Final Fantasy XV Hands On Preview
Wait...this thing is real??
It’s good to be able to admit when you’re wrong. I had zero expectations for Final Fantasy XV (I prefer to call it “The Artist Formerly Known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII”) to be anything I would be interested in. Heck, I didn’t even believe it was a game that had ever existed in playable form. I would chalk that up to the seven year development cycle and the fact that even by last year I had never heard of anyone ever seeing a live gameplay demo. Well, here I stand, saying that I was wrong. Final Fantasy XV is not vaporware, and it’s not half bad, either!
The playable demo for Final Fantasy XV is a slice taken from what appears to be a few hours into the story. While this game has been hinted at being a road trip, Noctis and his cohorts Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto are forced to hoof it due to their car needing repair. No, you won’t get to see how the car plays into the world of FF XV here, and there are still big questions about how much freedom of movement is afforded the player. Is this finally the Final Fantasy game that gives people a massive world to explore in full 3D that we used to imagine as we controlled a squatty Cloud Strife, or is this a mostly linear affair like the string of corridors that comprised so much of Final Fantasy XIII? Sadly, the demo does not answer these questions.
The question of combat, however, is finally answered. As more recent trailers showed protagonist Noctis zooming around the battlefield I began to wonder if Final Fantasy XV was making the transition to full action/RPG ala Kingdom Hearts. What I have found is a combat system that feels like an infusion of modern games like Dragon Age Inquisition with elements we have seen in the Final Fantasy series since XII.
At the heart of this fusion is a completely real-time combat system. There are enemies that patrol the wilderness and will become aware of the party and then attack if Noctis doesn’t initiate the fight himself. There is no transition into battle; attack an enemy and it’s game on. In the demo I could only control Noctis while the computer handled the moves of the rest of the party. At this point it is unclear if there are strategies and behaviors that can be assigned to the AI party members. In the demo I really felt like I was just doing my own thing and there were three other dudes wearing black and sporting feathered hair on the screen. Here’s hoping that there is a little more depth to the party dynamic in the final release.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot for Noctis to do on his own; he does have a handful of ethereal weapons to summon at will. These weapons act as battle stances and give a range of melee attacks from speedy and weak, to slow and powerful. Each weapon has a special skill that can be assigned to it, which consumes magic points.
Managing the MP bar seems to be the key to the strategy of Final Fantasy XV. While health and MP regenerate after each battle like they did in FF XIII, magic points are used for defense, offense, and navigating the battlefield. Noctis can hold a button to block which will drain the MP gauge with each hit absorbed, or he can parry the attacks and counterattack, which also uses some magic points. Skills will drain the bar even faster, but Noctis can use items to replenish it or, in an oddly third person shooter feel he can take cover and also regain health.
Far more strategic is the ability that Noctis has to warp around the battlefield. He can use this to quickly get into striking distance with a warp attack, or gain higher ground by targeting certain anchor points that he can teleport to and take a breather. Once he’s ready to return to the fray he needs only target the next foe and hit them with another warp attack. It makes the combat suitably flashy in that Final Fantasy way, but I wonder how series staples like spells and summons come into play, as the action tends to be hectic and frenetic.
Actually, I’d say the action can be a little too hectic at points. Maybe I missed something, but I found it very difficult to keep Noctis locked on to the task at hand. In groups of large enemies I would want to focus on taking down the one I had been fighting only to realize that I was now attacking someone else entirely. Compounding this issue is a camera that spazzes out in confined spaces. With the action as frenzied as what the demo indicates I really hope that these issues are ironed out in the final product.
Mechanical concerns aside, I came away from this first taste of Final Fantasy XV optimistic and hopeful. The game is stunning to behold, and gave me the sense of exploration and discovery that I had with Final Fantasy XII. I could easily write an entire article about how tired I am of Tetsuya Nomura’s character designs and hilariously bad naming conventions, but I’ll take the high road for now. I enjoyed the banter between the characters and I was impressed with the English voice acting. If anything can be said about FF XV so far it is that it feels different, and after three games set in the same universe of XIII that is a breath of fresh air.