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Final Fantasy XV: Rising from the wreckage

Looking ahead to the future of Final Fantasy XV (formerly Final Fantasy Versus XIII) was once a sad prospect. Years ago, the project’s development appeared so troubled and uncertain that its existence and viability was questioned by even the most devoted fans of the series. That changed in 2014, when Square Enix inspired new confidence in the title by announcing a playable demo entitled Episode Duscae.

The demo became available on March 17 as a bonus included with Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, and it showcases Final Fantasy XV’s progress under the supervision of new director Hajime Tabata (who took the reins from Tetsuya Nomura). After all of the  mystery surrounding the game, finally getting to play it feels like catching a unicorn an elusive, legendary thing you never thought you would see. Even better, Episode Duscae points to a bright future for the full version of the game; when you take elements seen in the microcosm of the demo and imagine them spread across the complete experience, it’s easy to get excited about Final Fantasy XV all over again.


Story
The story of Episode Duscae is deliberately sparse, cut off from the larger events of the main game. It features four heroes Prince Noctis and his companions stranded in the boondocks trying to raise money to repair their car. It’s hardly saving the world, but you have opportunities to learn about the characters despite the simple premise.

Even without many cutscenes, you get a sense of the group dynamic through dialogue and animations; Gladiolus is the bruiser, Ignis is the intellectual, Prompto is the troublemaker, and all three of them defer to the reserved Noctis. They all seem to be longtime friends, and it will be interesting to see how that sense of brotherhood carries through into the main story arc. The demo ends with art and narration pointing to crumbling regimes, death, and disaster, so it’s safe to assume that the whole game will not carry Episode Duscae’s breezy, carefree tone.

The World
Exploring is one of the best parts of this series, whether it’s a massive overworld or a single area. Final Fantasy XV doesn’t stray from that tradition, though it implements exploration in a new way. Taking cues from open-world RPGs, Episode Duscae sets players loose in a large area and allows them to head off in any direction.

In one corner of the map, you can find the gas station where the car is being serviced. In another, you come across a chocobo outpost. As you wander, you encounter sidequests like finding a piece of magicite in some marshlands, and locating nearby wild chocobos. At any time, you can set waypoints to direct you to particular quests and campgrounds, but you set the pace for how you want to proceed. Think of the approach to the Gran Pulse zone of Final Fantasy XIII, but add more activities and points of interest. This method of exploring the world will be found throughout the game, and results in a sense of freedom new to Final Fantasy.

Combat
Final Fantasy XV has moved on from the menudriven, turn-based encounters that defined it for multiple hardware generations. The combat is more along the lines of an action/RPG, since players control Noctis directly including all movement and attacks (his friends are handled by A.I.). Positioning and timing take on new importance in the real-time encounters, forcing players to read the battlefield carefully and choose when to take an aggressive or defensive approach. If you aim a special move in the wrong direction, you miss. If you don’t dodge at the right time, you pay for it.

Noctis has a wide array of abilities, so you won’t just be holding down a single attack button. You can equip him with multiple weapons that change his moves in certain situations, like his opener versus his standard melee strikes. He’s also able to teleport, allowing you to quickly close the distance to your enemies or escape if the situation goes south. A variety of techniques (which consume MP) are also available, including moves like an area-clearing circular swipe, a focused lunge, and a dragoon jump. This system is a departure from the more deliberate and strategic combat of previous Final Fantasy titles, but it comes with the benefit of making the player feel like an active and powerful participant in battle not just an outsider directing the action.

Summons
Summoning powerful creatures has been a part of the Final Fantasy series since its early days, and each entry experiments with the concept in different ways. Final Fantasy XII and XIII saw these special allies fighting in real-time on the battlefield. Final Fantasy XV returns to the old-school approach: The Eidolons appear for one-off attacks accompanied by outstanding visual effects.

In Episode Duscae, players summon the lightning-infused Ramuh. He appears as a towering figure as tall as a mountain and picks up Noctis off the ground before casting his signature spell, Judgment Bolt. Not only does the lightning completely destroy any nearby foes, but it also leaves the ground scorched and glowing for several seconds after Ramuh disappears. These powerful spells come at a price; you can only summon an Eidolon when your health is at 0, making them desperation attacks rather than opening salvos.

Monster Hunting
In order to raise the money for car repairs, Noctis and company decide to claim the reward for eliminating a behemoth terrorizing the area. While this is the main quest thread of the demo, everything about the process feels similar to optional monster hunts in previous games. You learn about the beast from a poster on a board, which offers money for capturing or killing the target. You then track the creature down and engage in a tough fight that may be beyond your current abilities. Considering how popular the monster hunts have been previous entries, we wouldn’t be surprised if this sequence is hinting at an expanded version of the system returning in Final Fantasy XV.

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