Say what you will about the current state of Final Fantasy; between the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, the ugly launch of the original XIV, and Square Enix’s recent mobile releases, the series hasn’t exactly been in a positive light among the gaming community. Even for someone like me who has tried to keep faith in the franchise, I have to say its appeal has been waning in the last couple years. So when the demo for Final Fantasy XV was announced to be included in the first shipment of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, my feelings were definitely conflicted. Was this going to reinvigorate my passion and excitement for Chocobos, airships, over-sized swords, and deep, intricate battle systems, or was this slice going to leave my stomach feeling sick?

Coming out on the other side of Final Fantasy XV’s demo — entitled “Episode Duscae” — I’m actually shocked at how much I enjoyed it and how promising it feels. From the combat, to the world, to the way you level up your party, everything in XV feels like a fresh take on the series made by people who aren’t letting themselves get tied down by the Final Fantasy legacy. That’s not to say XV throws out the themes, concepts, and characters we’ve come to expect, but it just oozes with a new life and soul that the Final Fantasy name has desperately needed.

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Oh, What a World to See

Episode Duscae begins with four friends — Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto — waking up in a tent trying to figure out how to get some money to fix their car. After spotting a wanted poster for an incredibly dangerous Behemoth, the crew decides to take it on and use the reward money to get their ride back in shape. Once the controls are handed over to you, you’re instantly given the reigns to explore the world at your leisure. While the area in Episode Duscae isn’t enormous, it can still take a while to get from one end to the other, and there’s a lot to see and explore in its rural setting. I ran to a Chocobo ranch and listened to a couple talk about feeding the birds on yet another one of their visits. I explored the wide-open plains and gazed upon gigantic dinosaur-like beasts that could probably kill my team in one hit. The sense of freedom stands in complete opposition to the linearity of Final Fantasy XIII, and I’m loving it.

The world itself is also very intriguing, and I can’t wait to see more. When Final Fantasy XV originally was announced as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, a trailer presented the phrase, “A fantasy based on reality.” I don’t know if that tagline is still being used, but the world of Final Fantasy XV is unlike any other game I’ve seen because of how familiar it is to our real life world in some ways, and how alien it can be in others.

When you’re running along a very plain, black road as the sun beams down showing off the cracks in the concrete as a pickup truck drives by, you can’t help but be reminded of the backwater towns of Grand Theft Auto. Trust me, it’s as weird for me to write, “Grand Theft Auto” in a Final Fantasy piece as it is for you to read it, but there are real-world parallels in the same way GTA feels like a recreation of our world. Then you run down to the gas station and check your car, which could be passed off as 2020 Mercedes, if you ask me, or talk with the locals who look way more normal than your black leather-draped posse. But as you stroll into the wildlife, you start to see beasts that are nothing like the animals on Earth, and suddenly that familiar world turns fantastic as you engage them, warp around the field, and summon swords and spears to attack. In a way, it almost feels like the childhood dreams of what Japan would look like to a young westerner (or maybe that was just me?)

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This is My Blade

I’m not going to sit here and break down the combat system in exact detail, but what I do want to discuss how Final Fantasy XV handles action and balances it in a system that feels just as strategic as older turn-based entries, albeit in a very different way.

At first glance, XV’s combat seems like it’s ripped right from Kingdom Hearts. That could’t be further from the truth. XV makes Kingdom Hearts look like a clunky mess by comparison, because above all else, Final Fantasy XV is initially pretty basic, relying more on single button presses than sifting through menus. You attack with one button. You dodge by holding another button. You perform special attacks with a different button. You can run around in real time. Simple? Yes. But it’s the systems surrounding this basic setup that get me excited.

In general, anything you do aside from basic attacks will drain your Magic Points (MP). When your MP hits “0,” Noctis enters “Stasis,” which means he’s exhausted. He’ll be stumbling around the field, unable to attack, and basically becomes a sitting duck unless he can find cover. This means dodging, using your special attacks, parrying, and making use of Noctis’s teleport ability have to all be managed and maintained without going overboard. You actually have to let up in battle occasionally and hide behind cover just to regain some MP quickly and get back into the fray. The fact that you’re able to do this while your team tries to fend off the danger is awesome, and already has me bonding with my boys when I barely know them.

On top of maintaining MP, Noctis can summon multiple weapons in different slots. These slots act as different attacks and can be switched around to change up his combo, as well as his special attacks. Each slot fills a different type of attack. The demo doesn’t go too deeply into this system, but I was able to find out that some weapons unlock specific abilities for Noctis, and I’m sure different setups will have different results depending on the enemies you’re fighting.

So far, I really like the combat. It’s fast and simple while still having enough systems in place to feel like you can not only customize your loadout, but be rewarded for using specific setups on different enemies. I also enjoyed the new way of leveling up. As you defeat monsters you gain a pool of experience that only gets cashed in when you rest for the night. Here you can upgrade your character in ways the demo doesn’t allow, but your characters also receive buffs for the next day depending on the food Ignis, which varies depending on what you have gathered during the day.

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Make it Meaningful

As soon as I saw the poster for the Behemoth, I envisioned a hunting system similar to Final Fantasy XII, or even Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, in which you’re given the location of the mark and are expected to simply kill the foe. This hunt is nothing like that. In Episode Duscae, you won’t just fight this monster in one battle and be done with it: they turn this mission into a real, engaging, multi-part hunt.

Starting out, you’ll have to track down the Behemoth by examining specific areas on the map. Just looking at areas where you see a footprint or torn-down trees builds tension by showing you just how big and ferocious this thing is, without ever actually showing it. Before long, you’ll discover its hunting ground and need to stalk it without been seen back to its lair. This part showed off a stealth element that you don’t see very often in JRPGs, and I thought it worked well while being a nice change from the typical combat. Once at the lair, Noctis’s friends actually come up with a battle plan that you have to follow, setting up a really cool looking scene that I thought led to an easy victory, only to be placed in real Final Fantasy XV combat with the Behemoth. Everything led up to this point in a very deliberate and entertaining way. I was hunting this creature, and now I had to make it my prey. Of course, it took me a few deaths to realize you actually can’t win this fight, and need to run away to survive. Honestly, that made the confrontation even more exciting.

I’m praying that Final Fantasy XV is filled with moments like this. Behemoths have been a part of the series for decades, yet I’ve never had a more meaningful experience with them than this. The developers created a small-scale struggle that isn’t about saving the world, or protecting the one you love, but simply about taking a job so you can fix your car. What makes it special is that it’s still presented with the same care and excitement that you’d expect from an epic Final Fantasy battle. They’ve taken a task that could’ve been left to one simple fight and turned it into something memorable.

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What’s Left to Come

The scariest, most disheartening thing about Episode Duscae is that it’s not the full, final product. We don’t know if this is just a slice of game the developers wanted to show off because it was the most open, or the most polished.. It’s a demo, after all, and we still don’t have an exact date for Final Fantasy XV. The final product could be a very different experience. A lot can go wrong, but just like my stance on the rest of the series as a whole, I have faith. This demo was shown off to get us excited for what’s coming, and what’s coming holds a whole lot of promise.