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March 26, 2015

Let’s discuss Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae.


I know why you’re here.  And I don’t blame you for it.

It’s Final Fantasy.  You can’t turn away from it.  I can’t turn away from it.  Anyone who’s ever jumped on a Goomba can’t turn away for it.  The franchise keeps pulling in gamers across the board, whether they’re diehard fans or furious detractors.  And with FF15 -- formerly Versus 13 -- being an upcoming title for nearly a decade, all eyes are on Squeenix’s latest.

Not to generalize, but I’m guessing you’re here so you can see me deliver some bad news.  I don’t blame anyone for it; The Lightning Saga practically ran the franchise’s name into the ground, and it hasn’t exactly been soaring in the sky since…well, maybe as early as FF8.  Couple that with the slew of disappointments in the eighth-gen console/AAA space recently, and any given gamer has the right to suspect -- if not expect -- another debacle.  This spiffy new demo is going to be all the proof we need to skip the full game.  At least, that’s the fear.  People are just waiting for confirmation.

I know why you’re here.  And guess what?  I’m not here to tell you that the game -- Duscae or otherwise -- is terrible.  So breathe a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, I’m here to give you some bad news.

Let me pare it down to the basics, just in case you need a quick summary.  Is the demo good?  Eh.  Does it paint a pretty picture for the full release?  Not really.  Did I have fun?  I guess, but I couldn’t play it without longing for more Type-0.  Would I play it again?  Noooooooooooooooo.

I have mixed feelings about Duscae.  I don’t want to say I hate it, because all things considered, I don’t.  But even so, I can’t bring myself to say I loved it, or even liked it.  It’s just kind of…there.  It does its thing, and that thing doesn’t make me want to choke on my rage, but I should be feeling more at this point, right?  And beyond that, there’s the understood rule: the purpose of a demo is to hype a potential player enough so that he or she will make the full purchase.  Duscae didn’t really do that for me.  So based solely on that, the demo’s kind of a failure -- to the point where I kind of wish they didn’t even release one.

But before I explain why, I need you to do me a favor.  Watch this video.


So I have a question: does Squeenix think we’re all idiot babies?

I ask this because as far as I know, the demo does nothing to explain those advanced options.  I wouldn’t have even known they were in the game if not for me scrolling through the comments on a Destructoid post.  Granted I can understand them not laying everything out -- especially since they took the whole “FF13 is just a twenty-hour tutorial” complaint, apparently the one thing they gleaned from fans -- but there’s a difference between confusing/overwhelming fans and showing off elements of the game that actually help make it more interesting.

Squeenix has been weird since FF13.  That game had the training wheels on almost from start to finish, and its sequel practically welded them to our faces.  Then Lightning Returns makes the rounds, and there are all these comments from reviews saying that the game is “challenging” and it actually recommends playing on the easiest difficulty.  And Type-0 defaults to/recommends the easy difficulty as well.  Speaking specifically about the last one?  Type-0 isn’t exactly a tough game; I’ve only run into trouble from a golem that, surprise, could one-shot me.  In turn, I beat a boss in seconds just by spamming gunshots and abusing the critical hit system.  I barely had to move or dodge.


Duscae isn’t pushing me to my limits, either.  Yes, the Behemoth boss packed in can wreck your party, but it doesn’t feel difficult; it’s just a really big monster with a wide attack range and high damage.  I don’t feel like I’m being tasked with understanding the gameplay mechanics in order to survive.  Same goes for the regular enemies -- which to be fair is pretty much a given, but it doesn’t change the fact that as-is, 15 doesn’t feel all that exciting.  It could be worse, I know; it doesn’t drop down to Dragon Age: Inquisition levels of tedium, but it’s still not optimal yet.

This is why I say that Squeenix should have explained some of those advanced techniques in the tutorial -- because based solely on the basic info and the barebones experience, there’s a reason I’d rather play Type-0.  You hold down Square to auto-attack, and at this stage that’s more than enough to beat most enemies.  Just like Dragon Age, it’s a game that I suspect would feel a lot better if I had to press more than one button on a regular basis.  And while you do have a special move mapped to Triangle, it’s still more about those melee attacks.  And they really don’t feel as punchy as they should.


Chalk this up to a set of intangibles, but Duscae just doesn’t click for me.  Setting the nuances aside, basic melee attacks feel really slow and abrupt, and -- dare I say it -- over-animated.  To be fair, over-animated melee attacks have been a problem for Squeenix since Kingdom Hearts 2, but that was pretty much a decade ago.  We live in a world where Platinum Games happened -- and while I don’t expect a game from a company dealing in RPGs to meet that standard, Duscae doesn’t have a satisfying feel. 

