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Final Fantasy XV embraces action and exploration, and that’s just great

Final Fantasy XIII ruined the series for me. I still vividly remember begging my editor at the time to let me bag the review. The pace, the scope of play, really everything outside the combat seemed to turn sharply away from the series that I’d treasured for much of my gaming life.

Which is why I’m so excited to write these words: Final Fantasy XV could bring me back.

The demo — which you’ll soon be able to play when it ships as a pack-in with launch day copies of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One — opens with protagonist Noctis and his friends stranded in the wilderness thanks to a broken down car. They’ve got a lead on getting it fixed, but repairs cost a whopping 24,000 Gil.

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Our penniless hero and his friends reach the conclusion that, to pay the steep bill, they’ve got to hunt local wildlife. Fortunately for them, a great Behemoth known as Deadeye is roving the nearby forests, and bagging the beast carries a 25,000 Gil reward. Convenient! But also great, because hey, it’s fun to hunt giant monsters.

Final Fantasy XV employs a new approach to combat that is reminiscent in some ways of Final Fantasy XII‘s system. With the exception of brief pauses to access support items like potions, all battles unfold in real time. Pressing and holding one button executes basic attacks, while another puts Noctis into a dodge mode that allows him to avoid incoming attacks and, with proper timing, execute parry/counter attacks.

There’s additional complexity thanks to an MP bar, which slowly drains as you dodge incoming blows and deliver special attacks. Basic attacks don’t “cost” anything, but a drained MP bar makes it impossible to avoid enemy strikes. The meter regenerates automatically, but it’s possible to quicken the pace either by taking cover — which involves breaking line of sight and holding L1 to duck and hide — or using Noctis’ powers to teleport to safer high ground.

The result is a combat pace that feels more action-oriented than longtime fans might be used to. What’s more, all encounters play out in the open world; there’s no jump to a self-contained battle screen. The result is a very fast pace, and combat strategy that involves a more even blend of careful planning and twitchy responsiveness than past games in the series have generally embraced.

Following a brief combat tutorial, the demo sets Noctis and his pals loose in an open landscape, one peppered with wildlife, small signs of civilization, and all manner of diversionary sidequests. There’s a large space to explore here, with very little in the way of barriers that we could find. Natural rock formations and bodies of water create paths and bottlenecks to different locations, but the lush, forest-y landscape feels organic to wander through and explore.

The hunt for Deadeye — who has that name for a reason, as you eventually learn — takes our heroes on a winding path through the dense forest as they hunt for signs of the beast’s passage. The quest eventually leads to an enclosed area, blanketed in fog, where Deadeye’s lair awaits. The beast, unaware of the approaching threat, ambles around slowly, creating an opportunity for Noctis to follow slowly while it returns to its lair.

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Yup, that means a stealth sequence. It’s a relatively simple process of sticking close enough to the beast so it doesn’t disappear into the fog while crouching behind the rock formations it strolls past. Like most stealth sequences packaged into games that aren’t necessarily built for it, there’s a clunky feel to pacing the beast. But there’s a forgiving discovery window; enemy awareness is related to the player by a slowly expanding red bar that triggers an encounter once it spans the entire screen. As long as you stick close and crouch behind rocks, it’s easy to avoid attracting the beast’s attention.

The pursuit culminates in our four heroes laying a trap that involves Noctis drawing its attention and then teleporting from point to point — as simple as targeting the destination and pressing the appropriate button — as Deadeye gives pursuit. Noctis’ friends then detonate a container of fuel, exposing Deadeye to a killing blow from Noctis’ teleport strike.

Everything goes according to plan until the beast, seemingly downed for good, gets back up and goes on the attack. You get a taste here of boss-style fights against the series’ trademark hulking beasts. It’s… chaotic. Deadeye has multiple attack points on his body, and he’s got a blind spot that can be exploited, but the pace of the combat, so pleasing during random encounters against regular enemies, is harder to manage here. Whether that’s because it’s a boss and hey, they’re not supposed to be easy, or an issue of the real-time combat not working well against larger threats remains to be seen.

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There are other elements we haven’t even touched on. Noctis can set up camp at fixed points scattered around the map. These safe havens offer the heroes a place to rest when night falls — there is indeed a day/night cycle — and dinner breaks bestow an assortment of temporary bonuses based on the meal that’s eaten. There’s also a variety of objects to be collected, from animal parts to gems and plants, that can be sold at the very least, and may tie into unseen elements (like crafting) that we didn’t have an opportunity to check out.

As with every Final Fantasy game, there’s a particular pace and approach in XV that is bound to excite some fans and turn others off. As someone who appreciated the risks that XII took, I look to the upcoming game as a potential evolution of ideas that worked previously. You’ll be able to find out for yourself soon enough, provided you grab the demo when Type-0 HD arrives on March 17, 2015.