Let me get this out the way first: I didn’t like the first two Final Fantasy XIII’s, so I’ve been pretty pessimistic about Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, the final episode in the XIII “saga.” While I still have my doubts about the game, the brief demo I played today was impressive enough to give me a little bit of cautious optimism for the future of the series.
The demo drops you into the middle of the story, where Lightning has to chase her former teammate Snowe through an abandoned building and… actually, you know what? I’m not even going to attempt to recap the snippets of the story from the demo, because even though I’ve beaten the first two Final Fantasy XIII games, I still had no idea what was going on in the demo. I know I’m going to get a lot of flak from Final Fantasy fanboys for saying this, I honestly think that the story in the XIII games so far has an incomprehensible trainwreck, and while Lightning Returns changes a lot about the gameplay, the narrative maintains the same tone and style of the previous XIII games.
Thankfully, the gameplay has changed a lot since XIII-2. One of the few things about the XIII games that I liked was their battle system, so I was a little apprehensive when I heard that that was one of the things that Square was changing for the sequel. Thankfully, it seems like Lightning Returns’ battles will be as addictive as the fights from the first two games.
Instead of controlling multiple party members like in previous FF’s, in Lightning Returns you’re only given direct control over Lightning. The game also ditches the menus and the turn-based structure of earlier games in favor of something that’s a little more action oriented: You have direct control over Lightning’s movements, and you control her attacks in real-time by tapping out combos with the controller’s face buttons. Despite the direct control over your character, there’s still a sort of turn-based rhythm to the battles: each attack you launch drains Lighting’s ATB bar, and once its empty, you’ll have to wait for her to regain some energy before you can start attacking again.
As in previous XIII games, Lightning can switch job classes at any time, except this time changing jobs doesn’t just give her access to different skills, it also changes her appearance and refills her ATB bar, allowing her to continue going on the offensive even after one job runs out of energy. While Lightning’s default job and appearance are rather modest (by videogame heroine standards,) her alternate jobs and costumes are far more revealing; for instance, changing into the equivalent of a Black Mage changes Lightning’s armor into something that looked more like a bikini than something you’d wear into battle. The quick pace of the fights combined with the constant wardrobe changes reminded me of Final Fantasy X-2. I’m not exactly sure that’s a good thing in the long run, but I have to admit, I “lightning” quick battles (see what I did there?) were a lot of fun to play through, and now I’m interested to see more (of the game that is, not Lightning’s bikini.) There’s been lots of talk this E3 about Final Fantasy XV’s more action-oriented direction, so perhaps Lightning Returns will serve as a sort of stepping stone between the series’ turn-based past and its apparently action focused future.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII will be released for Xbox 360 and PS3 next February.