The easiest way to explain it is to double-dip into Type-0.  Of the fourteen playable characters in that, I really like Eight.  Do you know why?  Because when you press Square with him, he punches stuff.  No flips.  No spins.  No flourishes.  He just does a direct punch.  He’ll do more if you keep pressing Square, and he’ll keep punching (and add kicks) if you hold the button down.  That’s it.  That’s good.  If I play well with the character, then I can attack at my leisure, dodge at my leisure, and land critical hits at my leisure.  A button press with Eight corresponds to a punch with Eight.


But not every character in that game is like him.  The dagger-wielding Rem feels like a nightmare; her basic attacks are a bunch of flip-de-loops and dashes -- with lots of motion blur, because reasons -- that send her all around an enemy.  I can barely even tell if she’s landing her attacks, because it all blends into a bunch of nonsense.  And that’s when I’m holding down the button; if I’m mashing the button, my question would be “Where does one hit end and another begin?”  Or “What’s the timing?”

I guess it’s all a consequence of me playing so many fighting games in the past few years.  I’m far from an expert, but any one of them feels so right.  Press fierce with Ryu and you get a heavy punch.  Press slash with Ky and you get a sword attack.  One input corresponds to (typically) one attack -- a simple, straightforward thing that does its job and then ends so you can act/react from there, whether it’s to continue your offense or back off and play defense. 

It’s ridiculous to expect 15/Duscae to be like a fighting game, but the point is that there’s an understood responsiveness in fighters that’s sorely needed in any given Squeenix game that has even a modicum of action elements.  And there isn’t.  Noctis’ attacks aren’t as pointlessly-OTT as some of the guys in Type-0, but anyone who says that Duscae feels sluggish or unengaging isn’t just talking out of their ass.


I had a conversation with my brother not too long ago about Duscae, and he expressed his concerns after his time with it.  Once I actually sat down with the demo, he explained his umbrage with the defensive system.  Basically, you have to hold down L1 to manually enter a sort of defense mode; as long as you have enough MP, you’ll automatically dodge anything that comes your way.  If you dodge an attack with an Arkham series-style prompt, you’ll be able to launch a counterattack.  It’s certainly a system, but it’s one that hasn’t won either of us over.  His problem with it is that (at a glance) you can’t dodge enemy attacks on reaction.  You have to predict them by stopping your offense, going into defense mode, and letting the game dodge for you.

Of course, he didn’t know that there’s actually a manual dodge, and I can’t blame him seeing as how the game doesn’t explain it in the tutorial.  But before either of us knew, he asked me if there was a chance that players would be able to dodge on command/cancel attacks in the full release.  I told him no, probably not.  There’s always the chance that 15 will have an ability that lets you do just that, but Duscae’s dodge mechanic seems purposefully designed.  It wants you to not have the (obvious) ability to dodge cancel, because it’s a way to make sure the player actually pays attention in a fight -- to know there’s a time to push forward and a time to back down.   

It’s a sound theory.  But in practice, it’s not really ideal.


The camera’s a real issue here, if not the cause of all of Duscae’s problems.  I won’t say that the enemies don’t have good enough animations to read incoming attacks (though others might disagree), but the problem is that I don’t get to see enough of their bodies to respond accordingly.  There are a bunch of woolly mammoth enemies shuffling around the map that you can take down, but their size and your positioning makes it hard to find their tells.  Even if it didn’t, I don’t understand why the game would make auto-dodging the overt system instead of manual dodging (or better yet, a good dodge roll).  I seriously don’t want the game to take the wheel, and more importantly I don’t want rigid divides between offense and defense. 

On the other hand, that’s not exactly the easiest fix.  Swinging the game too far in a different direction would turn it into Kingdom Hearts, and that means the full release would preemptively steal KH3’s thunder.  On top of that, I’m not opposed to a game that balances action elements with strategy elements, so long as it does both of those things competently.  Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut I’m just barely feeling the competency in Duscae; it’s not tight enough to be an action game, and it’s not thoughtful enough to be an RPG.  I haven’t felt the need to explore the systems and learn the nuances, because it’s almost as if the basics are all I need.


