There's a moment about half way through Final Fantasy XV where you have to say goodbye to your stag-do-cum-road-trip adventure and actually start saving the world. It's the same point that sees you swap your ridiculously large car and the sweeping fields of Lucis for a boat, and then a train, that carries you, quite literally, in a non-stop line toward the game's conclusion, where its open world suddenly becomes much more closed in.
Your quest log recommends your party of boyband prince lads are about level 30 by the time you get here. I, on the other hand, was somewhere nearer level 60, because I ended up getting too damn distracted by everything the Kingdom of Lucis had to offer. By the time I was ready to move on, I'd conquered almost every end-game dungeon I could find, acquired a good handful of the Royal Arms weapons and fully decked out my bruiser Regalia car with every upgrade on offer.
And I'm probably going to do it all over again when the Windows Edition comes out on March 6, because now I've finally played it running in all its 4K, Nvidia HairWorks and Turf Effects glory (and had a nice chat with the game's developers about it), it's like I'm looking at this world afresh. And, by god, is it gorgeous.
It's fitting that my demo began in Final Fantasy XV's huge Duscae region, as this is the same location used for the game's very first demo all the way back at the beginning of 2015. And what a transformation.
I was playing on a PC with an Intel Core i7-6700K processor, 32GB of DDR4-3000 Corsair RAM, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti graphics card and a Samsung 850 EVO SSD, and this is easily the best version of Lucis I've ever seen – and I've played it on both PlayStation 4 and seen it running on Xbox One X while peering over my partner's shoulder. The Xbox One X version was in itself a huge step up over the base PS4 version, but even that wasn't proper 4K, as the resolution was still being upscaled via checkerboard rendering.
On PC, however, it's a revelation, a similar leap again over and above the Xbox One X version. With draw distances massively increased, Duscae's lush vegetation now stretches much further into the horizon, making it easier to spot sneaky caves, roaming monsters or points of interest as you're driving along the road.
The giant, docile Catoblepas creatures dominating Duscae's lakes, for instance, can now be seen in perfect, pin-sharp detail from the roadside petrol station up on the hill, while herds of tiny Garula mammoths shuffle around on the bank, their now newly-Nvidia HairWorks-enabled coats of fur flopping about in real time as they munch on the grass. The Garulas in particular almost look like brand-new monsters, as their long shaggy coats couldn't be any further from the shorn, flat, wrinkly look of their console siblings. I was so mesmerized by its wafting tufts, in fact, that I almost came close to a game over when I engaged one in battle because I was too busy staring at its magnificent mane.
Most of Final Fantasy XV's PC improvements are cosmetic, of course, as the way in which you go about murdering these majestic creatures is much the same as before. Battles take place in real time with foes readily visible in the world around you, and a red encounter bar will appear when something's got whiff of you, poking your nose where it shouldn't be. Get too close and the game's slow, sinister 'you might be about to get mauled' music suddenly kicks in to full-blown battle mode, the up-tempo violins signifying that it's go time.
Unlike previous Final Fantasy games, however, king boy Noctis will attack continuously as long as you hold down the left mouse button or equivalent gamepad control, keeping any kind of menu fiddling to an absolute minimum. In fact, the only time you really have to even open the menu screen is to use an item like a potion or phoenix down to revive one of your companions, which is pretty refreshing as JRPGs go. Instead, Noctis has four main commands/weapon types that can easily be scrolled through using your mouse wheel or controller d-pad, ranging from big swords, tiny swords, massive swords, spears, guns, shields, you name it.
His three companions, meanwhile, are a bit more specialised in their attack style and are controlled by the game's AI. Photo man Prompto is the group's long-range gunslinger, Gladio's the broadsword tank muscle while Ignis is the supportive squad dad, taking care of healing duties, status buffs and the like as well as attacking.
You're never simply fighting in isolation, however, as blindsiding or parrying an enemy will trigger co-op attacks called Link Strikes with whoever's nearby. Likewise, build up your tech bar and you'll also be able to activate special Technique combo attacks that let Gladio sheer off appendages, Prompto shoot through multiple enemies and Ignis add elemental effects to your arsenal of weapons to name just a few unlockable abilities.
