Yesterday, Square Enix held a special “Uncovered” event for Final Fantasy XV, their Duke Nukem Forever. Among a variety of puzzling announcements, they dropped a previously confirmed demo, called the Platinum Demo. In it, you traverse through the dreamscape of Noctis, the game’s protagonist, as a child. I’ve been vocal in my negative opinions of Final Fantasy XV in the past, but with the tempting price tag of $Free.99 and nothing to do tonight, it seemed time to put hostility aside and give the game a chance.

I finished the demo in about an hour, though one can probably storm through it in half the time. A Carbuncle leads you through four areas, all manifestations of platinum-demo-1Noctis’s dreams, and you collect amber crystals as you walk through. These crystals unlock plates that can do things like transform you into cars, change the weather, or give you weapons. For some reason, Carbuncle’s mode of communication with Noctis is through text message. Carbuncle must be a distant relative of Navi from Legend of Zelda, because the creature’s notifying coos quickly devolve from cute to aggravating as it guides you through the world.

Visually, of course, the game is impressive. The four areas are diverse (a spring, a regal dining room, a town, and the Citadel) and detailed, with plates that allow the player to switch the weather (rainy or sunny) or time of day (day or night). It’s a neat mechanic that previews the much more gradual day/night and weather cycles that will appear in the final game.

Visual splendor is, at this point, expected from Square; the Final Fantasy series has a long history of distinct style, design, and polished execution. According to Square, the demo shows off the game’s “finished visuals,” which are satisfying enough. There’s some extremely noticeable aliasing going on through the demo, however, particularly in Noctis’s hair and Carbuncle’s fur. This is for the most part expected from console games, but a real detriment to Final Fantasy titles given the characters’ intricate hairstyles.

On a more technical level, frame rate, pacing, and delivery are once again an issue for Final Fantasy XV. Users report improvements since Episode Duscae, but the Platinum Demo is far from a finished product. The demo also runs at a dynamic resolution, varying between 1600×900 and 1920×1080 on the PS4; it’s an interesting workaround, but can lead to jumps in visual quality. Square does still have time to optimize everything for release and has said they are committed to a stable 30fps. We’ll see how it all pans out come September.

The dining room level of the game shrinks Noctis down to the size of a mouse, hearkening to the Bizarre Room in the original Kingdom Hearts and the Cinderella world in Birth by Sleep. The room hosts a number of blocks, an interesting way of showcasing the game’s physics engine. Unfortunately, the awkward, jerky camera rears its ugly head here. Not only is it very close to Noctis (and slightly off-center), but it twitches about when the player moves too close to walls or barriers. When blocks are falling all around you, this can be catastrophic.

Transformation plates also appear throughout the demo, allowing you to drive vehicles or run around (and fight) as monsters. The vehicle controls in particular were very delayed and mushy; there was a palpable one or two second delay in steering, and a long pause before the car braked or reversed. Given how much of the actual game seems to be spent in the car, one can only hope Square will improve these controls for the finished product. Otherwise, I foresee a lot of time on auto-pilot mode.

Speaking more about gameplay, combat is controlled with two buttons: you can hold square to defend against enemy attacks, or use it in combination with the analog stick to dodge roll. The circle button attacks. I would hope that, in the final game, there’s more attack variation; all of the enemies in the Platinum Demo were easily dispatched by holding circle. As someone who plays more for story than challenge, it’s not necessarily a dealbreaker for me, but it did get rather tiresome. Rather than feeling excited to take on the enemies that spawned, it was more of a chore to get rid of them; if an hour-long demo gets boring, I can’t imagine what 50 hours of the game might feel like.

In terms of weapons, the majority of the demo is spent with two melee weapons: a Toy Sword (upgrades to a Radiant Sword) and a Squeaky Hammer (again, upgrades later on). The Swords are much faster than the Hammers, but the Hammers do more damage. Switching between the two was quick, allowing for slightly varied combos. I found a useful strategy was to hone in on my enemies with the Sword, then deliver a finishing blow with the Hammer. It added a bit more variation to the combat, but the novelty soon wore off and I returned to merely holding circle and letting the game take care of things for me. The demo also lacks any kind of health bar, so perhaps the threat of damage will increase the challenge in random encounters in the full game.

