It’s hard to believe how much the world’s changed since the game that was Final Fantasy: Versus XIII passed us by. The year was 2006. The Xbox 360 was still red-ringing. The Playstation 3 was pending release. We all wondered just what a “Wii” was supposed to be. YouTube was less than a year old and the idea of watching other people play games wasn’t even a thing, not yet. So many dreamed about what a “next-gen” Final Fantasy would look like in mighty HD. Nine years and another name later, we’re still waiting on
Versus XIII Final Fantasy XV‘s release – only it’s a very different fantasy now.
It’s in the rolling hills of beyond the cityscape that Episode Duscae takes place in. We see Prince Noctis and his fashionable entourage in their bro-trip across the grassy expanse of the Duscae region, a lazy little burg along the main road to their elusive destination. Thanks to Prompto, their car crashes and it’s up to the boys to cough up the 24,000 Gil to get it fixed it, courtesy of resident mechanic, Cindy (or Cidney, as she’s called in the Japanese version). It just so happens that a gargantuan Behemoth’s got a price on his head – a 25,000 Gil bounty, as a matter of fact – and so it’s off to hunt the beastie down for some quick cash.
It’s through these circumstances that you fill the shoes of the demo’s sole playable character, Noctis, whose taught the basics by his buff BFF, Gladiolus. Among the quartet’s various weaponry, Noctis wields a variety of swords and spears with flair and fervor typical of the game’s flashy reputation. Each weapon can be placed within five different slots, changing their function in battle and giving Noctis unique properties to use to his advantage. Putting a sword in your “ravage” slot will have Noctis repeatedly swing his sword, smacking multiple targets at once, while using a spear gives him a few furious thrusts to breake through their remaining defenses.
The lush, inviting plains of Duscae’s region are impossible gorgeous – the trees, the grass, the ambient noise of passing traffic all make Episode Duscae something of a technical marvel when you sit back and view it as one, big package. And I’ll admit that I did just that for quite some time upon first crawling out of my tent to soak in the brilliant light bathing my face. The full map’s at least as large as half of Assassin’s Creed III‘s wildernesses, without any fast-travel points to make you walk the beautiful distance yourself.
Though the game trots at a comfortable 30 frames-per-second without so much as a slight dip here and there, the demo’s resolution on Xbox One’s something of a downer, running somewhere between 720p and 800p while the PS4 boasts 900p. Some muddy textures and foggier draw-distance are included, but even that can’t dispel what’s already one of the best-looking worlds to date this console generation, even two years in. Think Last of Us versus Last of Us: Remastered. Not too bad of a trade-off, if you ask me.
Management’s arguably XV’s strong suit when it comes to combat. Holding L1 allows Noctis to continuously dodge enemy attacks at the cost of MP. Holding the square button launches an endless barrage of attacks for free, which can also be used to restore MP. If Noctis’ HP hits zero, he’ll enter a broken state where he can’t attack and has to either wait for a friendly revival or chuck a potion to instantly bounce back. He can further chuck his sword at certain enemies or targets and warp to them for damage or a reprieve from the often-hectic battles, with infrequent success thanks to a shaky lock-on feature.
You can also rotate through a handful of medium-cost skills, activated by Y, ranging from the classic dragoon “jump” to the always helpful “drain blade” that heals with life siphoned from enemies to a giant spin slash “tempest.” If the MP gauge reaches zero, Noctis enters a weakened “stasis” mode ripe for summoning the game’s monstrously destructive Ramuh who fills the screen with an electric storm like Zeus on crack I dare to think what Bahamut will look like, even if it should only be fun once.
With no active roll or block command for Noctis to save himself, dodging’s of the utmost importance. During certain attacks, a large symbol pops over an enemy announcing that their next attack can be parried, which, if all goes accordingly, leads to countering for massive damage, often killing targets in a single hit. It’s a trifle frustrating, then, that the demo’s later missions confine you to such enclosed spaces as a cave where you can’t easily flee or maneuver in, much less that combat can happen all too often. Luckily, you’re not punished for running from battle if you can. You keep any experience and items you or your party members gain, but a mini-map would sure help to predict enemy patterns.
For an obvious work in progress, the game’s combat is thrilling. Your teammates work well in tandem, rebounding off one another, attacking anything that comes across their field of view. The real-time nature of the combat system doesn’t allow for the admirable complexity of, say, Final Fantasy XIII‘s Paradigm system, but it does keep things lively and lend you the time to explore the demo in all of its enormous entirety. Resuscitating your teammates adds a certain urgency to battles, though it’d be nice if your AI partners didn’t just beat up enemies with the expectation you’ll revive them.
You only level up while resting for the night at one of the various campsites across Duscae, including an adorable Chocobo trailer park, much to the glee of Prompto, your youthful blond-haired companion. While camping, Ignis, the group’s brainy pretty boy, whips up dishes that give you up to three seemingly random boosts for the next day’s adventures. Camping, however, voids all sidequests, meaning you’ll have to choose braving the enemy infested night to complete objectives or simply trying again the next day. Cooking will allegedly be fleshed out for the final game, although how much, I don’t know.
Of all the demo’s features, the most striking is its artistic direction. Like the game’s so boldly proclaimed, Episode Duscae’s very much the “fantasy based in reality” that its creators intended. The blend of real-world automobiles and magical monsters is a wonderful juxtaposition, especially transitioning from the orchestral beats of a battle against a behemoth to the southern twang of harmonicas playing at what’s basically a hick gas station. The love and care in each character model’s astounding – watching NPCs mill about in touristy clothes eating what I hope are just chicken wings is an amusing change for the series.
It seems distasteful, though, that the only lead female character included in the demo should have to strip down to her skivvies in what Square Enix is trying to convince me is a “mechanic’s” uniform, much less at the accost of some not-so-subtle innuendo from the guys. While Final Fantasy’s no stranger to bizarre outfits – and across both genders, mind you – there isn’t much that can excuse the presence of a half-naked woman rotating tires in a realer world, and the backdrop of a hick town gas station doesn’t help alleviate the agenda being set here. It could be hoped that the character’s toned down in future appearances, especially given the fact that Cindy’s being teased as a major plot point in the future.
The demo’s triumphant soundtrack by the ever-talented Yoko Shimomura brilliantly accompanies battle sequences and the character animations are arguably their most breathtaking since Final Fantasy: Advent Children. Noctis and company are remarkable self-aware, pausing mid-run to wipe their brow or turning around to look behind them, never often enough to annoy but so frequently that I was taken aback by how lifelike they seemed for a time. More than once, a devilish Goblin punched Noctis while he was trying to choke down a potion, scooping it up from underneath him and using it on itself.
Yes, classic renditions of the dreaded Final Fantasy enemies are back and their three-dimensional forms are a sight to see, leading to a sense that this game has morphed from simply the next Final Fantasy into a celebration of all things Final Fantasy. It hits all the right nostalgic notes wrapped up in the game’s modern package. Good lord, Duscae’s got it all – even a chocobo poking its adorable head into the mix and its finding it not ridable’s almost more than my heart can take.
By its end, Episode Duscae feels very much like the small step it is. Its story clocks out at around the one to two hour mark the developers promised with another hour or two of additional side questing if feel so inclined. Though I don’t know who Final Fantasy XV‘s foursome really is yet, nor do I know where I’m going with them, I’m more than happy to find out. Episode Duscae, it seems, is just a way of breaking the ice. But after a near-decade of tuning up XV, it’s enough to just sit back and enjoy the ride more than the destination and what a ride XV‘s shaping up to be.