Somehow, nobody says it. Aaron Paul, Lena Headey, hosts Greg Miller and Tim Gettys from internet show Kinda Funny, and a whole bunch of Square Enix representatives and talent: all silent on the subject. A vast number of people take to the stage of Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium during the hour-and-more "Uncovered" presentation for Final Fantasy XV, and yet not one person mentions The Spirits Within.
And that must've been tough, given what else was announced alongside the Gamespot-leaked release date of September 30th 2016, and public details of the new, free-to-download (right now) Platinum Demo, which I play a few hours ahead of "Uncovered" starting.
For those who don't know, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a CGI movie directed by Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi – the first man on stage at FFXV's globally streamed LA reveal – released in 2001 to a fanfare of disappointment. Undoubtedly a technical milestone for animated movies, The Spirits Within's thematic detachment from any FF game that'd come before it, and a plot that was DOA, saw it panned by both critics without any prior knowledge of the games, and fans who couldn't connect with its near-future, dead world setting and cardboard characterisation.
The Spirits Within was a spectacular box office failure – estimates put its losses at well over $90m. The next Final Fantasy film, 2005's straight-to-DVD Advent Children, was tied into the fiction, and the world it played out in, of 1997's Final Fantasy VII, a massive fan favourite. But for the new IP within a long-established franchise that is FFXV, the powers that be behind all things Final Fantasy have again chosen to produce a feature film.
Kingsglaive is its title; its English voice-over talent includes Paul, Headey and Sean Bean; and its silky computer-produced visuals can splash themselves all over your TV, tablet or whatever else you use to stream these things with, later this year – it's out before FFXV itself, and a Blu-ray copy is included in special editions of the game. The story follows events happening simultaneously to those of FFXV, in protagonist (Prince) Noctis's home kingdom of Lucius, and Paul, who voices a character called Nyx, describes what he's seen of it as being like a "$200 or $300 million blockbuster movie". But created exclusively with computer graphics, obviously.
In its trailer, Kingsglaive looks to be a lot more action packed that The Spirits Within was, but all the same: holding any breath for it being a genuinely superlative viewing experience for anyone not already invested in all things FF is probably unwise. But "Uncovered" had a lot more up its sleeves than just a movie – there's an animated series, too, for one thing. The five-part Brotherhood follows Noctis and his friends Ignis, Prompto and Gladiolus (disappointingly, I don't think there's the option of renaming them) as they bond, ahead of what plays out in FFXV's road trip across some fairly stunning landscapes. It's a prequel then, basically, and the first part of it can be watched right now, on YouTube. (Or below, if you like.)
'Brotherhood', episode one
In case it wasn't already clear, Square Enix isn't just releasing a new Final Fantasy game in 2016 – it's building a whole new universe around it. Kingsglaive is three years in the making, which shows you that it's no last-minute bonus content; and FFXV takes its parent series' fondness for mini-games and puts a new one into the palm of your hand, further expanding the fiction encapsulating the main plot of the game proper. We see a clip of the four travellers gathering around an arcade machine – the game in question being Justice Monsters Five. It looks like a strange mix of strategy combat and pinball, going by what we're shown at "Uncovered", and will be available "soon" for iOS, Windows and Android phones. (Here's a trailer.)
But that's one for the (near) future – playable immediately (on Xbox One and PlayStation 4) is the Platinum Demo, a short introduction to some of Final Fantasy XV's environments, systems and creatures. As in the main game, you play as Noctis – albeit as a child version of the prince with mostly toy weapons, whose sleep has taken him to a dreamscape in which he's guided by a white rabbit substitute, Carbuncle. This big-eared ball of fluff is a summon character from the final game, as well as series entries before it.
Platinum begins in a forest area, which Carbuncle guides you through to a watery portal to the next phase of the demo – keep your eyes peeled for a Leviathan cameo. You wouldn't quite call these gateways rabbit holes, but the Alice in Wonderland parallels are maintained when, in the second part of the demo, Noctis finds himself miniaturised, in what is presumably his own bedroom. From there it's onto a Venetian-like city, and finally a boss battle with an Iron Giant. At this final stage, Noctis transforms into the man we saw in the Episode Duscae demo, and the encounter can be repeated. While it's a breeze the first time, respawning the demo-closing foe sees its level rise from three to 15. Naturally, the fight becomes a lot tougher, but it's impossible for Noctis to lose it – if he drops to zero health, Carbuncle will heal him.
