Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (Hands-On Preview)

Despite the recent Tokyo Game Show giving players a chance to explore an open world portion of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, visitors to the Eurogamer Expo were stuck indoors in a strictly linear series of combat tutorials. With the combat system being my biggest grievance with the FFXIII series though, this is exactly what I wanted.

So after a cutscene that made little sense without the relevant context, I’m thrown straight into a tutorial. Given that Lightning Returns is making bold steps to move away from the ‘bash X to win’ mentality that has plagued 90% of the battles in the last two games I was certainly keen to get stuck into the lesson.

Lightning fights alone in this game, so forget the notion of parties. Stop! Come back, long-suffering Final Fantasy fan. To give combat the depth of a team you have various Schemata outfits to choose from. If you think of the interchangeable dress-spheres from the divisive FFX-2 on the PS2, you’ll find the concept easy to follow.

Lightning is now able to freely move around the battlefield unleashing attacks and spells without menus. Instead, four abilities are assigned to the controller’s face buttons. Each of these abilities consumes varying amounts of the ATB (Active Time Battle) gauge. Usually, the stronger they are, the more they’ll take.

The gauge replenishes over time, but you’re better off changing to a different Schemata via the shoulder buttons to carry on attacking while you wait. Each Schemata comes with a unique outfit and its own ATB gauge, so frequent costume changes are actively encouraged. You can equip three at once, but there will be a hell of lot more to choose from in the final game. Long time fans will be able spot a few nods to past characters in the long running franchise, even further back than Aeris and Cloud in FFVII.

There were only three to choose from during this session. There was a warrior-style one for heavy melee moves, the Divinity outfit for lighter melee attacks, a thunder spell and even a block move, which becomes essential when an opponent gears up for a strong attack. The Sorceress is your go-to getup for the big spells like Blizzara, Firaga, Pulse and the crippling Lesser Guard.

The attacks smoothly flow via the button presses, which is great for keeping you engaged, but you will have to keep an eye on your ATB gauges as they can deplete pretty fast too. However, changing between the Schemata with the shoulder buttons is super-quick (no transition cutscenes) and the recharge times for the ATBs while using other Schemata is short enough to not keep you waiting. But naturally, it won’t let you hammer through battles like you’re playing Devil May Cry either. Is it possible Square are going to nail the right balance here? I’ve been burned twice before, but I’m keeping my fingers optimistically crossed.

I found I was actually enjoying the combat, mainly because I had seen no sight of the Stagger meter from the previous games. Then the boss battle began with, you guessed it, the Stagger tutorial. The actual meter has gone, instead the enemy’s health bar will emit waves when you attack weak spots or use magic the enemy is weak against. Eventually, they become staggered, letting you move in to cause extra damage with fancier attacks that are only available when facing staggered foes.

This is a good time to use the new Overclock ability too. This ability is very limited (we’ll know exactly how limited when we get the final game) as it slows time down to a crawl and gives you a brief period of unlimited ATB gauges. So combine it with a staggered boss and you’ll be able to beat some serious numbers from them.

The standard enemies encountered on the way to the boss fight (a furry winged ball and an Anubys warrior) didn’t seem to be vulnerable to staggering as they were usually dispatched in a few seconds anyway. Damaging the boss before staggering seemed to take a while, but not to the point of annoyance. We’ve seen the XIII series’ boss fights suffer immensely before as they would often be nigh on invulnerable until staggered. And when it would take so long to stagger them in the first place, doing it numerous times in one battle would be about as appealing as dragging a cheese grater up your shin.

Outside of combat, there wasn’t much to do in the demo. There was a bit of light platforming, which seemed to handle ok, but I don’t think it’s going to play a large part in the final game. Enemies can be seen in the game world so there won’t be any random encounters. You are able to gain an advantage though, if you can run round the back of them and initiate combat they’ll start with 25% less health. Seeing as your health no longer recovers after battle, this will be an important part of engaging opponents.

The Final Fantasy games have a strong history of great graphics and it looks like Lightning Returns is set to follow suit. Despite being stuck indoors for the demo, I was able to admire the excellent detail on the ornate interiors with intricate decorations and shiny marble surfaces.

The character models are excellent too, although I only had a few cutscenes to take in the sights. One slight concern is Lightning’s new victory poses. She tries to pull off something of a ‘sexy’ pose, which just feels so out of character someone we know to be deadly serious all the time. The boob jiggle feels unnecessary too. Oh well, roll your eyes and carry on.

The State of Play: Mapping numerous attacks to the face buttons is yet another departure from classic turn-based gameplay, but it seems to be giving the combat a slick feel and it may well offer more depth than the last two XIII games, which bored even the most dedicated fans to tears on the battlefield. When playing XIII-2 my PS3 died and I Iost my save file from the last boss stage of the game. Instead of the blind rage that I felt at losing my progress in my other games, it felt like a relief that I wouldn’t have to play XIII-2 anymore to be honest. Call me a glutton for more punishment and heartbreak, but I find -again- I’m willing to give the XIII series another chance.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is released on February 14th on PS3 and Xbox 360.

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