If you watched the Final Fantasy XV: Uncovered event a few months ago, you might have heard about the long-awaited game's new demo: Platinum Demo. It's free to download on either PS4 or Xbox One.
Earlier tonight, I finally played it; and, well, it's weird.
One of the big points of the Uncovered event (which, if you didn't watch it, was essentially a glorified press conference to unveil, or "uncover," the game's release dates and a bunch of other hype-train stuff for the game) was Square Enix's argument that FFXV has the potential to appeal to all Final Fantasy fans—past, present, and future.
After playing Platinum Demo, I'm not sure who it's for. Beyond that, I'm not confident it will have what it takes to draw mainstream crowds.
During the 30-or-so minute demo, you'll explore a forest, a rocky lakeside, a fancy dining room (in which you have been shrunken to the size of a mouse), and a city plaza. A strange "dream guide" (the above fox/unicorn...thing) guides you through a "dreamscape" that's essentially a tech demo for the game, including in-game buttons you step on that change the weather and time of day to showcase that part of the engine.
You get a taste of exploration, combat, dialogue, collecting shiny bits, platforming, and driving. In that sense, it's good in the very literal sense that it demonstrates lots of things that you'll presumably experience in the game proper. Even so, I finished the experience wondering if the surreal, disjointed bits of a game I had just played could really coalesce into a finished product that might bring me back into the fold as a fan (as I haven't really gotten into a Final Fantasy game since the tenth installment on PS2).
For starters, you spend most of the demo playing as a young version of the game's hero, Noctis, who fights with one of the following: a toy sword, a toy hammer, or a magic spell for fireworks. While slightly charming in that quirky, Japanese way, it's annoying that, until the final battle (when, spoiler, you become adult Noctis), you don't have any health or other stats to see, so you're just fighting with no real sense of what's going on or what's at stake.
The actual fighting mechanics are totally new: as with FFXII and FFXIII, the game eschews traditional menu/turn-based combat for something new. This time around, battles play out almost like a simplified action brawler (think Devil May Cry). I guess this is part of Sqaure Enix's strategy to make the game have broader appeal, but it's one of my biggest complaints with the game (and, at this point, the series). Maybe I'm living in the past, but a big part of what "Final Fantasy" means to me is turn-based battles. In FFXII and FFXIII, the battle systems were weird (and not great, in my opinion), but they at least had some degree of planning combat through menus.
Here, you're either mashing (or just holding) the attack or defend buttons as you run around enemies. You get the ability to jump during combat as well as hot swap weapons via the D-pad, all of which adds to the flair and excitement of battle; but it's very much a real-time combat game. If I'm being honest, this is a major concern for me; maybe it will turn out to be a great innovation for the series, but my feeling after the demo is that it does not feel like Final Fantasy at all.
Beyond the combat mechanics, there are a number of issues.
As with most of the recent games in the series, there's just a weird feel to the world. I used the word "surreal" earlier; and, while I understand this demo is taking place in Noctis' dream, I need to reiterate that point. As the Final Fantasy games have moved more and more toward realistic graphics, I've had an increasingly difficult time accepting the stories and worlds. Something about the SNES' 16-bit sprites and the PS1's super-deformed polygonal characters just made these wacky tales easier to stomach.
Really, though, I'lll have to wait for the full game to make a real judgment call with FFXV because there's no real coherent story in this demo. You get bits and pieces of Noctis having a strained relationship with his father, some weird dream stuff, and that's about it. Still, especially in the portions set in an abandoned city, I felt the same reaction that I had to Traverse Town in the Kingdom Hearts games: why is this city empty and filled with monsters? Where'd everyone go? What the hell is happening?
Graphically, the demo vacillates between great (Carbuncle's fur looks fantastic) and mediocre (some low-res textures and frame rate issues). It's a demo, so I'm not going to focus too much on that, but it did feel like quite a step back from something like Uncharted 4 (and, yes, I realize that's an unfair comparison, but it was the last game I played before this). Character models are generally high quality, but the environments on-display sometimes look last-gen.
I should also note that the controls aren't the best. Movement and camera control both felt rough, like they hadn't been smoothed out properly. I mentioned earlier that the game asks you to do some platforming: it's not anything to the level of Mario, but you can jump and occasionally have to navigate up steps or ramps. This allows the game to have more verticality than previous games in the series, but I hope they keep things generally simple because the controls aren't precise enough to make any intricate jumps without introducing tons of frustration.
As I mentioned earlier, the demo ends with a fight as adult Noctis against a very large "Iron Giant." At this point, you get real weapons and magic, and you get a glimpse of his health stats. As with the rest of the demo, you can't really die here; however, Carbuncle will actually cast a spell to heal you if your health runs out. I wish, honestly, that the full demo had health like this because it added some risk/reward to the fight.
Unfortunately, the actual fight felt underwhelming and frustrating on my first playthrough. There is a dodge mechanic that seems to only work sometimes, magic casting is more like grenade tossing, and the flow of the fight just didn't seem great. Hopefully the finished game will feel a little more polished (and, of course, will give players more opportunity to get accustomed to the battle system).
I totally get that Platinum Demo is designed to be a very small slice of a very large game; even so, I can't help but feel it's not going to make a great first impression for the new set of fans Square Enix clearly hopes to capture with FFXV.
As a lapsed Final Fantasy fan myself, I was really hoping that this might be the game to revitalize the franchise for me. This demo certainly is more fun to play than FFXIII, but the series has strayed so far from the "golden era" days of FFVI and FFVII that it's unrecognizable to me. All games need to evolve to stay relevant, but this has been a particular point of struggle for the Final Fantasy series.
Will this be an enjoyable game? Maybe. Will this really feel like a Final Fantasy game? All signs point, sadly, to no.
Whether or not that's a good thing will play out this fall when Final Fantasy XV releases this fall for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on September 30, 2016.