But setting that aside, there’s the Warp Blade mechanic.  The gist of it is that by tapping X, Noctis will throw a sword; wherever it lands, he’ll teleport there.  It sounds like a good idea, but the demo doesn’t do it justice -- and comes within inches of crippling it.  The camera (at default settings) isn’t nearly cooperative enough to allow you fancy maneuvers on a dime, and since you can’t really aim of your own volition, it adds a lot of guesswork into the mix. 

The tutorial implies that you can use the Warp Blade to seek higher ground and regain health/assess the situation, but it’s practically a lie; you can only warp to specific high points that are marked with targeting reticles, and even if you weren’t limited to that, you spend practically the whole demo traversing flatlands.  You can use it to zoom in on enemies and start an offense, which is nice, but mostly it’s a tool to get closer to downed allies.  Or get close to rocks.  Even when you do get to warp to high points, you can’t do anything but hang there and regain health (in the demo, at least).  It’d be different if they gave Noctis some magic or a gun, but as-is you’re a sitting duck.


My biggest complaint with the system by far is one that I lobbed at Infamous: Second Son once upon a time.  In that game, the flow of the superhero combat was constantly broken up by Delsin’s need to scurry away and hide/find a power source so he could regenerate health.  In the demo, the flow gets broken up even more.  You can get HP back by taking cover with L1, which in theory should make for more strategic combat; in practice, it just means that you have to stop fighting to run away and hide like a coward until your boo-boos go away. 

And remember, doing so effectively means that you have to rely on finicky teleporting -- and that’s not helped by the fact that, again, most of the demo doesn’t have the terrain needed to take advantage of that mechanic.  At least not efficiently, or regularly.  So the impression I’m getting is that the cover system would work a lot better if there were more chest-high walls.  Or, alternatively, if it just turned into every other AAA game.



The impression I’m getting from Duscae is that FF15 and Squeenix really want to be modern.  But this game is old enough to need carbon dating; in the time since its announcements, we’ve not only had a slew of releases from Platinum Games, but also another Devil May Cry game, a Devil May Cry reboot, plenty of Tales games, a number of Shin Megami Tensei games, and entire trilogies completed and primed for new installments.  They’re all games that have defined and redefined what it means to be modern, and right now it’s as if 15 is struggling to play catch-up -- which, as far as I know, is the exact same problem Duke Nukem Forever had.

There’s a cover system so you can regenerate your health!  Awesome…except that gluing your avatar to cover has long since come under fire.  You get to travel through an open world!  Cool…except that a number of games this generation and prior to it have exposed the failings of an open-world, shallowness and inherent pacing issues chief among them.  There are cinematic events!  Neat…which is new to Final Fantasy, sure, but we know by now that it can be nothing but a bunch of smoke and mirrors that steals away tension rather than adding it.

This is practically the first time the average gamer has ever gotten their hands on the game.  So why does this demo already feel like I’ve already played it?  Why does a game from 2011 once solely on a now-defunct handheld system feel more impactful and more modern than a game gussied up for an eighth-gen debut -- and still doesn’t have a release date?


I’m not going to say that 15 is a bad game, but I am going to say that Duscae is a bad demo.  It doesn’t offer up (or even have, ostensibly) the tools it needs to impress on any more than a basic level.  It’s true that a lot of features have been left out, but even so, the core of the game doesn’t feel all that impressive.  I’ve only recently learned about certain mechanics in Bayonetta 2, but I don’t hate the game for it -- because its core is satisfying enough to let me do without.  And if we must speak solely of demos?  Metal Gear Rising wasn’t even remotely on my radar prior to release, but once I tried it out, it won me over in a matter of minutes.  That was before I knew what would be in it -- or even most of the stuff in the demo.

I’ve heard that Duscae was rushed to get something out there, alongside the release of Type-0 HD (thanks to Lewis Liddell for the heads-up), and it shows.  Between the gutted features, non-indicative gameplay, and the general clumsiness -- let’s not even get into the framerate issues -- I don’t feel like I’ve gotten a good picture of what 15 will be like.  Frankly, I wish that they just put out a demo way later, when they figured out what they needed to do…or, alternatively, not put out a demo at all.  We’ve been left in the dark time and time again with this game.  I think we can go a little bit longer -- especially if this is what they’re serving us.

With that all said, is there anything good about this demo?  Yeah, there is.


The idea of four guys on a road trip is a good one, and the potential of it shines through on occasion.  The party members talk to each other semi-regularly, and while some are stiffer than others, it’s pretty obvious that they’re guys that care about each other.  Of the four, I’d say Prompto is my favorite because he injects some cheer into the equation (though I wouldn’t argue if others found him annoying).  Noctis, on the other hand, is kind of a weak link; he’s not the angsty emo guy most would assume, but he shows his character -- such as it is -- the least, and when he does it’s just about going to sleep.  Riveting.  Also, his voice is distressingly deep and gravelly.

