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Breaking down Final Fantasy XV Episode Duscae By Ehren Rivers on March 20, 2015 at 8:57 PM

As many of you know the Final Fantasy XV first peek came out just a few days ago, packaged within the expertly remastered Final Fantasy Type-0 HD. I picked myself up a first print copy, and wasted no time in downloading the demo. I was excited to try it out, and for me that’s a pretty big leap.

From my days as a commenter on this and other sites, I’ve never really held interest in what was once known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, now Final Fantasy XV. When the original game was announced I found it to be somewhat exciting, but I lost interest once it became clear the game wouldn’t materialize any time soon. Even as people both on the internet and in my offline life slavered and babbled on about the game, I remained distant. Every spike of possible news, every shred of information set so many people on fire, but I stayed ice cold through it all. Even the E3 after the re-branding was announced I was largely indifferent to “Final Fantasy XV”. Inside, I just kept hearing my younger self say, “Believe it when you see it”.

Well now I’ve seen it, and I sure as heck believe it.

Getting Right into the Action

The last few months, as more and more real information has spilled out of Square Enix’s sneaky little cupboards, I began to warm up to the game. The World of Wonder trailer charged my gaming batteries in a way little else has, and I began to count down the days to the release of Type-0 and the demo tucked safely within. I played extensively today, with much of the playthrough being livestreamed on our own Twitch account. As a result, this article is no holds barred – meaning we’ll be delving into deep into spoiler territory for a good portion of it.

As I walked through the Duscae region, I began to make notes of what I liked, what I didn’t, and what I found to be terribly interesting. Much to the dismay of a few… colorfully vocal members of my live audience, I wasn’t playing just for them – I was exploring, and I was testing little things out to see what happened. I swung my weapons at objects to see if they would connect differently, I tried to run and turn on my heels, and more than once I stood around and let enemies wail on me just to see what their fighting styles were like. I wanted a full experience, so I could give all of you as much information as possible. The speed runs could be left for later!

My overall experience was positive, although I noticed a good chunk of problems. Before we get any further, let’s just get this part out of the way: Yes, there are mega framerate dips and the amount of shimmering static around every person and object is noticeable. There are definitely jagged edges, and there are times where the game moves along at uneven clips. These things are one hundred percent expected though, and I don’t want anyone thinking they bring down my opinion of the demo.

They certainly shouldn’t bring down your opinions, either. For a game that seems barely beta and is still deep in development, Final Fantasy XV is quite well ¬†put together if Episode Duscae is any indication. The only graphical gripe I might have is about plant life: So many games, even on PS4 and XB1, seem to relegate grasses, tree foliage, and other shrubbery to a realm of flatness. Final Fantasy XV still has a lot of time, though, so I’m hoping they break this depressing trend.

Battles have Changed

With that out of the way, let’s get to the battle system. My experience was on Playstation 4, so all of the control schemes will be list as their PS4 buttons. You press or hold Square to attack, and you press Triangle to use a skill selected with left and right on the D-Pad. The weapons you use in your attack are equipped into one of five conditional slots, changing automatically based on your actions.

The slots are Crush, Ravage, Vanquish, Counter, and Descend in that order. Crush is a combo-starter, a single hit, and is followed by the Ravage weapon. Ravage can be continued in combat indefinitely from what I saw, as long as you have an enemy to wail on. Vanquish, the combo-ender, seems to happen after about six hits when you hold Square. If you press, like I prefer to, I was reliably able to enter Vanquish by pausing my taps for a brief second and then hitting it again. If you wait too long, you start the combo over again from the Crush weapon. Counter seems like it could be useful, but I personally didn’t do much in the way of evading in my playthrough. You have to evade an attack and immediately press the Square button to unleash a Counter move. Lastly Descend, although useful in theory, rarely seemed to hit its target due to a slowness of animation. You don’t remain airborne for very long anyway, and only the provided Greatsword seemed to have much chance of connecting with a downward attack.

You evade by holding L1, which uses up your MP steadily. Also worth noting is that you must stop attacking to actually evade; If you’re holding down L1 but have just hit the attack button, enemy attacks can connect with you anyway. Some folks have been saying you can quick-press the L1 button to dodge a single attack, but I was unable to get that to work and remain skeptical that it is an actual feature.

One technique that I did manage to use a few times was Parry, where you hold L1 until just before an enemy attack and then tap Square to block it. If you hit it again at the right time you can perform a powerful attack, and with certain party members nearby this can turn into a co-operative combo. From what I was able to see the Parry weapon was always the Greatsword, but this is hopefully customizeable in the full game with its own slot. In the demo though, the available Parry can really turn a battle around. Most of the time this move will knock an enemy down in addition to the damage dealt, giving your party a chance to breathe or chip away the creature’s health.

