Hands-On With Final Fantasy 15’s New Demo

Noctis’ immediate concern as Final Fantasy XV‘s latest demo opens is his cellphone. He shakes it once, twice, holds it up to his ear. It’s not working. Of course it isn’t, because Noctis is dreaming.

Platinum Demo, the new free demo for Final Fantasy XV, is not much a slice of gameplay as it a a showcase. Its purpose is to show players that yes, the final game is definitely almost done, and it’s definitely been polished. It’s a tech demo, a display of pride in the XV’s visuals–which are, admittedly, impressive. Light and shadow play across Noctis’ face as he moves through the dreamscape. Animal fur ruffles in a light breeze. Crystals glimmer radioactively and every freckle, every dimple can be seen when we zoom in on our hero. It looks gorgeous.

In the demo, you play as child Noctis, who has fallen into a deep sleep due to a grave injury. Some sort of ethereal force is preventing him from waking up. Guided by Carbuncle–a sweet little creature who is a recurring summon in the Final Fantasy franchise–Noctis must explore his dreams to find a way out of them and wake up.

To be clear, this is not a slice from the main game boiled down into demo format, like last year’s Episode Duscae: it’s a standalone story that provides background and context for events referenced in the main game. Additionally, the demo’s events will be directly referenced in episodes one and five of the prequel anime, Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV.

“First and foremost, we wanted to show Noctis, the game’s main character. We wanted his backstory to be something a little deeper and a little more fleshed out for our players,” director Hajime Tabata explained after I played the demo. “And we didn’t want to just take a slice out of the main game. We wanted a standalone episode for this particular demo. We felt it would be best to showcase Noctis and Carbuncle’s meeting.”

But why Carbuncle? Carbuncle isn’t exactly the most majestic of summons, compared to monsters like Titan and Leviathan–both of which can arrive in surprising, awe-inducing ways in the demo. I watched, as day turned to twilight, Leviathan soar up over the horizon line, an undulating silvery-blue snake, swimming quietly across the sky before disappearing in a shower of light over Noctis’ head. As Noctis stood in the mouth of cave, red-skinned Titan leaned down to peer at him, all corded muscle and grimace. But Carbuncle is nothing like these creatures, instead a tiny thing that resembles a cross between a cat and a dog, barely the length of human shin and squeaking away as he ran.

“The idea sprung from wanting a creature that you’d want to be your friend as a child,” explained Tabata. “The one that popped into mind was a baby Carbuncle. The other part that was really big was that we wanted to ensure that this creature would be of help to the player when they’re playing the main game as well–so we felt that Carbuncle would be one of the best options to bring in for this particular situation.”

But Carbuncle doesn’t speak. To guide Noctis through the dreamscape, the creature communicates via text messages; dialogue boxes representing phone messages will pop up along the bottom of the screen, offering instructions and observations as you play. Carbuncle even uses emojis–after throwing a firework, a little picture with a party hat and streamers appeared in the text box. When an enemy showed up, a frightened Chocobo emoji popped up.

“It’s Carbuncle within a dream world, the communication methods between them would be something of a mystery,” Tabata said of the texting creature. “In the demo you get a sense and feel for how Noctis may have felt during his childhood and what kind of childhood he was leading. With that backdrop we felt that it would make sense for Carbuncle to communicate not through voice.”

There are three main things Square Enix is trying to achieve with the Platinum Demo, the first being to show off how the game looks. The second has to do with those story tie-ins; Platinum Demo offers more details on Noctis’ childhood, his upbringing in the palace and how he felt during those tender years. Thirdly, and most importantly, it’s an introduction to Final Fantasy XV’s mechanics, including some light combat, magic, and driving abilities.

Combat here is in its final game state–this is what you’re getting when the game ships later this year, so the team says. It’s largely the same as the second iteration of the Duscae demo, with weapons mapped to the directional pad–in the demo you get a toy sword, fireworks, and, comically, a squeaky toy hammer–and a dedicated attack button that you can hold down to do so repeatedly. The only thing that gave me pause was the lock-on, which you click the right analogue stick to activate. This felt a little clumsy to me, as your right hand is predominantly concerned with attacking; having to remove my finger from attacking to locking on, even for a second, doesn’t feel as natural as having the feature mapped to the left-hand buttons. But other than this, attacking feels comfortable, and powerful–when Noctis is flipping around in the air, delivering carefully-timed warp strikes, it’s immensely satisfying.

Other than combat, there are some brief driving segments. At one point, Noctis is running around his playroom as a toy-sized boy, climbing over building blocks and fallen books to follow Carbuncle onto a tabletop where a toy castle lies. In this area, you get access to toy cars, which you can freely drive around the area. The driving controls are standard–go, break, back-up, turn–and while this is no racing game, they do feel tight. It’s a small dose of something you will presumably be doing a lot of in the main game of Final Fantasy XV.

But the biggest achievement of the demo, I have to say, is how well it shows off Final Fantasy XV’s finished look. Scattered throughout the demo are yellow crystals, and if you collect enough of them you’ll gain access to plates nestled into the ground. These plates, when stepped on, will change something about the environment. In one area, I stepped on a plate and day turned to night, the sun sinking rapidly, shadows flying across the room at an accelerated rate, and then suddenly the stars were wheeling overhead in a black sky. Another plate allowed me to summon rain, drenching the plaza I was standing in with a slick, dark glow and matting Noctis’ hair to his forehead. Some plates briefly transformed Noctis into the creatures he was fighting; in one instance he became a long-jawed crocodile, in another a large hairy one similar to a buffalo.

Successfully completing the demo nets you access to Carbuncle as a summon in the main game–if you don’t play the demo, you don’t get this opportunity. You can also name the Carbuncle whatever you want, and the name will also carry over to your main game save.

I watched light shimmer, shadows play, fur ruffle, wet bricks glisten, waterways slide under bridges, clouds block out the sun… Platinum Demo is how Square Enix hopes to interest its players in the world of XV, understand its physics and fall in love with its lands. It’s a small piece of art in and of itself, and a very pointed message from the development team explaining what they’ve been working on all these long years. The demo itself is short–less than an hour if you follow a straight line through, and double that if you want to find all the hidden secrets–but it’s sweet, and effective.

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