Young Noctis, I have to wonder how many people would bother – some would likely be glad it’s all over. A little direction would go a long way – this is supposed to be a demo to get people excited about the game, to show them some of the things that might excite them. If you don’t illustrate anything beyond the basics, the basics – like simply holding circle to combo – are all many players will see.

When all is said and done, it’s that sense of confusion that hangs over the Platinum Demo, and I can’t help but think Square Enix would have been better served sprucing up the existing Episode Duscae demo, perhaps by adding some new areas and quests, and updating the battle system to the one seen here in Platinum Demo. That would surely have been a better indication of the final game’s quality and structure than whatever this is. Again, those of us that played Duscae will appreciate the glimpses at towns, magic and driving, but newcomers – surely the focus now – are most likely going to be confused and a little bored. The Iron Giant fight at the end is obviously placed at the demo’s climax to get players excited to come back, but it seems a little too lightweight at first blush to really grab the attention. It’s something of a shame that this will be most people’s first experience of Final Fantasy XV, as the game is otherwise looking very impressive, and I personally can’t wait to play it. But this demo did little to make that wait any harder.

ramuh
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.

bhffxv

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.

SOV_17
Star Ocean : Integrity and Faithlessness, the fifth main instalment of the long-running sci-fi/anime jrpg series, will see release in the west this summer. The release window was announced in a Square Enix livestream, entitled Star Log #1, this week. It was also announced that the western release will include dual audio options, and while the game will be available for both PS3 and PS4 in Japan, we’ll be getting the PS4 version only.

The stream marks the beginning of Square Enix’s western marketing for the game, and we’re promised more to come in the months leading up to release. In this first broadcast, we learned some details on the story, which takes place between Star Oceans 2 and 3, and also got a look into a couple of the main characters. Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is set on the planet of Faykreed, some 6,000 lightyears from Earth, and our leading man, Fidel Camuze, is a swordsman from the village of Sthal. He’s joined by Miki Sauvester, his childhood friend and the party’s healer, who refers to Fidel as ‘Fiddly’. Which is a bit odd, quite frankly. Together, they set out to protect a young amnesiac girl called Relia, who is being targeted by the story’s antagonists for reasons as yet unknown.

relia

Developed by series’ creators tri-Ace, Integrity and Faithlessness will be the first new entry in the franchise since Star Ocean: The Last Hope, which launched to somewhat muted reviews on Xbox 360 in 2009. Since tri-Ace’s acquisition in February last year by Nepro Japan, a mobile company, fans had thought the series effectively dead, at least on home console, and gave up hope of ever seeing another mainline Star Ocean game. Yet here we are, mere months away from a new instalment on PS4.

While the previous game drew some ire for attempting to appeal more directly to western gamers, producer Shuichi Kobayashi told VentureBeat that Star Ocean V will be more true to the series’ earlier entries: “[I]n Star Ocean IV, we did exactly that. We wanted to give the visual element which we believed would be appealing to western gamers, and it didn’t really work for either western or Japanese fans. It was a bit of a muddle, really. We don’t want to repeat that. We just want to establish our image and stick with it.” He continued, “[i]n Star Ocean V, we’d like to bring back the attitude we had in the first three games. Our priority is going to be to push out a very tri-Ace creative direction. That’s our main pillar and we’ll stick with it. Story-wise and visual-wise, number five is going to have the feel of a direct sequel to Star Oceans one, two, and three. It’ll be very different from Star Ocean IV.”

The development team hope that the focus on their core strengths will reassure fans that tri-Ace still cares very much for the Star Ocean franchise. And that reassurance couldn’t come at a better time. We’re seeing something of a resurgence of the jRPG after a bit of a fallow period last generation, where many questioned if the genre would even survive. Not only are franchises that we thought lost coming back, but we’re even getting sequels to last-gen titles that we never thought we’d see; who would have thought just a couple of years ago that we’d be waiting on a new Star Ocean, a new Valkyria Chronicles on home console, or a Platinum-developed sequel to NieR, of all things. And then there’s Ni No Two-ni (yeah, I’m going with that), and after something of a lost generation for Final Fantasy, it looks like the venerable franchise may well recapture the public’s imagination with Final Fantasy XV, which is looking very promising indeed. It’s a good time to be a fan of jRPGs.

