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

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.

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Warping and Phasing

Being a magical prince with super-powered genes (or the blood of the First Men, or whatever), Noctis has access to a lot of skills his companions don't. In fact, once the world goes pear-shaped and Noctis' entire existence is turned upside-down, his mission becomes a quest to reclaim his lineage by traveling to shrines around the world and claim those spectral weapons that were teased way back in the very first Versus XIII trailer. But none of these powers have nearly so much of an impact on FFXV's combat as his ability to phase through space.

Seemingly inspired by Assassin's Creed, phasing allows Noctis to automatically sidestep incoming attacks. You can simply hold down a button to instantly evade all enemy actions — a bit like easy mode, perhaps, but something of a necessity given the faster pacing and larger melee numbers you encounter in FFXV's battles. Unlike Assassin's Creed or the Arkham games, bad guys don't politely stand around and politely attack one at a time; multiple monsters can gang up on a single character and make short work of them.

It's easy to overlook phasing at the outset, when you face off against fairly basic monsters. Better to expend your magic points by warping to attack, or to safety (both phasing and warping draw from the same pool of mana). Again, warping can result in significant combat bonuses, be it distance-based perks, point-blank multipliers, or linked action; it's costly and must be used smartly, but it's a skill worth mastering. More to the point, its benefits are obvious and direct even at the start of the game, even if only for allowing you to zip into and out of action in an instant.

Phasing, on the other hand, requires a little more practice to use effectively. If you simply hold down the phasing button, Noctis will dodge everything that comes his way so long as he has magic points (and you can unlock Ascension Grid spaces that greatly reduce the cost of phasing early on in the game). However, once Noctis launches into an attack, he becomes vulnerable. You can't simply mash the attack button indiscriminately and expect to come out unscathed.

As you begin to take on more difficult enemies, however, phasing becomes essential. Powerful single foes can devastate Noctis in a hit or two, demanding you stay on your toes. Additionally, enemies who attack with firearms can hit you with bullet sprays that don't hit particularly hard but will reduce Noctis' maximum hit points. Normally, your max HP only decrease when your health is reduced to zero (a character dies when their max HP drops to zero, and any lost max points won't regenerate until you rest overnight or consume a costly restorative potion), but bullets can chip away at that all-important health. So, it's essential to keep Noctis on his toes.

Once you get the hang of phasing in combat, though, it's possible to take on tremendously dangerous foes unscathed; you simply need to learn the proper timing. While wandering Leide, I've encountered a number of monsters that are 10 to 20 levels above the party's current experience, and they hit like it. The rare and ferocious Iron Giants (level 35) can hit a level 10 character for far more than his maximum HP, making for a single-hit kill. It's possible to go toe-to-toe with the brute; the challenge being that your companions aren't nearly as good at evasion as Noctis and will create a huge drain on your potion resources if you take on too dangerous a monster. Still, the possibility exists for those with a combination of nerves, patience, and a patent disregard for their friends' well-being.

3. Active vs. Wait

And finally, perhaps the most important addition to FFXV's combat system: A Wait mode. While you can choose to approach the game as a true real-time experience (Active mode), it feels far more like Final Fantasy if you use Wait mode.

With Wait mode active, the game pauses any time you release the left analog stick. The world becomes frozen and you can move the game camera around with the right stick to take in the battlefield. Lines connecting Noctis to potential targets, as well as enemies to their current targeted party member (and vice-versa), appear during this mode — closely resembling FFXII's Active Dimension combat. While in this frozen command tableau, you can toggle between enemies with the lock-on button, bring up the party or item command menus, or simply shift into a warp attack.

The freedom to take this breather makes the action far more tactical in nature than it would be otherwise, giving players time to strategize in a skirmish that simply isn't possible with a dozen characters actively hacking their way through the battlefield. The simple option to drink in the situation has a lot to do with FFXV feeling like a proper Final Fantasy rather than some bastard sibling to Kingdom Hearts. It's a seemingly small but ultimately monumental change that helps elevate the game over its preview versions.

Of course, it's still possible to play the game as more of a pure, real-time action experience. Aside from items and party special technique commands, FFXV doesn't require the use of menus. So far, I've only found three types of magic: The three basic elements. Rather than using these through menus, you can equip these as secondary weapon. The party possesses elemental flasks which can hold up to three spell charges apiece and need to be replenished once those three charges have been spent. You replenish them by taking a page out of Final Fantasy VIII: By finding magic nodes throughout the game and drawing magic from them. You can stock up to 99 points of energy per spell, and when you fill your elemental flasks you have to assign an intensity to those three charges that is deducted from the party's stored charge. A level 1 spell is puny, but you can craft 3x99 of them; a level 99 spell will curl any enemy's toes, but it burns through your entire elemental stock and will force you to travel around the countryside to replenish your spell stock if you want to use magic again.

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. Enemies don't have as many tells on their actions as in a good action game like Bayonetta, and they have a tendency to gang up on Noctis. You can make use of defensive phasing, but FFXV doesn't quite come together as an action game... which is fine. It's an RPG, and despite the enormous shift in its underlying design philosophy from previous games in the series, I've found myself surprised by how much it evokes classic Final Fantasy. It's a nebulous thing, the idea of "feel" and "fidelity," but there's more of it here than I would have anticipated.

Next week, I'll wrap up my FFXV travelogue with a look at life beyond the first chapter of the game, and by answering any questions you would like to present in the comments here or in the first part of this in-depth preview.

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