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    Final Fantasy XV: How the biggest name in JRPGs intends to reclaim its seat on the genre’s throne

    You’d understand if Hajime Tabata were feeling the pressure. Here, after all, is a man who has spent his years at Square Enix working not on the main Final Fantasy series, but its spinoffs, and not on consoles, but handhelds. Now he finds himself at the helm of Final Fantasy XV, helming the debut proper on modern consoles of a series whose name is, if not mud, then not what it once was. Yet he insists he’s not feeling the strain.

    “I get asked this a lot, but I don’t feel under any particular pressure,” he tells us. “A big part of it is that I am very busy, so I don’t really have time for it. I have many valuable comrades in the team to whom I can delegate, and there are also many, many fans supporting FFXV. Seeing people’s support for what you do is a huge motivator wanting to deliver for these people, and meet their expectations, outweighs any pressure I might feel.”

    Yet as highly as he may speak of his team, Tabata admits a few members also created problems during the development of both the full game and the demo, Episode Duscae, which was released in March alongside the HD remake of the Tabata-directed Final Fantasy: Type-0. “Some of the development staff had set themselves limits as to what they [felt] they could achieve. This resulted in negative approaches that held the team back.” The worst, he says, was “conservative thinking that did not recognise the need to evolve, or overestimating some of the technical risks involved in doing so. The thing I have spent the most energy on in development is clearing away all these notions about the limits of what Final Fantasy can achieve, creating a strong team that can confidently take on this, the greatest challenge facing Square Enix.”

    This is uncommonly candid for a Japanese dev, but that Tabata is prepared to be so open speaks volumes about how confident he is in the project itself. Playing Episode Duscae, it’s easy to see why. On this showing, Final Fantasy XV is a game that takes not only a generational leap in terms of visuals, thanks to Square Enix’s new Luminous Engine, but makes several fundamental advances in terms of the structure of the biggest JRPG around.

    It’s quite the list. There’s a contemporary setting in an open world with a day/night cycle and dynamic weather. There’s realtime combat, multipart quests, recharging health and mana. There are notes of stealth and permadeath. And that’s just the demo. There’s even a jump button. Tabata says that he sees Final Fantasy  the series as “a game that was made by Square Enix challenging itself to its limits”. On paper, at least, FFXV is that game.

    Sometime those limits show, however. It seems strange, given its numerous little niggles, that  Episode Duscae  was deemed ready for public consumption; there are several moments in the demo where we instinctively expect to hear a nearby PR rep’s assurance that things are still being optimised, that bugs are being squashed and kinks ironed out. Framerates fluctuate, the camera occasionally struggles to keep up with the realtime battles, and NPC dialogue whiffs of the placeholder. We hope it does, anyway: when we revive a downed ally in combat, protagonist Noctis tells him, “You owe me one.” “Thanks,” he  says as he gets up. “I owe you one.”
    Noctis, a deposed prince, clearly isn’t as battle-worn as his comrades, with a lower starting level and much weedier stats. Luckily, HP and MP now refill over time, and he can speed up the process by taking cover or seeking high ground
    Yet if a demo is intended to be indicative of a full game’s potential, rather than its polish, then Episode Duscae delivers. Combat, as the wayward camera suggests, is dynamic and pacy. It’s also customisable; you’re able to define which weapons Noctis summons from the ether for each stage of a combo. This is hardly Bayonetta the required inputs are never more than a single button tapped or held in place, while a defensive stance dodges attacks automatically and signals parry opportunities with slowdown and a button prompt but it’s fast and frantic. And even given the demo’s limited weaponset, it’s varied: the same battle rarely plays out in the same way twice, thanks in large part to Noctis’s three AI comrades, who sync up smartly with your intentions. Run away, and they’ll run with you; stick around and they just about strike the balance between helping out without steamrollering everything in your way. Tabata admits that this, too, has been a challenge, and is a work in progress. “We’ve really focused on having them feel like actual living companions and not just for their behaviour [in battle], but the whole game. Even though there’s still polishing to be done on both technical and mechanical levels, I feel we’re getting closer to our ultimate objective.”

    The demo’s main quest sees Noctis, a Harajuku-haired prince, and his three men-at-arms seek out a Behemoth, on which a bounty has been placed that is suspiciously almost to the Gil the same value as the repair costs for their broken-down car. They track it, tail it to its lair, try and fail to take it down, then find a more suitable weapon in a nearby cavern at the suggestion of a Chocobo farmer.Finally, a few hours later three, if they get distracted the group put it to death with a generational leap in Summon cutscenes, a gigantic lightning bolt obliterating the Behemoth and scorching much of the land around it. It’s a thoroughly modern take on RPG quest structuring, though we suspect that Tabata and team will be keeping a close eye on  The Witcher III , which is approaching quests in a similar way.
    “This is the kind of product you can only get by pushing beyond expected standards”
    While the idea is Square Enix’s own, we see another nod to CD Projekt in FFXV’s campfire system. Set up for the night at one of the preordained campsites on the world map and you can use ingredients found during the day to whip up a hearty meal that grants the team certain buffs the following day. It’s a little like the Witcher series’ use of potions: you’ll spend a day gathering supplies for the meal that grants the boosts you need to tackle a boss the next morning. The comparisons end, however, when you realise that you also level up at these camps, spending all the day’s XP gains in one go. Die before you make camp, and you’ll lose whatever you’ve accrued since daybreak. Yes, there’s a bit of Souls to it.

    Later, as our party jogs across open grassland, fighting small wildlife and avoiding the bigger threats, our eyes peeled for glinting pickups along the way, it is not Cloud Strife we think of but  Xenoblade Chronicles ’ Shulk. Suddenly, it becomes clear that Square Enix’s biggest challenge is not simply dragging Final Fantasy into a new console era, but doing so without compromising its identity. Chocobos wandering about and recognisable themes will only get the company so far.

    “If you compare it to car manufacturing, then  Final Fantasy  is not a run-of-the-mill car but an F1 racer,” Tabata says. “This is the kind of product you can only get by pushing beyond expected standards.” There is an awful lot to like here, but much remains to be done if  Final Fantasy  is to reclaim its rightful place at the head of an increasingly crowded grid.

    Shiny Happy People
    Final Fantasy XV began life as Final Fantasy Versus XIII a game announced for PS3 before the console itself had even been released. Now, with a new name on a new console, it is the first game to be made using Luminous, the in-house engine Square Enix unveiled with the eye-catching Agni’s Philosophy demo at E3 2012. While Episode Duscae might not match that, it’s still a handsome game, and Tabata seems happy with the engine’s  capabilities at least after a little customisation. “The biggest advantage,” he explains, “is the way its workflow links from prerendered CG development into realtime CG rendering. This is an evolution from Agni’s Philosophy, and powers the creation of the graphical data behind all of FFXV’s signature visuals, such as the characters.”

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