Just over a week ago, Chris Bratt and I were able to go hands-on with a new and improved build of Final Fantasy 15 - coincidentally, on the day that would have been its original worldwide launch date. The release had been pushed back two months to allow for extra polish, amid reports that earlier builds suffered from technical issues. From everything we experienced during our playthrough, though, the delay has so far been time very well spent. Here's almost an hour of gameplay if you'd like to see it for yourself.
It's the first opportunity I've had to play the game since the Platinum Demo was released in March, and the combat feels utterly changed for me. Before, during both the Episode Duscae and Platinum demos, I just felt overwhelmed - like I was button-bashing with no real control over what was unfolding. Now, I was dodging, blocking, parrying, and pulling off Blindsides and Link Strikes. It all felt beautifully smooth, satisfying, and really quite intuitive. I'm sure at least some of the improvement felt is down to the simple fact that the build we played came with a detailed combat tutorial front-loaded for the very first time, which takes you through the basics from warping and rolling to managing MP and switching weapons and magic on the fly. But everything around you feels that much more reactive, too, and truthfully the combat only comes into its own (and really feels like Final Fantasy) when you're able to incorporate the other members of your party into it as much as possible.
My favourite moments were them collaborating or high-fiving while pulling off ridiculously impressive stunts. Once, Prompto managed to take down three enemies with one Piercer shot, and in another Link Strike move that reminded me of the Final Fantasy 7 film Advent Children, Noct balanced on Gladiolus' sword as he was launched into the air, before crashing down onto the enemy with his lance. And this was only ever while fighting against low-level critters - I'm super excited to see what boss fights will look like. It's far-cry from traditional active time, turn-based Final Fantasy combat, sure, but in 2016, it works. Saying that you simply hold down a button to dodge and another to attack is correct but also misleading; once you start to incorporate the various other layers of combat - the magic, the summons, the weapon-switching - it all becomes so much more involving.
I have no doubt that the main characters will continue to divide opinion, but I really enjoyed their in-game banter for precisely how silly it was. The dialogue is so much better when it remains light-hearted; it's when King Regis tries to get deep and meaningful with faux-Shakespearian monologues that my eyes begin to roll back in my head. Prompto, on the other hand, is an adorable fool and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. It brings me back to the older Final Fantasy games, when characters weren't afraid to poke fun at themselves or one another ("You look like a bear wearing a marshmallow"), even as the world was ending around them. There are so many welcome touches and bizarre little rituals designed to bring the world to life, from the ridiculously detailed food that the party can cook up in the evening to the randomly generated photos taken throughout the day that you can review and save, that make the game really feel like a road trip with friends. An important tip: as annoying as Ignis can be, do listen to him when he tells you not to run around at night in the dark.
Once, while we were driving, Gladiolus pulled out a book and started reading in the back of the car. That little detail alone is really quite lovely; it doesn't serve any real purpose and as an action or animation it's pretty throwaway, but it gets you wondering a little bit more about the character and their dynamic within the group. It would be easy to write Gladiolus Amicitia (literally "Sword Friend") off as the muscle of the group, but there he is squeezing in some literature on the way to the next enemy encounter. These are the things that will get us caring about the overarching story, not grand declarations about kingly duty or war with Niflheim or the fate of the continent. It's all about the fact that you can cook up some stunningly rendered 'flame-roasted toast' before setting off on a side quest to rescue a bounty hunter called Dave.
I've only played an hour or so of the overall game, but it's little moments like these, as well as terrifying encounters with classic Final Fantasy enemies like Bombs and Iron Giants, that have me genuinely looking forward to release day finally rolling around. Which, after ten years of uncertainty, is a nice place to be in for the final stretch.