Ars Technica’s full Final Fantasy XV review is coming, but because the game is so large—and only showed up at our doorsteps on Sunday—we’ve splintered into two factions. Everyone in the first faction wants to take their time sitting with the Japanese series’ large, open-world return. They want to sink in however many hours it takes to beat the primary campaign mode and linger in places like side quests and fishing holes.
The second faction (meaning yours truly) was told to bang out about 10 hours of play, with a mix of campaign and side content, and write up impressions before the game hits stores on Tuesday. I jumped on the opportunity because I thought 10 hours would be more than enough to answer a question I’ve had since my first press-only demo of the game in May: did Square-Enix finally make a Final Fantasy game that I, a lapsed fan of the series, would want to complete?
At this point, I kind of regret taking on the task.
Now it’s actually “active” time
That’s not to say the game is “bad” or “awful.” Let’s break down the nuts and bolts of what I’ve played thus far.
Final Fantasy famously resets its window dressing and many of its gameplay systems with every new numbered version. The biggest reset in this 14th sequel is the combat system, and it’s by far the best risk that the development team took.
Most FF games—and many other JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games)—rely on some form of the “active-time battle” system. You don’t use a joystick and buttons to run your warriors around and have them attack monsters. Instead, you use menus with options like “fight,” “magic,” and “item,” and timers run down when each hero and monster gets its turn.
Instead of Final Fantasy‘s usual menu-based attack system, Final Fantasy XV takes a page from the Kingdom Hearts series for a much more dynamic, real-time battle system. This time around, the active battle system requires even less menu-bouncing, though players can also pause and plot certain actions via menus if they really want to.
When seen in videos, FFXV‘s battle system looks like something out of Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, with its flashy attacks and jumps. Unlike those games, however, most of Noctis’s superpowers trigger automatically. Hold down the “attack” button, and Noctis starts automatically chaining together attack combos with whatever weapon he has equipped. Hold down the “dodge” button, and he’ll sidestep most attacks without the need for any precisely timed movements (with the exception of attacks that can’t be dodged).
Is this boring? Nope. That’s because players can manually trigger a cool new “warp-strike” move and burn through magic points (MP) to race across the battlefield and strike a targeted enemy. Players can also use this warping power to temporarily escape a battle and survey the scene from a higher point, like a cliff or a building edge; doing this restores some of that sweet, sweet MP, as well. And with a different button combo, you can target creatures and have one of your AI-controlled squadmates unleash their own superpower (if their meters are charged sufficiently), either striking foes or offering a boost to teammates.
On top of that, players are expected to juggle four weapons through a single battle by tapping any of the four d-pad directions. (Noctis can magically make his weapons appear and disappear, because, you know… magic.) In this game, monsters aren’t just vulnerable to specific magic but also specific weapon types. Sometimes, this plays out as simply as “equip a spear, kill all the spear-hating gremlins.” Other times, however, a monster may have multiple targeting points (like the arms and legs of a giant mech suit), each with different vulnerabilities. The battlefield may be crawling with the mech suit’s evil allies at the same time, requiring some presence of mind to coordinate jumps between different weapons and targets.
That kind of dynamic battle system—featuring warping, weapon-juggling, magic casting, teammate and managing energy bar management—will shock Final Fantasy haters. A real-time, team-based battling system in a JRPG? And it’s fun?! Get out!