“A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers” states the splash screen as this demo of the first three chapters of the long-awaited Final Fantasy 15 boots up. A strong statement of intent, and based on my time with it, one that sums up this latest installment in the long-running and perma-popular JRPG series pretty accurately. It feels fresh and still contains a lot of that Final Fantasy DNA that has made the games so beloved over the series’ three-decade lifespan.
The game starts out with our four heroes - player character Noctis and his three pals, Prompto, Ignis and Gladiolus - pushing their broken down car through the foothills of Hammerhead. A trip to a local garage has the boys meeting Cindy, and of course, this game’s Cid, before embarking on a few hunting missions to pay for the repairs. It’s a surprisingly fast start to a series known for taking a while to truly get going.
The trip takes them to the coastal resort of Galdin Quay, which evoked memories of Costa Del Sol in Final Fantasy 7, and onwards to the borders of the Lucian Kingdom, where you’re greeted with a huge military blockade. This is where things begin to get real for our crew, as Imperial dreadnaughts fly overhead and mechs patrol the streets. In the Episode Duscae demo, you encountered a few Imperial troops from time to time, but in the closed streets of the city, you have the option to take a more stealthy approach, should you wish. By using Noctis’ ability to warp to areas and then attack from a hidden vantage point, you can take out groups of soldiers with a satisfying ease.
My time with the game ended as we made it back to the Duscae region. It’s still a spectacular environment to look at, with its crystal lake and giant, peaceful beasts wandering through it. There appears to be plentiful variety in the areas, even in these first few hours.
Combat has been tweaked a touch since the Episode Duscae demo. You still hold down the attack button to begin your combo of blows, but can perform different strikes by pushing the left stick in a direction. For example, with the spear equipped, holding the stick away from your target causes Noctis to backflip away and dive forward with a damaging attack. You can still dodge roll and counter enemy attacks, if you time it right, with different enemies requiring slightly different timing to pull off. There’s also magic available, which is ‘drawn’ from points in the world much like in Final Fantasy 8. The more you add to your magic slot dictates the strength of the attack, while adding one of your items to the mix adds additional effects, such as the ability to make the magic strike multiple times, or even add a healing effect when you damage your enemy.
Most of your travel in this early part of the game is done via the Regalia, the slick black automobile you see the gang cutting about in. Once you’ve got it fixed up by Cindy you can use it to head to the next major location or near to a specific map location of your choice. You can’t freely drive around the World with the car; you’re confined to the roads and any further exploration is going to require you to go on foot. An incredible touch, however, is the in-car radio, which is packed with classic songs from almost every Final Fantasy game. Setting off on a long drive starts with a search through the quite extensive list for that perfect song to hit the road to.
The way that the four lads communicate and act around each other, be it in cutscene or one of the many little random moments that crop up during gameplay, is quite infectious. Each of the characters has a skill that they contribute towards the team with, be it Gladiolus’ survival skills or Ignis cooking up meals for the group whenever you set up camp, offering a series of different possible stat buffs.
The most fun, however, is Prompto’s photography. At some set moments in the adventure, but also - and more interestingly - randomly as you travel throughout the world, Prompto takes a photo. Maybe one of a location, or a character, or even a moment during a battle, and when you set up camp you get the chance to keep the best ones, creating a cute, somewhat personal account of the events. It all adds to the real ‘road trip’ vibe that 15 is clearly out to achieve.
By refreshing and updating the gameplay, yet still very much trading on the rich legacy of this landmark series, Final Fantasy 15 is looking like a strong entry in the grand old series and an excellent starting point for anyone who has ever wondered why a massive section of gamers get excited by screenshots of funny looking cactus monsters, chubby cat-like creatures with wings and flamboyantly dressed teens with asymmetrical haircuts. The delay was tough to swallow, but after a decade of development, Final Fantasy appears to stand on the cusp of greatness once more. About time.