Square Enix has something to prove with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. The first two installments in the Final Fantasy XIII saga have been met with unusual amounts of disdain from longtime series fans, leading to lower-than-expected sales of Final Fantasy XIII-2, many angry forum posts, and more than a few proclamations of doom for the most popular RPG franchise on the planet.
Neither Final Fantasy XIII nor Final Fantasy XIII-2 were bad games – in fact, some would even argue they were great – but they just didn’t inspire the sort of widespread passion and fanfare that so many classic Final Fantasy titles have in the past. So with Lightning Returns, Square Enix is shaking up the usual FFXIII formula a bit. TechnologyGuide went hands-on the upcoming action-RPG at E3 2013 to see if those changes will be for the better.
Square Enix wasn’t giving much away about Lightning Returns’ narrative, but what TG does know goes like this. It’s 500 years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2. The world, as it so often is in RPG Land, is in a constant state of chaos. People cannot die or get older anymore. Past series heroes like Snow and Hope are still around, but have taken on new roles in the new, doomed world.
Lightning has recently awoken from her own period of stasis, and has been chosen as the world’s savior. She has 13 days before world ends for good. She can fight certain enemies and complete certain quests to elongate or shorten those 13 days, but the clock will be ticking all the while. She starts with a week to spare. Other people in the game will live their own lives and go to their own spots as the nights turn into mornings turn into days. But when the timer is up, so is everyone else.
The premise sounds like it’ll mix of the usual dramatic RPG fare with the time management system of games like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, but with Square Enix staying tight-lipped it’s too early to make any judgments.
What can be said, though, is that players will only be controlling Lightning this time out. Square Enix says the pink-haired heroine will encounter both familiar and unfamiliar faces —TG’s demo had Hope Estheim serving as Lighting’s off-screen guide, while the heroine was chasing Snow Villiers throughout the level — but there are no parties in Lightning Returns. Many of the familiar mechanics from the first FFXIII games have been altered as a result.
The combat of Lightning Returns retains the spirit of the first two FFXIII games, but comes with a stylish solo twist. The system is based around the various outfits, or “Schema,” Lightning can wear throughout the game. These can be toggled on the fly with the bumper buttons during fights, and generally serve as the replacement for the past games’ Paradigm system by granting different abilities and specialties. Naturally, they each have their own unique look too.
TG got to choose through three different Schemas during its demo: Sorceress, Dark Muse and Divinity. Sorceress was more or less the mage class, as it let Lightning use traditional Final Fantasy magic attacks like Blizzara, Ruin and Firaga. Dark Muse was geared more towards straight swordplay (Lightning still has plenty of swords, by the way), with its heavy and light slash attacks. Divinity blended the line between the two by giving a couple magic attacks to go along with a melee strike.
Each one of these followed a similar format in that they offered three attack options alongside a block command, the latter of which can be used to manually defend against enemy attacks. Players can also move Lightning around the battlefield during combat, further helping her defensive capabilities. Square Enix says that Lightning’s outfits and commands will be customizable in the finished product, but TG wasn’t able to test that out.
All of this action is kept relatively fast-paced due to how Lightning Returns implements the series’ longstanding ATB (Active Time Battle) gauge. Each Schema has its own dedicated ATB meter, which quickly depletes with each attack. Heavier attacks take up more gauge, and once one meter runs out, Lightning is unable to do anything in that particular class. These ATB bars will fill back up on their own, but they’ll take their time in doing so.
The idea here is to keep players constantly moving between Schema to Schema while still picking their shots and blocks wisely. Careless button mashing will only waste that precious ATB, so the goal is quickly move from style to style, relentlessly striking on enemies and looking slick while doing so. This is especially the case since Lightning’s health will not automatically refill after battles, unlike past installments.
The system looks like a clever way to take the fast-paced party combat of past games and condense it for just one character. It’ll feel a little odd at first to those who played the first two FFXIII games, but TG ultimately found it both enjoyable and sufficiently challenging. There’s just a certain satisfaction that stems from swiftly smashing up group of enemies before they even knew what hit them. As Lightning, players are supposed to be the world’s savior, and they could certainly feel as such after mastering this setup and flying through Schemas and attacks like it’s second nature.
As with the last two FFXIII games, battles are also built around the Stagger payoff, in which players incapacitate an enemy after repeated strikes. The traditional stagger meter has been replaced with a “stagger wave,” which was a little clunkier, but the core idea remains the same. TG put it to use during its demo’s boss fight against a hefty dragon. After exploiting its weakness to Thunder with various electricity-based attacks across the three Schemas, we knocked the beast down and unloaded until it was out for good, dealing bonus damage with each strike.
It was during that particular stagger when TG got to try out Lightning Returns’ new Overclock attacks. That’s more or less the game’s version of bullet time, as it lets Lightning slow down the flow of time of everything around her, thereby freeing her up to get in a volley of attacks in one big chunk. Overclocking takes up ATB gauge, but TG wasn’t quite able to discern how so. It isn’t the most original idea, but it was still pretty to look at.
In fact, just about all of the demo was pretty to look at. Lightning moves gracefully and with a distinct flair during combat, the environmental and monster design looked to be as stylish as the past two games, and the whole thing just ran smoothly. The only potential problem is with Lightning herself – she’s a little more, erm, open with her poses this time around.
JRPGs often provide a nice contrast to the gruff, grey-and-brown sludge of Western blockbusters, yes, but some of camera shots in TG‘s demo focused a little too deeply on Lightning’s womanhood. This sometimes went to the point of awkwardness. Lots of players won’t care about this sort of thing, and TG didn’t feel like Lightning was being out-and-out exploited, but let’s just say it’d be a real shame to see the promising bits of Lightning Returns sullied over something so silly.
That being said, TG thoroughly enjoyed its brief time with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. We weren’t able to test out many of the real RPG elements of the game, but the combat here looks like it’ll be fluid, attractive, and skill-based, but not complex enough to drive away non-hardcore players. This feels much more like a spinoff than a true sequel to the past two games — both in terms of mechanics and premise – but the heart and style of FFXIII and XIII-2 is still undeniably present at the same time.
At this point, Square Enix seems to have realized that much of its once faithful fanbase has deserted FFXIII for good. It’s caused too much ill will to be salvaged. So instead of reverting back to a more classic and beloved template, it’s going straight in the other direction and making a different sort of action-based game altogether. Will that be a wise move? Maybe, maybe not, but we’ll find out when Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII launches on February 11, 2014 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. And if it flops, hey, at least Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts 3 are coming soon, right?