Final Fantasy 15 demo opens up a world of possibilities

Final Fantasy 15: Episode Duscae is a demo that has its own special name, which might ordinarily be pretentious, but is probably acceptable for a game that’s as highly anticipated as Final Fantasy 15.

The demo will be available March 17 with copies of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, but I got the chance to spend an hour roaming around in its expansive open world at PAX East yesterday. I’ll admit I’m not all that familiar with the Final Fantasy franchise, so it’s tough for me to compare Final Fantasy 15 to its predecessors. But what surprised me about the demo was how little that mattered.

Episode Duscae begins with our protagonist, Noctis, driving around with his buddies, Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto. Their car breaks down, and repairs will cost 25,000 gil. So they set out on foot and soon come across a bounty: A monster called the Behemoth has been terrorizing the area, and the locals have put a price of, wouldn’t you know it, 25,000 gil on its head. But in order to kill the beast, our friends have to hunt it down.

Square Enix began to open up the Final Fantasy 13 games as that trilogy progressed, and in its demo at least, Final Fantasy 15 appears to go even further. Like the way Nintendo is advertising the new Legend of Zelda game on Wii U, a Square Enix representative told me that if you can see a structure or natural feature in the world, it’s likely that you can go there. I wanted to try to get through as much of the Behemoth quest as possible, but I found myself getting distracted along the way — and not just by random battles with numerous packs of raptor-like creatures.

A variety of animal species and some man-made structures are scattered among the different environments on display, including grasslands, forest and marsh. Some of these areas don’t offer much in the way of activities beyond, say, collecting some items. And I felt like there was a lack of fullness and detail to the environments themselves, compared to what I would expect from a current-generation game. All the same, I did come across some places that kicked off side quests, or were interesting in and of themselves, and I felt the telltale tug of a world begging to be explored.

But one of the first things I did was spar with Gladiolus to get a handle on Final Fantasy 15‘s combat system. There’s nothing turn-based about the battles in Episode Duscae; this is basically a third-person action game. On PlayStation 4, the R1 button locks on to an enemy and holding L1 defends; Noctis will dodge attacks in this stance. While holding L1, he can parry certain incoming strikes by pressing square at the right time and tapping it again for a counterattack. The triangle button unleashes tactical abilities, and X is a particularly handy special ability: warp. Combined with an R1 lock-on, X initiates a warp strike.

The targeting seemed finicky, and I couldn’t figure out the distinction between attacks I could parry and the ones I could only dodge. Plus, while the frame rate in Episode Duscae stutters frequently — even when you’re just walking around the world — it’s particularly poor in combat. (Game director Hajime Tabata has said that the demo isn’t representative of the final visual quality of Final Fantasy 15, and I hope that’s true.)

But I liked the way the battle system forced me to be smart with my MP management: You can warp to certain high points (or crouch with L1) to quickly recover your HP and MP, but if you exhaust your MP, you’ll enter a state called stasis, which is somewhere you don’t want to be during battle. Weapon selection plays an important role here, with some swords contributing to the rate at which you regain MP.

After my sparring session with Gladiolus, the four of us went Behemoth hunting, going to various markers on the map to follow its trail of death and destruction. That led us to our first encounter with the beast, during which we discovered why it got the name Deadeye: The creature can’t see out of its right eye, and its right horn is broken. Deadeye’s Den is a dungeon, and the demo advised us to save before entering. After clambering over rocks and through narrow passageways, we reached a clearing for a stealth sequence. Noctis has to tail the Behemoth back to its lair without being detected, and it’s not always possible to stay on the beast’s weak side.

Once we were inside, Ignis laid out a plan of attack in which each of the four party members had a specific role to play. Noctis is given the riskiest part, having to draw Deadeye back toward the other three friends so they can weaken him with a gas tank blast before Noctis stabs him. Once I lured Deadeye to the area, everything else happened automatically, which felt anticlimactic — until the monster got back up, and the real battle began.

The full demo, according to Square Enix, will take about three hours for most players to get through. Indeed, I left plenty of areas unexplored and side quests untouched when I decided to focus on taking down the Behemoth. It was clear that this is an earlier playable demo than we usually see, and you’ll be able to see it for yourself very soon. Final Fantasy 15 itself, however, has no release date at this point.