The livestream promised that we would find out the full release date “very soon”, and also promised that the announcement would come with some “very good news” – perhaps we’ll see a limited edition? The next Star Log, which will be focusing on the battle system, is scheduled for April 12th, so hopefully we’ll have more news in just a few weeks. Until then, you can watch the latest English trailer below.

Drew and Thuban
Since its unveiling at E3 2014, gamers have wondered just what kind of game Platinum’s Xbox One exclusive would be. Until recently, all we had to go on was a pretty-but-cryptic CGI announcement trailer that did little to describe the kind of things we’d be doing in-game. At Gamescom last week, we finally got our answer.

If people had been expecting a character action game, perhaps they were a touch disappointed. But if there’s one thing you can say about Platinum’s output, it’s that they don’t much like repeating themselves, so it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise to discover that, with Scalebound, the Osaka-based team are treading fairly virgin soil.

In a six-minute demo at Microsoft’s Gamescom press conference, we got to see Hideki Kamiya’s new action RPG, starring some guy and a massive dragon. That guy, Drew, has somehow been transplanted to a fantasy world that bears more than a passing resemblance to Avatar‘s Pandora – all floating islands and cascading waterfalls – and finds himself bonded to an enormous dragon called Thuban. Perhaps as a consequence of this, he also has a scaly, claw-tipped arm.

The world Drew finds himself in, Draconis, is sustained by an energy source called The Pulse. Much like its inspiration, it pervades and links all living things, though hopefully there will be no sign of any midichlorians. It’s this force (sorry) that links Drew and his dragon, the last of its kind in Draconis, and one cannot survive without the other; should Thuban fall in battle, so will Drew. Thus, the player will often find themselves playing as much of a support role as an offensive one, backing up his draconic buddy with heals while Thuban goes claw-to-claw with enormous monsters, like the Gamescom demo’s titanic mantis.

This is still a Platinum game though, and there’ll still be plenty of hacking and slashing for Drew to take part in. In the first combat encounter against a group of plate-mail-armoured knights, you’d be forgiven for being reminded of Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy XV, except there’s an angry dragon beside you instead of three impeccably-coiffed bros. Combat looks to be somewhat pared back compared to the usual Platinum extravaganzas, but it still looks tight and responsive, if not massively flashy and over the top. Drew flashes into combat with wide, arcing sword swipes, stopping to defend himself with his shield, and while there is no crafting mechanic in Scalebound, there are other weapons to be found, such as a bow, a spear, and an enormous greatsword that would make Cloud Strife blush. As well as standard blades and bows, you’ll also be able to find weapons with innate elemental properties, which should further extend Drew’s utility against Draconis’ oversized menagerie. Using his scaled dragon arm, Drew can also tether himself to larger enemies, clambering aboard them to deal large amounts of damage, and maybe even sever a gigantic limb in the process. And if he feels like he’s not quite pulling his weight in battle next to Thuban, Drew can also draw upon that Pulse energy to clad himself in thick, scaled armour, dialling up his speed and damage output in the process.

Thuban will act independently for the most part, though the player can direct his attention to certain enemies and structures that might be in need of some attention from a big stompy dragon. Thuban can also be heavily personalised, from armour, horns and offensive tail-blades to the elemental effect of his breath; need to hit some ungodly, building-sized nightmare creature with a frigid blast of ice, rather than the more traditional flaming dragon-breath? No problem, you can make that happen. But in order to build up Thuban, you’ll need to gather gems from defeated enemies. These gems are only available if you land the killing blow as Drew, so while you could easily rely on Thuban to wipe out fodder enemies in one hit rather than wade into battle yourself, you’ll miss out on an opportunity to develop your dragon. Platinum really wants you to strike a fine balance between the pair, and they really want you to feel a connection to your own, personalised vision of Thuban. “The more you invest in that dragon and in your relationship with that dragon, the more that dragon becomes yours,” says Creative Director JP Kellams.

And what of the world of Draconis itself? Media have been quick to call Scalebound an open-world RPG, but it’s not a term that Platinum themselves are using, preferring to call the game ‘non-linear’, while also promising that the game-world will be vast – it’s going to have to be to accommodate Thuban and some of the larger creatures we’ve seen. While the team won’t be drawn on the openness of the game’s world, they are promising many different villages and towns across Draconis, each with their own personal look. In one of their ‘First’ articles, IGN were treated to views of a “village that stretches off into the distance.” Hopefully, if the world is big enough, we’ll be able to fly Thuban between these outposts of civilisation.