The combat looks rather flashy and exciting, but lacks any kind of depth in the demo. Again, hopefully the full game will offer more (I notably have not played Episode Duscae). Limited magic is also available in Platinum, unlike in Duscae. Noctis throws little fireworks at his foes, useful when encountering more than one enemy or attacking from a distance. It provides an option for variation in the combat, but why put the effort in to aim a consumable spell when you can simply hold circle and achieve the same damage with a melee attack?

I was never a proponent of the turn-based combat of earlier Final Fantasy titles and was excited to see a more Kingdom Hearts-esque system in place with Final Fantasy XV, but I’m bored to tears by what I played in the Platinum Demo.

Platinum Demo Screenshot 2016-04-01 01-47-22
Puberty wasn’t kind on Noctis, transforming him from a sweet kid to a brooding JRPG hero. Wait…

The highlight of the demo comes at the very end, when Noctis and Carbuncle reach the Citadel. An Iron Giant attacks and Noctis transforms into his older self, which gives the player access to his warp moves as well as more serious weapons (again, one for quick swipes and one for heavier damage). I’m glad to see the Platinum Demo isn’t limited to what amounts to a tech demo and a very basic tutorial, but your time with adult Noctis is short: once the boss is defeated, young Noctis is back. The pragmatic reason of course is to build excitement for the fully-fledged, adult Noctis gameplay of the full title while still having a sort of finale to the free demo, but Noctis’s moveset remains rather sparse.

The warping adds another move to Noctis’s repertoire, of course, but I found it difficult to aim and control in the heat of battle. Given the limitations on defending with Square, and Noctis’s rather clunky movements (probably a split fault of the game and the frame rate), warping seemed the best way to avoid the Giant’s attacks, even if it consumed MP. But one doesn’t really have the convenience of time in battle, and I ended up merely warping into walls a fair amount.

Once Iron Giant’s health falls to a certain level, you can use Noctis’s Armiger finishing attack, one of the few elements that remains from the original Versus XIII trailer.

The attack suffers from the same problem as the rest of the gameplay and really the demo as a whole: flash without much substance. I hit L1+R1 to activate it, then circle to attack. Given that this is only a demo — a free and a short one at that — it’s possible we’re seeing only a small piece of the fully realized combat system. I hope that’s the case for Final Fantasy XV‘s sake, as it has from its very outset boasted about shaking the series’s turn-based roots. Scrolling through the menus of a game like Final Fantasy X may not seem too thrilling, but players at least have access to a wide variety of moves, must plan their attacks according to the turn order and their enemy, and can control several diverse party members. Boss fights manage to build a level of excitement and suspense. Real-time combat like Final Fantasy XV has an easier job of getting the player’s heart pumping, but shouldn’t sacrifice depth and detail in the process. Perhaps these are just limitations of the demo. Perhaps I missed things (actually, reading other people’s accounts, I definitely did).

Overall, Platinum didn’t answer any questions I have about the main game (what exactly is it about? All the promotional material since the rebranding has billed the game as campfire simulator with a politic subplot happening far away, probably through cutscenes. Will dreams factor largely into the game? Why was Stella scrapped? Has Nomura stopped crying?) and raised a lot of concerns about the gameplay. I’m no more tempted to buy at launch, despite Square’s helpful menu option to preorder the game.

Not on your life.
Not on your life.

Given the absurd development cycle of Final Fantasy XV and the laundry list of supplementary content, this is no doubt one of the most expensive games ever created. It’s also one of the most anticipated. With high expectations for the game’s sales (or need, in order to return on their investment), Square has set quite a task before themselves. They’re banking a lot on Final Fantasy XV, and a failure — or even mediocre sales — could spell ruin. It’s quite a hole Square has dug for themselves, apparently learning nothing from the Final Fantasy XIII fiasco. It seems they have once again put the cart before the horse. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge the game so harshly on an hour-long tech demo, but that is, after all, what demos are for.

But hey, at least you get to name Carbuncle at the end, right?

Platinum Demo Screenshot 2016-04-01 02-13-16You can check out some additional screenshots from my time with the demo below.

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