Friday, March 20, 2015

The Future of Final Fantasy is Looking Bright - Final Fantasy XV Episode Duscae Impressions

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Earlier this week, Square Enix launched Final Fantasy Type-0 HD for PS4 and Xbox One. Despite my fervor and excitement for this game, a game that I have been wanting since it's launch in Japan on PSP in 2011, what has caught my attention, and the attention of the internet, more so is the demo for Final Fantasy XV that is packaged with the game. Episode Duscae, as it is titled, is a special demo created exclusively to show off what Final Fantasy XV will play like, and if it's any indication of the final product, I am finally excited for the next Final Fantasy once more.

Episode Duscae takes place in the, wait for it, Duscae region. The demo is built as a standalone piece of software, involving scenarios that will not appear in the final game, but including assets and systems that show off what the final product will play and look like.

The demo starts with Noctis and his crew waking up in a tent. I won't go into too much depth with cinematics and the ending of the demo, but suffice it to say that within the first five minutes it's very evident that this cast of characters has some great chemistry. 

Noctis is stoic, but not to a fault. He shows a bit of laziness but also rebelliousness when being told what to do. For Naruto fans, he reminds me a lot of Sasuke. Noctis is the prince of the kingdom Lucis (which may have changed to the kingdom of Insomnia) and is joined by his body guard Gladiolus, his advisor Ignis and his childhood friend Prompto. Each character fills in a trope, with Ignis acting as the wise adult who keeps everyone in check, Gladiolus taking the role of lovable, protective teddy bear who looks like he could kill a man with his bare hands, and Prompto filling in the shoes of the goof ball. 

However, despite the characters "filling in the basics," each person feels fresh and new, and the overall dynamic of the crew being extremely likeable. I wasn't once annoyed by one character or another for saying something silly or stupid and the chemistry between them feels real and not at all like Final Fantasy XIII, where everything felt like a soap opera. This is a HUGE deal for fans, who have been burned on terrible characters in the past few games. Despite her popularity, I stand by the fact that Lightning was dull and over all flip floppy character that simply looked cool. Obviously this is just a snapshot of what these characters will be, but it's a great start.

After leaving the tent and entering a combat tutorial, Noctis and co. are tasked with raising 25 000 gil to repair the car and get back on the road. To do so, they must take down a behemoth known as Deadeye, a half blind monstrosity that has been plaguing the local area for some time now.

Never thought I would have found a gas station so exciting within a Final Fantasy game.

The game then allows Noctis to explore the large, open map, and boy is it big. The game is open world, giving Noctis and crew a big play ground to play with. Noctis and the gang run around and can collect items, take on quests and visit specific locations to interact, such as a Chocobo Outpost and a Gas Station, where supplies can be bought and sold. The open world aspect works surprisingly well for the game, considering it's genre. As Noctis roams, the world moves around him. Giant creatures roam the plains, ignoring the group unless provoked. Random quests pop up as the group notices objects in the field, such as signs pointing out that rare items are hidden nearby. The dynamic quests are not only interesting, but also show just how perceptive the AI is as it points these things out to the player controlled Noctis.

While traveling through the world, enemies will appear to attack the group, either local wildlife looking for a meal or transports that are hunting down Noctis for the enemy empire. Though it's fairly easy to run away from enemies, Noctis and his group will never get stronger that way, which is where combat comes in. Combat is a fluid transition in which the characters simply draw their weapons and go to town. Players will only ever be able to control Noctis, with the rest of the group being AI controlled, but this isn't as big of a deal as I originally expected it to be. Each character has a specific skill set and purpose, with Ignis utilizing magic and overall acting as the mid-range fighter, Gladiolus utilizing a great sword and acting as the heavy hitter, and Prompto acting as the ranged fighter with his firearms. The AI uses these skills well enough that I often never had to worry about them. If they were hurt, they could heal themselves or each other and move away from the action when necessary.

Noctis is different from the rest of the crew as he is not limited to one weapon, but has access to five. Noctis has the "Phantom Blade" ability which allows him to summon weapons depending on the circumstance. He has five different slots, labeled "Crush," "Ravage," "Vanquish," "Counter," and "Raid". "Crush" acts as the initial attack, "Ravage" is the constant combo, "Vanquish" is the finishing, heavy hitting blow, "Counter" is self explanatory and "Raid" is an attack from above. Each slot can hold one weapon that will automatically be summoned with the corresponding situation, and not every weapon is treated the same in each slot. For instance, a spear will deal more damage in the "Raid" slot rather than the "Ravage" slot because it takes longer to combo the spear attacks than say a short sword. These slots and weapon variety creates an extremely deep combat system, even with only the five weapons available in Episode Duscae.

Combat is fast, responsive and way different than expected. In a great way.