Next up is targeting, which unfortunately was really rough around the edges. On paper you press R1 to lock on to an enemy and fight them, making your attacks in their direction and keeping your eye on them. In practice, more often than not your first strike is the only one that follows the enemy. After that you continue attacking in the direction you’re facing even if the foe moves, and your ability to re-position during a combo is incredibly limited.

The Camera Could Use Some Work

As for the camera, as long as the opponent is in view swinging the camera slightly to the left or right will cause it to center back on them. If they run off-screen or get behind you though, there’s a good chance your targeting will break entirely or you’ll remain lock-on but have to manually swivel to see them again. What’s even more troublesome is that moving the camera actually causes your targeting reticle to jump; If a creature dashes off your camera and you turn to follow them, your lock-on will shift to the very next enemy you catch in your screen, even if it’s a different one than before. Positioning your camera manually when in a large group fight is ill-advised, as your lock on will pop around wildly.

This is made even more difficult to deal with by your own party members! You can’t pass through your friends in combat, and they move entirely on their own. They don’t attempt to get out of Noctis’ way in either battle or exploration, and if one of your party members steps in front of you during a fight they’ll usually break your combo. Faster enemies such as the wolf-like Sabertusks or the Mesmenir that so resemble Final Fantasy X’s Ixion will take this opportunity to literally run circles around you, and the latter of these foes is tough to catch up to again.

Even with the ability to dash in battle by holding Square while you move the left stick, they’re just too fast for you. Since Noctis has no ranged attacks outside of skills, you have to close in on an enemy using the Warpstrike and hope your combo stunlocks the enemy long enough to take a wedge out of their health bar. More often then not you’ll get a swipe or two in before the creature merrily prances on its way, getting out of melee reach instantly. Prompto’s guns seem to do little damage, and although Ignis has the ability to throw his daggers for a ranged assault he rarely did so for me. My only other options for ranged attacks were the all-too-slow Dragoon Jump or, if I was at full MP, activating the offensive ability of the phantom swords.

The Phantom Sword

Now known as the “Armiger,” the phantom swords are an arsenal of ghostly weapons that now seem to each have their own abilities. The rename seems appropriate, since not all of the weapons are actual swords. In the equipment screen there is space for five or six weapon symbols in the Armiger track, and each weapon has a tool-tip telling you how to activate effects useable at full MP.

The demo gives you one to start off with, and apparently this weapon is what allows Noctis to warp. You can find three more over the course of the demo, allowing you access to a total of three abilities; One each of attack, defense, and evasion-based. Since you can find more phantom swords in the full game than were available in the demo, I’m assuming four or five slots (not counting the first) can be switched out for other weapons, allowing one to customize the usages of their personal Armiger. I hope to see more on this feature in the future, and that it’s a lot deeper than the simple damage screen it seemed to be before. As a side note, the downside of the Armiger abilities is that you can’t activate them unless you are at full MP, and they continually drain your MP to stay in use.

This brings us to our next concept: MP management. There are many things that use up your MP aside from the Armiger; Warping (both warp-dodge and warp-strike), staying in your defensive/evasive stance, and using skills all have an MP cost. Whatever this system will be like in the full game, right now only Noctis has an MP bar and he doesn’t have nearly enough MP. If you’re too aggressive in your usage of skills, or play it too safe trying to evade attacks, your MP will hit 0 and Noctis will enter the ‘Stasis’ status effect. During this status he becomes essentially useless, stumbling around out of breath and unable to perform actions.

You can hide behind rocks and walls or warp to a higher place to quickly recover HP/MP, but these things only work when you have objects to interact with. On the open plains you ‘re out of luck, and so far as I was able to find you couldn’t take cover behind trees to catch your breath. My Noctis had 148 MP at Level 49, allowing me to use Dragoon Jump (40 MP) three times in a row before having to attack again normally or hide. The Warp-strike ability used up about 20 MP each time, so chasing enemies down could become a problem fairly quickly. This system might need to be tweaked in the future, especially once other abilities and spells become available.

Balancing Character Levels and Damage

Noctis’ stats in the demo seem like they may, in fact, be placeholders. You start the Demo at Level 4 with 645 HP, 90 MP, 108 Attack (Atk) and, 74 Defense (Def). When I reached Level 49, Noctis was sitting at 1,122 HP, 148 MP, 198 Atk, and 119 Def. Going off of this, he gains 2 Atk and 1 Def per level, 10 HP per level (give or take a little) and somewhere between 1 and 2 MP per level. When I reach Level 99 later this week I’ll edit in the final stats of Noctis so everyone can see, but my stat tracking really got me thinking; Noctis and friends are way too weak.

