Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII – Hands-on impressions

Posted on Jul 29 2013 - 12:56pm by Gabriel Zamora

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Lightning Returns is the third and final (?) iteration in Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy XIII mini-series. These games tell the overarching story of a group of outcasts, cursed by divine entities called Fal’Cie, into submission and servitude. The Final Fantasy XIII games all deal with themes of overcoming the bonds of servitude and changing fate, while at the same time defeating the scheming Fal’Cie beings that enslaved them.

Thing is, the story of Final Fantasy XIII and its many incarnations is silly at its best and utterly nonsensical at its worst. Characterization to date is weak and melodramatic, and the mythos and overarching story of the games are hidden away behind pages of boring and cluttered data-logs. Many core plot events are relegated to these logs as well, resulting in a story that is both shallow and difficult to follow.

Continuing with the nonsensical storytelling, protagonist Lightning is now a Messiah and part-time detective, who is attempting to save the world from encroaching and ambiguous “chaos.” She spends much of her time solving problems and completing quests in the world of Nova Chrysalia, and will occasionally venture out to clear dungeons and further the “riveting” plot of the game.

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Combat
Fortunately, the combat in the Final Fantasy XIII games has been very fun, and Lightning Returns follows suit. Several key elements of the combat from past titles have been re-worked and expanded to compensate for the fact that Lightning is the central (and only) playable character in this adventure. These changes, in a addition to heavily modified core combat system, result is gameplay that is both methodical, yet energetic and engaging.

Lightning Returns adopts a full action-combat system, which isn’t too much of a stretch when one considers how fast and action-heavy the combat system was in the last two Final Fantasy XIII titles. Lightning Returns allows direct control over Lightning’s movement and actions during combat, which complements the queue-based fighting system surprisingly well. Rather than selecting attacks or spells from menus, basic commands are mapped to the face buttons on the PS3/Xbox 360 controller. Attacking, defending, and using special abilities are as easy as pressing a button. There are still some automated elements to combat – Lightning will automatically run in to close the gap between her and the enemy if an attack is selected from out of her range, for example, but for the most part, players have tremendous control over their protagonist this time around.

Much like in past games, actions consume action points from the player character’s ATB gauge. Lightning cannot take any defensive or offensive actions if she doesn’t have sufficient action points, but the ATB gauge regenerates with time. Attacking repeatedly allows Lightning to perform stylish consecutive attacks, provided she has sufficient ATB to execute the attacks.

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Lightning Returns also allows players to directly control their defensive abilities. Most fighting styles have a block-type ability that mitigates damage. Players can break off their assault and enter a defensive stance as needed in Lightning Returns, (again, provided they have sufficient ATB), which makes combat much more engaging. This is done by pressing and holding the respective block command button, and consumes ATB points so long as the player holds the button down. Timing a block just before an enemy strikes allows Lightning to deflect the attack, leaving the attacking enemy momentarily open to a counterattack. In the demo, this even worked on some of the boss monster’s attacks. This direct control and timing elements make defense much more rewarding and useful than defense in past Final Fantasy games.

Lightning no longer automatically regenerates health after a fight, as was the case in XIII and XIII-2. Any damage she sustains in combat is carried over to the next fight, which means that players must pay close attention to her health and either deflect damage by blocking, or avoid hits altogether. During combat, players can access the menu by pressing start. From there, they can select a healing item to replenish lost HP. Outside of combat, players can use health items from the main menu.

Because Lightning Returns is so action heavy, it’s easy to rush into a battle and blow all of your ATB gauge with lengthy combos and magical attacks, leaving you defenseless and frustrated as you wait for the gauge to fill again. Worse still, the ATB gauge fills at a glacial pace when compared to the gauges in Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2. So, much like in those games, the “Role” system and role-switching are crucial to combat. Roles give Lightning access to more than one fighting style (and more that one ATB gauge) during a fight. These roles and role shifting (called Paradigm Shifting in past games) have been redesigned and given a new name – Schemata.

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Paradigms and Schema
Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 featured a role system that functioned like an updated “Job” system of classic Final Fantasy games. Spells, abilities and attacks were broken up into six major classes (the roles)  which players could assign to their character party prior to battle. The “Commando” role functioned like the classic “Fighter” class, focusing on dealing damage with a variety of melee attacks. The “Ravager” class operated like the classic “Black Mage” of older games, allowing players to blast enemies with a variety of magical spells. These pre-assigned roles were saved as sets, called “Paradigms.” Players could switch between these paradigms during battle, effectively changing the way their party fought on the fly.

In Lightning Returns, Lightning can switch between roles much like the protagonists in previous games could. Roles, now called “Schemata” in Lightning Returns, change not only Lightning’s combat abilities, but her outfits and equipment as well. In this respect, the Schemata system functions more like the “Dressphere” system of Final Fantasy X-2, which featured a similar mechanic. Because the gameplay revolves around a single playable character this time around, the added combat variety the schemas offer are greatly needed and appreciated, though I could have done without the dress-up doll factor that Lightning Returns pushes.

