Our car broke down. Let’s slaughter some stuff!
The last time I sincerely played a Final Fantasy game was Final Fantasy XIII, which was the beginning of the end for many people. Although it featured what was my favorite battle system in all the series entries I’ve played (VII and up), it lacked much of what I considered the core tenets of the series. It’s unclear how Final Fantasy XV, the revived form of the once mythical Final Fantasy Versus XIII, will address these issues, but what I played so far was engaging and worth attention.
I couldn't tell how far into the story the demo began, but the car prominently featured in trailers has broken down, and our heroes need money to fix it. The best way they can muster is to hunt the mighty Behemoth, who is wandering the nearby fields. The first thing I noticed during my time with the game was the breathtaking open world, notably Forestal in its appearance and the various monsters that roam the land, all of which are fair game (get it?!) to hunt and use to gain experience and items.
Gladiolus, the tall mullet-bearing hunk in your party, teaches Noctis the ropes of battle before you head out. This time around, the focus definitely seems to be on delivering an action-RPG experience. Players use the square button to attack, which conjures any of a handful of upgradeable spirit weapons. He can equip different weapons to different combos, though much of this system is still a bit of a mystery. However, in another departure, Noctis also has a button devoted to defense, L1, phase-shifting him out of harm’s way but spending MP in the process.
One feature of combat I was elated to finally try out was Noctis’ warp attack, where he throws his sword and flies to it. In the demo, it served two purposes. Of course, the primary use is an attack, which can do a lot of damage as long as your opponent doesn’t dodge. Surprisingly, the other use sends him flying into nearby towers. While he’s up there, he can more quickly regenerate HP and MP before warping himself back into battle. It’s a mechanic unique to him, and I’m curious to see how it develops over the course of the game.
Back to the open world, I was immediately able to run around without being guided or interrupted. It is a living, breathing environment, reminiscent of Gran Pulse from XIII. To help you navigate, the map—which isn’t composed of corridors this time—shows quest-related markers and allows you to leave waypoints for yourself. This is, of course, not new to gaming, but this is the first series entry where it’s a necessity for navigation.
Coming within view of enemies flashes a warning bar that’ll flash when battle is imminent. In contrast to Gran Pulse, encounters in Duscae are completely real-time, so you must be ready to fight as soon as you engage. Managing multiple enemies and the rotatable camera was a challenge, different from the time-based systems I’m used to, so I made sure to keep my wits about me by changing my position often and defending between attacks. Letting Noctis’ health drop down to 0 was not an immediate Game Over situation, but it reduces his max HP until the next time he heals, justifying maintaining proper defense.
While pursuing the Behemoth, there were various curiosities strewn about. Most immediately, in a large lake, there was a wandering dinosaur-like creature. Although I was positive we wouldn’t be able to take it down, I tried to go after it out of curiosity. Much to my chagrin, there was an invisible wall between us. After a lot of exploring—seriously, this area was huge—I came across a chocobo farm with a familiar tune playing in the background. Clearly, they factor into the story and gameplay, but when I tried to rent one, the agent stated they “aren’t ready yet.” I’m still not sure if that’s the developer’s idea of a fourth wall joke.
What still remains a mystery is how Square Enix plans to incorporate this into the Final Fantasy series or if they have interest at all in returning to any roots. The battle system, the party makeup, and traveling are certainly different from previous entries despite familiar references. What I didn’t get to check out was how summons have returned to the universe; I do know some familiar faces are involved, though I won’t say whose. Frankly, I came away from this demo still curious, which is a credit to the potential exhibited in my hour with it. Whether it satisfies longtime fans of the series or JRPG fans in general is yet to be seen. Don’t write it off until you try it, okay? The demo releases to the public on March 17, 2015.