The same article states that Drew and Thuban will have to gain new skills in order to fully traverse and explore Draconis, which perhaps brings to mind a gear- or skill-gated progression system; could Scalebound be a post-Okami Kamiya taking another crack at the Zelda formula, perhaps? From the sounds of it, rather than levelling up, Drew will gain skill points based on his actions and his performance: ““If you heal your dragon, or execute other supportive role-type actions, you’ll be able to earn skill points, ” Kamiya explains. “By motivating the player to participate in actions and behaviours that are meaningful, it will… help you progress further”. Drew can also extend his earning potential by chaining kills together, adding a bonus onto the skill points he has already gained: “If you’re successful at consecutively defeating the enemies, the longer that chain will last,” says Kamiya.

scalebound

But if all this focus on skill points, gems and customisation gives you cause to worry about the action side of things, fear not; Platinum aren’t about to let their hard-earned reputation slide. “Even though I know we’ve been emphasising that this is an action RPG, because I need to get that message across – I hope you agree that we know how to make action games,” Kamiya told IGN. “We know how the responsiveness of a move is what really differentiates our games from other action games. That’s what’s so special about our games, whether it’s Bayonetta or my previous title Devil May Cry. So one thing that’s not going to change is that how great it feels when Drew is in battle. You’re not going to feel like it’s worse than what we’ve done before. The sort of intuitiveness and the response to the action that Drew is taking? That will remain at the quality that’s always defined our action games.”

inqgroup
It’s fair to say that in the run-up to release, many have approached Dragon Age: Inquisition with, at best, cautious optimism. Others of course, have been downright pessimistic, lingering memories of Dragon Age 2‘s more reductive ideas and restrictive world still playing on their minds.

Some of us have been less restrained than the rest however, so when the game popped up on Xbox One’s EA Access service I couldn’t help myself. Six hours of pre-release Dragon Age fun? Oh go on then. The only problem I had to contend with was what class/race combo I was going to roll. My Warden in Origins was a Dalish rogue, but my Hawke in Dragon Age 2 was a mage, and I had loved both. So I decided to try both, playing the first hour as an elven archer before restarting and eventually settling on a towering qunari mage (don’t call me saarebas!); I have to admit, witnessing every other character in the game craning their neck to look my Inquisitor in the eye was amusing. With that, it was into the game proper.

The first hour takes the form of a prologue dealing with the immediate aftermath of a magical catastrophe at the Temple of the Sacred Ashes in Haven. What was supposed to be a peace summit to end the conflict between mages and templars that began in Dragon Age 2 ends in the deaths of hundreds, with your player character the only survivor. You awake in chains, confused, and you’re soon heading out with Cassandra to attempt to close the Breach that hangs ominously in the sky, and hopefully save your own life into the bargain. Everyone assumes you’re the cause of the cataclysm, so it might be prudent to do something about that.

The prologue is fairly linear, and sees you travelling up frozen mountain paths, battling demons and closing smaller rifts as you head towards the now-ruined temple and the enormous hole torn in the heavens above it. You’re introduced to dwarven rogue Varric (who has thoughtfully brought Bianca along) and elven apostate Solas, and as we battled our way up the mountain, I was immediately reminded of the Sacred Ashes trailer for the original game. This short prologue feels like it gets closer to achieving what that trailer promised than the relevant quest in Origins ever did (sans dragon, obviously), and you’re travelling through the same part of the world, too. I can’t help but wonder if the call-back is intentional.

After fighting your way up the mountain, you reach a forward operating base where you’re afforded your first choice. You need to push onward to the Breach, but do you take a dangerous mountain pass where some of Cassandra’s soldiers have disappeared, hoping to discover their fate along the way, or do you charge through the valley with the bulk of the forces? Ultimately, both sections play out much the same; a small rift battle, and a run-in with an NPC – Cullen, if you storm the valley. Upon reaching your destination, Varric worriedly points out that the Temple is infested with primeval red lyrium, and as you attempt to prise open the rift in order to properly seal it, an enormous pride demon bursts from the Fade to stop you.

Entering tac cam pauses the action at any point. Great for the screenshot junkies.

Entering tac cam pauses the action at any point. Great for the screenshot junkies.

