PAX West - Final Fantasy XV Preview

Seeing as this PAX was my first with a Media badge, I decided to take advantage of the exclusive hour Media got on the Expo Hall floor Friday morning before the event opened up to everyone else. So when I got in, I made a beeline for arguably one of the biggest games coming out this fall (assuming it actually does come out this fall of course): Final Fantasy XV.

Now I’ve written extensively about my concerns on Final Fantasy XV. Final Fantasy Episode Duscae was my worst game of 2015. The Platinum Demo was painful and probably sits as a front runner for this year’s “worst of” list. The recent delay was the (hopefully) last in a long line of disappointments regarding the game’s development schedule. And the decision to exclude the Season Pass from the Ultimate Collector’s Edition is Square Enix at its money-grubbing worst when it comes to how it treats its most ardent fans.

Yet in spite of all that, I still want Final Fantasy XV to be good. I desperately long for a day where I could say Final Fantasy is my favorite gaming franchise without the caveat of “well I actually don’t like most of their games from the last decade or so…” So with all of that in mind, I made the decision to sit down with Final Fantasy XV to get a feel for how it’s shaping up after the long ten-year journey.

Maybe the Delay Really IS for Patching

The first thing I noticed in my hour with the game was that I’m about 99% sure it is in fact done and just getting polishing and bug fixes between now and release. I logged on to my demo station in a Guest User profile and selected New Game. Following the opening scene found at the beginning of the released Gamescom footage – a battle featuring an older Noctis and crew against what I presume was the classic Archaean (Summon, Esper, Aeon, etc.) Ifrit – I popped a Trophy. This was the first of probably a half-dozen Trophies obtained over my time with the game, leading me to think that I was actually playing a full build of the game.

Adding to this suspicion was the fact that I didn’t actually experience an “end” to the demo with a “Thank you for playing” screen or anything. After an hour or so, one of the booth attendants saw me trigger a certain sequence, and handed me a card to redeem a free shirt at the Square Enix booth. I think she said to stop playing after I returned to the car (which might have triggered an end screen) but I couldn’t hear her too well with my headphones on and the convention center was starting to fill up by that point. Others suggested there was indeed a cutoff but those accounts were secondhand so I never learned for certain if there was an actual “end” to the demo. I just quit the game after the attendant spoke to me, grabbed my stuff, and went on about my PAX. But I also later heard that Alexa Ray Corriea at Gamespot played for about three hours herself, lending further credence to the full build theory.

Off to a Slow Start

As for my experience in that hour, I will say I’m more excited for the final product than I have been in years, so that’s a pretty good sign, all things considered. The pacing jumped out pretty early as a bit of a red flag though. Following the opening sequence described above, the game flashes back to the beginning of Noctis’ journey, as he leaves his father the King and sets off on the road trip to meet with his betrothed with his friends Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus by his side (and for probably the first time, I actually remembered their names without having to look them up first. I still looked them up, but that was just to make sure I had them right, which I did).

This almost immediately cuts to the car having broken down on the side of the road and the quartet has to push it. So within the first few minutes of the game, it grinds itself to a halt as you press L2 to slowly push the car along a desert road while the Florence and the Machine cover of “Stand By Me” slowly fades in as the characters talk to one another in an incredibly stilted manner. There is no natural flow among the dialogue. Just a whole lot of Character A says a line, beat, Character B say a line, beat, Character C says a line, etc. Banter in the heat of battle is a little bit better but in every cut scene I found myself painfully aware that all of these actors had probably been called in to read their lines with very little idea (if any) as to how their cast mates delivered their cues. As most actors will tell you (and in fact one of the Deus Ex actors specifically did during their panel a couple days later), most of “acting” is actually “reacting” to your scene partner. The reason I despise most of Final Fantasy’s vocal performances since they started with Final Fantasy X is that everything feels wooden and I continually get the sense that each actor is just reading their lines in a vacuum, without any context, in complete isolation from their castmates and, therefore, they have nothing against which to react.

Combat

Once you get the car to Cindy and her granddad Cid to fix it up, the game gives you some fetch quest missions to go hunt local vermin with some combat tutorials. Combat as a whole feels good. It's not nearly as sluggish as I remember from Episode Duscae or the Platinum Demo, nor does it feel as slow as I thought the Gamescom gameplay looked. That said it was almost frustratingly simple (at least in this first hour). If you've played any of the demos, the gist is the same, you can equip up to four different weapons which are mapped to the D-pad, and then you attack with the Circle button. Tapping Circle provides a single strike, while holding Circle is a Blitz attack which basically just continually strikes the enemy. You could play through the entire first hour holding Circle in combat and breeze through everything with relative ease.

