Since 1987 the Final Fantasy franchise has wowed fans from all around the world, as an RPG fan I was truly blessed in the ‘golden-era’ of FFs VI to X, a total of 5 consecutively amazing titles in the space of 7 years spanning 3 console generations. Memorable characters, memorable stories, memorable gameplay.
As the franchise evolved, branching out into an MMORPG with XI and shifting away from traditional turn-based combat in XII something was lost, I did not feel the spark as I used to. XIII acted somewhat as a confirmation of my concerns, while I had particular no issues with the story, characterisation and gameplay left much to be desired.
The direction that Square-Enix is taking the franchise concerns me. I could somewhat understand the desire to ride on the success of VII because it was truly a magnificent game. However, what I saw in XIII-2 was nothing more than a cash-grab; it gave an impression of undeserved success. It took an already weak character from XIII in Serah and attempted to give her the leading role in her own game. Now, I am not opposed to having females as the lead role in fact, Square-Enix is one of the only developers that can do female characterisation properly; see Terra, Tifa, Rinoa, and Yuna.
XIII-2 committed a cardinal sin of gaming as far as I’m concerned on par with the ‘it was all a dream’ ending. It is, to my knowledge, possibly the only game ever to specifically state that there will be a sequel. Cliff-hangers are cool but a big ‘To Be Continued’ stuck up to gamers is about as subtle as a stealth mission with the Master Chief. What I’m most bitter about is that the expansion of the XIII universe took priority over Versus XIII now re-branded XV of which I was far more excited about.
It’s like Square-Enix is telling me to deal with it…
It is without doubt that the XIII story should have ended long ago; the sentiment is a general consensus amongst gamers and is reflected by the poor sales figures of the XIII spin-off titles particularly in Japan where the FF franchise is traditionally strong. Lightning Returns sold through 277,000 units to gamers in the first week of its debut in Japan compared with 1.5 million for XIII and 524,000 for XIII-2.
So with all this negativity, you must think that I’m going rip into Lightning Returns. But aside from my feelings that this is another cash-grab, there will be no ripping. I actually like Lightning and think it’s a shame that it’s going to take 3 games to fully develop her character. Bear in mind that the following are my personal impressions from playing the demo that’s recently landed.
The game is set 500 years after the events of XIII-2, for those 500 years nobody is born and nobody dies because of the events from the previous game. Lightning returns 13 days before the end of the world, and it is down to her to save it. The sense of immortality like in Lost Odyssey gives the potential for far more interesting character development from the original XIII cast. For instance, from the moment you load up the demo you are treated to a cinematic sequence featuring Lightning and Snow. Snow appears as a far darker character compared to his previous persona, black mist surrounds his body as he retreats after a brief clash with Lightning.
Friend of foe? Snow’s immortality has changed him.
After the cut-scene, the player is given control of Lightning. The first thing I noticed was how poor the background texturing was in the game, aside from the fact that this is a demo, you get the distinct feeling that this game will not age very well. Understandable I suppose, considering it is a last-gen title. Lightning Returns should squeeze out the last drops of power from the 360 although it would have made more sense to port it to current-gen.
We get straight into the action with a few monster encounters and a mini-boss at the end of the demo. Similarly, with the other XIII titles, the player can choose to engage monsters or run past them. To engage, the player uses RB, the quicker the player engages, the greater loss in the base HP of the monster at the beginning of the battle. Once you begin fighting everything becomes slightly confusing, on the bottom left there are 4 bars, 3 ATB bars above your HP bar. On the bottom right there are the options to cycle through ‘Schema’ replacing Paradigm Shifts and allocations for attack/defence using the ABXY face buttons. Essentially fighting in Lightning Returns is a mix between turn-based and real-time using ABXY buttons where each allocation changes depending on Schemata. Fans of FF will immediately recognise that Schemata are loosely based on the traditional job class system with classes such as Red and Black Mages bringing the nostalgia.
Lightning can equip 3 Schemata into battle; it is not known at this point whether that will increase as the story progresses. Each Schema has a unique play style with a unique costume for Lightning. As you execute attacks with the face buttons, the ATB bar assigned to the Schema will deplete, once depleted, Lightning can no longer attack until the bar is recharged. The player can switch to a different Schema at any time to recharge depleted bars.
Staggering makes a return although instead of a regular Stagger meter, it is replaced with a frequency wave graphic. The redder the wave, the closer the monster is to Stagger at which point Staggering operates in the same way as before. Lightning is also able to employ an ‘Overclock’ function, an ability to slow down time in order to extend an attack chain, working best during Stagger.
Keeping track of your ATB bars are key; this is not a button-masher.
Here’s the kicker, ATB bars and HP do not get restored after a battle, I assume a full heal will be offered at save points but otherwise, items will be your friend. You can also change to a healer-type Schema. I have a gripe about full health restoration after battles in RPGs. Previously, battles were far too easy. There was no particular strategy about combat, made worse by the ‘Auto-Battle’ function; every non-boss battle felt the same. This change in the combat system is a move that I welcome. My optimism is shared by Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai:
“I was amazed at how, even under the limitations of there being only one party member [in Lightning Returns], [the ATB system] has evolved.”
Make no mistake, this is not a DMC-style hack and slash title. The interchanging of Schemata and variations between them allows for impressive combination attacks that not only looks stunning but it flatters the player for pulling it off. It also means that no two battles will be the same. An increase in difficulty is something that is long overdue. Lightning Returns feels like it can cater to the hard-core fans of the franchise. It remains to be seen whether the final entry into the XIII universe can end it with a big bang.
Characters, story, and gameplay, these are the criteria that FF games are loved for. From my first glance into Lightning Returns, I’m confident that the gameplay will be strong. I’m optimistic that Lightning will finally be the strong female lead that Square-Enix has been promoting incessantly. My main concern is that the story is likely to let the game down.
Lightning Returns is released in the UK on 14th February 2014 and is available for pre-order from all major games retailers.
Lightning Returns – ‘The Saviour’s Choice’ Trailer