Final Fantasy XV: Pushing the formula beyond the limit break

Clearly, the powers overseeing Final Fantasy XV are not afraid of change. The project has changed title, director, release platform and overall scope.  Most importantly it seems to be throwing out the Final Fantasy rulebook, developing an entirely new kind of experience. The wide-reaching alterations have resulted in a game that is shrouded in even more mystery and anticipation than even this most venerable of series usually enjoys. Failure to provide something truly special will likely trigger a serious bout of disappointment throughout a fanbase that views the franchise in incredibly high esteem.

It’s not only those top-level aspects of FFXV’s development that are unafraid to embrace change, however. A number of core design choices demonstrates the abandonment of not only what Final Fantasy has adhered to in the past, but they disregard what the majority of Japanese-made RPGs have historically relied upon. Combat plays out in real time with you in control of one character for the duration of the game: Noctis. Damage is primarily dealt by pressing and holding the standard attack button in combinations of different timings and speeds. A few swift taps back to back might result in a flurry of light attacks, whereas a single press and hold causes Noctis to store his energy before charging in with a more powerful blow. Mastering and managing these different attacks is one key to victory, as is identifying which type of combo works best on which enemies.

Noctis has a number of weapons equipped at any one time, with the D-pad (on PlayStation 4) used to switch between them in battle. These come coupled with different stats for attack strength and speed, as well as a single special command that works as a magic attack of sorts. This ‘magic’ ranges from the kind that deals significant damage, shock wave-causing leaps from the sky or long-range lunges, for instance, to those that undermine your enemy in more subtle ways; perhaps by draining their hit and/or magic points over time.
 Latest entry in the ‘core’ Final Fantasy series and one that tells the story of a world’s nations fighting over control of the last remaining ‘crystal’
As a means of balancing these special battle actions, Noctis’ MP gauge depletes each time you use them. Should it empty completely you enter a state of ‘stasis’ that sees movement speed and attack damage greatly reduced. Your best bet here is to avoid conflict for a while and wait for your MP to gradually trickle back up again, which it does slowly over time.

The speed of combat, in combination with the number of enemies and allies on the screen at any one time, adds an unpredictable aura that initially feels unwieldy and unnatural within a Final Fantasy  context. When you consider that Noctis can also dodge and jump, the visuals and your inputs often resemble that of a third-person action game more than they do a JRPG.

For those wishing to play a more clandestine and cerebral game, a stealth stance can be activated at the press of a button. This causes Noctis  to  move  slower,  but  it  also  allows  him to parry attacks just as an enemy is about to deal damage. In this stance, a button prompt appears on the screen for a split second as you’re being attacked and, if you manage to press the correct input quickly enough, you can launch a killer blow upon weaker enemies. Tougher enemies are able to stand up to such tactics, although you will deal considerably more damage than usual.

While you’re dodging, parrying and regaining your MP, your companions are acting on their own accord by dealing damage and hopping about the environment. Ignis is a suave Brit with locks of bright blonde hair, Gladiolus is the brutish warrior type and Prompto is the long-range gunslinger. There’s no getting over the sensation that not having control over the entire group is an awkward concept to immediately warm to, but after you’ve experienced how frenetic combat can be you begin to understand the design choice.

There is a level of essential interaction between the group that must be adhered to,however, not least when it comes to keeping everyone healthy and in fighting shape. While you can apply potions to yourself, it makes sense for you to keep slashing away while someone else coats you in the health-reviving dust preventing you from having to delve into menu screens that feel unwelcome amidst the  ferocity  of  action. By the same token, responsibility sometimes falls on you to keep track of your allies’ health and send potions their way when necessary.
“ For the main Final Fantasy games we must appeal to a very wide and mainstream audience, that’s the biggest challenge of all ”
Beyond the battle arena things are equally diverse and complex. The enormous expanse of the Duscae region (the only one we’ve played thus far) takes full advantage of the processing power of the latest consoles to create a scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in Jurassic Park. Green hills and valleys rise and dip far into the distance, giant reptilian beasts sip water from shimmering lakes and rocky cliffs hide narrow caves before flicking dramatically into clusters of evergreens.

