Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae Demo Impressions

Earlier this week, we were given our first real taste of the long-in-development Final Fantasy XV. How does it sit with me, someone who has been a long fan of the series, and one who has also believed that Final Fantasy has been on a steady decline for quite a while?

Find out after the jump!

Disclaimer: I apologize in advance for any odd pacing in this article, as it's pretty difficult to write about a game that's a small piece of a bigger whole. Not to mention, the full game isn't even finished yet.

There was something about Final Fantasy XIII that I hated, it's just hard to put my finger on. Maybe it was the needlessly confusing story. Maybe it was the linearity of the game. Maybe I didn't like how it seemed that Square Enix really wanted to impress us with a bunch of flashing lights throughout, all in an attempt to make things appear more "magical." Maybe I just hate Lightning (aka, "the female Cloud Strife," a character I already didn't like). Whatever it was, FFXIII wasn't my favorite in the series by a long shot. I enjoyed the battle system, but that's about it.

Since that game, my thoughts have been along the lines of, "The FF series is doomed." There were a lot of "changes" in the last single-player FF title to the familiar formats lain out in previous games, so for a person that has played every single game in the series (including the online games), XIII was a pretty big punch to the gut.

When XIII was announced, so was the title that would eventually go on to become known as Final Fantasy XV. At the time, it was called "Versus XIII," and I remember thinking, Man, that looks way more interesting than FFXIII. With its modern aesthetic, it's probably a good thing it's a side-game, though.

Versus XIII would continue to be known as a "side-game" until E3 2013, when it was revealed that it had transitioned into the main series, and had a roman numeral slapped to the end. By that point, I didn't really care. I thought, Well, maybe Square Enix just can't come up with a good main-series idea, and they're tired of developing Versus XIII, so they'll just kill two birds with one stone. 
Right or wrong, the game was taking way too long to develop, and fans were getting antsy, so they probably made the right decision.

Another FF title that was related to the FFXIII mythos, a PSP game called FF Type-0, was eventually announced to be coming out in America as an HD remaster for the current console lineup. Probably it's biggest selling point: the fact that it would contain a playable demo of FFXV.

Up until the demo's announcement, I'd been pretty impressed with what I'd seen so far of XV's development. The graphics looked amazing, and the modern setting looked interesting. So even if XV changed the FF formula in terms of gameplay even more than XIII had, at least it would look good, though my faith in the series to bring anything worthwhile to the table again had long gone out the window.

One of the things that really interested me about what I'd been seeing in videos was the "open world-ness" of it. I'm a huge fan of open-world games and the immersion they provide. Elder Scrolls, Fallout, GTA - all these games pretty much throw you into a world and say, "Go." I love that kind of freedom while playing a game, as it feels very much like "escaping reality." That, and I just love to explore virtual worlds. I doubt I'll being going to Skyrim, or living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland anytime soon in real life (at least, I hope not).

FF games - with the exceptions of XII and XIII - had previously been broken up into gameplay types: towns/castles/dungeons, the overworld map, and battle scenes. In a sense, there were some open-world elements with the overworld, as you could pretty much go wherever and whenever you wanted, but the transition between the three types listed above wasn't seamless. And of course, that's mainly due to technological limitations at the time.

FFXII and XIII tried to introduce a feeling of being in the game's world, but the seams were still very apparent. XII had "zones," or very small areas that were put together more like an MMORPG than anything else; and XIII was the most linear, straight-forward FF game to date, ditching any kind of overworld altogether. Seriously, all that game is is "walk forward, fight, walk forward, fight. Cutscene. Walk forward, fight, keep repeating." There was no real exploration to speak of until the game was almost over.

When I was a kid playing FFIV (or II, as it was known at the time), my imagination was a lot bigger than the game itself. I saw past the graphical limitations and made up everything else in my head. For example, when I would guide the giant, overworld version of Cecil (who represented his entire party on the map) into a forest, I would imagine he and his party members actually traversing through trees and underbrush while getting ambushed by monsters, represented whenever I'd be thrust into the random battle scenes. I know this may seem silly, but this dependency on the player's imagination is what I really believe Hironobu Sakaguchi had in mind when he created the series. Just like Miyamoto did when he created the original Legend of Zelda (which is also going the open-world route with its next installment. Whoo hoo!).

Todays graphics capabilities take out some of that need for imagination. I'm not saying that having an imagination is a bad thing (in fact, I very strongly encourage it); all I'm saying is that developers don't really have to assume the player is going to imagine something, when they can easily just go ahead and show it to them. 
A good example of this is the resting system that was in place in earlier FF games. In those games, to replenish the party's HP and remove any status effects that they might have, you had the option of using a tent. When you selected the item from your inventory list while on the overworld map, the edges of the screen would go dark, the tent would be illuminated by an unseen spotlight, the "we're going to sleep" jingle would play, the view would return to the overworld map and you'd be back in control of your party with fully replenished health. The underlying image that this all conjures, however, is that of the party members building a tent in the wilds, maybe sitting around for a bit and reflecting on their most recent adventures, and going to sleep to get ready for more traveling the next day.

So I've gone on and on about old FF games and ranted about imagination, but what does this have to do with the Episode Duscae demo? My example of the resting system and guiding Cecil through a forest from earlier games pretty much sums up my feeling on FFXV so far...

...they finally got it right.

FFXV feels like no other game in the series. That includes the older titles, as well as the more futuristic-set games like VII, VIII, X, and XIII. While there are some futuristic elements seen in the demo (as well as various gameplay trailers), the main aesthetic is more "grounded in reality." I hate when people use that terminology, but in this case, it really works in a good way.

