NEW YORK — After years of delay, Final Fantasy XV will finally see the light of day on November 29. And an extended hands-on demo with the $60 Final Fantasy XV has pulled off something I never expected — it's reinvigorated my interest in the title. I've gotten a chance to see what Final Fantasy XV has to offer beyond just pretty graphics, and beneath its shiny exterior beats the heart of a very ambitious role-playing game.
I got to take a deep dive into Final Fantasy XV at a Square Enix press event today (Oct. 5). Unlike FFXV’s E3 demo this past June, which was one enormous battle scene, I got to play from a combat tutorial all the way through Chapter III of this seemingly massive title. What I played was an ambitious and tremendously entertaining combination of Western world design and Japanese character-building. If you ever wished that Final Fantasy and The Witcher could have a baby, it’d look a lot like FFXV.
FFXV is slated for both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, with a port to PCs possibly happening after its console release. My demo on the Xbox One began with an extended combat tutorial, in which I took control of protagonist Noctis and squared off against sparring partner Gladio.
A Road Trip RPG
The tutorial was surprisingly clunky, charging me with repetitive tasks and often not giving me enough information (such as whether I needed to tap a button, hold it down, or press it in conjunction with another one). Given that the game gives you instructions once you get into the story proper, I’m not sure why the tutorial needed to be there at all.
Thankfully, things got rolling once the main story began. While Square Enix doesn’t want journalists to discuss the specifics of the cutscenes or characters therein, we can talk about the setup, which is simple enough: Noctis is a young prince, betrothed to a foreign princess named Lunafreya. He and best friends Gladio, Ignis and Prompto hop in a car for the long trip, but quickly find themselves broken down on the side of the road. Banter and questing follow.
One thing that's garnered Final Fantasy XV both praise and criticism is the fact that there are no female party members — a truly bizarre move for a series that has had about a 50/50 ratio between men and women players ever since the first installment. However, this isn’t an accident. The game wants to explore male friendships, and as a former male teenager myself, I can state with absolute certainty that young guys really do act differently when there are no girls around.
The ribbing and gibes between the four friends can feel a little forced at times, but it does a great job of establishing each character’s personality, as well as giving you something to listen to during long stretches of venturing across the game’s open world. “Four guys on a road trip” is something that, to my knowledge, has never been explored in an RPG before, and FFXV deserves some credit for its unorthodox setup.
Speaking of the game’s open world, it looks positively enormous, on par with something from The Witcher or Dragon Age franchises. It’s a nice change of pace after FFXIII’s succession of linear corridors. After the group’s car breaks down, I undertook a short series of quests for the local mechanics to get some money for the repairs. It was pretty standard RPG territory: dispatch a few groups of monsters, track down a quest-giver, then take on a much larger, more difficult boss monster. Still, the steady trickle of rewards and combat tutorials made the game very hard to put down.
The combat, too, appears to be both deep and addicting. Noctis can switch between a variety of weapons and magic spells as he takes down his foes in real-time battles; the party members are all under competent AI control. Landing blows at the same time as your teammates is a key to victory, as is giving them sensible orders, parrying enemy attacks and discovering enemy weaknesses.
One unique feature of FFXV’s battle system is “warping,” which lets you expend magic points (MP) in order to hurl your sword at an enemy, then instantly teleport to the sword's location. Combined with lofty “warp points” that restore your MP as you survey the battle from above, this is one of the most strategic — and most fun — parts of combat.
Defeating enemies gives you experience and ability points (AP). Experience improves your hit points and parameters, but AP is where things get fun, and is much more in the Final Fantasy tradition. By accessing the Ascension screen, players can expend AP on a wide and complicated variety of skills that could improve their combat prowess, teamwork, or magic abilities. Leveling characters up is an open-ended and rewarding process, which could open up some truly unusual strategies as the game progresses.
Beyond that, there are shops, points of interest on the map, equipment to protect your characters — everything you’d expect from a good RPG, be it Eastern or Western. One thing is for sure: A few hours is not enough time to experience everything that Final Fantasy XV has to offer. I’m counting down the days until I can play again.