Final Fantasy XV
Hands-On Preview
"[] above all else, it feels extremely well polished and crafted with a lot of care and love."

It's when one of protagonist Noctis' pals, Prompto, confesses to me that he feels as if he doesn't fit in with the group that I realize Final Fantasy XV is something special. As Prompto explains that he's shy rather than outgoing, like fellow group member Gladiolus, and views himself as dumb rather than smart, like the astute Ignis, Final Fantasy XV does something unthinkable with its narrative: it allows men to let down their guard and express sincere emotion.

This isn't just a one time event, either. Early in the game, Ignis is at a loss as to how to break the news about the Niflheim Empire invading the kingdom of Lucis, home to the group, where Noctis reigns as prince. And when Noctis receives confirmation of a death in his family, the writers give him the permission to grieve in his own way by fighting back tears and shouting about his frustrations and confusion, leaving his friends in an awkward position of wondering how to properly comfort him.

It's easy (and justifiable) to be critical of the fact that the game's playable cast is all male, but it's important to stress that this game doesn't feel like a no girls allowed, boys-only club that's full of macho men and dripping with both raw testosterone and society's problem of hypermasculinity. Yes, Gladiolus is shredded and handsome, and yes, Prompto does make cheesy quips and is full of action movie one-liners; however, there's more to these characters than just their surface. It's under the guise of these hypermasculine tropes that the game can explore what makes these characters tick below a surface level, while exploring the friendships between them as well.

Gameplay-wise, Final Fantasy XV is a superb action RPG. Holding down the attack button to perform combos on enemies while triggering tactical techniques with your buddies (techniques which can be leveled up the more they're used) feels fast and fluid, and the game's warp mechanic makes combat feels fresh. Noctis can throw his sword and then instantly warp to where it strikes; while he mainly uses this ability to damage enemies out of his reach, he can also use it to warp to higher ground or to the sidelines, safely away from danger, then recharge his MP and deliver a devastating attack to get back into the fray.

As Final Fantasy XV is a fantasy game that's focused on basing itself in reality, getting from Point A to Point B this time around means using a car rather than an airship. The Regalia can be customized to your liking (mine currently rocks mint leather interior with 80's pop art decals, complete with stickers of the monsters Cactuers), giving it a good sense of personality. This is important since you'll be spending a lot of time cruising around in it. Though you can opt to have Ignis drive the car automatically during the daytime, you can also steer it yourself manually. It feels very on-rails, almost as if you're just playing with a slot car, but it does allow you to take in the game's gorgeous scenery.

Final Fantasy XV is also an open world game, which means that there are an absolute ton of side quests for you to conquer. I particularly enjoy Hunts, which task your party with slaying a specified amount of creatures that have a certain skill level. The payoff for Hunts is your hunter level increasing and a good chunk of money, so doing them is both fun and important. When you're not doing side quests, you can look for fishing spots, mining spots, photo opportunities, treasures, fresh ingredients, and potential camp sites.

Camping is highly important, as getting some good old fashioned shut eye is the only way for you to cash-in all the experience points you've been gaining. At camp, Ignis will also prepare a meal from your current ingredients that features stat boosts, and you'll have the chance to save photos that Prompto has taken with his camera in order to create a scrapbook of your journey — should you choose to, these photos can also be uploaded to social media. When party members level up, you'll gain Ascension Points, which go into the Ascension Tree.

The Ascension Tree functions similarly to Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid system. You'll pump your AP into different slots from a wide range of categories. The important thing to remember is that AP is collectively shared and can only be allotted into a skill that applies to a single party member. In my opinion, this is a good design choice, as it allows you to customize your characters how you see fit while giving you a sense of weight with your choices. For example, at first I wanted extra warp-strike damage for Noctis, but when I realized that Ignis had an invaluable technique that let him regroup the party while also healing them, I opted for it instead.

Was Final Fantasy XV worth the decade-long wait? With only around 10 hours logged, I can't say for certain until I finish for my review. But I can say that I'm having an absolute blast with the game and that, above all else, it feels extremely well polished and crafted with a lot of care and love. Final Fantasy XV aims to be a title for fans and newcomers alike, and based on what I've played so far, it's living up to its goal.