The demo starts out when the four main characters wake up... inside of a tent. Let me just stop for a minute and say that the simplistic idea of them waking up in a tent had my heart swelling up in the first 30 seconds of the demo. It may seem silly, but if you were paying attention to the earlier bit I mentioned about the old FF games, then it's like Square Enix read my brain when I was a kid and gave me exactly what I wanted to see! But wait! There's more!

So the characters wake up in a tent where they've setup camp out in the wild because their Mercedes-looking car had been previously totaled, and is now in the care of a mechanic. The mechanic has placed a pretty high price to have the car fixed, but lucky for our characters, a Behemoth has been spotted in the area, and the bounty for taking it down will more than pay for the repairs. Our characters have been hunting the Behemoth and searching the wilderness for clues to lead them to its location, and have taken a break to recharge.

Yeah, by this point, I'm pretty ecstatic about the way the game's going - just off something as simple as the characters taking a rest and the game's emphasis on exploration right off the bat. But even now, I'm thinking that maybe this is just a cutscene thing. No big deal. Neat that they put that in, but it's a one-off.

After the party exchanges some dialogue, we're put in control of the game's main character, Noctis, and given a tutorial on how to play the game, as well as on how the combat system works. I'll just go ahead and say that if anything in the demo needs some work, it's the combat system. I won't go into big details about how it operates; I'll just say that the responsiveness of it is a bit clunky. Luckily, the demo's gameplay mechanics are supposedly based off of an obsolete build of the full game. And since, according to the game's director, the full version is only 60% done, that should be taken into account when considering the unpolished combat system. 

That being said, the combat is interesting. While very different than the turn-based systems of yore, it shows a lot of promise and can get pretty intense! Another interesting thing to note is that you only control one character, as opposed to all four. In the final game, you will supposedly be able to control the other party members with a gambit-style system - akin to FFXII - that allows you to assign behaviors to the other three characters. In the demo, the other characters fight alongside Noctis pretty well, though I wish they were a bit better at healing him when he needs it, rather than continuing to fight relentlessly while I get my butt handed to me.

As the characters begin their hunt for the Behemoth and begin exploring the region, night eventually begins to set in. That's right - there are day-to-night transitions! Like Capcom's game, Dragon's Dogma, you don't want to be caught running around in the wilderness after dark. If you are, you'll be swarmed with more powerful monsters who are drawn to the light of your flashlight, sometimes resulting in 15-20 minute-long battles. That's where the resting system comes into play.

So it turns out that the characters waking up in a tent at the beginning of the demo wasn't just a one-off. In fact, it's a pretty essential part of the gameplay. Like the tents in previous FF games, finding a suitable camping location and resting for the night not only restores your HP and heals you up, but it protects you from some of the dangers that night brings. Not only that, but it's also the way your characters increase their levels.
During each period of rest, the scene switches to a campfire where the characters prepare a meal from ingredients found throughout the region, and that monsters drop after they're defeated. These meals serve as buffs to your characters' stats during combat afterwards. When the rest period is completed, the experience points earned from fighting for the day are totaled and added, and your characters get stronger from the levels they gain. Pretty neat way of going about it, if you ask me!

Outside of normal gameplay, the area that Square Enix made available in the demo is pretty darn huge! Taking into account the fact that you're ambushed by enemies quite regularly, it took me around 30-45 minutes to walk just the area's perimeter! Square put up some invisible walls that keep you from venturing outside the demo's boundaries, but from what I hear, the game is completely open-world, offering much more than what you're initially faced with.

Eventually, after the characters find the Behemoth's lair, you're treated to the first actual dungeon. This dungeon, however, is much more "practical" than in previous FF games. Really, it's just a cave. Now that may seem pretty bland, but I actually found it pretty cool that, given the "grounded in reality" feel, there weren't that many frills attached. It was more like what you would expect from a somewhat realistic take on a Final Fantasy staple.

From what we're allowed to see in the demo, I feel that Square might have finally hit the nail on the head. Sure, they've changed a lot of things, but I can't help but feel like this is the most "Final Fantasy" Final Fantasy game I've played since the old days. It's like they took all the old gameplay mechanics and modernized them to fit with current technological and gameplay standards. Doing this, Square Enix has finally created / are creating something that can definitely be called unique. 

My overall feelings on FFXV at the moment are a bit hard to explain without sounding ridiculous, but I'll attempt to do so. Just try really hard to not say, "What the crap is he talking about?!" Just bare with me.

FFXV makes me feel like a kid again. I'm not saying that in the sense of "oh this Final Fantasy game is so great and reminds me of FFVI and how awesome that was when I was a kid;" it reminds me of what it was like to be a kid with a huge imagination. FFXV takes all the things that I thought nobody else thought of, and thrusts them in front of my eyeballs. 
It also reminds me of what it was like to get together with some friends and pretend you were going on an adventure. You'd see the woods behind your house and say, "Hey! Let's go into that forest and search for treasure," or something to that effect. In reality, you were in the woods behind your house, but in your mind, you might have been fighting imaginary goblins, or dragons, or whatever. 
I had no greater feeling like this than going into the cave in the Duscae demo. To be honest, I've never had a weird, nostalgic-like feeling like that in a video game. It was a truly unique experience that, to be honest, is quite difficult to put into words. Play it for yourself, and see if those same feelings come welling up like they did for me. Maybe they will, maybe they won't, but when you play the demo and look past the fact that it's still an unfinished product, hopefully you'll see that there's at least something unique and special there. It's not just a good Final Fantasy experience, it's just a good experience overall.

Here's hoping that the full version of Final Fantasy XV expounds upon the potential found in Episode Duscae!