Within this environment you’re free to act and move however you wish, there are no set routes forcing you down a narrow path and attempting to dictate the pace of play. Our wider mission here is to raise enough money to fix our ailing vehicle, but how you go about that is up to you. Most obviously, you can hunt a monster that has had a bounty put on its head; conveniently, the bounty value is the precise amount required to fix the vehicle. Alternatively, you can ignore that altogether and simply see which side-quests and activities pop up as you explore.

Everything from chocobo ranches to random encounters against an ill-tempered military to collecting valuables adds to the tapestry of exploration, many of these leading to money in the form of the series’ traditional ‘Gil’ currency. The degree of choice placed on your shoulders stands in stark contrast to the often stifling linearity of Final Fantasy XIII, often to the point where you can’t help but think the approach here has been crafted as a direct counterpoint to criticism levelled at this game. Hopefully the reaction doesn’t push the structure of the game so far into the open-world realm that FFXV loses that sense of well-defined narrative that has become the series most enduring legacy for many of us.

It’s not only ‘what’ you decide to do that matters, either, it’s also ‘when’. In the grandest traditions of the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim, a full day/night cycle causes light to turn to dark and new enemies come out to play. Night hours sees the world populated by the kinds of beasts that you’re more likely to find hiding in caves and dungeons during the day, a problem that becomes worse when you take into account that navigating solely by torchlight makes it more difficult to avoid potentially dangerous skirmishes.

Finding and resting at camps causes the clock to speed up and your party to awaken at dawn, giving themselves plenty of daylight to operate under. Meals are consumed when at camp, providing you with temporary stat boasts depending on the constituents of your dinner. These ingredients can be sourced from hunting the local wildlife, thus encouraging you to engage in battle rather than simply avoid it.
“Something like 30-40% of the content is designed to please those existing fans, but the remaining content is about taking things in new directions”
Camps are also the only place in which you can level up your party, with all the experience points acquired during the day being banked around the fire and, possibly, resulting in your team waking up with new skills learned and better stats applied. It’s presently unclear to what extent you can customise your party’s levelling-up path, but we do know that new gear, items and weapons can be equipped in whatever combination you desire (so long as you’ve hit the appropriate character level/s).

The caveat to everything mentioned here, of course, is that much of what we’ve seen might once again change before release; not least because no launch date has been announced, making  it  impossible  to  know  just  how  much development time remains. Whatever the case, as an indicator for the aims and ambitions of the project, time spent wandering around Duscae makes for an enlightening experience. Most striking is the willingness to abandon many of those elements that we’ve come to take for granted from Final Fantasy, replaced by design directions that would feel more at home within the confines of a Western-made RPG or action game.

Whether or not that sounds like a positive or negative will wholly depend on your currently held viewpoint of Final Fantasy as an enterprise. If you’re a staunch supporter that wants to see a return to the systems of Final Fantasy VI and VII then you’re likely going to feel let down by what’s on offer. However, if you’re craving a modern twist on the Final Fantasy formula then you’ve every reason to get excited.

FINAL FANTASY XV’S visual signature is a mix of past and future, the two elements juxtaposing one another to create an atmosphere that is at once familiar and unusual. Sci-fi-style magic attacks, potions and architecture blends with cars and trucks that are distinctly old-fashioned in both shape and colour. In truth, it’s not a far cry away from the kind of visual language employed by some of the earlier Final Fantasy games; particularly those that have embraced something akin to a steampunk aesthetic. Of course, what’s on show here benefits from the higher technical threshold made possible thanks to the far greater performance of the hardware being utilised.

AS YOU travel across the world there’s every chance that you’re going to experience events that others won’t. Magitek troops, for example, hover over the world in patrol patterns that are unpredictable preventing you from being able to label certain areas of the map as more dangerous than others. If you’re lucky the patrol ships might simply fly overhead, but if you’re unlucky the troops might decide to unload and scout the vicinity you’re travelling through. Should this happen then you’ve got a decision to make; either stand and fight or attempt to tiptoe around them undetected. Avoiding trouble might be the easy option, but at some point you’ve got to earn experience points to prevent later challenges becoming overly difficult.

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