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Impressions: Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae (PS4)

I was fifteen when this game was first announced.

I’m twenty-four now.

The Electronic Entertainment Expo, May 2006. I was a kid that was all too much into Japanese media for my own good, awkward and nerdy. Thanks to a family friend I’d been introduced to the Final Fantasy games years prior, and then in 2006 developer Square-Enix announced a game called Final Fantasy Versus XIII, part of their Final Fantasy XIII: Fabula Nova Chrysalis series of games. It was supposed to be part of a multiple universe that shared the same mythology–the same gods and goddesses, crystals, and beings influenced by them–with separate worlds and plotlines.

I wasn’t the only one who was excited. Final Fantasy is a powerhouse name, and it felt like the entire internet imploded back then with that announcement.

Since then, Versus XIII faded into obscurity. It was missing from many gaming conventions, and footage was largely absent save for the original trailer and one or two gameplay showcases. Many people on gaming site comments seemed to think the game was vaporware–doomed to never come out. I wasn’t one of them, but the fact remains it was a highly-anticipated title that seemed doomed to obscurity.

Now it’s been nearly a decade. The game still hasn’t come out. It’s been rebranded as Final Fantasy XV, setting it apart from the original XIII set of games, which had mixed reviews, to say the least. Amidst fan fervor, Square-Enix decided to release a demo of the game, entitled Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae, referring to the region in which the demo takes place.

From what I can see on GameFAQs, Reddit, Kotaku, and various other gaming outlets, Final Fantasy fans went nuts.

I’m a little less optimistic.

What stands out most to me about Episode Duscae is that it’s almost exclusively about the gameplay. It opens with the party in a tent, waking each other up with a cell phone alarm, before exiting into a sprawling, lush wildland with monsters and soldiers abound. It’s an interesting mix of fantasy and modern elements, and it works, but besides some banter about how the party’s car has broken down, we don’t get any story.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I often play my games for their narrative, so it’s a little frustrating, but given that the game is only–by Square-Enix’s own admission–about 60% complete, it makes sense.

The gameplay is more reminiscent of Kingdom Hearts than it is any of the Final Fantasy games. Players control just one character: the protagonist, Noctis. His party members are AI-controlled, each with their own type of combat, which helps characterize them just as much as the banter they have does. Best friend Prompto wields guns and flails about the battlefield, clearly trying to look cool while biffing it constantly; royal advisor Ignis cooks when the party’s not in battle and throws knives at enemies; bodyguard Gladiolus swings a gigantic sword and cleaves enemies easily.

Noctis himself has a variety of swords to use. While there are a few to find in Episode Duscae on its own, for the most part the demo only uses what’s given to players. His swings can be customized, and Noctis will use magic to switch between weapons depending on what part of his combo he’s in. A single button can be held down to execute combos, though people who are more action-oriented can tap it in succession instead, which is what I did. Noctis can also dodge attacks by using his MP, with players holding down a dodge button. Besides these, Noctis also has special attacks and can warp around the battlefield to recuperate or do a warp-strike. It’s not a terrible system, but the sword-customization system is a little complex and requires a lot of experimentation to get the feelings right. What’s frustrating about it, really, is the lack of speed: Noctis can’t stop swinging his sword to dodge, meaning that if players attack at the wrong time, they risk a massive blow to their health. It’s something I hope Square-Enix decides to change.

A laggy camera makes it hard to see enemies, even with lock-on enabled.

Even more annoying is the camera. Players can hold one of the triggers to lock onto nearby enemies, but the camera remains close to Noctis and swings around to try and find whichever enemy he’s targeting. It’s not so bad on bigger, slower enemies, but the majority of the monsters fought in the demo are nimble and small, making it hard to pick out which enemy exactly is being targeted as it runs around in a mob of other creatures, and unless Noctis is set up a specific way, his attacks are too slow to really hit them decently. Even the special attacks Noctis can wield are slow and take a few seconds to charge up, by which time enemies have already moved across to attack the other characters.

The frustration is slightly mitigated, though, by the stasis system: when Noctis runs out of HP or MP, he becomes severely weakened and can have his maximum HP reduced, but he can also be revived by his party. In turn, they can be revived by him should their HP reach zero. It reinforces the relationships between the characters, which is nice in a game that showcases them.

The game also uses a day/night cycle, and it’s an integral part of strengthening characters: every night they’ll need to rest, and only by resting can Noctis and the gang use the experience gained from battle to increase their levels and stats. Ignis’ food at camp, too, can provide a nice buff for the next day. It’s a cool little feature, and it’ll let players set how challenging they want the game itself to be, although I could go without the random zoom-ins of Ignis’ handiwork.