Combat is straightforward but extremely flexible. Weapons are mapped to the D-pad, while holding B (on the tested Xbox One version) will string together attacks on the enemy. If you've a sword tied to up on the D-pad, and a hammer on right, then switching between the two is easy mid-combo – simply hold the attack button and tap on the D-pad as need be. X dodges, or can be held to avoid (a lot of) enemy attacks, up to a point. This is a change from the more detailed, menu-driven system of Duscae, but Platinum's simplified take on attack and defence feels just fine as it is.
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All the time you'll find glowing yellow crystal shards, just floating around the place – collect them to unlock panels on the ground, which serve a multitude of functions. Some award Noctis with limited-use magical powers – fireworks, damaging rain, thunder and something called Meteorain, which drops glowing balls on the area and basically obliterates anything with a hit point or many to its name. At other times, these panels unlock new, stronger weapons, like a golden hammer that takes a substantial chunk of health off the demo's lightweight general enemies.
Some plates change the weather, some speed up time and just a couple alter the young prince's form. In the bedroom phase of the demo, he can become a range of vehicles, controlled using the pad shoulder triggers to accelerate and brake. In the city, Noctis can become a beast from Final Fantasy XV proper – I saw a crocodile-like creature, a long-necked animal with horns, and a Garula, last seen grazing the grasslands of Duscae. This is Square Enix simply showing off some of the assets you'll see in their end product – come the full game, Noctis won't suddenly transform into a scaly reptile.
'Final Fantasy XV: Platinum Demo', PS4 trailer
The 300 and more shards are what give the demo, which you'll otherwise easily finish in half an hour, any sort of longevity. Many of them are hidden in the different environments – all of which reflect areas in the final game, albeit in a rather different context here. You might run through the demo once without caring to collect them all; but then go back around to find each one and power up Noctis to his full dreamtime potential.
In terms of physical scale, Platinum is a fraction of the size of Duscae, a lot more linear, and should be treated more of a taster of what's to come in terms of look and feel rather than a standalone experience. It doesn't directly feed into its parent game save for, possibly, one area. At the end of the demo you can name Carbuncle whatever you like, and that name will carry over into the main game.
Platinum isn't going to take up much of your time, and is fun while it lasts; but equally it feels fairly inessential against the grander design of Duscae. It's a complete tease, what with the Leviathan nod, the level variation and Carbuncle's presence; but if you're not into fan service, then you might want to save that hard drive space for something more substantial. Nothing here is going to really affect what happens in XV, making Platinum more of a pleasant (and unexpected) curio for existing Final Fantasy fans than an essential eye-opener for complete newcomers to the series.
'Final Fantasy XV', "Reclaim Your Throne" trailer
Unplayable though it was at "Uncovered", the new gameplay footage of FFXV looks incredible. (Watch the trailer above. That titan, seriously, come on now.) Personally, I've been hankering for a rich open world to fill a Witcher-shaped hole in my gaming time for a while now, and this might just be it. From dense cities to rolling countryside, dusty wastes to smaller settlements, everything sparkles with the kind of visual quality you expect from a game that's technically been in development for ten years, but you're never guaranteed to get. Here, it seems as if the years have been put to great use. Walking everywhere is avoidable, as there are chocobos to ride (!) as well as the car seen in previous trailers (and the Duscae demo), and said set of wheels new has a new trick. Right at the very end of "Uncovered", we see footage of the car, the Regalia, transforming into a vehicle capable of flight.
How the crowd did gasp at the flying car, and just about everything else. How it was wowed, and how it whooped. Significantly more so than I did on learning that Florence + the Machine has recorded a cover of "Stand By Me" for the game, anyway. Get that shite in the bin, immediately. I don't even mind if you need to take that copy of The Spirits Within out of the trash to fit it in there.
But that's really my sole (and entirely IMO) gripe with FFXV at this stage, and I mention it partially because it's always hard to not make a positive write-up read like it's been "paid for" when you're really excited about a game, but the publisher of the title in question has flown you overseas to see it. So perhaps you're thinking: whatever Mike, nice one, enjoy that Square-covered hotel room. And I will, thanks. But also know that I know what this sensation is that I'm feeling right now: electric anticipation. The autumn can't come quickly enough.
Final Fantasy XV is released worldwide, for Xbox One and PlayStation 4, on September 30th. The Platinum Demo is available now, digitally, for the same platforms. Find more information at the game's official website. Transportation and accommodation costs for attending "Uncovered" were covered by Square Enix.
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