Episode Duscae Hands-on Preview #2
"The graphics and sound showcase hugely impressive technology, but the travelling is tiresome and the combat uninteresting."

Welcome to the Duscae Region! Here you can observe wild chocobos in their natural habitat, frolicking beneath the filtered sunlight of the forest. The wide open fields are yours to explore, and why not take a gentle snooze by the lakeside? The natural beauty of Duscae brings visitors from near and far; just keep an eye out for some of the larger native animals. And don't forget that southern hospitality! Drop by the chocobo ranch for an unforgettable riding experience, and top up at our retro gas station on your way out.

Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae is a technical marvel. The sprawling plains, dense forests and dark caves of the Duscae region shimmer with beautiful textures, modelling and design. The long grass blowing in the breeze and the sunlight hitting the open plains creates a truly beautiful environment. Noctis and friends are animated smoothly, whether walking or running, and it's easy to get lost enjoying the beautiful aesthetics. It works as a perfect contrast to the near pitch-black caves illuminated only by Noctis' flashlight. The party's modelling is perfect too; their facial animations and designs are spot-on (as long as you don't mind lots of black), and it's the little freckles and blemishes on their skin that add to the believable package. Considering that Square Enix have indicated the visuals and frame rate are still a work in progress, it's exciting to imagine how impressive they may become.

Just as wonderful is the musical score. The background music in Episode Duscae is a delight, though this likely won't come as a surprise to Final Fantasy veterans. The soft, elegant tones used during exploration invite you into the Duscae environment, and the powerful and dramatic battle music makes every combat feel like a fight for life. The roars of a behemoth and soft mewing of a herd add to the believable world-building the region presents. The English voice acting is generally good, though a few lines come off as a bit awkward, particularly Prompto's high-pitched screams or Ignis' stuffy style of speech. The chemistry between voice actors works though, and I felt that the party of four was a real team.

With such an impressive framework, it's a pity the gameplay is downright slow and dull. Without a car available in Episode Duscae, getting around takes far too long. Walking is your only option, and you'll have to wander back and forth constantly from one objective to the next. The wild chocobos are a bit of a tease too, since they can't be caught or ridden. Fortunately, determining your next location is easy with the game's waypoint system. By opening up the map, you can select which of your quests you want to be pointed towards. You can sprint to slightly increase your run speed, though without a stamina bar it's hard to gauge when Noctis will tire and stagger for a bit. Presumably, in the full game, while the car will help alleviate the tiresome travel, it won't help you through the forests and rocky hills of Duscae.

To hinder travelling further, enemy encounters are frequent and time-consuming. I found Noctis' damage output in battle was relatively low and, while somewhat helpful, the rest of the party didn't exactly turn the tide in their favour. In theory, Final Fantasy XV's combat sounds exhilarating: Noctis has a variety of weapons with different styles and abilities available, he can teleport around by throwing his sword, and holding L1 puts him into defence mode where he expends MP to dodge. It's a functional system, but it's not fun to use. Towards the end of the 2 hour demo, I actually groaned every time I was forced into combat. I could escape from most battles, but hordes of goblins inside a cave were unavoidable, for example. The system is made worse by an atrocious camera and a near game-breaking targeting system — keeping track of where each enemy is and actually managing to lock onto them is a nightmare.

After playing Episode Duscae, I am a little less enthusiastic about Final Fantasy XV than I was before. The graphics and sound showcase hugely impressive technology, but the travelling is tiresome and the combat uninteresting. I truly want Square Enix to succeed with this next entry in the series, so let's hope they take players' feedback on board and adjust what they feel is necessary. There's potential for an incredible new entry in the iconic series, but Episode Duscae hasn't convinced me that Square will come good with it.

Episode Duscae Hands-on Preview
"Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae is an excellent start, but it's also a metric for the development team's progress: they're on the right track, but there's still plenty of work to do."