The Schema available during the demo were:

  • Sorceress – This schema gives Lightning long-ranged magic to use in combat. The abilities available were the non-elemental Ruin spell, the mid-level Blizzara ice spell, the high-level Firaga fire spell, and the Lesser Guard ability.
  • Dark Muse – This schema is melee-oriented, and gives Lightning powerful slashing attacks to use. The abilities available were a Heavy Slash, a Light Slash, a thunder-based slash called Electric Blitz, and the Lesser Guard ability.
  • Divinity – Lightning’s default schema, this gives her a good variety of attacks. She has an attack command, a stronger wind-based Galestrike slash, her basic Thunder spell, and the Block ability.

Switching between schema is instantaneous (no flashy role-switching camera cuts), and is performed by pressing L1/R1 (or Left/Right Bumper on Xbox 360 controllers).

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Stagger Gauge Tweaks
Aside from the on-the-fly role-switching that combat in the XIII series revolves around, the games also introduced the “Stagger” mechanic, which encouraged players to chain consecutive attacks together to stun and effectively combo enemies. This feature makes its return in Lightning Returns, but with a subtle tweak – it’s now harder to use and not in a good way.

In past XIII games, a yellow gauge would appear beneath an enemy’s name and health gauge. This gauge would fill with successive melee and magical attacks, and would rapidly decrease with a player’s inaction. When full, the enemy would enter a stunned state, allowing players to more easily combo, juggle, manipulate, and generally damage the stunned target. Lightning Returns still utilizes this mechanic, but the clear and easy to understand stagger gauge has been replaced with a awkward wave gauge. The waves in the gauge get stronger and more erratic with successive attacks, and will flash red when the enemy is about to enter the stagger state. Unfortunately, exactly when the enemy enters stagger is arbitrarily unclear thanks to the gauge as well.

During my battle with the boss dragon Zaltys, the tutorial tells us that the beast is weak to lightning magic. I use the Divinity schema to blast the monster with lightning spells, and switch to a melee class to keep the gauge from falling, since I was under the assumption that the gauge functions in the same way as past Stagger gauges, and I wasn’t told otherwise by the game tutorial. Within a few turns, the Stagger wave flashes red, and the boss appears close to entering a staggered state… except it doesn’t. The gauge flashes red whenever I blast the boss with lightning attacks throughout the battle, but for whatever reason, the beast doesn’t stagger. Because the stagger gauge isn’t nearly as clear as it was in past games, I have no idea how effective my attacks are against the enemy. I eventually manage to force the boss into a staggered state near the very end of the fight, so I know that the mechanic was working properly. But the stagger gauge tweak in Lightning Returns makes the mechanic much more difficult to utilize effectively, since its so unclear this time around.

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Plot
After the horrid cliffhanger ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2, Lightning Returns promises to conclude the story of Final Fantasy XIII once and for all. We hope.

Lightning awakens from stasis five hundred years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2, and has been granted new powers and purpose by the mysterious creator deity Bhunivelze. The world of Gran Pulse has merged with Valhalla following the events of XIII-2 and the ever-present Chaos will destroy this new world in thirteen days.

What does all of this jargon mean? Well, we won’t know for sure until the game is released, but from what has been revealed, the world of Nova Chrysalia (the new merged world that Lightning Returns takes place in) is in stasis. People cannot die from natural deaths (murder still works, though), and no new life can be created either. Despite these seemingly awesome perks, Lightning has been tasked with ruining everyone’s fun and ending the undeath that the chaos has created. A cult intent on preventing Bhunivelze’s savior from succeeding has spawned as a result, intent on stopping Lightning and anyone who questions the glorious stasis the chaos has spawned. To top it off, Snow, protagonist and Lightning’s foil in Final Fantasy XIII, has an agenda against her this time around, and a Serah cosplayer in a gothic lolita outfit (who calls herself Lumina) is causing trouble in the world as well. The stage has been set. Expect lots of yawn-inducing melodrama.

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Or something. In all honesty, the bits and pieces of story exposition I’ve encountered haven’t made much sense. At this point, the overarching plot of the Final Fantasy XIII games has become so convoluted and absurd that one can’t be bothered to take it seriously anymore.

The demo was fun, and that’s really all that matters. It is nice to see the Final Fantasy series attempt something novel with their gameplay, and Lightning Returns has the potential for fantastic combat. An expansive and open-ended world, tied to a combat system that allows for skillful defense and offense, can turn out to be amazing. I can only hope Lightning Returns actually delivers.

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Gabriel Zamora is a freelance writer, ghost writer and hardcore video gamer. He has contributed written works for 2D-X, Examiner and MultiplayerGames among other sites.

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