“Well she never really left, did she?” That rather silly question floated through my head as I sat down with some uncertainty to peruse the latest playable portion of the new and upcoming title from what has now become a trilogy of Final Fantasy XIII games.
For me – whether it was the games, light novels, audio dramas, or the perfume – Final Fantasy XIII has eternally been an abstract concept in my head. There’s always Lightning, great-yet-mildly-unexplained combat, and a fairly bonkers story – and they never really shifted from that layout.
Lightning was always front and center no matter how much or little she actually was playable, the combat system would take its time to let you fully understand and utilize it, and the story only seemed to get more complicated as the games continued on. With the newest title, although Lightning is now the only playable character – the combat system is immediately engaging, and the story… well that remains to be seen with the final product, doesn’t it?
It was with some cautious optimism that I sat down to play the English-language version of the Wildlands demo for Lightning Returns. Soon after picking up the controller, I was instructed by Dr. Gysahl to seek out a legendary white chocobo of story significance – the Angel of Valhalla said to lead the way to the goddess Etro’s shrine. Curious for more, I ran into two NPCs in the secluded village area of Canopus Farms and learned that the quickest way I could probably run into this rare bird would be to seek out its natural predator: the Chocobo Eater. With the relevant bits of knowledge in hand, and the familiar face of Hope Estheim chatting in my ear as mission control, I was soon on my way!
Unlike FFXIII and to an extent XIII-2, I didn’t necessarily feel like I was being railroaded into a certain path. Sure, on the minimap there was an objective marker, but there’s quite a bit more land to traverse than a thin strip of environmentally-themed wallpaper, and if I had read the map more carefully I wouldn’t have run into a cliff face trying to beeline to the blinking dot. Movement speed outside of combat is also up to the player, so you can jog through or hold down a button to sprint as long as you have stamina in your meter – and you always will, because it will recharge over time no matter what.
“IF I WERE TO SUM UP THE BATTLE SYSTEM WITH ONE PHRASE, IT WOULD BE DEVIL MAY CRY 3 AS A JAPANESE RPG.”
Walking up the correct path, I was startled by a weird shift in the environment’s tone until I noticed an enemy lumbering towards me. A pre-emptive strike before battle chipped away at 10% of the enemy’s health, while I was told that a back attack on the enemy would take off a whopping 25%! I never got to execute that, because it always seemed like the enemy would notice me as soon as the “encounter zone” – my phrase, not theirs – was entered.
I was very pleasantly surprised by the new combat system. If I were to sum it up with one phrase, it would be “Devil May Cry 3 as a Japanese RPG.” Movement speed in battle is reduced to a deliberately slow pacing around the enemy, as if you were perpetually locked onto them. Swapping your Schema is as effortless and instantaneous as cycling through your weapons, and the manner by which your ATB-like meter depletes with each Schema usage means that swapping your Schema is a necessity in the same way that you would need to use different weapons and moves to build up your Style meter ala DMC3.
The Schema I had equipped were the ones set by default for this demo: The Savior costume that you’ve been seeing the various promotional imagery; a dragoon class; and a spin on the classic Final Fantasy Red Mage. The first had your standard offensive spells and melee, the dragoon had one attack that could combo into the familiar Jump attack (provided that you had enough ATB to spare), and the third Schema’s distinctive element was elemental-flavored melee and the only guard option that could gradually heal you.
The logical progression, as it bubbled in my head, was to wail away at the enemy with my first or third Schema: Guarding when necessary to deflect as much damage away from me as possible, stagger the enemy then go for the big damage with the dragoon’s Jump skill. Despite this seemingly obvious balance of abilities, I still had to watch my ATB and adjust my course of action on the fly while monitoring the enemy, because they most certainly wouldn’t roll over to let me defeat them. I never got the sense that I could just mash a “win button” to get through the battle much like you could in the previous two games.
Classic RPG staples such as healing are handled somewhat differently in Lightning Returns as well. Instead of items being attached to the active battle HUD, you’ll open a second “screen within a screen” that allows for selection of items – including potions. Lightning can also heal herself through the use of Energy Points (EP) obtained through the completion of battles, however, relying on that method isn’t quite as effective as downing a typical potion. Using EP, Lightning can also make use of an Overclock mode that allows her to speed up while enemies slow down.
After the last big fight, the demo lost me a bit as it shifted to “Cutscene and Introspection” mode. Upon defeating the Chocobo Eater, Lightning got the white chocobo back to Dr. Gysahl and even helped nurse it back to health. Then came some story bits about how Lightning was the only one that could feed this prideful creature and she somehow felt a kinship that she couldn’t possibly have unless it was truly from this ordained prophecy and that she had somehow fought alongside this white chocobo from legend and so on.
My biggest positive takeaway from this demo was that the new combat system is quickly and easily understood – if not immediately – and traversing through the game world isn’t as Point A-B as past games in the series were. I remain cautious about the method through which the game’s story is presented, but that’s just as a newcomer to the FFXIII trilogy in general. If you’re a fan of Lightning and had some worries about the changes in the combat, rest assured: she’s coming back with one heck of a vengeance. If you’re like me, the person who only remembered the kickass Lightning from the first ever E3 2006 trailer that whipped the crap out of all the enemies by herself, then I’ve got news for you: It looks like she never left.