Whatever the case, the game takes a page from Xenoblade and adds in some team synergy.  Party members talk to each other during a fight, and they’ll revive each other when they limp across the field.  Interestingly, they’ll show some real concern for each other if an ally goes down, Prompto in particular.  It helps sell the bond -- though the occasional attack assist certainly helps, too.  A part of me is bracing for some more gibberish in the story, but if anything can save it from being a total wash, it’s the strength of its cast.


I have a LOT of concerns about 15, and like I said, Duscae isn’t exactly the most flattering glimpse.  But it’s my assumption -- if not my flat-out hope -- that the full game has already been updated, even before the input from fans all around.  I’m betting that the gameplay has improved dramatically from this little taste-test, so it’s only a matter of time before we see the fruit of their labors.

Still, I want to end by saying that it’s not just the gameplay that’ll make or break 15.  The franchise and the medium alike have had problems with their narratives for years; FF is just a testament to that after the tripe-filled Lightning Saga we’ve left on the horizon.  Each game in the installment reinvents itself gameplay-wise, but at this stage we need more than just a new way to slash some monsters.  We need good characters.  A good world.  Good themes.  A good story.  There’s no better way to show that the franchise has evolved -- that the franchise has the right to exist besides name recognition -- than to give us something worth remembering.  15 can be the proof of that.  It can show us that every year of waiting in hushed tones and quickened heartbeats was worth it.

It can happen.  And I really, truly hope it does.


There.  Now I can go back to Type-0.  Some naughty mechs need to be punched.

6 comments:

  1. I'm getting some deja-vu here. I think I mentioned it in one of your JRPG posts, but throttling your interesting mechanics is a JRPG thing. Think back to Tales of The-one-with-Millia-Maxwell, it took like 15+ hours for them to introduce the link system. It took 3+ hours to add more than two party members.


    I hate to say it, but Squeenix is just doing business as usual. If anyone is going to revolutionize, it should be Square. They usually push the limits that Dragon Warrior wouldn't push.


    Party members giving a crap about each other is something I've missed from a lot of RPGs. Some of the Tri Ace games has done it (Star Ocean anyone?) Maybe ramp up the Fire Emblem Awakening to 11 and factor in friendship / romance levels. (That's something Square hasn't touched with a ten foot pole since FF7's fake affection system-- though orchestrating a date between Barret and Cloud was on par with Vivi's and Quina's 'wedding' in FF9)


    Considering I was one of the weirdos that enjoyed Vanilla FF13, FF15 is officially "I'd buy it if someone gave me a PS4. (or a PC port)" But right now I'm still not convinced I need a 'current gen' console other than my Wii U. Consoles are pretty close to 'dead to me' as "Crappier PCs".

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  2. "But right now I'm still not convinced I need a 'current gen' console other than my Wii U."


    B-but greatness awaits, tho! Also, I hear Bloodborne's supposed to be pretty good -- but then again, one good game after almost two years of waiting doesn't paint the best picture of a console, does it? Soooooooooooooooooooooooo yeah, go Wii U.


    Anyway, you make a fair point about JRPGs holding back interesting mechanics. I guess (or at least hope) that FF15 will make a better showing in the full release, but this demo does it no favors. That would be okay if it gave me something else to latch onto -- which to a lot of JRPGs' credit they at least offer/strive towards -- but with Duscae, I'm just spending time running around fields and killing monsters. Not exactly a game-changer, this one.


    Though now that I think about it, I seem to have vague memories of 15 hyping up a relationship between Noctis and a blonde woman named Stella. Between that and the road trip element, maybe Squeenix is putting a bigger emphasis on relationships. There's lots of stuff they can do with that.


    On the other hand, who knows how much has changed for the game by this point? They could announce tomorrow that Stella's a Cactuar now, and it wouldn't surprise me at all.


    Actually, that sounds kind of cool. Do it, Squeenix. Do it now, in the name of justice!