And I haven't mentioned magic yet. This is another thing that greatly benefits from Nvidia's Flow tool. First, I chucked a basic Fire spell into the fray and the flames whipped around their target like silk, casting realistic shadows on anything that passed by. Next up, I threw a Tricast spell together, combining all my raw magic into a single, randomised BALL OF POWER. It turned out to be an Ice spell in the end, but if I thought the PS4 did a good job of rendering all those individual frost crystals on Noctis' jacket when I threw it into battle, playing it on PC is, literally, a whole different ball game.
In truth, however, battles are often so fast-paced that it's only when you pause the action and open up Nvidia's Ansel tool with a tap of F2 that you can really appreciate just how much is going on here. Sadly, I wasn't allowed to save any of my own screenshots during my demo, but the level of detail is staggering.
It's a rare occasion when I feel compelled to go back for a second round with a JRPG I only finished recently (recently being within the last two years), but this is a game I can definitely see myself spending many, many more hours with trying to capture the perfect screenshots, as there are so many things there that I just couldn't see before, whether it's the ludicrous skull details on the buttons of Noctis' jacket to the scary mouth-knees on the giant lady-spider Arachne monsters.
Speaking of Noctis' jacket, the clothes on all four of them now swish and sway behind them as they run much more naturally, as if they're made from proper cloth as opposed to stiff, obviously fake virtual fibres. In other words, the PC version has transformed the wardrobe of Noctis and co from bootleg counterfeits into the genuine article – which is important, especially now anyone who buys the game from Steam before May 1st will get Gordon Freeman's iconic HEV suit as an optional costume.
Duscae's green hillsides take a similar cue from Nvidia's Turf Effects, too, with the grass and hedges now bending in the breeze and parting ways as your band tramps down the banks. Switch Turf Effects off for a second and everything immediately snaps back to attention, resuming the same rigid, static stance I saw on PS4. It's a small detail, given how much your focus tends to be on the horizon rather than the ground beneath your feet, but one that makes the world feel significantly more realistic, particularly when viewed up close.
You can enter the new first-person mode by tapping 'N' on the keyboard (for Noctis, presumably). It's a little disconcerting at first, if only because years of FPS games have conditioned me to expect some kind of weapon onscreen at all times, but it didn't take long to adjust. Of course, it makes perfect sense when you realise Noctis' entire arsenal largely exists in a weird kind of spectral realm that only materialises when he needs them (as you do), but the brief flashes of swings and jabs when you are fighting still looks a little strange compared to something like Skyrim, for example.
I'm not sure I'll be using this mode much for fights, as you immediately lose that all-important peripheral vision that might save you from a nasty blindside attack. However, during those moments of leisurely downtime (of which there are many when you take thirty extra levels to get your arse in gear and carry on with the story), the first-person view is a refreshing change of perspective, even if you only use it to smoosh your face closer to all those lovely 4K details. It'll also likely let you appreciate moving from light areas to dark ones, thanks to shiny ambient occlusion lighting and HDR (high dynamic range) effects – although sadly the monitor I was playing it on was just a regular 4K one that didn't actually have any HDR support.
With the right spec, Final Fantasy XV will look absolutely gorgeous on PC when it finally rocks up in a couple of weeks. The problem, of course, is getting that spec in the first place, as even the GTX 1080 Ti system I was playing on struggled to maintain a 60fps frame rate at 4K with all the Nvidia bits turned on, and there were even a few points when it stuttered altogether during particularly hairy battle scenes.
For those without a Behemoth-sized PC, knocking the resolution down will help, and so will turning off the Gameworks features. But if you've got your eye on the 120fps option in the system settings, you'll need to turn off some of those features anyway, regardless of how monstrous your machine is. If you've yet to run Final Fantasy XV's benchmarking tool, I'd highly recommend doing so. It's a nice tour through all the different aspects of the game, and you get one of Ignis' tasty meals to drool over at the end (which, let's face it, is the real reason why I'm so very much looking forward to playing this again in 4K).
I'll also be testing the game more thoroughly to see what kind of effects you can get away with different graphics cards once I can get my hands on it properly, but for now, consider me (along with others on the RPS team) very, very excited for some 4K boyband action.