To be totally honest, we're still having trouble coming to terms with the fact that we've actually played something related to Final Fantasy XV. If you've been keeping up with the game's development, all the way back since it was announced almost ten years ago, then we imagine that you'll feel the same. Episode Duscae, the title's playable demo, comes bundled with early copies of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD. Boasting around two to six hours of gameplay depending on how slow you take things, it's a meaty first look at Square Enix's next big deal, and the best part is that once it's over, you can keep coming back to it, levelling up your party and generally just exploring every inch of the countryside.
In fact, we've spent over ten hours with the demo, and we'd like to think that we've seen just about everything that's on offer. From combat to side quests to weird discoveries, there's a surprising amount of stuff to take in. You could argue, though, that this is the least fans deserve after being made to wait for so long, but still, we're thankful for what we've been gifted with Episode Duscae.
This is mostly because when we set the controller down, we realised that Final Fantasy XV has a ridiculous amount of potential. You'd expect nothing less from a franchise with such pedigree, we suppose, but it's still difficult not to be excited for the finished product's eventual release.
Episode Duscae is a memorable romp through a relatively large map set in a picturesque countryside. Trying to raise the funds to fix your broken down vehicle, you're free to run across Duscae's plains, sneak through its woods, and stand by its lakes while posing just right to get the perfect screenshot. Playing as Noctis, you're backed up by three supporting characters: Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto. Throughout your playthrough, your buddies will strike up conversation, sound off with quick comments, and point out things of interest.
The dynamic between the four main characters is nice to see, because by the time that you're finished playing, you'll feel as though there's a real bond between the group. Between the constant back and forth, and the way that your pals will help you in battle, there's a genuine whiff of bromance in the air. That's not to say that it's perfect, though. The demo sports both an English dub and the original Japanese audio, and while the former isn't quite as bad as you may have heard, it can still sound cringe-inducing at points.
It also isn't helped by the fact that Noctis and the buff Gladiolus sound like they've sandpapered their throats, while Prompto's whiny tone is bound to rub some players the wrong way. Ignis, meanwhile, has a rather gentlemanly Queen's English accent, but at least he doesn't sound as overly serious as everyone else. Still, as mentioned, things aren't so bad that you'll want to mute the television, but we certainly hope and pray that the delivery of the dialogue, and some of the terrible writing, is cleared up by the time that the full game lands on store shelves.
In contrast, the demo's musical score is top notch. The battle themes, while not particularly catchy, provide glorious orchestral melodies that sweep through your ears with ease, and they even change on the fly, as more enemies are introduced to a fight, or the sun goes down and you find yourself embroiled in battle against nocturnal foes.
The combat itself will more than likely take up most of your time with the demo. Frequently dotted around the landscape are groups of monsters, big and small, while imperial dropships occasionally deploy mechanical troops near your location, and you'll have to smash that lot up, too. Once you get close to an enemy, you'll automatically enter battle mode, which – it's worth mentioning – you can flee from by simply running far enough away.
Thankfully, combat is quite fast, fun, and satisfying when proceedings go your way. At first, it can feel a little awkward, and it can be hard to wrap your head around the mechanics, but give it some time, and you'll hopefully come to find that it's a neat system, even if it's slightly unpolished. Hammering square brings out a basic combo, which can be repeated until you decide to stop, while hitting the button after you've stopped the combo will bring out a heavier finishing blow. You can also jump and attack once in midair, or do a counter move which will activate when square's tapped just after you've dodged an incoming blow.
If you haven't already guessed, Final Fantasy XV's combat is completely action oriented, with magic points being the only limiter on your actions. By holding down L1, Noctis will enter a defensive stance, and he'll automatically avoid the wrath of your foes. The downside here is that every time you pull off a successful dodge, you'll lose a chunk of MP, and once it's all gone, Noctis won't be able to use special techniques or defend.
