Final Fantasy XV power hour
Depending how you see it, 17 March (20 March, for our UK readers) sees either the arrival of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD with a free demo of Final Fantasy XV, or the arrival of a Final Fantasy XV demo with a free copy of Type-0 HD. The demo, titled Episode Duscae, is certainly sizable enough to be considered the main event. We know because we played an hour without making a noticeable dent on it. It made a certainly made a noticeable dent on us, however, showing how there are considerable brains behind those boy band good looks.
In just sixty minutes we managed to learn the combat basics, get eaten by wolves, trigger a stampede of murderous cow things, stab several of those cow things with a lance, get lost in a cave, ogle a lovely chocobo and generally make a nuisance of ourselves. Read on for the rundown of the full hour...
1 Minute: In tents, but not intense
The demo opens with Noctis and three chums waking up in a tent. What is clearly intended as the first technical wow moment - the shifting strands of hair and skin musculature is a genuine step up from anything we've seen this generation - takes on a strangely homoerotic vibe as the camera ogles their four sleeping bodies. People have joked about how the gang resemble a boy band; this scene reminded us of an anecdote we heard about how One Direction would schedule naps during busy publicity days - not in hotels, but in storage rooms inside shops they were appearing in. There's something inherently silly about four abnormally pretty boys slumming it in a tent.
A light spot of bickering introduces the gang. There's Prompto (pretty/energetic/carries guns), Ignis (pretty/British/posh like all British people are), Gladiolus (pretty/muscled/averse to vests) and their royal leader, Noctis (pretty/pampered/ the kind of haircut you'd need four pots of wax to pull off). While it's incredible to see in-game graphics that rival CG cutscenes, the jaw-dropping polish is slightly tarnished by the dialogue escaping those photorealistic lips. The personalities are broadly drawn and performed with a gusto that doesn't fit this dozy scene; if you're going to invest all that manpower in making humans that look like humans, why not make them sound human, too?
5 Minutes: Another day in paradise
As the gang step from the tent you're given the second technical wow moment: the first proper look at Duscae, the rolling plain that's home to the demo. The field stretches off for miles, drawing your eyes to giant crystalline spires that split the horizon and rocky arches that thrust improbably from the ground and lead to realms unknown. The closest similarity we can draw is Guar Plain in Xenoblade Chronicles, though the current gen machines pump out far more details than the humble Wii. You'll see wafting shrubs around your feet and a glittering lake that beautifully reflects the brontosaurus-like beasts gently supping at the shore.
Brief chat lays out the goal: to amass the 24,000 gil required to fix a conked-out car. A nearby wanted poster introduces a convenient 25,000 reward for hunting a behemoth, though we're told that you can also chip away at the hefty invoice by selling smaller goods at the various outposts. This alone hints at a far more open FF, allowing you to tread the story path - the demo gently pushes you towards tracking the monster's footprints - or doing your own thing. Makes sense: who would build a sprawling virtual continent and then force you into one tiny corner? Fearing that an hour isn't enough to hunt the beast, we decide to make our fortune elsewhere...
10 Minutes: A sworded affair
The natural reaction to all this beauty is to murder it horribly. Combat unfolds in real-time and is built around five distinct attacks. Tap the attack button once and you get a simple 'Crush' - the initial blow in most fights. Hold the button down after Crush and you trigger Ravage, a continual flurry. Pause during the Ravage and tap attack again and you get a devastating Vanquish finisher. You also have a Counter move - more on that in the next slide - and Descend, a jump attack. Finally there are powerful Techniques, flashy sword attacks ranging from aerial drops (slow to perform, but deadly upon contact) to a 360 degree attack that flattens entire groups.
Tactical depth comes from assigning different weapons to each type of attack, as every blade changes how that move plays out. Noctis begins with Avenger, a simple sword, linked to Crush; it swings fast and without too much fuss. Swap in the Partisan lance, however, and that initial attack becomes a slow jab with greater range. Swapping weapons around changes the entire rhythm of his combos. Stick the heavy Zweihander in the Ravage slot, for example, and that flurry of blows becomes a chain of hefty swipes - great against a large, slow enemy, perhaps, but not so good when there's a wolf darting around your feet. Tuning Noctis for each encounter is key to success.
12 Minutes: What's the time Mr Wolf? Murder time!
A glowing red glint warns us about nearby enemies. Hunkering down in cover - hold the block trigger near larger scenery - lets the threat pass, but this is only explained to us once a sabretusk is at our throat. This agile streak of snarling blue flesh is too fast for our lumbering right thumb to track with the camera, so we focus on it with the right trigger and click the right analogue stick to lock-on. Even with the camera tracking it the beast is fast, ramming Noctis to the floor and dodging our lumbering swipes (the peril of re-mapping the Zweihander to Crush). Our three pals are AI controlled and run to our aid, lifting us to our feet with a shower of magical healing particles.
We spend the first few minutes getting knocked to the floor and having to gulp down our precious potion supply (the demo arms you with 15 to begin with, presumably to soften the learning curve). Blocking, we learn, is mapped to the left trigger. More importantly, blocking is dictated by MP - Noctis will auto-dodge most attacks as long as he has MP to power the move. There's a faint echo of Monster Hunter's stamina bar to this. Okay, in those games there's no such kindness as an auto-dodge, but the idea of evasion being tied to a slowly-regenerating energy bar isn't too alien. Noctis' MP also fuels those devastating Techniques, so it can dry up pretty fast, leaving you defenceless.
