At PAX East this year, I was given the opportunity to actually play one of the most anticipated Final Fantasy games in recent memory. With Final Fantasy XV, which began its life as Final Fantasy Versus XIII back in 2006, Square Enix is really pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a Final Fantasy game. Though the series has strayed from the strict role-playing game format in the past, FFXV is the biggest departure yet. That's not a bad thing, as my brief time with the Episode Duscae demo (packaged with Final Fantasy Type-0) was mostly enjoyable. Mostly.

First things first--there's so much black leather. All of the characters (Noctis, Prompto, Gladiolus and Ignis) rock almost entirely black ensembles, each with plenty of leather to show off just how bad ass they really are. There's some really great and intricate detailing when you get a closer look at each of the characters, and that all speaks to the larger element of Final Fantasy XV's presentation. The development team managed to pack a lot of detail into the new open world, from hairstyles to the flora and fauna of the land. Were there some hitches and issues that cropped up? Sure. Like any other massive open-world game, some frame rate stutter did happen, but as this build is still considered a demo, I'm not going to hold it against FFXV too much. Especially considering it ran fine for the most part.

As is typical in an open-world title, the enemies you'll fight also roam the land just like you do. FFXV doesn't do that Final Fantasy thing where you're whisked into battle on a slightly different screen; you'll just do all your combat in real time. You only control Noctis, and the rest of the party does all their own fighting with very little input from you. Fortunately, Noctis has a lot of different abilities at his disposal that not only help to keep each encounter fresh, but add some strategic depth to the combat. You can have a handful of weapons equipped at any given time, and summon any of them to your aid with a simple tap of the d-pad. Noctis merely summons each weapon from thin air with some sort of magic ability on the fly, and you can easily move between simple, fast weapons and heavy, lumbering armaments. Also, if you don't feel like fighting, you can just keep on running past enemies that are trying to engage you (judged by a red meter at the top of the screen) until they give up the chase.

Square Enix

Where combat becomes a bit of a challenge is in fighting off more than one opponent at a time. Throughout the demo, I encountered packs of creatures that attacked en masse. These beasts were fast and agile, and hard to get a lock on. You do have a targeting mechanic at your disposal, which will come in handy a lot, but even with that aid, these little buggers kept staying just out of reach. It's even worse when the terrain isn't level, and there's a rock formation or tree in the immediate area. The characters don't do well with level changes, and it's incredibly easy to miss a potentially big attack because a creature shifted planes. It can work to your advantage as well, but mostly you'll rely on Noctis' defensive abilities to stay safe.

Just as he has numerous offensive options, Noctis has a few powers at his disposal when he's being attacked. A simple press of the the left bumper activates his dodge, though every use consumes MP. Even though MP regenerates on its own at a steady pace, dodging too many attacks in a row will drain the resource rather quickly. That's especially true if you're using some of the powerful magic attacks in the same combat series. Noctis also has a parry at his disposal, and if timed correctly, he can rattle off counter-attacks to the enemy at hand. Should too much MP be expended, you can also hide behind a rock to rest. This is fairly crucial at points, as if he runs out of steam, Noctis goes into a stun state where he can do little but move slowly to safety. I fell prey to not managing MP properly more than once, and the results were not pretty.

It's worth noting there's a full day/night cycle as well, and setting up shop at night at a camp site can make all the difference in your progress during the day. Sites are easy to spot by their special markings in the immediate area, and setting up shop (at least in Duscae) is as easy as pressing a button. Once you've made camp, you have the option to have Ignis cook a dinner for the group. Whatever ingredients he uses will offer new status boosts for the next day. They are not permanent, but these status boosts can give you more attack power or give you a slight advantage in earning experience. After a small cutscene, your group is ready for the next day's journey, refreshed, replenished, and boosted for whatever lies ahead.

Square Enix

Episode Duscae's main objective is to get your car functioning again, so Noctis and the others have taken it upon themselves to earn the needed cash by hunting down a local monster threat. The Behemoth has been on the hunt, and you can track the beast by following his trail of destruction around the forested area. The search is not a bad way to provide you with some direction in the world, and you'll encounter enough enemies on the way to earn experience and such at a fairly good clip. Once you manage to track down the Behemoth, however, the game takes a detour into one of my least favorite gaming conventions--the forced stealth section. I don't know how many are going to be in the final version of Final Fantasy XV, but I can tell you that one is in the demo is already too many. It's clumsy and awkward, and for a game not built on stealth, that's to be expected. That doesn't excuse it though.

Once you do finally track down the Behemoth, you will get thrown into a tussle. The fight itself is a magnificent encounter, with some nice variation and some new twists on the combat encounter formula. You'll all get to experience those moments for yourselves with the demo, so I don't want to say much about what happens. I'll tell you I died. I'll tell you I died again. And I'll tell you I didn't mind one bit. It was a good fight, and when I'm given the time to dive a bit deeper into the combat mechanics and strategy with the full game, I'm sure I'll be able to find a way to overcome the massive creature.

Not knowing what to expect from Final Fantasy XV, I can say I was intrigued by the promise the demo showed. The real-time combat will take some getting used to, and even though you're in direct control of the all the hacking and slashing, the intricacies of the battle system should provide more tactical players with plenty of options. It's still too early to say just how good of a game Final Fantasy XV will be, but for the first time in a few years, I'm actually interested in finding out for myself when the full game arrives.

Final Fantasy XV will be available on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One eventually. The Episode Duscae demo will be included with Final Fantasy Type-0 on March 17.