It’s a great first boss battle, an arena-based affair with a huge boss to wear down, a few waves of adds to deal with, and that Fade rift that needs closing. It’s also a good time to get fully to grips with Inquisition’s combat, which neatly blends elements from both of its predecessors. Should you choose to play entirely in real-time, the game plays much like Dragon Age 2, though with auto-attack mapped to a hold of the right trigger rather than requiring constant bashing of the A button. You also have eight quickslots for your talents now instead of six, with the right bumper button added to the previous games’ X, Y and B slots. The left trigger now switches between sets of four talents.

Playing entirely in real-time however means ignoring Inquisition‘s tactical camera, resurrected from Origins‘ PC release and now available on all platforms. Fans of the console titles’ radial menu-based pause-and-play system may mourn its loss (with the radial menu, on left bumper, now offering simple commands like potions and party-hold), but really you’re trading up here. You can enter tac cam at any point during gameplay, which allows you to scan the battlefield before even getting into combat, scoping out enemy positions, strengths, weaknesses and immunities at a glance, and the overhead view makes it possible to inspect the terrain, making it easier to move ranged characters onto higher ground, perhaps, or position a tank in a chokepoint to draw enemies in. And if you’re playing as a mage, the tac cam is invaluable in making the most of your AoE spells.

Much has been made of the fact that mages in Dragon Age: Inquisition have no healing spells, but it’s really not an issue. You have a finite pool of healing potions, but they can be re-stocked at a camp, which you can fast-travel to from anywhere. Moreover, the focus here is on damage mitigation rather than heal-spamming; warriors can generate Guard, a second health bar that protects main health by soaking up some damage, while mages have an area-of-effect spell called Barrier that does much the same, albeit for a period of time. It means that it’s no longer absolutely necessary to have a mage in the party, and should help to encourage more flexible party composition.

After defeating the pride demon and halting the expansion of the breach, you’re hailed as the Herald of Andraste. After a brief 80s TV-style “gettin’-things-done” montage, the Inquisition is reborn and you’re off to the game’s first truly open area, The Hinterlands. A verdant, fertile stretch of land in the heart of Ferelden, the region and its people are under threat thanks to the conflict between mages and templars. The first time you open your map to see a vast expanse of icons littering the Hinterlands, it’s more than a little overwhelming; it can be difficult to figure out where your focus should be, and so you strike out with your party to explore the surroundings. Don’t go too far in one direction though, as you’ll likely get wrecked by a roving group of bandits or maybe even an ill-tempered bear or two.

The best idea seems to be to spiral outward from your starting area, filling in your map as you go and and establishing further camps in the wilderness that you can use to rest, refill your potion stocks and even fast travel between. Doing so also extends the Inquisition’s reach through an in-game currency called ‘Power’ that you will need to accrue in order to further the story and unlock more regions. There are landmarks to claim for your faction and quests to undertake are everywhere. A good few of these seem to take the form of the “kill x of y” template so beloved of MMOs, but if you get bored of monster-culling, there’s always something else to do, like hunting down mysterious magical shards, picking herbs for crafting, or even just exploring to find yet another pretty vista. There’s so much to do – after five hours, I had uncovered what appeared to be less than half of the map of the Hinterlands, and this is just one region out of about ten. This game will eat your life.

Dragon Age Inquisition Hinterlands Map

This was my map of The Hinterlands after five hours.

Dragon Age: Inquisition absolutely nails the sense of exploration that I have always felt the series was lacking; with the exception of the relatively-sprawling Korcari Wilds, Dragon Age: Origins was fairly narrow in its environmental design, and the smaller scale of Dragon Age 2‘s world is now legendary. Inquisition updates Dragon Age for a post-Skyrim world, though you’d be hard-pressed to call it a copy; while you can and will (and, more importantly, should) head off into the great unknown to discover what lurks in that dense forest or over that nearby hill, Inquisition‘s Thedas isn’t one large, contiguous landmass like Skyrim, but rather a number of large zones – again, that impression of an MMO comes to the fore – and though The Hinterlands is the only one I’ve seen so far it is absolutely rammed with all kinds of stuff to find and do, and positively dripping with detail. Just like in Skyrim, you’ll find yourself frequently side-tracked in the middle of a quest by some strange landmark that catches your magpie eye.

