Episode Duscae, the first and only Final Fantasy XV demo that Square Enix will release before the full game comes out either late this year or early 2016 was given away as a free download for anyone who purchased Final Fantasy Type-0 HD.
While the PSP to current-gen port is surprisingly good, its $60 full retail price feels a bit steep for a Final Fantasy game that’s not part of the main line. Square Enix smartly tried to force everyone’s hand by sweetening the package with the Duscae demo.
Den of Geek’s John Saavedra was able to play the demo for an hour behind closed doors at PAX East earlier this month, but what follows here is a more in-depth look at everything Episode Duscae has to offer, now that it’s out in stores.
Final Fantasy XV has had a long and troubled development history, although most of that came while it was called something else. The game was originally titled Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and it was supposed to serve as part of a trilogy of related games, all somehow connected to the events of Final Fantasy XIII. Then, Final Fantasy XIII and its sequels were not universally acclaimed, and the Versus game was repeatedly delayed. The game actually was rumored to be cancelled, until Square Enix surprised everyone at E3 2013 by announcing that the game would be rebranded as Final Fantasy XV.
The game tells the story of Noctis and his bros Ignis, Prompto and Gladiolus. The guys get to drive around in a now infamous car throughout the game, but in Episode Duscae, the car has broken down and the objective is to earn enough money to get it repaired so they can continue on their way. The friends decide that tracking down and killing a Behemoth in order to collect a bounty is the fastest way to get the cash they need, and that’s the main objective of the demo.
Just like Type-0, the combat you encounter in Episode Duscae will not be what you are used to from Final Fantasy. The game retains most of what Versus XIII‘s battle system was supposed to be, which means the demo and upcoming game have an action RPG feel somewhat similar to Kingdom Hearts.
Noctis is your main character, and he has the ability to roam freely around the battlefield throughout each encounter. You can change your weapons and attack options or techniques on the fly. No need to page through a long menu of options. The other characters in your party will assist you, and can be programmed to behave the way that you wish.
Enemy encounters are not random like in past games, and it’s possible to run around and avoid most fights if you really want to. A red bar will fill up when an enemy is coming for you, but it’s possible to get out of trouble if you’re quick enough.
The most welcome change from past games for me is the fact that you never really leave the world map. There is no second screen to go to when it’s time or combat. The transition from exploration to combat and back again is seamless.
Given that everything is so fluid, you can expect to be kept on your toes for most battles. Some enemies I encountered are wicked fast both during battle and when they are trying to close the gap on you out in the open field. The game attempts to make up for this by giving players another trick out of the Kingdom Hearts playbook in the form of a dodge button. You can also guard or parry. But I still found myself getting walloped early on in the demo, as I learned the controls. (It also didn’t help that I attempted to get the “summon” available in the demo earlier than I should have – more on that later.)
Maybe it was just me, but I was under the impression that the game’s targeting system could be made a little tighter. Noctis will “lock on” to enemies he is in battle with, but sometimes the enemies moved so fast that I swung my weapon and missed the enemy completely. Yeah, I know. “Learn 2 Play, Noob.”
But I also found the camera to be a bit annoying during those instances when I did miss striking the enemy and needed to run after it again. I felt at times like the camera wasn’t moving fast enough to keep up with the speed of the combat.
Whenever I did manage to pull off a decent combo, it felt great. Noctis can change abilities/classes by switching his weapons, and he also has a default warping ability that is a lot of fun. He can teleport directly to an enemy he is trying to run down, but the really interesting thing he can do is warp to higher vantage points to either better assess a situation or get out of harm’s way.
In short, there’s going to be a bit of a learning curve when people first start playing Final Fantasy XV. When you face more difficult enemies, you’re going to have to learn to watch their pattern, keep your guard up, warp at the right time, and counter-attack when the time is right. Those who were upset that they could just push one button over and over through many of XIII‘s battles will be quite happy with the combat in XV. Despite some issues with the camera and the targeting system that will hopefully be polished up, I thoroughly enjoyed my romp through Duscae.
