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Final Fantasy XV Travel Diary, Day Two: Force Your Way

An in-depth look at Final Fantasy XV's combat system, and how it's improved from the early demos.

Preview by Jeremy Parish, .

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I mentioned in the first part of my hands-on preview with Final Fantasy XV that some bizarre alchemy slowly transmuted the game's E3 2006 introductory trailer into something completely different over the course of several years. Back when those conceptual CG graphics were all that basically existed of the game, when it was Final Fantasy Versus XIII, Square Enix would cut and paste it for each new event, adding a snippet of new footage while trimming out some old material. After a few years, it barely resembled that enigmatic debut teaser, but neither was it a new trailer.

The same, I think, could be said for the game itself, especially where combat is concerned. The very earliest glimpses Square Enix showed of FFXV's battle system looked for all the world like Kingdom Hearts — perhaps not surprising, given that the game original fell under the purview of Kingdom Hearts boss Tetsuya Nomura. Those early peeks showed protagonist Noctis air-juggling a massive behemoth, knocking the creature into the air with chained combos. Those elements remain present in the final version of the RPG, but they no longer come off as a Kingdom Hearts derivative.

Instead, FFXV's battle system could perhaps best be described as a cross between Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy XIII, reshaped into a mutable real-time system. The player controls only protagonist Noctis, with his three companions operating under computer guidance. While you can issue orders to Noctis' friends to have them perform special actions, the rest of the time you're strictly exerting direct control over Noctis himself.

If you've played the Episode Duscae demo, you have a general sense of how FFXV's combat works. Again, it has a heavy real-time component, and it sees Noctis and friends mixing it up with anywhere from one to a dozen foes of various sizes. (Once the Empire enters the story, their troop carriers will periodically deposit squads of soldiers near you even if you're already engaged in a battle with roaming monsters, so it can become quite hectic.)

Noctis himself is a remarkably versatile warrior. He can have up to four different attack options equipped at a given time, be they physical weapons or a magic spell. He can sidestep to evade foes, and he also has his magic-based warp capability that allows him to target distant foes and dart across the battlefield to close the gap while striking his victim for a damage bonus based on the distance he's flown. Later in the game, you're also able to buy a very expensive skill perk that causes his warp power to hit for enormous damage when used at point-blank range. Versatile as it is, though, warp striking costs considerable magic points, so you either need to ration the skill carefully in combat (it regenerates over time, but slowly) or else carry a lot of pricey MP restorative potions. When Noctis runs out of MP, he enters a condition called "stasis" and loses the ability to use his warp strike and his instant dodge-phase evasion... though, again, at some point you're able to unlock a skill that turns this handicap into an advantage by giving him a huge attack boost while in stasis.

Really, customization is the greatest strength of FFXV's combat system. At the game's outset, it honestly does come off as a real mess: Button-mashing nonsense that barely makes sense. As you begin to gain ability points and unlock nodes on the skill trees for both Noctis and the team, however, combat evolves into something much more involving and refined. So far, I've had three major breakthroughs that changed the way I approach battle.

1. Link skills:

In the beginning, Noctis and his partners basically just do their own thing, hammering on random bad guys. Once you begin to unlock linking options, however, the team works in unison more and more often, and in a variety of ways.

For example, you can issue specific commands to party members. Unlike FFXII and FFXIII, however, this doesn't work for standard actions. Instead, you can give these orders from a small set of character-specific skills that have to be unlocked one-by-one by spending AP in the Ascension Grid, and which cost Tech Points (this game's equivalent of the Active Time Battle gauge, a multi-step meter that fills based on time and the party's combat actions) when activated. These don't simply serve as powerful one-time skills; each one ends with a button prompt that allows Noctis to link in and execute a follow-up action.

For example, Gladio's Tempest ability, which costs a single Tech Point, consists of him leaping into the fray with a massive spinning broadsword attack. During this time, the camera pans away from Noctis and you momentarily lose control over him (he stands safely out of the way, briefly immune from enemy attacks). Tempest hits considerably harder than a basic sword attack, and once the blow lands the action slows to deliver a button prompt. Hit this cue and the Noctis will jump into center frame to strike the enemy before the game returns control of the action to the player.

This isn't the only kind of linking you have at your command, however. You can also unlock team abilities that cause cooperative attacks based on standard combat actions. For example, if you manage to position yourself behind a foe before attacking, you'll get a "blindside" damage bonus. That's a nice extra, but it becomes far more valuable once you unlock blindside links that cause a partner to target a blindsided enemy after Noctis lands his attack. (There are great little animations when you pull one of these off; when Gladio leaps in, for instance, he follows up his chain attack by giving Noctis a quick fist-bump.) You can also damage specific points on certain enemies to render them vulnerable or temporarily crippled, or deliver enough damage to break a target's guard; each of these battle conditions can also be exploited for team chains.

Although linked and chaser skills have become increasingly common in RPGs (they're a key tactic in the Etrian Odyssey games), they tend to be highly specific and situational. In FFXV, however, they prove to be in many ways the heart and soul of combat — and of the game. After all, the story revolves around four pampered teens being thrust into a terrible situation and forced to survive the odds as an entire military empire chases them down. Unlocking these cooperative abilities really helps sell the idea that they're maturing into a team and learning to rely on each other. Play mechanics that underscore the story have always been a huge part of Final Fantasy, and FFXV is no different in that regard.