At last, we have proof! The adventure formerly known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII is finally a tangible game that regular humans outside of Square Enix's walled paradise can interact with. After a weeklong period of repeatedly testing my demo code that came gratis alongside Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, I spent several hours playing the latest in the venerable franchise's numbered iterations. This is a demo we've all but been outright told is a rush job in order to give people a chance to try out a game that has existed in some form or another since the earliest days of the PlayStation 3. It's a game with a clear focus and strong ideas, something that more recent entries in the series have lacked. After finally getting my hands on it, I came away impressed with the game's direction and ideas, but I definitely hope the controls and camera get a whole lotta lovin' in the next few months.

Skipping past all the details you likely already know (fix the car, fight the behemoth, get the money, see surprising stuff at the end), the main thing I took away from Final Fantasy XV is that it feels like much less of an identity crisis than some other recent numbered entries. This is a game that knows what it is trying to do, and based on what I've seen in the demo, it's on the right track to do those things well. The relationship between the four heroes is explored through casual banter, deadly combat situations, and reactions to things in the environment. I actually got a few solid laughs out of many of the exchanges, and despite having some serious problems with the group's all-black clothing choices, I found that each has a distinct personality. The voice-over is hit-or-miss (though better overall than anything heard in Type-0 HD), but I felt that the hero, Noctis, was well-cast despite early reservations.

Another concern I had early on was whether or not there'd be enough of interest to do in that vast Duscae wetland, but I was happy with that as well. There are lots of interesting landmarks and things of particular beauty to see (despite the demo's freely-advertised lower resolution and wonky framerate), and the battles within are based on a solid foundation of concepts that seem as though they'll be a lot of fun to experiment with as your characters grow in strength. Caves, camps, and a delightfully down-south chocobo outpost make for fun and interesting detours from the aforementioned behemoth-besting, and considering that we've been told the demo is pared-down from the full game, this is another area I'm feeling optimistic about.

While the fundamentals are thankfully in place, there are definitely a number of problem areas that will make or break the game when it launches. The worst among them is the abysmal targeting system. Noctis soft-locks on enemies when swinging his weapons, but there isn't enough tracking to any of his techniques or regular strikes, and many enemies move so quickly (and Noctis so slowly) that the vast majority of attacks whiff the air as you sprint around trying to catch your prey. Locking on to an enemy with R1 neither sets the camera to track that foe nor aims attacks at it, meaning it's incredibly difficult to keep track of a particular enemy as you whittle away at its health. This also ties into the camera, which gets hung up on just about everything, and is pulled too close to Noctis' back, making it tough to get a good view of what's happening. It also pans far too slowly to keep up with the hero's various flourishes and teleports. All of this means that fights often devolved into wild, chaotic messes in which I can hardly see what I'm doing or who I'm doing it to. Even when you can see what's going on, the slippery targeting makes it all but impossible to target specific enemies.

I also have concerns with some of the voice acting and characterization; Prompto in particular is occasionally endearing, but his high-pitched shrieks and bizarrely-translated lines ("We're drifting... INTO THE DEEP ennnnnd!") will absolutely grate on players' nerves over the course of a whole adventure. And Ignis speaks with odd regality — why would a childhood friend speak to another in such regal, distant language? In the original Japanese, he treats Noctis more casually and warmly, which makes me wonder why the choice was made to present him this way in English. While these issues might seem nitpicky, for a game that aims to live and die by the relationship between its four main characters, it is utterly essential that their interactions and dynamics are believeable.

Without spoiling anything, I will say that by the end of the demo I had grown to like this bunch of bros enough to hope that their adventure is a good one. Their chemistry in certain sequences is great, and in particular the final boss battle is an exciting one, culminating in one of the best summoning sequences I've seen in the entire series. Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae is an excellent start, but it's also a metric for the development team's progress: they're on the right track, but there's still plenty of work to do.

(Oh, and lest I let anyone down, the music I've heard is 100% unsurprisingly fantastic, with the night battle theme and boss theme in particular having me ready to beat down the door at Square Enix for the full release.)

