At PAX West I met up with a Square Enix Japan rep who plopped me down in front of an Xbox One development console and a build of Final Fantasy XV that contained the game's first three chapters. Having no previous hands-on experience with the game, I did what anyone in my position would do, and I promptly quit to the main menu, deleted the save of the journo who had been on the demo before me, and started fresh from the beginning of the game.
The first thing that struck me, and something that kept coming back throughout my time with Final Fantasy XV, was the sound. The game has jaw-dropping sound. Final Fantasy games have often had excellent, memorable music, and even so the music in Final Fantasy XV stood out, from the familiar yet new main theme, to the moody cover of Stand By Me by Florence and the Machine. The music wasn't the only standout though, as the voices and sound effects were all crisp and well-realized. I can't remember ever before being as impressed by a game's audio than I was in my time with this game.
Jumping in to the game, it presented me with two options: I could play on Normal or Easy. I opted for normal difficulty and dove into the game. Actually, "dove into" isn't accurate. It would be more apropos to say that I slowly meandered my way into the game. Initially, after an insanely long load time, it dumped me into a scene of fiery chaos. I'm assuming this scene is from a boss encounter from later in the game, but it was all noise and confusion. I walked lead character Noctis forward a few feet and the game took over. For 11 minutes I sat and watched, wondering exactly what was going on, and waiting for the game to let me do anything. When it finally gave me control back, I was able to hold one of the shoulder buttons to push a car through the desert. At this point the game started losing me.
When I finally got full control of Noctis, my broken down car had been pushed to a garage run by Cid and his granddaughter Cindy. Cindy's character design made me chortle and roll my eyes at the same time. She looks like a sexy-cosplay version of herself, and the twang in her accent was hilarious and really stood out against the hodgepodge accents of Noctis and his three buddies Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto. Cindy's outfit made me curious about the character designs of the four heroes, and I took a closer look at Noctis and crew, who look like a Visual Kei band but are so proud of the way that they dress that they commented about it in a running dialog that sprang up later as I was out exploring.
One thing of note that popped up a few times during the game was a dialog wheel. The options that I was presented with each time seemed to have an actual effect on how things played out, and it has me really intrigued to see how far the developers have taken the idea. Every option that I was given were all of minor consequence, but if players are allowed to make choices in plot defining situations, things could get really interesting.
The game gave me a mission, and I picked up a side quest, and, courtesy of my experience with the past few Final Fantasy games that I played, I expected to be funneled toward the quest goal. Not only did I not get stuck on a linear path, but, much to my delight, the game world opened up to me and I was set free to proceed into the wilderness of my own accord. I was unprepared for the amount of freedom the game offered me, and so I pointed my character in one direction and set off running. I was shocked by how massive the area was.
There were groups of enemies scattered around the map, and various objects of interest to find and interact with. The map itself gets peppered with points of interest once you talk to the right locals in the area, and some of those points take some effort to reach. After running around aimlessly for a few minutes, marveling at how much space I had to play with, I decided to head toward the main quest objective.
I got in a few fights along the way and, after a few minutes, the battle system started to click with me. Noctis uses up to four weapons at a time and can switch between them mid-combat and mid-combo at the press of a button. The other three party members help out, and Noctis can trigger a combo attack of sorts with them. Active blocking enemy attacks and positioning are important, and the combat felt satisfying and smooth.
A day and night cycle appears to effect which enemies you will run across, but I was too chicken to venture out after dark, instead electing to make camp. The campsite triggered a really awkward cutscene in which Noctis and pals set up camp with bags full of groceries, a tent, and chairs, and I was able to choose a type of food for Ignis to cook that imparted some small buffs to the party. I think the camping cutscene, and a few others like it, are supposed to impart a sense of camaraderie between the members of the party, but, like Cindy's accent, with the odd mix fantastical and real world elements strewn about, and the strange place and character names, it felt more silly than anything. The dichotomy between serious and strange is so prevalent that it can't be accidental, and it actually began to suck me in to the world. Rather than jarring, it felt endearing, and I'm really curious to see if the game continues to use such contrasting themes throughout.
Camping/resting are actually necessary to level the characters, who don't convert their EXP into anything useful until you have chosen to rest. When you do level up, you gain AP that you can use to unlock various abilities on each character's skill tree. The players can acquire different weapons and can be equipped with some accessories, which is pretty standard fare. Magic needs to be drawn out of nodes to use and, while I did find various fire, ice and lightning nodes, I didn't get the chance to employ any during combat.
After some more battling and a few short quest cutscenes, I was given access to the car again and, again, let loose into the wider world to go where I pleased. The game gave me the option of having Ignis drive, presenting me with a timer telling me how long it would take for him to drive to the destination, or driving myself. Of course I decided to drive myself and I was again struck by just how massive the game world is, and, finding the radio in the car, I was hit with even more ear pleasing goodness from the game's OST. It took a full two minutes of driving to get to the next story destination. During my time with the game I actually made two separate notes about how long the initial load time was, but, while traveling around and fighting, exploring, and driving, I didn't notice a single noteworthy load time, which was impressive considering how much ground I covered while hands on with the game.
I actually went about 10 minutes over my booked hour with Final Fantasy XV, even though the first 15 minutes or so had me feeling pretty cold towards the game. If you add up the good, the bad, the weird, and the exquisite audio, it equates out to this: I didn't want to stop playing. I wanted to explore the combat further. I wanted to flesh out the party's skill trees. I wanted to know more about the characters, and I can't wait to get my hands on the final version of the game.
Images courtesy of Square Enix.