Final Fantasy XV: A Fantasy Based On Reality

When you think about RPGs, it’s likely that Final Fantasy will be the first thing that comes to mind. As such, all eyes are on Square to blaze a trail as the franchise marches onto PS4 few developers are better poised to put the hardware through its paces, and the series is renowned for its cutting-edge visuals and innovative new mechanics. XV is finally playable,  XIV is growing and there are yet more new Final Fantasy games on the way too, as you’re about to find out…

A new era is upon us, and the japanese rpg is a different beast today to what it was just a few years ago. we’ve been lucky enough to play a bit of xv, and our early impressions of this stunning sequel are incredibly positive…

We’ve been patient. We’ve had to be, really. Apparently, getting games up to PS4 standards takes a good deal longer than we are used to, as shown by hefty delays to simple releases like shooters, racing games and even low-key indie titles. It stands to reason, then, that a true next-gen epic should take longer to bake, hence why there’s so little in the way of proper RPGs on PS4 so far. But that’s about to change Final Fantasy Type-0 might be a port of a PSP game, but its +1 is clearly a glimpse of The Next Big Thing. Final Fantasy XV represents a huge leap forward for the franchise, mechanically and visually, and what you’ve seen in Episode Duscae is just the beginning.

But what a beginning, though. From the stunning Oblivion-style open world reveal when you first emerge from your tent, to finally getting your head around real-time combat well enough to survive entire encounters unscathed, it’s the perfect crash course in relearning everything you thought you knew about the JRPG. Recent FF games like Lightning Returns and Type-0 actually help quite a fair bit in the transitioning process more in line with the Kingdom Hearts games or superbly relaunched MMO A Realm Reborn than traditional Final Fantasy turn-based action, it’s all about involvement and interactivity these days, and that’s no bad thing.
We’ll be honest here: it took us a good while to fully adapt to FFXV’s new combat system. Only directly controlling the party leader is nothing new, but XV takes the action slant seen in the last few releases to its logical conclusion, to the point where it’s actually closer to hardcore character action games like Revengeance or Devil May Cry than it is to it forerunners. Actually, El Shaddai is a better (if lesser known) comparison the emphasis is on making the impressive action as simple as possible, to the point that there’s just one attack button that serves different contextual purposes. On paper, it’s dangerously oversimplified but in practice, it works brilliantly and the system is easily bent to your will or play style after just a brief adjustment period.

Basically, what the Square button does when you press it to attack enemies is determined by the loadout you have selected and the status of the target. Hero Noctis is a master of pulling swords out of nowhere and you have five slots in which to equip the various weapons you find and forge, with each offering different attack speeds, perks and extra abilities depending on how it is being used.

To simplify it somewhat, you can equip gear to your combo opener, chain attack and finisher, as well as your counter and aerial attacks. In practical terms, it’s quite a lot like FFXII’s Gambit system only with weapons instead of actions that are being selected trigger a finisher or airborne attack and it’s the pre-selected weapon that determines the effect rather than a specific input or prompt. This has established a new meta-game of picking the tools that will serve you best in their assigned roles, so while a large or heavy weapon will do mad damage on a successful counter, you could instead elect to use these heavy duty weapons as your primary combo tool, slowing your normal attack strings down in exchange for solid damage without needing to trigger the other criteria to bring additional weapons into play.

It’s a remarkably complex and versatile system for one that technically offers just five options, and one that’s satisfying to play as well. There’s a tangible weight to XV’s combat and the weapons you settle on allow this to be tailored to how you like to play smaller swords allow you to slash up the place with ease, while the stronger weapons recall the deliberate, punishing strikes of Monster Hunter’s most powerful weapons. It’s no coincidence that Type-0’s Cinque has a move set that apes MH’s hammer, right down to the charged attacks.

Capcom’s hunting games are a clear influence on Final Fantasy’s divergence into real-time combat, and that’s no bad thing. Other Type-0 characters play like various different MH  archetypes, the key difference here being the ability to mix and match to your liking why would you want or need to change character when the one you have can be moulded into the play style of your choosing? Come the final game, you’ll need to be balancing the passive and active skills offered with the move sets themselves to find your optimal loadout, although it’s clear already that certain weapons will need to find a way into your arsenal based on the skills they unlock alone the Zweihander’s Tempest ability, for instance, is perfect for crowd control, even if the weapon itself doesn’t seem all that useful at a glance. Assign it into a generally less practical slot (aerial attacks or counters) and you’ll reap the benefits without much in the way of drawbacks.