Food is highlighted every night while leveling up.

 

Episode Duscae is reminiscent of Skyrim in that it’s a large area to explore, with realtime battles occurring in the field, with some monsters attacking without provocation; a small red line on the top of the screen warns players of nearby monsters. Given that Square-Enix has stated the world map will be many times larger than the field we explore in this demo, it’s a huge oversight that they didn’t see fit to include a minimap. While destinations are visibly marked during normal gameplay, it would be really nice to have a map in real-time rather than having to pause the game constantly to check where you’re headed. It’s an odd thing to omit, considering minimaps are a genre staple. Making it less annoying, though, is the party banter that can happen even when lost in the wilderness. Some of it is frustratingly repetitive, such as Prompto vaguely pointing out landscape features: “Hey, Noctis, check it out!”. Others feel more natural, whether it’s jabs at Noctis’ royal status or Prompto’s tomfoolery. The voice acting is top-notch and really helps the relationships feel natural.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the music. There’s a battle theme and some music for the ranch area and gas station found in Duscae, but that’s about it. I don’t know how far along the soundtrack is, but it’s jarring when there’s nothing besides ambient noises when exploring the wildlands. The music itself, though, is gorgeous. Kingdom Hearts composer Yoko Shimomura does the tracks for Final Fantasy XV, and she does an excellent job with making the ranch feel small-town and the battle theme appropriately epic. One caveat: the battle theme sounds very similar to the Kingdom Hearts soundtracks. It’s not bad by any means, but it seems indicative of Shimomura’s composition and is a little off-putting from a series whose music usually sounds unlike other games. I’d like to hear a little more variety from her, and I look forward to the full game to hear what it sounds like.

Complimenting the strong soundtrack are the gorgeous graphics. The Duscae region is filled with greens and browns and blues, from gigantic monsters roaming in the distance to trees and grass swaying in the wind to character hair bouncing when they jump. NPCs, even, are lovingly rendered, just as Noctis and the gang are. It’s a little sad that there aren’t many NPCs or opportunities for interaction, but at least they look good, and I expect to see more in the game proper. There’s some slowdown when too many enemies are on-screen, though, and that was a surprise for me. With any luck, Square-Enix can fix that issue. It only happened a few times for me, so perhaps they will.

Episode Duscae provides a gorgeous wetlands to explore, with various monsters to fight.

There’s one big issue I have, though, and it has nothing to do with slowdown: it’s one of the NPCs, Cindy. Setting aside the localization error–she’s called Cidney in the Japanese version, likely a reference to the series tradition of naming a character Cid in each installment–she’s a source of weirdness for me. Her voice acting is adorable, with a charming southern accent, and she’s full of banter without being outright flirty; she’s intelligent to boot, fixing Noctis’ car at the end of the demo. She’s lovingly-rendered by the developers… right down to her daisy dukes and huge cleavage.

Now, there’s not anything wrong with her design in a vacuum. I actually think it’s super cute, and I can’t wait to see people cosplaying her. Unfortunately, the game likes to focus in on Cindy’s breasts and butt, her shorts barely covering it, and it’s a jarring difference having come from the XIII set of games with a wide variety of female characters, from the scantily-clad Fang to the commando Lightning to the girlish Serah. From what little has been released of Final Fantasy XV, Cindy is one of two main female characters, her opposite being a blonde woman dressed in white, named Stella (or possibly Lunafreya–trailers have been unclear on if it’s a name change or separate character). Where Stella has been shown in trailers to be part of the action albeit unplayable, Cindy seems to exist solely for fanservice. It seems like a step backward for Square after the multidimensional, diverse cast of Final Fantasy XIII.

All in all, I’m not quite sold on Final Fantasy XV. The gameplay in this demo is passable at best, with exploration taking forever on foot, although alternate methods are promised for the full game. Besides a small trailer at the end of Episode Duscae, there’s hardly any story to be seen, and the playable party seems to be solely four fashion models. It’s not something I hold necessarily against the game, and I like the designs well enough, especially since they’re a little more realistic than what came before them. What gives me pause is the way everything seems to add up: a lack of diversity; unnecessary sexualization of the single female character we see; plodding combat with an iffy dodging system; just one playable character. I’ll be on the lookout for more about XV for sure, but Episode Duscae feels more like a proof of concept demo than anything else.

Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae can take anywhere from an hour to three or four to beat, depending on the amount of exploration done. It is available only with first-print editions of Final Fantasy Type-0 for Playstation 4 or Xbox One, though Square-Enix has made mention of another demo to come later on that’s more widely available. I provided my own copy of Episode Duscae.

Image courtesy Square-Enix

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