I’ll admit I am a fan of the XIII franchise. Throughout all of XIII’s faults (which there are many), there was a beautiful looking, incredibly balanced, and uniquely presented game (non-traditional RPG). With the release of the final installment, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII only a stone’s throw away I can hardly wait. Luckily, Square-Enix released a demo and I can safely say there’s plenty to get excited about.
The major complaint players had in FFXIII was its linearity. FFXIII-2 didn’t fare too much better in that regard, but LR looks to change that. Be warned, those wanting to see how the open world works will be a bit disappointed. The demo was limited to the familiar hallways and scripted cutscenes of XIII and XIII-2. That’s not to say LR is going to follow suit. Everything we’ve seen in previews puts focus on the open world aspect. You’ll have to wait for the actual game to see how open LR actually is. The gameplay and customization take center stage in this demo.
The one aspect of the XIII franchise that’s been consistent throughout the duration of the series is its slick design. The environments are intricate and beautiful with Final Fantasy’s usual graphical fidelity. The full motion cutscenes are still a sight to watch. However, there is no major improvement over FFXIII-2 graphics wise. The new monster designs were great; this demo features all new monsters. While I expect to see some familiar enemies, new types of monsters are a welcome addition.
On the other side of the coin, combat, has gone through some major changes. The most obvious change is the lack of party functionality (it’s like we lose a party member every sequel…) While this may be a turn off for some, I suggest you give it a chance. In FFXIII and XIII-2 players technically controlled one player anyway, so at least the facade of party control is gone. Now for better or worse everything is consolidated into a single character. Lightning is a woman of many roles, both literally and, well… literally. She can switch fighting styles of the fly, just like the paradigm system. However, these “schema” take on a more varied and classic feel. These aren’t the ravager, commando, sentinel, etc roles we’re used to seeing. Lightning Returns features Final Fantasy staples such as the Red Mage and Dragoon, as well as new roles. It is unknown just how many different schemata (plural) are in the game, but I can be a pretty penny there will be plenty to choose from.
Borrowing a gameplay element from XIII-2, players can attack enemies in the field to gain an advantage before the battle starts, likewise, players can also be put at a disadvantage when attacked. This carries more weight when paired with the fact that Lightning does not heal after battle. Yup, you read that right. Lightning does not heal after battle. This completely changes overall gameplay strategy. To makes matters even more interesting, players only have access to six healing items at one given time. No more potions or phoenix downs maxed out at 99. Supposing that LR has dungeons without access to stores, it may make the game much more difficult than XIII-2. Especially when taking into consideration… Lightning doesn’t have party members to heal her. Schema present in the demo didn’t have any pure healing spells. Although old skills like Mediguard are present. It wouldn’t surprise me if healing spells abilities exist, but they might be hard to acquire and really expensive to use.
While in battle, lighting can switch between three schemata on the fly. Each schema has its own ATB bar. Rotating between these will be the key to victory. With that being said, I didn’t run out of ATB. While using one schema the other two regenerate their ATB bars. It will be interesting to see how things progress and whether it will get more difficult to manage your ATB. Another complaint FF fans had has been addressed; you no longer just press the one button to attack. The “auto-battle” feature is gone (finally), while all face buttons are linked to a different move. Each schema has different skill sets that can be customized.
In battle Lightning can also move around the arena. While I enjoyed the control, Lightning did feel slow, especially when we’ve seen her capable of crazy acrobatic movements in cutscenes. At times I felt the gameplay would have benefited from the mobility Lightning has outside of battle. When fighting more than one enemy sometimes they can get lost in the arena due to the camera angle. Luckily, for some reason, I wasn’t attacked from an enemy off screen. I don’t really know if enemies can’t attack you under these conditions or if it was a fluke. The camera could complicate things if enemies can attack you from off-screen. Regardless, positioning in battle is something to watch out for. Far enough away and you can prevent enemy attacks from landing. Any physical attack sends Lightning rushing towards the enemy to execute the attack. A new gameplay element is introduced in this manner; guard. Lightning can guard against attacks to reduce the damage she takes. Holding guard is possible, when waiting for attacks but it can eat up your ATB bar.
