Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII has a playable demo now and I couldn’t wait to test out the final story in the Lightning trilogy. I’ll say right now, I’m a fan of the Final Fantasy XIII games. I certainly won’t say they are the best Final Fantasy games, but I enjoy them a lot. Lightning Returns has drawn a lot of attention because it takes the Final Fantasy series even further away from the traditional JRPG genre. I won’t touch on whether this is a good or bad thing. I believe that’s a personal opinion and there is no right or wrong to that answer. What I am going to do is give my first impressions based off this demo, and what I think it reveals about the upcoming title.
The demo starts out with a cinematic that I invite anyone to explain to me what it means. Lightning is a Savior, chosen by God, to save all the souls from the Chaos, and before the world ends in thirteen days. There’s a Serah doppelganger hanging around that is apparently quite evil, and Snow is now leading a city. Everyone has been alive for centuries because time has stopped (I believe or something of that sort). Hope is now guiding Lightning to fulfill her duty. Truthfully, I don’t know what the hell is going on, and frankly, I don’t think I’m really supposed to know at this early stage. I’m all for complicated story with tons of fantasy elements, friendship, and religious themes tied together. I can’t say if Lightning Returns will have a good story or not, but it will certainly be creative.
What I was really looking forward to was the battle system. I had read countless times that it was more action oriented. I couldn’t help imagine something like Kingdom Hearts where you generally just mash a button on the controller. I can safely say it isn’t like Kingdom Hearts. Well, there is button mashing, but it is definitely more tactical.
Many may remember the dresspheres in Final Fantasy X-2? Lightning Returns is kind of like that. Wait! Here me out before you cancel your pre-order or start browsing for a different game. This time around it isn’t called dressphere but Schemata. You can have three different Schemata in battle and then six Schemata to sub in. You aren’t simply given a “Mage Schema” and then that has all your magic attacks. As far as I can tell you will earn Garb, and the Garb is comes with some locked abilities to help guide you into what kind of Schema you should make around those locked abilities.
Let me give you an example. In the demo you have the Heartstealer Garb, which comes with the abilities Leaping Rush and Evade. It’s obviously a Garb with the intent of speed in mind. You then decide what weapon to carry with it and what shield. Every sword and shield has their own attributes and abilities as well. After equipping that you can then add what moves you want Lightning to be able to perform by attaching them to the four main buttons on the controller. Also, can’t forget accessories either, because a Final Fantasy game just isn’t a Final Fantasy game without accessories. Sadly there were no accessories in the demo so I can’t discuss them, but I can only assume they will be the standard items of status effects like increase fire resistance or 20% more HP. You can also customize Lightning with different adornments like hats and even an Imp’s tail if you were ever so inclined.
Something interesting to note is that you can sell abilities in the demo, which probably holds true for the reverse—that you will be able to purchase abilities in the store. Not entirely an uncommon thing in Final Fantasy, but normally it involves purchasing an item as well. This looks to be buying abilities alone. The store also reveals that there are components, so you can look forward to collecting and scrapping parts together some more.
I messed around with the customization for a good while to see what affects what, and how much freedom there is. I switched moves around to make three Schemata become the most powerful. Even in the demo, I was able to create a stagger raising Schema, a spell caster with slight healing power, and heavy hitting one. I will admit that before this demo I was a little doubtful about how Lightning Returns would handle the “dressphere” but I am a little more at ease. Not entirely, but I am more confident that I will enjoy the battle system in place.
Speaking of the battle system, let’s discuss how far away Lightning Returns is from traditional JRPGs. You will not stand there and trade blows back and forth. I don’t believe anyone was expecting that. There is still an ATB gauge but it doesn’t have to be full to attack. Every attack has an ATB cost. Say your ATB gauge has a total of 100 ATB. A small quick attack like Thunder will only take 15 ATB. A powerful move like Beat Down will take 40 ATB. This paints a clear picture of attacking a lot and quickly, or saving for one big move. The ATB gauges fill up constantly, and you do not need to be one Schema to have that particular ATB gauge refill. So once one ATB gauge depletes, you switch to a different class and continue fighting. Thus, forcing you to have three good Schemata and not spamming only one good one.
You can switch between the three Schemas easily by tapping the shoulder buttons. There is no animation or break in the fighting while this happens. It’s quick and fluent in real-time. The fighting is fast-paced and pretty fun so far. You don’t need to constantly mash a button, because holding that button down will have the same effect. You can see all three of your ATB gauges at the same time, and I promise it isn’t as confusing as you might think it would be. There are numbers so you know the exact amount of ATB you have left and not left estimating. I won’t say it doesn’t take some getting used to, but Final Fantasy fans will be able to pick it up pretty easily. The boss of this demo took me almost five minutes to beat it the first time and I had to use items to heal. The third time I fought it, I killed it in just a little over two minutes earning that five-star rank.
There is also something called the Overclock. When you use this, time freezes and you have a small amount of time to hit an opponent. This usually comes after staggering an opponent, to give you a little more time to really lay into them. You moves don’t use up ATB, but bigger attacks will make the Overlock bar deplete faster. It takes EP to unleash the Overclock, and it seems EP (energy points?) is gained by fighting.
The same tactic remains as it has in the previous two Final Fantasy XIII games. Hit the enemy with fast attacks to raise their stagger meter, then give it a powerful hit to completely stagger it, and make it vulnerable. As far as I could tell, unlike previous games where you had a class that rose stagger and another to deal damage. This time around, it is all in the attacks alone, and I was only ever 100% guaranteed to knock an enemy into stagger with a big attack.
Outside of battle things feel the same with a few differences. You still traverse the map and can visibly see enemies wandering around. Once you come in contact with them you are switched into battle mode. You can swing your weapon to engage an enemy, and a successful hit will have your enemies enter battle with a disadvantage like 10% less health. A hit from behind makes the disadvantage bigger, and if you get hit, then you have the disadvantage. There were two instances where I hit an enemy from behind and they simply faded away—no fight necessary. I can’t say entirely sure as to way, maybe they were completely unaware so they were destroyed immediately, or maybe it wasn’t supposed to happen and this is just a demo.
You can now jump and sprint outside of battle. I suppose both those things are a big deal in a Final Fantasy game but they really don’t seem that important. The ability to press a switch to get passed a door suggests there will be some environment interaction to bypass obstacles. That could range from pointless little switches you need to hit next to a door or maybe some in-depth puzzles you need to solve. I’m putting my money on the former.
There is also the OuterWorld. No idea how this will actually play out. It could be a really cool feature or it will become completely pointless. You can send messages with items or post screen shots. You can connect to Facebook and Twitter, which is interesting. I suppose it is another way of video games trying to use social media more. I saw a lot of regular characters that also were holding a snapshot of another player and some had items as well. You can purchase these items, but they cost as much as they do in the store. The main problem is how long it takes to view these images and upload your own image. I can’t say for sure if it is based entirely on internet speed or if everyone’s is this slow, but it took me about 20 seconds to view someone’s picture. This is an interesting concept, but no one will waste their precious 20 seconds looking at someone else’s photo in hope that someone attached a good item or not.
I enjoyed the short demo for Lightning Returns and it makes me more excited for the game. I have always liked Lightning and the Final Fantasy XIII games, but I wasn’t sure about this one. The final game in the series needs to be a good one or it could make everyone say the entire XIII series was a waste of time. I look forward to the customization options and the fast-paced gameplay. I can’t say for sure how the story will be, but I guess we don’t have to wait long to find out. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII released on February 11th in North America and on the 13th in Europe.