Even during daylight, at Level 49, against the weakest creatures I could find (Sabertusks), it takes Noctis a while to take down an enemy by himself without the ridiculous stat boosts from camping. Without tactical control over his friends, Noctis usually ends up brawling against one beast in a group by himself, excepting the occasional step-in from a party member that (more often than not) really just messes up your battle flow.

When the whole party fights against a single creature, it becomes apparent that Noctis outclasses Prompto, Ignis, and Gladiolus in damage. Keeping that in mind, the fact that the highest-DPS member of your party is still struggling to defeat weak creatures without the camping buff is worrisome. The buff you have access to in Episode Duscae is very overpowered, granting a “major” boost to Attack, Defense, and Experience gain as well as an upped Critical Hit rate and immunity to status ailments. The balance of this may be due to the developers wanting you to have a challenge up to Lv 99 in the demo, or because the level cap for the final game may yet be well above 99, but right now it feels decidedly off-kilter. At Level 49, beating the Behemoth known as Deadeye without the use of the demo’s summon, Ramuh, is a tough affair that would take forever. You barely dent his health even when using his off-guard blind side to your advantage, and his attacks will quickly knock even Gladiolus out. I actually started working toward the Level 99 goal to see if it would be plausible to fight the Behemoth without Summoning, and I’ll let you all know how that turns out.

Into the Open Wilderness

Speaking of the Behemoth though, I’d like to talk monsters for a second. Though there are a number of beasts in the demo, there were a few that either didn’t make it in, or I just never found them. The antelope-like creatures from the World of Wonder trailer, along with the gators and the teased Coeurl from the same video, were sadly not present. Those enormous, pig-snouted beasts in the water (I believe they’re called Catoblepas) are there but only as background- you cannot reach them for a fight. The first enemies you run into are supposed to be either the Sabertusks (dog or wolf-ish creatures seen a few times in previous trailers) or the Garula (the big herd animals that look like stunted mammoths). I, however, ran off immediately in the opposite direction and found myself smack dab in the center of a herd of Mesmenir. Far too fast for their own good (or mine), it took some effort for Level 4 Noctis to take them down. They provided 777 experience (a pretty big score), and dropped horns that sold for 500 Gil apiece. Sabertusks and Garulas are much easier to take down, but on the whole less lucrative.

There are also a pair of what I’ve been referring to as ‘alpha’ or ‘prime’ monsters, which are larger, more powerful versions of existing creatures. For Sabertusks, which are a sort of blackish brown and small in size, the alpha is a Saberclaw. These have bright orange-red tongues, dark teal skin, and are nearly as big as Noctis and friends. They are a little faster, a little tougher, and they have a habit of ganging up in groups of six or so. For the Garula, the prime is a gigantic, yellow-colored beast with an extra pair of tusks called a Garulessa.

You’ll only encounter a single one of these animals at a time even though they may be surrounded by the smaller Garula, but depleting their exceptionally deep pool of HP is absolutely worth it. The Garulessa drop tusks worth a whopping 3,000 Gil! Between these and the Mesmenir, I was able to go from a few hundred Gil to almost 37,000 Gil in less than four hours. The experience gain from this is decent, although it’s a lot more efficient to fight drop ships of Imperial Magitek Soldiers if you’re looking to level grind. If you take them out fast enough you can earn around 2,000 experience per troupe.

The last type of enemy is the Goblin, which come flooding out of their caves at night. Not only can these little buggers poison your party members, but they have the ability to steal Potions from you. If you don’t beat a pilfering Goblin within a few seconds, they’ll take out your Potion and smash it on the ground, meaning you lose it forever. If you venture into their cave you’ll find them in massive swarms, but doing so is essential for procuring the ability to summon Ramuh as well as providing access to one of the Armiger weapons. These little fiends are fast, small, and can give you trouble in groups bigger than four or five so be prepared! Especially at night, when a constant stream of Goblins appears to venture into your fights

Enemies Hit Pretty Hard, too

As a matter of fact, there are a lot of enemies that will just join in on an ongoing battle. During the day, Magitek soldiers will often be unloaded near the main roads and get involved in skirmishes nearby. In the forests, taking on three or four Sabertusks may get wild if another pack wanders too close and sees the fighting. Enemy spawn rates could use some tweaking too, as occasionally you will defeat a group of enemies, start running onward, and the same group of enemies will spawn again right behind you and begin a fight. These factors can be very frustrating, especially when your fighting takes you near a Mesmenir who becomes technically part of the battle but is running at the edge of your vision or large gangs of Saberclaws reappear right next to you before your battle ends.