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Comments 20

  • Avatar for MetManMas #1 MetManMas A year ago
    Okay, here's a question: How much of a presence does the sci-fi stuff have in the game? One of the things that really appeals to me about Final Fantasy XV is the FF8-esque mix of sci-fi and fantasy with a more contemporary looking setting.
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  • Avatar for docexe #2 docexe A year ago
    I was skeptical of the battle system, but based on your impressions, it sounds fantastic. Makes me wonder if the series will finally realize its “cinematic combat” ambitions.
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  • Avatar for Alan_01987 #3 Alan_01987 A year ago
    All respect to writer but I have to disagree with a lot of what is written here. We have played the demo, XV is nothing like XII, nothing like XIII nor a mix of both.

    It is pretty much an action game. Here is a much better analysis of combat core mechanics even if it is a bit old.
    https://sites.google.com/site/darkwavestyle/games-research/final-fantasy-xv-platinum-demo
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #4 VotesForCows A year ago
    Sounds fantastic Jeremy - was always going to be interested, but the systems you describe sound great. And if its anything like FF13 then I'm definitely on board!
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  • Avatar for One_Vurfed_Gwrx #5 One_Vurfed_Gwrx A year ago
    @Alan_01987 the combat in the Platinum demo that you linked to a description of felt quite different from Duscae thus the backlash about the Platinum demo. The description in this travelogue sounds more like Duscae again.
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  • Avatar for Alan_01987 #6 Alan_01987 A year ago
    @One_Vurfed_Gwrx based on pre-review footage, it is pretty much the same on fundamental level except that we have tag combos (party skills, parry and back-attacks). Thing is that the link shows a proper combat analysis unlike taking mechanics and actions then dubbing them as button mash non-sense.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #7 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @Alan_01987 This is not based on the demo; it's based on 10 hours of play and exploring systems and customization with a final version of the game.
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  • Avatar for hiptanaka #8 hiptanaka A year ago
    "It's possible to play it as a pure, real-time action game... but I don't recommend it. Combat can be hectic, and not necessarily in a good way."

    It sounds a bit as if the combat has a lot of depth if you look for it, but it never pushes you to use it. That's a bit concerning for me. If I play sloppily, I want the game to kick me in the butt and say "find the solution within these cool systems!"

    Am I reading you wrong?Edited October 2016 by hiptanaka
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  • Avatar for jeffcorry #9 jeffcorry A year ago
    I am getting really excited for this game. The more I hear, the more intrigued I am. But of course, I was going to get it anyway.
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  • Avatar for TheWildCard #10 TheWildCard A year ago
    I don't know, as much footage I've watched and impressions I've read the combat still seems like a bit of a mess. It will be interesting so what kind of consensus there will be when reviews are out.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #11 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @hiptanaka Nah. You will get the ever-loving crap kicked out of you if you try to approach it as a button-masher beyond chapter one.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #12 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @TheWildCard It looks incomprehensible if you're just watching. When you actually play, you develop a sense of what's going on and how to drive the direction of battle the way you want.
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  • Avatar for The-Challenger #13 The-Challenger A year ago
    You made me believe, if only for a second, that I will enjoy this game. Maybe this FF will finally wash away the putrid taste left in my mouth by FF13.

    Good on them incorporating "pause and play", Bioware would be proud.
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  • Avatar for hiptanaka #14 hiptanaka A year ago
    @jeremy.parish Ok, in that light it sounds really cool!
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #15 brionfoulke91 A year ago
    Unlike some other people, I've always been looking forward to this game. I generally liked FF13, especially it's battle system. Pretty much every FF has a good battle system, it's the one thing the series is very consistent on, so I had a lot of faith that this one would be good too. And from the sounds of it, they have not let me down! Can't wait to try it.
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  • Avatar for Modern-Clix #16 Modern-Clix A year ago
    Wait mode?!

    Sold.

    I had cancelled my pre-order and this writ up made me sign up for it again. Thank you!
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  • Avatar for NateDizzy #17 NateDizzy A year ago
    Well, this is some promising news. One of my big concerns with FFVX's battle system was that it would be too shallow for an avid action game fan like myself (I still play Ninja Gaiden yearly, DMC4 daily, and I have almost all of Platinum's catalogue, while also being too complex for people who don't like to press a lot of buttons during combat. However, this preview sounds like Tabata's team found a great solution to the problem. Can't wait to FINALLY play this game.Edited October 2016 by NateDizzy
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  • Avatar for jacobmulholland05 #18 jacobmulholland05 A year ago
    "button mashing nonsense that barely makes sense"
    ...Are you fucking retarded? It couldn't be simpler. First people don't understand how the incredibly simple parry works in Metal Gear Rising and now this? Did i just read this wrong?
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  • Avatar for jacobmulholland05 #19 jacobmulholland05 A year ago
    @NateDizzy I'm going to warn you so that you don't waste money on a game you might not like so remember: Its not an action game, and its not an rpg. Its an action-rpg. Its not as involved as DmC or Ninja Gaiden, but its more involved than a rpg like the old ff's. Think of Witcher or Dark Souls as action-action-rpg's, and FFXV as an action-rpg-rpg.
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  • Avatar for NateDizzy #20 NateDizzy A year ago
    @jacobmulholland05 No need for warning, I know it's not going to be straight on action game. Guess my previous post was just written terribly.
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