XV’s structure is also worthy of discussion, and even in Duscae, there are signs of a more free form FF than the XIII generation might be used to. The demo’s core conceit is that money needs to be raised to fix the car and while hunting a Behemoth is the most implausibly convenient way to fund this, the open-ended structure means that odd jobs, treasure-hunting and general battling can all fatten your wallet sufficiently if you put enough time into them. After FFXIII, it’s refreshing to see objectives that can be achieved in a number of ways and it gives us hope for the full game XV could comfortably just be a sequence of sandboxes with a single goal in each if they all look this good and offer this much freedom in reaching your targets.

As glorious as it looks, though, it must be said that XV doesn’t run especially smoothly right now. With a lot of enemies on screen at once, frame-rates can tumble into dangerously low figures, although it’s worth noting that the same criticism has been levelled at most recent FF games based on early builds optimisation tends to be one of the last things on the developmental agenda and both XIII and Lightning Returns both ran pretty poorly in early demos, only to be massively tightened up before release. It looks lovely either way and while there’s noticeably less detail in the in-game models than the cutscene ones (such as the close-up of Stella in the reveal trailer), the minutia and epic sense of scale more than make up for the slight graphical cutbacks. When you get to see just how massive Duscae is, you’ll have an idea of what to expect from the full game. It’s looking like being a series of sprawling Gran Pulse-esque plains interconnected by roads (where you can expect to hear your crews pill glorious exposition and ludicrous banter about personal hygiene alike), with loads to do in each location. Given the scale of Duscae, we’d be surprised if unlocking the inevitable airship  actually allowed free flight on a world map, although there’s still a chance that Square could give us a pared-back version of the overworld to explore from the air just as it did in the PSone games. We’d rather that than FFX’s menu-driven travel system, for sure.
Coming away from our hands-on time with XV, we realised just how accurate one of our early assertions actually was. Similarities to the Kingdom Hearts games are rife and while it might not be quite so colourful or draped in needless belts, everything from the simple, action-heavy combat to the wonderful score reeks of the Disney crossover. Which makes sense really, since it was actually the KH team working on the game back when it was Versus XIII. Instead of cartoon characters, XV is about real people (magic people, but still real ones) with real problems ‘a fantasy based on reality’ is how the game is being billed and it’s not hard to see why. Elements like the modern car and relatively sensible attire, familiar locations like petrol stations and shops, believable themes that haven’t yet started to descend into ‘amnesiac hero saves the world from ultimate evil’ silliness… it all adds up to make this one of the most refreshing and novel FF titles in a long time, and it’s all due to the restraint with which fantasy elements are used when so many other RPGs elect to take this to the other extreme.

Playing XV so far ahead of launch is something of a mixed blessing. We’ve seen the future, and it is wonderful, but that’s just going to make the wait that much harder. There’s still no fixed launch window, but we’d genuinely be surprised if Square managed to pull it all together before the end of the year this time next year or thereabouts feels much more realistic. We still have loads to do in the Episode Duscae demo and the Heavensward expansion for XIV will see us into Silly Season, at which point XV will be mere months away. Well, hopefully…

When is basic combat not actually all that basic? When even the terminology needs explaining…

The first hit of any attack string will use the weapon assigned to the Crush slot, typically a large blade with which to stagger your foe and set up a few guaranteed free hits. Failing that, a quicker weapon will make it easier to land that all-important initial hit, while a weapon that applies a debuff may allow you to tear sizable holes in a weakened foe’s health.

Your standard auto-combo, sustained either by holding or mashing Square. Again, the choice here is whether to equip a fast weapon for a rapid barrage of blows or go for a heavy-hitting tool to really make every hit count and hit like a train. Weak weapons with various status effects could work wonders here, if your combo skills are up to the challenge.

This finishing move will use the relevant equipped weapon to automatically finish combos on weakened enemies, or it can be manually triggered by delaying a press of Square after a Ravage combo, DMC-style. The stronger the weapon, the earlier in the combo the automatic killing blow will be unleashed, so power is definitely king here.

Parrying is far from easy but after landing one, this determines the weapon you’ll use to strike back and the special moves you’ll pull off when you do just that. Given that the counter-hit is guaranteed, you can safely equip something stupidly big here without fear of the strike coming out too slowly again, raw power wins out over pretty much anything else.

This determines the weapon used when unleashing a jumping attack, a mechanic which is somewhat less developed in Duscae than it promises to be in the final game. While Crush is intended to be the opening gambit, you can still get Crush to come out after a Descend attack, making jumping in with a weapon with decent range and power a great opener.

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