"...the story is meant to have a "guys on a roadtrip" vibe, while still retaining the epic scale and political kerfuffles the series is known and, in many cases, loved for."

Final Fantasy XV needs no introduction. Described in a recent trailer as "the world of the Versus epic," the development cycle could end up more epic than the game itself. That is, if you haven't been paying attention.

Square Enix's storied megafranchise, arguably their claim to fame and certainly the reason they're still alive today, if the legends of their near-collapse prior to the release of the original entry are accurate, has had some ups and downs in recent years, tiptoeing the line between darling and damned in the eyes of its fans. Originally announced as Final Fantasy Versus XIII at E3 2006, the action RPG now known as Final Fantasy XV might as well be singing "Eyes on Me" for all the weight of expectation it carries on its shoulders.

Initially unveiled as a sort of realistic offshoot of the Kingdom Hearts series under zipper-adder/designer/director Tetsuya Nomura, the game flew under the radar for years. Scattered CG trailers and sparse gameplay footage showcased a game that aimed to include favorite elements of classic Final Fantasies, like the world map, with the real-time/menu-hybrid combat system of Nomura's other big, Disney-infused series. As time passed, we heard less and less from the game, and it seemed as though it would forever become vaporware.

And then E3 2013 happened. The game was re-announced for a new generation of consoles, and rebranded to full billing as a numbered entry. Announced alongside the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts III, with the addition of the director of the successful PSP Final Fantasy Type-0, Hajime Tabata, Final Fantasy XV came with a promise of more transparency in development. Flash forward to 2014: after shedding its original director to be solely helmed by Tabata, XV suddenly became more than the phantom it had been for years. This was not, as many still assume, a game that had been in full production for seven years. In fact, it had only truly begun active development in 2012 with the addition of Tabata to the project.

So what do we know now? For starters: it's got a new engine, frankensteined out of some parts of the vaunted Luminous Engine. The bits of it we've seen showcase massive draw distance and scale, which should come in handy as you're driving (or letting the game drive) the team's fabulous ride around the hills, plains, and highways. Along with that, there are gorgeous character animations, sharp lighting that accounts for a day/night cycle, and hyper-detailed weather effects. The combat system has evolved as well, moving into more realistic, weighty territory with a less menu-centric action focus. There's a dedicated button to dodge attacks, and a dedicated physical attack button. There's purportedly also a button used to cast magic spells and use special abilities, like the glorious fire spell used in a recent tech demo to roast a roaring Behemoth. Tabata has used Type-0's controls as a reference point, though he stresses that things will be a bit more streamlined here. Weapon-switching will also figure into the combat, with players forming a "deck" of sorts in the menus prior to a scuffle. It seems as though you'll be able to set parameters for when and how your deck of weapons unshuffles itself, though nothing substantial is known about that as of now.

You'll only be able to directly control the game's redesigned protagonist, Noctis. However, there's a strong emphasis on cooperative strikes, with context-dependent team attacks and defensive maneuvers available depending on your position in battle, so those three extra boy-banders Noctis is bro-ing around with will serve as more than just background fiend fodder. We've also been told that the UI of the game is incomplete, and that there will be plenty of combat information available on-screen, like an MP meter, which has been notably missing in recent demos.

Square Enix has also emphasized that the party will only encompass Noctis and his pals Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto. There's reason for this, we are assured, since the story is meant to have a "guys on a roadtrip" vibe, while still retaining the epic scale and political kerfuffles the series is known and, in many cases, loved for. Does that definitively mean no additional party members or will guests join? It's unclear, but thus far the messaging suggests that we shouldn't get our hopes up for any girls or folks that enjoy colors other than black to hop along for the ride.

These days, there's new info trickling out fairly regularly for Final Fantasy XV; enough so that this preview itself could find itself outdated by the time you read it. That's certainly a good thing for fans that have spent the last several years dying to know more, especially for those that still might be on the fence about the game's direction. We'll be sure to keep you updated as new light is shed on this highly anticipated JRPG adventure.

Oh, also, I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Mario RPG, Legend of Mana, etc) is working on the soundtrack. Yay!

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