For JRPG fans, this is “the big one,” excepting perhaps Persona 5. After an entire console generation with nothing but the increasingly angsty tale of Lightning and her Final Fantasy XIII confusing crystal saga, we’re getting another numbered, single-player title in the franchise. And this time, we get to play it a bit of it early for just $60, and they even threw in a free game, Final Fantasy Type-0 HD to go along with it! All jokes aside though, Squenix has a lot riding on this. The FFXIII saga didn’t do as well as they’d hoped, and rather than halt the perception that Japanese games and JRPGs were in decline, the series merely reinforced the belief. Now that this preview, dubbed Episode Duscae is out, how is FFXV, aka Final Fantasy Versus XIII holding up?
While there wasn’t a lot of pop up or draw in happening in the large open world of the demo, the framerate was clearly struggling. The game is set to 30 frames per second, but frequently, regularly fails to achieve this. It almost makes you wonder how Square Enix could have possibly thought this game would run on Xbox 360s and PS3s when even the PS4 is already struggling to cope. Keep in mind that this is a demo and not a final product, but The Order was already in great graphical shape nine months prior to release. FFXV has now been in development for nine years, since work began on it in 2006. The graphics for the characters are impressive, but the engine’s actual performance really needs to worked on, and the quality of the environments could really learn a thing or two from the Ready At Dawn technical team in terms of light and ambience. The audio is FANTASTIC, with great use of surround sound, and even an option for Japanese dialog, something that hopefully remains in the retail release.
What’s most surprising about this FFXV demo is just how much it shows Square Enix is willing to NOT work in an isolated design vacuum. One chief criticism of many Japanese games in recent years is that Japanese studios seem blissfully unaware of the evolution in interface, control systems or design philosophies advanced in the West. FFXV is VERY aware of the way games have changed and seems to acknowledge that their biggest arch-enemy in the RPG genre is BioWare. There’s a lot of Dragon Age DNA in this Final Fantasy game.
The biggest change is, like Dragon Age: Inquisition that came out last year, FFXV is an open world game. Like DAI, it’s not a seamless open world, but instead a series of massive regions. Duscae in the case of this demo, is where Noctis and friends are stuck when their car breaks down. In order to foot the repair bill from Cindy, the impossibly hot daughter of this game’s iteration of Cid, the gang must kill the local behemoth and bring proof of the deed for the big, fat juicy reward that just happens to cover the cost of the car repair. With that motivation in place, the demo opens up for a couple of hours of revealing gameplay.
Credit has to be given to Square-Enix’s interface team. They’ve actually managed to evolve, keeping menu time to a minimum and not overloading—at least in the demo—players with a legion of screens to navigate. Menus are minimal in design and easy to use, not requiring players through too many sub-screens and sub-sub-screens to do what they want. The skill systems are entirely absent from this demo, so there’s still a lot of speculation about how all that works. Leveling up now occurs at camps, so players need to be aware that acquiring all the XP does nothing until you settle in for the day at a camp to rest up.
If you’re the type of FF fan that enjoyed precise, strategic combat that combined the abilities of an entire team to strategically take down enemies, then FFXV should get your alarm bell ringing. If you’re the kind of person that always wanted to play an FF game but wished it was a more solo, action-y, button mashing affair, that does away with all that cumbersome “tactics, team work and thinking” stuff, then put in your pre-order immediately. In exchange for turn-based combat, FFXV has opted for a real time system cribbed straight from the Kingdom Hearts/Type-0 playbook, and the result is awkward.
Once again, this is a demo, not a final, retail build of the game, so there are things that could be fixed, or simply features that haven’t yet been implemented. Having said that, what’s available for play feels severely “undercooked.” For one thing, the demo, despite giving you a party of four, doesn’t allow you to switch between party members, so you’re just stuck with Noctis. As with Kingdom Hearts, this means that your party members are pretty much window dressing in battles and won’t actually do anything useful, leaving the bulk of combat up to you. They’ll occasionally heal you when you fall in battle, but don’t count on them to be much help at all when taking on a horde of monsters.
The combat camera is also terrible right now. You can target a monster by holding the R1 button, and you can even “lock” onto it by pushing the R3 stick down, but this doesn’t mean the camera actually FOLLOWS the target. In the demo, there are certain monsters that attack in mobs and are extremely agile. Fighting them transforms the game into a session of Ace Combat as fights devolve into turning battles where you struggle to keep the camera on a locked on enemy which is running away from you, until it gets cornered or you keep it in your sights long enough to land a blow.
Combat is executed by simply holding down the square button and going into an auto-combo, and this is supplemented by a series of special attacks that drain your MP (which dodging and “warp attacks” also do, by the way), as well as a parry system that doesn’t seem to work very well, despite the in-depth tutorial. Combat is intended to be a mini-game of resource management; you switch between your auto-combo and expending precious MP on special attacks and teleport/teleport attacks around the environment. However, at least in the demo, MP gets burned through so quickly and takes so long to regenerate in combat that you’re better off simply using the auto-attack, assuming you can keep an enemy on camera long enough to hit it.
Then there’s the Ramuh summon. Ramuh continues to remain a crusty old man with some electrical issues, but now he’s literally epic in scale, and it’s a nice callback to the sense of awe summons from older FF games used to elicit from fans.
Right now FFXV is looking like a game that does a lot of things different. The open world design is promising, but the frame rate problems are a concern, and they really, REALLY need to fix the combat, as this is the heart and soul of any FF game, and right now, FFXV’s combat is feeling clumsy and undeveloped. Hopefully, this is just a very early build, and we’ll see some dramatic improvements in the final version, otherwise FFXV is shaping to be an intriguing—but very uneven—experience punctuated by clunky, dumbed down action combat.