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.