There's not all that much to do in the boondocks of picturesque Duscae. A rustic pit stop on the road to Cauthess for Final Fantasy XV's Prince Noctis and his entourage of Harajuku street models, its country slopes downward to a marshland encircling a murky reservoir basin. Wild chocobos canter through the lowland scrub nearest the swamp; tusked garula graze among patchy vegetation, oblivious.
On higher ground, a rough ring of cracked asphalt byways hems the valley in, its horizon crisscrossed by remote rock archways stretched end to end. The only signs of civilisation are one truck stop service station, a secluded chocobo ranch and the occasional wayward car, just passing through.
"It's a nice place to visit," remarks Noctis' ridiculously named road trip pal Prompto, "but I wouldn't want to live here."
Duscae is a nice place to visit, which for rabid Final Fantasy devotees must finally feel like some good news considering the long and bumpy journey FFXV took to get to this point. Countless delays, a platform change to make way for current-gen hardware and original director Tetsuya Nomura leaving the project almost a decade after it first saw the light of day all took a toll on development, among other roadblocks.
Anyway, here we are. Duscae. A good place to go camping (or to sleep in an RV, if that's more your thing) and where, in the dark, you can take a moment to get lost in endless, dense fields of starlight just by titling the camera up.
Of course you can't get through FFXV's demo (aptly named "Episode Duscae") by some backwater sightseeing alone. But – with the exception of FFXII's massive connected maps lending Ivalice a somewhat worldly scale – tramping around what can be seen of the Duscaen region might be the first time Final Fantasy has really extended an invitation to wander.
'Final Fantasy XV', "Episode Duscae" trailer
You could go scouting for wildlife, disrupt traffic or try to warp-dash your way on top of an abandoned shack just for the hell of it, all more or less to scale. This isn't the barren 3D expanse of the PSone era, where all that lay between the dots of interest on the shrunken world map were invisible randomisers dictating how many enemies you'd encounter before reaching the next landmark. In Duscae you might find a trinket blinking in the reeds, traversal a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.
You want to explore regardless. Noctis and the gang's ride remains broken down at the service station (no chocobo riding, either) throughout the demo. It's a smart move on Square Enix's part – you don't want players answering the call to adventure in this madly anticipated interactive road movie by flying down a stretch of pavement that cuts off after 15 seconds. Director Hajime Tabata put the decision simply: he didn't want players to think Final Fantasy had turned into primarily into a driving game.
Besides, going it on foot means you can wring every last drop of life from the handful of quest hours up for grabs here on a micro level. How many people plunked down the cash for Final Fantasy Type-0 HD to get their hands on "Episode Duscae" in the west is still officially up in the air, but if a second place spot in its debut week in the UK are any indication (launching against the new Battlefield, no less) it seems that number might be quite high.
It wouldn't be the first time this happened. In the middle of the PS2's launch wasteland, 2001's Zone of the Enders enjoyed a similar reception as that other Hideo Kojima game, as it happened to come with a demo disc of the then-seizure-inducing Metal Gear Solid 2. An entire generation suddenly got busy shooting up bottles in the tanker galley.
The absence of Noctis and company's convertible raises some thoughts of its own. Every road movie from Thelma & Louise to The Straight Story is really about the experiences had over the destination itself, a notion easily paralleled in your ability to pick through every pebble and blade of grass like you probably did in "Episode Duscae".
With as much riding on the theme of travel as there is here, there's no danger that Square will take away your freedom to scour the land for hidden secrets, even when you're zipping all over the planet in FFXV's proper final release. The question is, if you're then used to cruising down the highway (or, say, taking the train) from here to there, will you bother to ever slow down?
Tabata has said that "Episode Duscae" was made to give players a taste of what a modern open-world Final Fantasy would look like. A continuous mass of earth is definitely the ideal of any such game, though for all the impact beyond scripted events that Noctis and his buddies can have on their surroundings – environmental interactions, affecting NPCs, going into random buildings and assumedly looting them – they may as well be ghosts.
No need to panic, as RPGs have been doing this for decades. They're the original open worlds, created for players to systematically quest through, town by town, dungeon by dungeon, narrative bits spackling the landscape as you further your progress. These are road movies, too.
As it stands, "Episode Duscae" is a very, very early work in progress, so it's impossible to know for sure what exactly an open-world Final Fantasy really is yet, let alone what we should expect one could be. Plenty of so-called open-world RPGs already exist in a vacuum that typically begins and ends with story, combat and quest logs.
The definition is fuzzy at best. Geralt of Rivia's horse doesn't beat down the terrain with its hooves if you tread over the same path hundreds of times in The Witcher. Dragon's Dogma won't let you carve your initials into an ancient crypt as a crude record stating that you once lived.
Yeah, I know this is probably way too much thought to be putting into what's ultimately a tiny tailored chunk of a much larger and more intricate game. Still, some of Tabata's more grandiose comments about FFXV's intended complexity – round-the-clock NPC schedules to complement the day-night cycle, the promise of seamlessly entering and leaving cities in real time, the general ambition of how closely he wants to mimic reality in a digital space – seem like stronger ideas than Final Fantasy has had in years. Probably not a bad place to start.