Thursday, March 19, 2015

Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae

Final Fantasy, let alone Square Enix, hasn't been in the brighest of spots for a while. Between neglecting various IPs from their pre-merger heydays (only to briefly revive a few half-heartedly and never touch them again), bloating out the FFXIII saga past any sane person's interest, and teasing things far too early and never following up on them. One of these games was known then as "Final Fantasy Versus XIII," a game which we knew very little on back when it was first announced in 2006. A smart company would have teased this in 2010 when director Tetsuya Nomura and company had finally entered full production, but this again is SE we're talking about.

Or maybe we WERE talking about. While I'm not an MMO player, seeing Naoki Yoshida present a complete understanding as to why FFXIV originally failed highlights the kind of bad thinking that plagued the company so bad. The fact he was able to take what was originally an unplayable mess and make it into a success also shows he has something the company desperately needs: focus. Bravely Default, despite it's frustratingly repetitive second half, worked because it stayed focused on presenting an earnest throwback to 90s FF with a surprise Madoka Magicaesque deconstruction twist to top it off. A Realm Reborn worked because Yoshida, as shown in his presentation, focused on FUN above all other things, something the prior XIII saga either dropped for an overly lugubrious tone (much like most current media) to force greater weight onto its own narrative without thinking of giving the player any lighter side to actually get invested in. The result is sound and fury of exposition with little actual character beneath, which I easily consider to be the worst storytelling I have seen in any game. But to the main point, this demo is surprisingly solid, mainly because it remembers to start with the light stuff before gradually increasing in scale.

From the get-go, Episode Duscae doesn't open on an action climax where we don't know anyone and therefore can't give a shit for their adventures, but a breezy camping trip between a close band of friends. Rather than constantly stating their aims during every conversation, they actually talk about small things that make them feel like actual characters. Even though we have been teased large battles and political intrigue(?) in an earlier trailer, it also showed a small scene regarding soup between a father and son. This demo essentially is one big small scene; rather than show off all the grand struggle and bombast this game might have, it instead focuses on the minor quest to get their car repaired. They find a sign pointing to a Behemoth whose reward can pay their repair costs, find themselves overpowered by the thing, hear about a dangerous cave, visit it because why not, and use the summon they find to get their dough. Rather than forcing in a complex yet vague lore, the cast jumps from one simple yet rational goal to the next. Effective simplicity over XIII's willful convolution is the focus here, and all for the better.

Yoko Shimomura does a solid job with the music here. Both day and night battle themes are fittingly tense yet upbeat, "Omnis Lacrima" makes an effective boss theme booming chants and all, the menu theme is pleasantly soothing (taking the sweeping "Somnus" from earlier and transposing the vocals to a gentle violin, giving a relaxed feel to the whole thing), and the Chocobo remix for the ranch is as jovially calm as you would expect from that description. That being said, I do hope the full soundtrack has more range than what we currently have. Currently pretty much every track fits into the Kingdom Hearts category of sentimental, sorta-classical-romantic (often C minor) compositions Shimomura has covered before, and while they are done well, she has done best by straying from these limitations such as Legend of Mana's "The Darkness Nova" or blending them into an alien, inorganic synth hum as shown in Parasite Eve's "U.B." Maybe this is Nomura's direction holding her back for this, but I would really hope I could hold her debut FF soundtrack among her best work instead of just being another fine one.

Combat here is simple but fluid. You have your attacks which you can customize based on the way you lay out your weapon roster, a dodge function, a parry for dodging certain attacks, and a warp that works for both quick escapes and catching up to foes. The partner AI seems mostly solid although there are several instances where I felt my allies should have come up quicker to rescue me, especially when I hobbled up to them only to watch them wait 5 seconds until reviving me. The techniques the demo showed were cool, but other than Drain Blade and the Armiger limit break I pretty much reserved MP for dodging and warp-striking towards foes. I hope the battle system for the full game offers a little more depth than what we have at the moment, but it plays well enough and the return of seamless transition between battle and travel is very welcome.

Since the demo only offered the techniques you have at the start, I can't comment on the leveling system other than I don't like how you have to camp to actually gain your experience instead of just grinding proper. Camping however does offer some nice buffs based on what meals you make, which I think could be put to great use in the full game when we see a broader range of these.

Now for the last part, visuals, presentation and art direction. This game in terms of graphical power does kinda look like a PS3 game converted to the current-gen hardware, but it still does look quite good with rich textures and detailed animatons. The cutscene direction has all the detail to gestures we have come to expect from the company, and despite some unnervingly long loading times the transition from gameplay to cutscenes flowed impressively. Battles are genuinely cool to look at with the flair given to each attack yet are kept easy enough to follow so that I can figure out what's going on at each moment. As for art direction, the enemy design feels surprisingly classical in the use of iconic monsters such as Goblins, Garulas, imperial soldiers, etc, yet they look modernized enough that they don't conflict too much against the black-leather the party dresses in. That being said, none of the NPCs besides Cindy felt like they were dressed like FF characters; everything they wore looked too plain and casual. I get this is a fantasy based on reality, but I don't expect them to look like they aren't part of a fantasy at all when none of the earlier previews hinted at this. The art in the ending cutscene though was particularly fantastic, topping the demo off with the one tease to the epic FFXV has in every trailer and demo prior been selling us, reminding us that there still is a larger adventure ahead for us.

One last nitpick: Lunafreya is a really silly name.

In short, Episode Duscae is a solid demo that shows Square Enix is finally getting their act together again slowly but surely. Perhaps it doesn't show off the full capabilities Nomura has been aiming for, but the fact he has let the series have a sense of lightness to rekindle its adventurous spirit shows he understands how this series became such a brand name in the first place.

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