If you are interested in switching things up a bit, you can diversify weapons, trigger attacks from your other party members, or tag team with them for special Link attacks that do more damage. I sought out these extra moves to keep combat from feeling immediately stale and I hope that the game requires more strategy in utilizing those techniques as it progresses. I didn't get to dive too deep into the game's magic system and I don't even recall really getting a tutorial on crafting and using spells. But essentially, in this first open area, there were Fire-, Ice-, and Lightning-powered crystals on the world map, from which you could draw power. With that power in hand you could craft and equip a spell and add it to your equipped weapons on the D-pad. Then you can aim it and cast it in battle. Magic actually has a tangible affect on the world as well. When I cast Fire at a particularly furry fiend, not only did it’s hair catch fire leaving a lingering damage effect, but the ground beneath it caught fire and left behind a bit of scorched earth. As other preview clips have shown, these spells can be tied together with environmental hazards like oil slicks that will accentuate the effect.

As with the Episode Duscae demo, experience points aren’t awarded after defeating a monster. Instead, they are stored up and delivered to the party when Noctis and company set up camp for the night. When camping, Ignis will cook up a meal for the party based on the ingredients in your inventory. The experience points are then applied to your characters, allowing them to level up their statistics. The meal Ignis prepares will also determine what, if any, passive bonuses you will receive throughout the next day's adventure. As a fan of the classics, I initially missed in instant gratification of leveling up after a battle but the combat was never so trying that I felt like I was missing out by having to stockpile the experience points. In other words, I didn't feel like I needed to go rest for the night in order to level up and develop my characters, but that certainly could become a strategy later in the game.

On the other hand, the Ability Point (AP)/Ascension system does still provide that immediate post-battle feedback. Each encounter receives a quick rating (similar to the rating system in Lightning Returns) where combat and stealth are graded as AP is doled out. It all happens fluidly as you continue onto your next objective. I am unclear if the ratings actually affect anything like AP or items received but the AP is received all the same and AP is used in a fashion reminiscent to the Sphere Grid system of Final Fantasy X and the License system of Final Fantasy XII. AP can be doled out to your party members in their individual skill trees, opening up new skills and the ability to equip different gear. This certainly helped me feel like I was continually improving my characters: adding skills after combat and actually leveling up at camp.

Open World

Almost as if in defiance of the linear path set forth in Final Fantasy XIII, this game pretty much immediately throws you out into a wide open world to explore. I spent the majority of my hour moving straight through from objective to objective but I definitely found myself acutely aware of the almost aggressively expansive vistas around me. However, in an effort to make the most of my time, I stuck mainly to the objectives. Though it was also, in part, because I didn’t really see any reason to wander off the beaten path. The world, though vast, also felt largely empty.

The game’s first quest has you defeat three nests of scorpion-like enemies. So I ran off to the marker to fight the first wave. After that handful of creatures were dispatched, the next marker appeared, directing me to another wave a ways out, so I ran off to kill them, and then repeated for the third set. Each instance had me running for a while across a largely barren landscape (as the first area is somewhat of a desert). As with some of the more recent entries in the series, sudden “random” encounters aren’t really present. You’ll see the creatures in the world so it is up to you to decide whether or not you want to engage. Some enemies might aggressively seek you out while others might run away. In my time with the game, though, I think I only really came across one or two “random” battles that weren’t directly tied to a quest or a scripted moment. This left me feeling like the ratio of “running around from point A to point B” and “actually fighting” was somewhat out of balance. This could be the result of a lighter tutorial-like ease into the world but this was another case of feeling like the pacing is not quite ideal yet. I almost found myself wishing for a happy medium between the corridor-like level design of early Final Fantasy XIII and this. That's obviously unlikely to change but hopefully there's just more to do that I didn't discover in that hour.