And this is to say nothing of the game’s visuals, which are splendid. Inquisition is absolutely drenched in colour, The Hinterlands coming across almost as a bright fairytale countryside, though torn with strife and infighting. Yet the fields and forests still teem with wildlife, some of which you’re going to have to hunt down to fulfil some of those aforementioned quests. In the snow-covered paths of the Frostback Mountains that make up the prologue, the sun glints off of the cracks in frozen-over streams and characters leave footprints in the snow as the powder kicked up by your party’s feet is carried away on the wind. The environment is so dense that after a couple of hours you’re given a search function (mapped to a click of the left stick) that subtly picks out nearby loot that might otherwise blend into the detail-rich scene. Codex entries and misplaced letters can be found all over the place, filling out the history of the region, and even landmarks inform you of their history when you claim them. You’ll stumble across mages and templars engaged in pitched battles, crafting materials will slowly grow back after you’ve passed through to harvest them, and heaven help you if, under-levelled, you wander into a surly bear’s territory. You get a sense of an environment that exists alongside you as much as it does for you, a world that could move on with or without your input.

After five hours, I can already see I’m going to lose weeks to Inquisition. BioWare has always made games that are reactive, but I’ve long wanted their settings to feel more like a real, sprawling world, rather than an interconnected set of places, and here the fantasy series feels like it’s really reaching to grasp its potential.

This is the most expansive Dragon Age has ever been, the most alive Thedas has ever felt.

Dragon Age Keep has finally emerged from closed beta, and is now open for all to get to grips with.

The Keep is a web-based tool that allows you to tailor your experience for next month’s Dragon Age: Inquisition. As save files from previous games can not be imported into Inquisition (mainly due to an engine shift from Eclipse to Frostbite 3), the Keep gives players the opportunity to go through the main story beats of Dragon Age: Origins, 2, and associated DLC and set the decisions they made throughout the course of those games. The resultant ‘world state’ can then be imported into the upcoming sequel when it launches next month.

Best of all, because it’s web-based, it’s cross-platform; maybe you’ve played the series on PS3 until now, but fancy playing Inquisition on PC? You can do that with Dragon Age Keep. You will, of course, need an Origin account and that account will have to be attached to your Xbox Live or PSN ID if you want to import your world state to either console version.

After logging into the Keep, you can first sync your progress from previous games. This won’t carry over your saves, but will bring in your heroes and collect various accomplishments from across the games and their DLC. It’s worth remembering that the Keep is still in beta, and the first sync did not find my custom Warden from Origins. My version of Dragon Age 2‘s Hawke popped up right away, and a second sync a few hours later managed to fetch my Dalish Elf from the ether.

Dragon Age Keep Varric Narration

After syncing, you can watch an animated retelling of the saga leading up to Inquisition narrated by Dragon Age 2/Inquisition party member Varric, and at any point you can stop it to edit your choices, changing the course of the story as you go. A better idea, however, is to exit out of the narration and go directly to the Tapestry, a colourful timeline that allows you to detail your story more directly. After doing this, you can come back and watch as Varric conveys your personalised tale.

The choices you can make are pleasingly granular, offering the full range of states for the major decisions, such as what happens to Loghain near the climax of the first game, but oddly, some choices that seemed almost meaningless at the time have made their way into the Keep; did you save Elora’s halla in the Dalish camp? What happened to Bella, the tavern girl from Redcliffe? The Keep wants to know, and I’m not entirely sure why. BioWare has said that not every choice you make here will carry across to Inquisition and that they plan for the Keep to be used for future Dragon Age titles as well. Beyond that, perhaps it’s just nice to have a more complete record of the mark your characters left upon the land of Thedas.

Dragon Age Keep Tapestry

The Keep is an excellent way of ensuring your Dragon Age history can follow you across generations, and of course you don’t even have to stick to the choices you made when in the previous games. But if I have one complaint, it’s that there is little context for the decisions you’re asked to make; if it’s been a while since your last playthrough, good luck remembering some of the more minor choices from the scant text provided, and heaven help any newcomers looking to tailor their world for Inquisition. Even having recently replayed Origins, I had to flick over to the wiki a few times to jog my memory. Newbies would be better served heading straight to the Varric narration and editing from there.

But as a means to bring your game history with you without the benefit of save game importing, the Keep is excellent, and with Varric narrating your past, more than just a compromise.