In the 90s, I remember (don't tell anyone) grabbing a pirated copy of the Final Fantasy VIII demo while on a trip to Singapore, and through arcane trickery got it working on my PSOne back home. A side-effect was the thing ran in black & white, but I happily put up with that. This, after all, was the new vision from the creators of Final Fantasy VII, My Favourite Game of All Time (circa 1997).
It's easy to tap back into the intoxication that came with the franchise back then. A simple Facebook post of FFVII artwork just last week brought the work day to a standstill as myself and others reminisced our favourite moments.
It's partly nostalgia, but the heavy impact of the series back then was due to the western market never having seen or experienced anything like it before. We lived and breathed worlds, shared - for then - rich characterisation and plot twists. Final Fantasy VII's release was a seismic event to unprepared minds. We lapped up the next instalment, and the next, and the next.
Odd how times change.
Final Fantasy's suffered an uncomfortable transition over the last few years. The gameplay shift has felt forced to keep the brand current and developers have struggled to retain the richness of their world-building even as newer technology has replaced pre-rendered backgrounds for real-time landscapes.
Neither has sat well with fans, and while game design needs to evolve to avoid becoming archaic, there's a sense the franchise is struggling to find a new identity, with recent releases feeling like botched plastic surgery experiments.
So hope for Final Fantasy XV - eighteen years after the title that put the series on the western map - is tinged with caution. An air I'm not entirely free of as I sit down for a tight hour's hands-on with the first playable demo of the title, which'll be bundled with Final Fantasy Type-0 come that game's release later this month.
Corridor runs of Final Fantasy XIII heyday are replaced in favour of a chunkily-sized free-roam around a countryside setting, with an abundance of wildlife (in friendly and fanged varieties), side-missions and secrets spread all over the place.
We've tapped into the main game's story an unknown period through, but at a point just after our group's been ditched roadside by a faulty car engine. They're stuck until they can afford a ride out of the area. As a result, they need to earn cash, and handily there's a reward for hunting down a Behemoth that's terrorising the local populace.
That's the central quest line to this demo. But you're free to explore, strike out where you want, towards anything that looks interesting (forests, ruins, big bloody swamp walkers that look like they're extras from The Mist) and pick up side-quests and items as you go.
You control Noctis, the brooding prince, with your fellow three (joker Ignis, hulking Gladiolus and guns & glasses Prompto) following as good NPCs should, injecting with commentary when they spot points of interest, or whipping out weaponry come combat.
There's been a big question mark over combat ever since the first gameplay trailer, and it'll be one of the most talked about points of this demo as well.
It continues the design implemented for Lighting Returns, with full-control movement and combat, with different abilities mapped to individual buttons. But FFXV eradicates the transition between ‘field' and ‘battle' modes. Battles take place right where you start them, either initiated by you through the first sword swing, or by an enemy spotting you and advancing to within attack range.
The game includes a warning radial much like Assassin's Creed when (and where) you're been seen, and a growing red bar warns of an impending squabble if you don't escape in time.
As such, random encounters are gone completely. You can (mostly) pick and choose your fights, though as always XP gains are worth starting a ruck rather than playing wide-eyed tourist. There's a day and night cycle in the demo, and the welcome twist of different, tougher enemies come nightfall. You can make camp instead, and it's a reasonable suggestion on two counts.
One, any accrued XP is only slapped onto character stats when they get some shut-eye, and two, thanks to hearty campfire meals, you awake with stat buffs that'll remain with you for the rest of the following day. Play safe or venture into the night for tougher challenges. ‘Choose your own difficulty', if you will.
Buffs play a bigger part in combat generally as well, as each weapon also carries with it certain effects. One may recover some MP, another saps enemy defence. You can freely customise your multiple weapons to any of the button prompts, the idea being to create unique combo chains.
It's a mechanic and system that'll demand time to dig into, and it's impossible to work out if there's proper depth to the setup with the 60 minutes I have. Most of the demo time is spent trying to keep up with events.
Because combat moves at a blistering pace. You can focus on a target with R1, skip between multiple ones with a flick of the stick, and a click to lock on to your chosen opponent.
But even with that, all is chaos. NPCs do their own thing, enemies charge around, attacks and magic strikes whiplash past you. I'm reminded more heavily of Kingdom Hearts than Final Fantasy with this battle system, and we're left wishing for a slow-mo option akin to Dragon Age: Inquisition to plan and coordinate tactics.
Magic has always been the core of Final Fantasy battles, and in FFXV its on-screen meter dictates your strategy. Outside a traditional sword swing, the majority of your attacks eat up your magic meter, which recharges over time. Currently I could empty the entire bar in a matter of seconds by chaining attacks together.
Holding L1 keeps you blocking, though dodges while in this state also uses magic. There's also a parry mechanic in play which we're told plays an important part to ending challenges early. Correctly timed button presses prompt an answering strike with a high damage percentage.
The area's rolling landscape sees us fight on hills, over cliffs, on rocks and across plains. Other than climbing to a nearby rock to avoid a final fatal hit while swigging a Potion though, we haven't noticed any benefit of where you stage your stand - higher ground doesn't give any aid other than an easier view over the clash.
I'm still struggling to digest everything as we enter what'd be coined the area's ‘dungeon', a mist-covered forest we've entered into after following clues of the Behemoth's trail across the wider demo area. The camera struggles to keep centred on group combat at times, fast-paced Sabretusks outwitting it as much they dizzy us with their speed, but it does better come the one-on-one boss fight.
The build up sequence to this proves to be one of the demo's highlights, as we stalk the Behemoth through a thick white mist towards its lair. The traditional FF creature has never been more fearsome: imagine a meat-hungry panther that's the size of a truck. Audio and visual design helps heighten the tension as its growls echo through the woods ahead of us.
The fight itself ends prematurely as we get stomped and swatted to an early death, struggling to grasp the dodge move and read the warning signs of an attack before it happens. More time spent wandering the fields and learning the battle system would have solved this problem though, and I acknowledge the rush just to get to this point.
Even if we've reservations about the combat mechanics, we're enticed by the world. We lazily spin the camera around as we explore, enjoying the vistas and the promise of easily reachable areas on foot. Grazing herds keep to green fields and huddle together to protect young from predators.
The easy camaraderie between the four echoes the soap opera nature of better Final Fantasy titles, even as it makes us realise that it took us some hours before past groups got on this well - this feels the first time we've been introduced to a cast with a strong bond from the off, rather than disparate warriors learning to work as a team.
We're going to have to spend much more time with them to see if they match the rich character-driven storytelling we've come to expect from the RPG genre today, and equally, we're going to have to spend longer with the game mechanics to decide whether Final Fantasy's finally found its new identity, or if this is just continuing its difficult transition phase.