Fortunately, you can regain MP fairly quickly just by racking up some hits. This flavours battle with a quick pace, as you unleash the right moves for the right situation. The aforementioned special techniques are actually decided by your equipped weapons, but you're only gifted with a select few in the demo. Drain Blade, for example, allows you to steal back some health if you connect with the jab, while Final Fantasy fans will enjoy seeing Jump make a return, as Noctis launches himself into the air before crashing down on his aggressors with a dragoon lance.
It probably won't be long before you realise that combat is all about balancing offense with defence. If you're slowly being surrounded, it's time to hold L1 before you're beaten into submission from every angle, whereas if there's an opening, you'd do well to continually smack your desired foe. Your allies will be fighting by your side, of course, but we found that a lot of the time, they were a bit ineffective. Prompto, in particular, was borderline useless in any battles that involved tougher monsters. He's supposed to be a long range fighter, gun in hand, but he seems to think that he's better off just wandering into the thick of it and getting beaten to a pulp. No wonder his complexion is so pale.
It's a good job, then, that you and your buddies can revive each other. By simply jogging over to your struggling ally and hitting X, you'll heal their health – but only up to a point. You see, when your health reaches zero, you'll enter a sort of bleed out state. You can still walk around, but only very slowly, and if you continue to take damage, your maximum health will be reduced by the inflicted amount. This means that consistently getting battered in battle will result in your party having less and less health until you're able to camp for the night and restore your strength. It also means that you can only actually die if you're taken down again while you're in the bleed out state, which can be a little forgiving at times, but it's a system that works surprisingly well for how convoluted it appears on paper.
So what's wrong with Episode Duscae's battle system? We pointed out earlier that it's definitely unpolished in places, but we're more than willing to give Square Enix the benefit of the doubt that it'll smooth out the wrinkles in time for launch. For starters, Noctis will often get stuck on his own allies, as you won't be able to make them move if you happen to run or back peddle into them while fighting. It's a minor complaint, but when it happens, it's especially annoying, as your combos could be interrupted, or you may end up being struck by an enemy that you otherwise would have avoided.
The camera's a far bigger complaint, though, or more specifically, the lock on mechanic is. Since you're primarily fighting groups of foes, spatial awareness becomes a crucial factor, but it's difficult to keep an eye on anything when the camera's mostly operated manually, and Noctis' attacks tend to auto-target the nearest enemy, essentially forcing you to swing the viewpoint around far too regularly. As pointed out, you can make use of a lock on function, but it's one of the worst in recent memory. Holding down R1 will place a reticule over a foe, but you'll need to jolt the right analogue stick around to make it clumsily swap between desired targets. You'll also have to click R3 down to 'hard lock' onto a specific aggressor, which, as you can imagine, just needlessly complicates things.
The crux of the problem is that Final Fantasy XV seems to be caught squarely between trying to be an all-out action game, and sticking to its more traditional, and perhaps more technical roots. The result is a system that has depth, but it feels overwrought in numerous ways. For example, why do we have to scroll through special techniques with the d-pad in real time? Why not just hotkey certain attacks to a combination of buttons? It's combat that seems like it's afraid to fully embrace the action that it so clearly desires.
However, it's certainly not bad. There's a rewarding rhythm to fighting, and, like we've said, it's really quite enjoyable when you're used to the flow of things, but there's a lot that needs tweaked before we go off slaughtering beasts in the final product.
And that's basically our sentiment for the whole demo: what's here promises a lot. The location on offer is great to explore, the characters have a likeable quality, and the whole feel of Episode Duscae is unique, as it melds realism with fantasy. This is a world where there are motorways cutting through wilderness which is inhabited by extremely dangerous monsters, and it's a place that we're eager to see more of. Judging from this demo, and taking the series' pedigree into account, Final Fantasy XV has colossal potential – well, as long as Square Enix doesn't screw it up.
Have you played Episode Duscae? What did you think? Are you more hyped than ever for Noctis' adventure, or are you weary of its perfectly groomed protagonists? Fix up your sleek black automobile in the comments section below.