20 Minutes: Don't halve a cow, man
Puffed up after the sabretusk encounter we set our sights on a herd of innocent garula, giant shaggy cow creatures. Big mistake. They may eat grass for a living, but they thirst for war, and picking on one provokes the ire of the entire herd. While it's a technical marvel to render fifteen giant beasts attacking in tandem, the bovine army is beyond our camera lock-on skills. Target one and another rushes from behind to deliver a horn to the spine. As Noctis falls again and again his health bar begins to decrease in size - a punishment for letting it deplete. After two minutes of this it's about half the size it was at the beginning of the day.
The trick, we learn, is to master the Counter. Not all attacks can be auto-dodged; more horrible moves cause monsters to flash beforehand - block at this point and tap attack and you unleash a cinematic takedown. Again, these are based on the equipped weapon. Where Noctis' common sword pushes garulas onto their hind legs and slashes at their bellies, a later goblin encounter sees him skewering the little scumbags on his lance, heaving them over his head and piledriving them into the floor. Even better: trigger the counter with a friend nearby and they add their own modifier to the mix. Watching Prompto slide under a cow all guns blazing is really quite something.
30 Minutes: Rest for the wicked
Day turns to dusk and with it, our party grows a little weary. Time to set up camp at one of four campsites dotting the map. Camping is vital for a couple of reasons. For one, it's where you cash in your XP to level up - push into a night time excursion without camping and it only takes one death to wipe out the whole day's XP progress. Our cow murdering trip may have been a disaster, but it was enough to see us hop a level or two when head hits the pillow. Sleeping also restores the depleted health bar to its former glory. Most importantly, however, camping lets you wolf down a hearty dish cooked on the campfire.
Meals act similarly to Monster Hunter's pre-hunt feasts, in that they reward you with various stat buffs. These last the length of the daytime, wearing off automatically at dusk - another reason to set up camp. Selecting from a list of available ingredients reveals what meals can be prepared and what the resulting buff will be. You're then treated to a shot of the finished dish - we enjoy a nice omelette studded with peppers. While we don't get an animation of Noctis greedily wolfing it down, Hunter-style, it does trump Capcom's culinary effort in that it wasn't cooked by a mangy cat. Call it a draw.
40 Minutes: Killing time, not cows
The following ten minutes are spent poking around the map. We discover a Chocobo Ranch, where we ogle the feathery beauties as a lovely country and western take on the classic Chocobo Theme plays. We sell some of our hard-won materials for about 500 gil - only 23,500 to go! - and try not to blow the money on delicious looking snacks. We find the edge of the demo area, a giant magical barrier that cheekily informs us to wait for the full game. Bringing up the map screen we see that we've only covered a fraction of the available land. With time ticking on, and no sign of the behemoth, we head for a suspicious looking cranny nestled in the south edge of the map.
Along the way we spot a futuristic dropship hovering over the forest, likely depositing the imperial guards who pursue Noctis and friends for reasons unknown. Crimes against hair, perhaps. We pick fights with several more sabretusks, but come out on top with some handy pointers from a nearby pro - locking-on to a target lets you perform a warp attack that teleports you to their side and into a slash, making it harder for faster enemies to escape. The same warp move lets Noctis dart to the top of a nearby pylon, where he can hang and observe the battle, recuperating lost MP until he locks onto a wolf below and warps back down with a crash. It's exciting stuff.
50 Minutes: Final Fantasy XV: Episode Spelunky
The crevice in the map reveals a hidden dungeon, a network of caves deep underground. Entering the gloomy space lets the engine show off some incredible lighting effects. Not only do Noctis and pals have torches that cast the winding tunnels in eerie blue, but all the sparks and magic particles from attacks cause the walls to flash with rainbow colours. Encounter a team of goblins and the game practically becomes an in-doors fireworks display, with shifting shadows and violent bursts of colour. The one downside: all this lighting cleverness comes at the cost of frame rate, which begins to chug when there are five or so goblins on screen. Hopefully it'll be smoothed out in time.
A cave is hardly a novel setting for Final Fantasy, but it does show off a newfound cinematic flair for enemy encounters. Goblins don't roam its corridors, but come leaping out of pits or pouring out of cracks. The game has a sneaky habit of luring you towards an empty spot with a glinting item pick-up, only to bombard you with a goblin attack squad. We'll admit to jumping once or twice. Noctis also makes like Nathan Drake and squeezes through claustrophobic cracks. While we assumed these were just masking loading screens, they turned out to be slightly more dynamic - one such crack suddenly flooded with goblins, forcing us to retreat and fight outside.
And... that's how far we got. Time, and goblins, got the better of us. Annoying, as the cave was clearly leading to something juicy. The important thing to take away from Episode Duscae is that this isn't a demo in the traditional sense - if anything, its scale, and depth of systems, is closer to Ground Zeroes in execution. We spent an hour without even scratching that central behemoth quest, or making any kind of meaningful dent on the car invoice. Even those quests are just a fraction of what's on offer: we've heard talk of hidden weapons, characters and secret events. That's one hour in Episode Duscae done - we can't wait to play many more.