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  3. As always an interesting read. Unfortunately I haven't been lucky enough to play the game myself, but I was able to talk with a few friends who already got it. They had about the same reaction as you maybe a bit less strong. The thing everyone wanted was an auto-lock-on like in Kingdom Hearts.
    But in a recent interview I found an interesting tidbit that might impact on how you view the function of the demo: Tabata said that the demo represents a 60% finished game ( development is now closer to 80%) and that the team hopes to get enough feedback to incorporate it into the finished game. After I done a bit of research, it appears Tabata did this before for the PSP-Version of Type-0, where the demo had a number of differences compared to the main game and was used largely as testing grounds for player feedback. That might give everyone who was dissappointed by the demo a bit more hope for the finished game. While I would have prefered Nomura as the director (at least for the gameplay), Tabata so far has been shown to be very in-touch with the audience of Final Fantasy XV and seems competent enough to use viewer feedback to iron out most of the game's flaws :>

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  4. "I ask this because as far as I know, the demo does nothing to explain those advanced options."


    What.


    Point to Hatsune Miku Project Diva F's demo for lacking a tutorial but not being too brain-bleedingly complicated to play a song to completion. A goofy anime-moe-kawaii vocaliod rhythm game should not be doing better at preparing you for the full purchase than FINAL FREAKING FANTASY. *sighs* Square Enix, I'm really trying to not hate you based on superficial nonsense, but you're making it really damn hard to make me tempted to buy anything you've ever made and will make.


    From the little I've seen, FF15 still looks like it can try to be passable and competent gameplay-wise since there's playing input for once. Still, the plot and characters can still go to shit if Square Enix continues to be Squeenix. Complex, vague, philosophical styles of writing won't help either.


    Still, even if the game happens to incapsulate everything that went right in open-world games, action-based combat, and cinematic events, it still would be a "seventh gen" game in theory, right? Shouldn't we try to push the boundaries for the eight gen instead of regurgitating the same cliches and problems from before? I'll forgive Squeenix b/c this game sat on a shelf since at least 2006 and other companies are doing it FAR WORSE. I hope then they'll understand that a good number of people still won't cough out a PS4 or Xbone.


    I'm still hoping the game will be fine in spite of the lackluster demo. As said many times before, if this game fails, I'll never take Squeenix seriously and I will stubbornly refuse to buy even their classic games until they get their bs together. No hard feelings from me or the company, but gamers will demand my head on a silver plater for sure.

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  5. Well, that helps explain things. Thanks for the comment...even though it kind of feels like I'm more confused than ever, but whatever. Don't worry about it.


    I guess there are two important things to keep in mind: that they're still working on the game, and that Tabata and crew are getting feedback. That's good. Although on that latter point, I'm starting to wonder if integrating that feedback means pushing 15 back even further. Then again, they can't say they're delaying the game if they don't announce a release date (nine year waiting period aside), so there you go. Just according to keikaku.


    Interesting that people wanted a KH-style lock-on system. I guess I'm kind of torn on the situation; do I want it to be just like KH, or do I want something different? Hard to say for sure, so the only option right now is to leave it to the devs and pray like hell it all pans out in the end.

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  6. I'm starting to sweat bullets over the writing as well. I took a look at the wiki not too long ago, and if I didn't know any better I'd say Squeenix has devolved into parody with its naming conventions. For starters, "Duscae" apparently doesn't mean anything; it just sounds Latin. Prompto's full name is Prompto Argentum, which translates to "quicksilver"...but it means that his first name is essentially "Quick"...and I've subconsciously started calling him Speedy. The kingdom Noctis (night) is from is Lucis (light), and its capital city is called -- hope you're sitting down for this -- Insomnia.

    ...I guess it's not so bad, considering that Type-0's baddies are from the Milites Empire. Get it? 'Cause they're militant. And they have a military.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJxCdh1Ps48



    You know what, though? I think that if 15 came out at or near the start of the seventh gen -- or even when it was still Versus 13 -- it would've been better off. It'd have flaws, sure, but taken by the standards of the past? It'd still be serviceable. But they've been playing catch-up, and even more so than ever before with this game; in the same sense that those who played Duke Nukem Forever could see the evolution of the shooter genre as the game progressed, you could probably see the evolution of THE ENTIRE MEDIUM in the final form of 15. In theory, at least.


    But now that 15's on the spiffy new consoles almost a decade after its announcement, things have changed. I would love nothing more than for the finished game to blow me and everyone away, and prove that it was worth the wait. But they've got a long road ahead, because the goal post is a whole lot farther away. Granted not a lot of devs have been able to reach that goal either (fun fact: I've COMPLETELY given up on Dragon Age: Inquisition!), but at this stage 15's practically a senior citizen. It's borderline obsolete.


    And it's still not out on store shelves.

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