Final Fantasy XV Episode Duscae Preview: Everything's Coming Up Open-World

Kingdom Hearts grows up, gets open, and changes its name.

After years of waiting, the first playable version of Final Fantasy XV is within reach. From its genesis as the Fabula Nova Crystalis project Final Fantasy Versus XIII and its last-generation heritage, the game has evolved into a primary entry in the long-running franchise. Yesterday, I sat down with a PlayStation 4 controller in my hand and played the first look at what's next for Final Fantasy.

Noctis and his K-pop band, in order: Ignis, Gladiolus, Noctis, and Prompto.

Episode Duscae is a slice of Final Fantasy XV that everyone will get to play in a few weeks when Final Fantasy Type-0 HD releases. The demo drops you in the middle of FFXV proper: Noctis and his attendant rock band need a cash infusion to pay for repairs on their vehicle, the Regalia. To make a quick buck, they decide to head into the Duscae wilderness to hunt a Behemoth terrorizing the locals. Duscae is a wide-open space of dusty plains, a murky swamp, and a forest sprouting from rolling hills. It plays like an open world title. You can go anywhere - except into deep water, as Noctis can't swim - finding items, fighting foes, and completing side quests.

Yes, Final Fantasy XV is very much an open-world RPG. You can wander around aimlessly or bring up the in-game map to create waypoints to different quest markers. You'll also come across points of interest where one of Noctis' crew - the beefy Gladiolus, Ignis, and proper Prompto - will give you additional quests to undertake. The overall feel of Duscae reminded me of Dragon Age Inquisition's Hinterlands, but with a Final Fantasy twist.

As you wander around the area, you'll run into enemies and the new threat indicator. A red bar forms in the center of the screen and spreads outward as you move closer to antagonistic characters, giving you a chance to occasionally avoid combat. If you decide that you want to fight, there's no screen shift, you'll simply switch into combat mode.

Yes, these screenshots are in Japanese. Like the game, which features English and Japanese audio and subtitles.

In combat, you only control Noctis, while his friends are completely AI-controlled. They do what they can to survive on their own and help Noctis. At least in Episode Duscae, there doesn't seem to be any way to give them orders. Noctis' abilities fall into a few basic areas: he can materialize swords to attack, warp around the battlefield freely, dodge most attacks, and use a small set of special Techniques.

Square is your attack button, Triangle performs your selected Technique (D-Pad left and right to change Technique), X allows Noctis to warp to the high ground or perform a Warpstrike on an enemy, and L1 hides behind cover. The last two are key to the basic gameplay.

Everything Noctis does outside of basic attacks costs MP. You can hold down a button to shift into dodge mode, where Noctis avoids every attack with a sparkly blue aura, but every dodge costs you around 10 MP. (There's also a timed parry mechanic available when you dodge certain attacks.) Warpstrike, the best way to close distance between you and an enemy, costs 20 MP, and Noctis' Techniques have variable cost.

Your MP refills automatically at a set rate, so combat in Final Fantasy XV is about managing this resource pool in real-time. Drop to 0 MP and Noctis drops in Stasis Mode, where he stumbles around and can't perform any special moves whatsoever. To avoid this you can either stick to basic attacks and wait for your MP to fill, or you can take to cover. Hiding behind cover or Warping onto high ground increases your MP regeneration rate. So the ebb-and-flow of combat is warping around the battlefield, slashing enemies and dodging their attacks, and occasionally dropping back to replenish your magic.

Noctis using Dragoon Jump.

It feels a bit like Kingdom Hearts, where you have direct control of Sora in action-combat, while Donald and Goofy do their thing. I was so busy managing Noctis that sometimes I forgot that Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto even existed. They step in with their own special attacks, like stuns, but it doesn't factor into your planning because you don't know when its going to happen. With the feel of Dragon Age Inquisition in the open-world, Final Fantasy XV also blends in some Kingdom Hearts to keep combat interesting.

There is customization though. Noctis' sword attacks fall into five categories: Crush, Ravage, Vanquish, Counter, and Descend, each corresponding to when you hit the Square button. Crush is your opening attack, while Ravage is the continuous slash combos you can do. Vanquish attacks happen when you strike an enemy that's low on health, doing extra damage. Counter is what comes after a successful parry. I'm not entirely sure on what Descend covers, but my guess is it determines what weapon you use during Warpstrike.

When you open up your weapon inventory, you can equip different swords in each of these categories. Depending on the weapon and which slot you put it in, you'll gain different effects. Outside of more damage, you can also gain status benefits like improved MP regeneration. This was the area in the demo build that I really wanted to dig more into, but my session was only so long, so I prioritized exploring the world and getting a feel for the combat.

Rest up to level.

Every encounter gives you a set amount of XP, plus a bonus depending on how you performed in the battle. Seems simple, but the interesting thing about experience in Episode Duscae is it's not alloted to your characters until you rest up at a camp. When day turns into night, it's best to pitch your tent. When you do, all of the day's experience will be counted up and your team can level up and gain new abilities (not available in my demo). You can also have Noctis cook up different recipes to give you special bonuses during the day time, like increased damage or XP gain.

From a visual standpoint, Episode Duscae looks pretty good, but hitches here and there prevent it from being a perfect experience. There's no anti-aliasing, so you should be prepared for the jaggies and in some cutscenes there were framerate hitches. There's also the occasional texture that reminds you that Final Fantasy XV was once a PlayStation 3 title. If you can overlook these slight issues, Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae is a damn-fine looking demo, with vistas in line with the gorgeous-looking Final Fantasy XIV.

What's intriguing about Episode Duscae are the hints of the world that Noctis inhabits. A world where the tropes of Final Fantasy never went away despite the march of progress. A world of cars and modern fashion, but still containing Magitek empires and giant creatures roaming the countryside. Usually if Final Fantasy isn't in the past, it feels like it's in the far future. Final Fantasy XV feels like it's a mix of the modern world and Final Fantasy. Episode Duscae is the rural area, with a roadside, rustic Chocobo Cafe, but I'm looking forward to seeing what Square Enix does with the urban areas.

So this is an odd homecoming for Final Fantasy. People who felt that Final Fantasy XIII, XIII-2, and Lightning Returns messed with the formula too much? I daresay FFXV will take it even further. This is an action RPG taking place in the Final Fantasy franchise, something that many wouldn't have batted an eye at when Versus XIII was a spin-off. As a numbered entry in the series? This is new territory, continuing to re-define what "Final Fantasy" really is to Square Enix.

I enjoyed my time with Episode Duscae and I'm waiting for Type-0's launch so I can see more of it. Square Enix representatives told me Episode Duscae is 3-4 hours of gameplay if you only focus on the story, but the demo should have more content that that if you get out and explore the Duscae countryside.

Looking forward to Final Fantasy XV Episode Duscae? What is Final Fantasy to you? Let me know in the comments below.

Tagged with PAX East 2015, Square Enix.

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