Fortunately, after the first couple missions, Cid and Cindy repair the Regalia (Noctis’ car) and you can use it to travel around. Either Noctis can take the wheel or you can leave it to your other party members. For the first drive, I took point. You’ll need to manage your gasoline as the fuel gauge slowly decreased in my time on the road. And I honestly can’t remember a game with worst driving mechanics. Everything feels heavy and mostly on-rails. This was one of my biggest gripes with the driving in the Platinum Demo and it feels like it's here to stay. For the most part, it felt like, again, just holding down a single button would do most of the work and the car would steer itself. But when I was ready to pull off the road into a rest stop, I felt like I had run into a wall. The turning radius  was terribly clunky and what would have been a simple U-turn in most games ended up a farcical adventure of slowly turning, then reversing, then turning, then reversing, etc. Perhaps the car can and will be upgraded to allow for better handling as it doubles as an airship but wow does it feel rough early on.

From then on, I let Ignis take the wheel. Feeling somewhat like the taxi passenger mechanic in recent Grand Theft Auto games, I would set the destination and Ignis would drive us there. The best part of this was that you can control what music plays on the radio, with a selection of classic Final Fantasy soundtracks to choose from. So I set forth with “Aerith’s Theme” from Final Fantasy VII and had a much better experience. And given that it would take – even driving – several minutes to get from one objective to the next, I was certainly glad to have the Regalia and not need to run that entire distance. Keeping it gassed up will certainly be a high priority for me.

Graphics

I often point to games like Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X as significant turning points for the franchise. In my mind, the studio direction after Final Fantasy VII became about how to best showcase the technology with top-of-the-line cinematic cut scenes. Final Fantasy X added a fully voiced cast into the mix, but also revealed (and the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy continued to showcase) that the performances aren’t exactly the priority. I’m speaking specifically to the English versions of the series as I honestly don’t know how the Japanese versions hold up compared to contemporary media. But as I mentioned above, the vocal direction here continues to fall short of the industry standard.

Meanwhile, the cut scenes do indeed continue to push the envelope. It has long been my theory that the drive to showcase beautifully-rendered CGI sequences is the reason this game has been in development for more than a decade. My hypothesis is that it took so long to render the cut scenes to an acceptable level of polish on the last generation’s hardware that the new generation was already on the horizon. At that point they probably waited to see how the new hardware would sell. If, as many predicted, the systems had stagnated, Square Enix would polish the game up and finally release Final Fantasy Versus XIII as long intended. But with the overwhelming early success of the new generation, Square Enix likely sought to rebuild the game on the new hardware and ultimately decided to rebrand it Final Fantasy XV (which leaves me wondering if/how long another title – previously designated XV – has been in development).

Anyway, all of that is my theory. Hopefully, someday we’ll know what really caused the game’s overly long development cycle.

As for the graphics currently in the game (which will likely be the biggest noticeable benefactor from the extra couple months of polish), they are a bit of a mixed bag. The cinematics are breathtakingly detailed and easily the most “realistic”-looking animation I’ve seen, I haven’t seen Kingsglaive but I imagine the two are largely on par with one another. As an aside, the fact that Kingsglaive exists as a standalone title supports the idea that Square Enix is perhaps more interested in crafting animated features but they are almost pigeon-holed into having to build a game around it; as if the reason you can pretty much just hold Circle through the combat is in order to make it as easy as possible to get to the next cinematic moment.

On the other end of the spectrum, some of the character models look painstakingly hand-crafted, but only up to a point. Most notably, the hair on a lot of the character models feels like a holdover from the early PlayStation 3 version of the game. They are certainly nowhere near the kind of graphics that this very same publisher touted when showcasing how Lara Croft’s hair looked on this new hardware. Additionally, there was a wide variety in the quality of the monsters: some looked at home on the new generation, while others looked rougher and unfinished. And the world itself varied, as well, with large set pieces coming across with a high level of attention to detail but (as mentioned above) a lot of the world outside of those landmarks feels empty. If nothing else, I hope some of these discrepancies are cleaned up so it doesn’t feel like a game caught between hardware generations.

Looking Ahead

The rest of the weekend at PAX when I talked about Final Fantasy XV it was with a very abbreviate version of the above description. I always stressed the point about being more excited for the game than I have been in years. I can still recognize that I’ll likely have to defer to the Bravely Default series for the kind of Final Fantasy games I really crave, but an hour with this game left a better taste in my mouth than the last two games of the Lightning trilogy combined so I’m holding out hope that the final product isn’t the complete train wreck that a ten-year-plus development cycle could be.

We shall see when the game launches November 29, 2016 (fingers crossed).