Staggering enemies is still a combat function. Instead of the dynamic between physical and magic abilities see in previous games, certain abilities build up the stagger wave. Yeah, instead of a bar, there is a “wave” that overlaps the HP bar. The last gameplay element involves the use of energy points (EP). These are similar to XIII’s technical points, allowing Lightning to use powerful skills and abilities. Following the battle and the usual fanfare, players are awarded with EP, Gil, and Items. You’ll notice that the star system is gone, therefore reducing the need for speedy battles just to get a higher drop rate.
Each schema has a main garb, weapon, shield, two accessory slots, an adornment and four abilities. Before I get into the specifics, the “garb” colors can be edited to a degree. There is a set selection of colors as well as a set that can be edited with a rather extensive color palate. The garb itself can have specific abilities. Those are indicated by a lock next to it, and cannot be swapped out for different moves. This makes schemata more than just stylish outfits. Changing out the weapon and shield resulted in stats and auto-ability alterations (i.e. A Red Mage that has the Jump auto-ability). It also looks as if there is a limited amount of abilities to go around; taking Charged Strike away from Dragoon and equipping it onto Heartstealer leaves an open slot on Dragoon’s abilities. Since there are multiple copies of “Guard Lv. 1”, it comes to reason that you can have more than one copy of ability. However, the game does not indicate how you go about getting more. There is also the question of leveling. Defeating enemies does not yield experience (Crystarium) points. It would seem that the key to a stronger Lightning is through gear (weapon, shield), garb, and abilities. Alas, how to gain stronger versions of the abilities are not explained.
If I had to guess, the lack of a traditional leveling system is due to the limited amount of time players have before the “clock” expires. If haven’t noticed by now, I haven’t mentioned the time aspect of LR. In the game, there is a timer that counts down to 0. At 0 the world ends. Supposedly, everything in the game eats away at the clock. While I did see a clock, and did watch it tick down, no formal explanation of how it works or what “rules” it’s played by. I’m sorry I can’t give an accurate description of how it’s used and it makes me somewhat uneasy.
While outside of battle, Lightning has some interesting new functions. First is the sprint ability, holding down the left or right trigger will cause her to move faster. She can also interact with objects such as climbing ladders, jumping, and sliding down poles (hehe). Your default schema is worn outside of battle, even sporting different attacks when going for a battle bonus.
Lastly, Square wants to implement some social features into the game. Anything non-game world related is referred to as the outerworld (i.e. the actual players). Using the outerworld services players can communicate with one another, but not in a text or voice chat kind of way. Players can post experiences, take/share screenshots and send messages. These can be viewed by talking to NPC’s with blue name above them. You can also put up items for sale here. The outerworld can be linked with both Facebook and Twitter (surprised?) for those with an overwhelming urge to share their adventures outside of the game. This function can be turned on or off in the settings. I’m not sure how I feel about these features, as my first impression ranges from interesting to annoying. Although taking a snapshot or sending messages is easy to do. Pausing the game and hitting square will take a snapshot (magically removes menu’s for you). However, can you send messages or items to a specific person? How does the game dictate which message/item I see above NPC’s? Is it luck of the draw or is there a way for me to view all outerworld items for sale? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
In many ways Lightning Returns looks to differ itself from its predecessors. At the same time I found that gameplay elements of prior games found its way into LR. Energy points are reminiscent of technical points found in XIII, while attacking enemies to gain an advantage before battle comes from XIII-2. Lightning Returns supposedly has a large open world component, but we we’re able to see that in this demo. This is probably due to the fact that the demo is literally the first hour of the game. I found the combat and customization to have a lot of potential. I already enjoy using schema more than monsters in FFXIII-2’s. The feature to edit what abilities and auto-abilities can be equipped as well as stat modifiers is long overdue. There’s even an ATB recharge stat now. The timer countdown to the end of the world is still shrouded in mystery on how exactly it functions. This makes me worried the most, as its implementation can make or break the game. In this regard, I’m sure that’s why Square-Enix abandoned the traditional experience points and leveling. This lets player’s play through the game without having to grind their way through to certain levels in order to progress. Story wise, it’s going to be interesting how all the loose ends are tied up. Square promises us that this is the end, so expect to fun into familiar faces as either friends or foes.