First, a disclaimer. Square Enix has already said that they are attempting to get Final Fantasy XV to run at 1080p with a consistent frame rate upon release. But the demo is only running at 900p on PlayStation 4 and less than that on Xbox One, according to multiple reports online. That wasn’t a deal breaker for me, as there have sadly been a number of full games already released this generation that fell short of 1080p.
I was much more concerned with the frame rate. Again, yes, I realize it’s just a demo and that Square Enix developed a new engine for this game, and it’s still being optimized. But I thought there were an alarming number of times when the frame rate badly stuttered.
Anytime there were a lot of big animations or explosions on the screen at the same time, the frame rate would briefly drop. It didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the demo, but it’s something to keep an eye on when the full release gets here.
With all of that said, I thought Episode Duscae had plenty of visual charm. While the open field did look a bit barren, it also felt like a pretty vast world, which is exciting, since this is only one area of the full game. It’s not the best looking PS4 game I’ve seen, not yet anyway, but the lush green fields and super gorgeous animations are definitely something I can get happily lost in. It’s easy to run around for an hour or longer, just staring at the open field, the water, or the sky.
The most graphically impressive moment for me was when I managed to get the summon available in the demo. I’ll try not to spoil too much, but it is absolutely the best looking summon I have ever seen in the series, not just graphically, but also just from a “holy Mother of God, that was freaking awesome” standpoint.
This particular summon, “Ramuh” also has a very helpful activation mechanic. You only summon him when Noctis falls to 0 health. You can then quickly hit the summon button, provided one of your party members is still alive, and Ramuh will come to your rescue. In a very big way.
If XV‘s other summons end up looking even half as awesome as that, we’re all going to need to have an extra pair of underpants ready to go on launch day.
From the opening theme, to the music that plays while navigating the world, to the sick melody that kicks in when you get to a certain boss fight, the soundtrack for Final Fantasy XV sounds like it lives up to the franchise’s great legacy in that department.
The sound of combat is also mostly satisfying, and the party members often talk to each other when heading into or during battle, which is a nice touch. I’m not entirely thrilled though with all of the voice work I heard in the demo, but that’s pretty much par for the course in any FF game dating back to X. Each of the four main characters have their own unique personality and that shines through in their voice. The dialogue is well written, with bits of humor worked in to great effect. Although I did notice the characters repeating some of the same phrases during combat.
The demo pretty much lets you do whatever you want from the start, with full exploration of Duscae available. But you’ll find out very quickly if you’ve wandered into an area that you are not leveled up for. Don’t be an idiot like me and go running wildly into a dark cave in search of the summon in the first 30 minutes. It will not end well.
Speaking of leveling, XV‘s system adds a bit of a twist to what you might be used to. Each battle still gives out XP at the end, but the only way you can actually use that XP is by sending your party to a campsite to cash it in. This creates an interesting dynamic where you have to decide if you want to risk another battle or if you should just go and retire and level up with the points you have. Camp appeared to be the only way to save as well. If you don’t set up camp when night falls, you’ll often encounter enemy soldiers or other baddies who have a much better chance of KO-ing your party. Some players might not be thrilled with this mechanic, but it adds an interesting wrinkle of risk and reward to each battle.
While the Behemoth is the main objective, and you can beeline your way to it if you want, you’ll be missing out on a number of interesting side quests if you do so. Most are triggered by just running around the map and stumbling upon something that will start the new objective. This adds a great feeling of freedom and exploration that will be quite welcome to those who thought XIII was “on rails” for the first half of the game. Hopefully, the zones outside of Duscae will be set up in similar fashion.
Overall, I enjoyed my time with the Final Fantasy XV demo. God knows the game has been in development long enough, but it appears as if it could end up being worth the wait. But if this game is going to return the franchise to its glory days, Square Enix has some work to do with the frame rate and the camera. Fix those two things, and maybe tighten up the targeting system, and XV could end up being the best Final Fantasy in years.
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Follow Jason Gallagher on Twitter @MuckrakerJG.