This can drag down your completion time and cause your experience bonus to suffer heavily. At night time, getting into almost any fight can take forever because Saberclaws and Goblins will roam the map very quickly, and Imperial drop ships appear almost as quickly as you can take down the soldiers the leave. It’s lucky then that the summon Ramuh essentially auto-kills every enemy in your current battle, even though anything killed this way provides no experience and no drops for Noctis and his friends.

All right, so I’ve talked about mechanics and battles extensively. As I wind down toward a gallery of direct captured images of the demo, let’s take a moment to review the demo’s flavor. Episode Duscae contains a decent amount of exploration and some pretty thrilling combat, but what it largely lacks is people. There’s a gas station where you can talk to folks as well as the Chocobo ranch, but you can’t do much with them aside from listen in on a few conversations. They move in a fairly realistic way and the models are good, they just don’t talk much.

The couple that was mentioned in one of the recent interviews, though, was the source of perhaps the most surprising moment of Episode Duscae. At the Chocobo Outpost, there is a woman and a man who seem to be romantically involved and have come to feed the Chocobos. The owner of the outpost recognizes them and has put aside feed for them to give to the birds. If you listen to their conversations a few times throughout a day or two you’ll hear them fawning over the birds, planning to come back the next day and feed them.

One night I slept at the outpost, and in the morning I ran over to the outpost owner to sell some spoils from the previous day. I ran just a step or so too far and instead of shopping, my button press activated another conversation between the pair. The man had apparently kept some of the greens from the previous day to feed to the chocobos, and the lady wasn’t particularly happy about it as she’d asked him to throw the leftovers away. The woman insisted they should only be feeding the chocobos fresh vegetables, and he responded saying the birds “wouldn’t know the difference”. No sooner had he finished this last word than the woman lashed out her hand and slapped him so hard his character model spun slightly to the side and he very nearly fell over. Noctis winced and muttered “Oh boy…” as the woman furiously roared that the man didn’t know anything. She returned her attentions to the birds and he slowly turned and walked away without another word, and I haven’t seen him in my game since.

Pay Attention to the Little Things

There’s some real humor in the game too. Prompto talks about how he hopes someday he’ll get the hang of fighting (referring to his lack of training) and although Gladiolus says “Yeah, maybe,” Ignis cattily replies “Probably not”. One of the Wanted posters for the Behemoth proclaims that Deadeye is one eyed, one horned, purple, and people-eating. Sometimes when you get into a fight Prompto will yell hysterically that he’s not a wildlife person, and that he prefers pets. At least once Gladiolus tripped over a rock while we were running and almost knocked Ignis to the ground. Upon exiting the Golbin cave Gladiolus asks if anyone is dead, and though Prompto proudly says that he is not, Noctis replies, “Does being tired count?” in a grumpy tone. I can only hope they’ll continue to put in such silly things alongside what appears to be a very serious story headed in a dark direction to give us a laugh every now and then.

Last few thoughts before I end this breakdown. First, the ability to dash isn’t infinite, and if you run or jump too much Noctis will stop to catch his breath for a few seconds. You can run uninterrupted for about 15 seconds, which allows you to cover a decent distance. I didn’t see much of the other party members trying to catch their breath, so I’m wondering if that’s still in. Next, the camera is a bit too close to Noctis and needs to have an option to be further away. His friends have a tendency to block your view, because they all like to get in close to him while you’re exploring the world.

Also, selling and buying items requires you to increase or decrease your increments one at a time by pressing left or right. There is no option to increase/decrease the amount you are buying or selling by groups of 10, which is really necessary when you’ve been fighting tons and tons of Sabertusks. Last, the stealth-based section in which you stalk the Behemoth Deadye through a misty valley is cool, but the demo cuts off your access to that area after you finish it. It would’ve been really nice to be able to go back and explore it more fully without the lumbering monster threatening to lunch you.

In closing, Episode Duscae has it’s share of problems, and make no mistake about that. There are definitely things that need to be improved, fixed, and expanded upon. It’s also a fantastic peak into the world of Final Fantasy XV and the gameplay systems they’ve already developed, and despite the flaws that are present it is an absolute blast to play. It’s not a stretch to believe the final game will be just as addictive and fun, and with any luck they can take the feedback from Duscae to surpass their current efforts.

This demo succeeded in changing my attitude about Final Fantasy XV from icy cool to boiling hot, and I sincerely wish everyone got as much enjoyment out of it as I did. I leave you now with a collection of images I took during my time, including shots of Ramuh’s animation and descriptions of every item I had in my inventory. If you want to know any more about the demo or its contents please don’t hesitate to leave a comment! Even in the face of this lengthy wall of text, I feel like I only broke the surface of what this demo has to offer. You can bet I’ll get to the bottom of it, however long it takes.

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