To utilize these abilities, the player (using PlayStation controls) only needs to hold down the Square button. The game will automatically utilize the correct slot according to the situation, though I did notice I could manipulate the situation by moving Noctis in different directions and tapping the Square button at the right time to initiate the "Crush" attack.

Noctis also utilizes MP to handle special abilities. To defend against enemy attacks, Noctis can dodge attacks when the player holds down the L1 button. This is automatic and requires MP to do so. Noctis can also utilize a teleport ability. Using the R1 button to target, the player can tap X to teleport Noctis. This can be used towards enemies to attack or to focal points in the environment, such as the top of an electrical tower to run away. Tapping O will also teleport Noctis, but this is a straight teleport and not an attack. Teleporting also costs MP. Finally, each weapon comes with a special skill that can be used in combat. For instance, the Dragoon Spear has the Jump ability, which throws Noctis into the air to come crashing down on enemies moments later. These skills also require MP, usually large quantities.

MP is so important because not only does it power special abilities, but when Noctis runs out he goes into Stasis mode. In Stasis mode, Noctis is virtually useless, unable to attack, dodge or do anything except for take cover and utilize items. MP, alongside HP, does recover over time, but taking cover behind something will help it recover faster, and once enough MP has been recovered Noctis can get back into combat. Items can also be used from the menu by touching the touch pad. The menu gives players access to the weapon slots and equipment as well, which can be accessed in and out of combat. This balance of using Noctis' special abilities while keeping his MP at the appropriate level gives combat a very balanced feel and makes sure that the player doesn't simply spam attacks, but actually thinks about his or her next move.

Combat feels very natural and unique, with a mix of action and strategy necessary to defeat enemies. But my favorite thing about the combat system is how it works to also bring out the character's personalities. Prompto will often run in and slide in front of an enemy, shooting the creature in the face. Whenever Noctis is hurt or in Stasis mode, Ignis will run to his side and protect him or heal him with magic. Despite being controlled by AI, the team feels like a real team, which is very fun.

Things get even more intense at night when enemies decide to be bolder, attacking the party more often and often with more power enemies. Though it's good to take on a few groups to gain some better experience, it's also a great idea for the party to set up camp when the sun goes down. 

Camping is important. Not only will the team eat food that grants special boosts, such as increased attack and aversion to status effects, but camp is also where all the experience the party has collected is actually poured into the characters. This means that if you die before you reach camp, you will lose that experience. This sounds annoying, but it also adds some excitement and danger to combat. Having to ensure that you make it back to camp and taking chances to stay out longer and fight harder enemies for more experience really brings excitement to grinding again.

Never has in game food looked so delicious than when camping in Episode Duscae

Combat doesn't always include taking on enemies head on. To take down Deadeye, the team has to setup a plan that involves Noctis luring the beast closer to the team, Gladiolus distracting him with large attacks to his blindside, and Prompto shooting a large gas tank to knock the behemoth out. This was a small, slightly scripted scene, but it made the sequence feel like a small heist, requiring planning and timing on everyone's part. I would love to see this elaborated on in the final product, with large creatures or special items having to be tackled by carefully planning and enacting said plan, especially if player input is added to them.  Hell the game is open world, so why not give the player the reigns. 

The final big development of the demo deals with Summons. At one point in Episode Duscae, Noctis and co comes across the summon Ramuh. Unlike the past few games in the franchise, summons seem to no longer be player controlled, but rather act as powerful attacks, similar to how they were in Final Fantasy IX and those that preceded it. In order to summon the powerful ally, Noctis must hit 0 HP. Ramuh then rises from the heavens, scoops up Noctis and destroys the foes below. This is an interesting idea that leaves me with more questions than answers. Does this mean that you'll have to die every time to summon? Does the player get to pick a summon in mid-combat or have to equipped a summon in order to utilize it? I'm excited none the less to see which creatures Noctis will be able to bring into combat. We've seen Leviathan and Titan in game play trailers in the past, but who else will he be able to tame?

Though the demo was a lot of fun, there are a few things that need to be ironed out. The biggest thing would be the in game camera. While exploring the open world or taking on smaller groups of enemies, having the camera up close isn't so bad, but the larger the group of enemies or the larger the enemies are themselves, the up close camera really puts Noctis at a disadvantage. While fighting Deadeye I often felt like I was missing something because I would get hit from directions I didn't even know the behemoth was in.  The frame rate also dipped quite considerably the more enemies that filled the screen, but I won't harp on this issue too much as this was simply a demo. I would be willing to bet this game is still very much in development and that we will not be seeing it until 2016.

I could go on forever with how much I enjoyed Episode Duscae, but it's an experience that is better played than watched or read. The main take away is this: Final Fantasy is back on track. The characters are interesting and likeable, the world feels unique and full of nooks and crannies to be explored, and the combat is by far not only exciting, but strategic as well. If this is what Square Enix has in store for us, it's time to finally get excited about the franchise once more.

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