[Hands On] Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

ESRB:T
ONLINE:Yes [Social Features] These features are now shut down!
INSTALL:2GB
RELEASE DATE:November 26, 2013 [Japan], January 21, 2014 [North America], January 22, 2014 [Europe] - Demo Version
PLATFORM:Playstation 3, Xbox 360
PUBLISHER:Square Enix
DEVELOPER:Square Enix
ONLINE PASS:N/A

Square have finally released the Lightning Returns demo to the US as of this last Tuesday. I tried my hand at the Japanese version a while back, but I couldn’t understand anything that was going on – I had no clue how anything worked because I just couldn’t read any of the tutorials.

I managed to brute force my way through the demo, but I’m glad to have an actual English version that I can understand!

The Story

So, let me preface this by saying – even in English, I still don’t really know what’s going on. It seems the demo picks up a little way into the main story – how far into it, I have know clue.

At this point in time, Lightning is already “The Savior”, and is working towards trying to stop whatever force is threatening to end the world. It’s apparently been a while since the events of 13-2 as Snow appears to be the “ruler” of this city, which appears to be a city that parties 24/7.

We also get introduced to Lumina, the apparent antagonist of Lightning Returns, though her connection to the rest of the series and cast still remains a mystery.

Overall, it’s a bit hard to understand with no real context. Why is Snow seemingly a bad guy now? You do at least understand that you need to do something, and enough of a motivation to do it is given to you.

What’s New?

The overall game is still fairly similar to it’s predecessors. Walk around an open map, fight or avoid enemies that are visible in the field and try to get the jump on them, battle, progress.

The actual mechanics, however, are much different. The first thing you’ll notice is that Lightning is alone in these fights. A first for the series, and maybe even Final Fantasy as a whole. There’s no party to have to worry about, and no frustration of feeling like your party member should have been able to revive you or anything like that.

On top of Lightning rolling solo – gone are the Paradigm decks from 13 & 13-2. In it’s place, the Schemata system makes an appearance. It’s similar in function – allowing Lightning to switch roles on the fly – but now, each Schema has its own ATB gauge that recharges independently of the others.

Gone is the “Auto-Battle” mechanic. In fact – there’s no menu at all. You now select attacks by hitting the various face buttons – which are customizable. This gives the battles a much faster pace, without actually increasing the speed of battles. Your different attacks cost a certain amount of your ATB gauge and you can attack as long as you have enough ATB charge left in the gauge.

I actually really like this battle system. It feels reminiscent of the previous games – yet fresh as well.

The Stagger gauge has been refined – no longer is it a big, kind of ugly gauge on the top right of the screen. It’s now represented on the enemy’s health bar by an ECG-like line that waves more intensely and changes from blue, to yellow, to red the closer the enemy is to being staggered – and to increase this gauge, you need to attack their “weak points”, usually done by exploiting their elemental/physical weaknesses ( IE: Using Thunder magic on an enemy that is weak to both Thunder and Magic will increase their stagger gauge significantly faster than just using magic or Thunder based physical attacks. ) There are also special times that will instantly stagger an enemy – such as guarding against Anubis’ attack, hitting Zaltys in the head, or attacking Niblet while it charges its “Glutton” attack. Once staggered, they become stunned and are open for you to attack them relentlessly, they also take increased damage in this state. Act fast, though, as it doesn’t last very long.

Another new feature is the “Overclock” mechanic. Hit L2 to send Lightning into Overclock mode, which increases her movement and attack speed – and allows her to attack for as long as the Overclock gauge lasts, without expending any of your Schema’s ATB gauge.

This mode requires EP, or Energy Points, which you earn at the end of every battle. As far as the demo is concerned, this is all EP is used for. I don’t know if it’s used for anything else.

Lightning also doesn’t automatically regenerate health after a battle – much like older games, you’ll need to manually heal after a tough fight. The catch? You can only hold a set amount of items at any one time. In the demo, you can only hold 6 items. And it’s not 6 slots that can hold 99 of each item – it’s literally 6 items, so you’ll need to think about what items to bring with you and whether you really need to use them or not.

The demo gives you 6 or 7 Schema to play around with – and they are all customizable. You can change what attacks are attached to what buttons, costume accessories, what Schemata you take into battle – you can even customize costume colors.

One feature that I’m not sure how I feel about yet, is the “Outerworld” system – which allows you to post screenshots and messages within the gameworld for others to see and rate. These show up as random NPCs that you see roaming the area, “talking” to them shows the screenshot and message. You can also have it set to post these screens and messages to Facebook and Twitter if you choose.

One of my own, personal screenshots that was posted to Facebook.

One of my own, personal screenshots that was posted to Facebook.

I do like that you can attach items to these various messages and other players can then buy them. Whether or not you see any Gil from the purchase, or if you can set the price of the item, I don’t know – but it’s a nice feature. Instead of selling an item to a merchant in-game, you could sell it to other players to help them out.

The demo is also a bit lengthy – lasting for at least 10-15 minutes, maybe more if you backtrack and do more battles. It culminates in a “boss” fight against the monster Zaltys – who’s rather challenging. Once you defeat him, you can submit your score to the Outerworld, and then head back into the field and face him over and over again to attempt to get a higher score. However, that battle is the only one that’s actually scored – the other enemies don’t really matter much and only serve as practice for the new battle system.

Presentation

The game looks beautiful. It’s Final Fantasy, though – so what more did you really expect?

The area that the demo takes place in is very well detailed, dust and black Chaos “smoke” look amazing. Fabric flows nicely, character and enemy models are well detailed, animations are great and flow well. Even the voice work feels a bit better than the previous entries.

I did see a few minor framerate drops here and there, but nothing to really worry about.

The music is also really well done, and probably the best I’ve heard so far in the 13 series.

The Verdict

As it stands, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII makes strides in the right direction to give players a much more open-ended battle system and world. No longer do you have to worry about “Auto Battle” “sucking the fun” out of a fight, and while your options are a bit more limited within an actual battle – it only serves to add to the strategy, as you’ll have to think about what attacks you’ll be bringing in with your chosen Schemata.

If the demo is any indication, this is by far the best, deepest battle system of the 3 entries.

Story-wise, well – 13 isn’t really known for its great story. It’s extremely convoluted and confusing, making little sense and not really doing a great job of making you care about any of the characters. Lightning Returns looks to be just as convoluted as the rest of the series, but seeks to finally answer any and all questions regarding the series.

I’m just hoping it makes more sense than 13-2.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is already out in Japan, and is due out February 11th in the US, February 13th in Australia, and February 14th in Europe. And I’m actually looking forward to it.

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PROS CONS
  • Battle system feels better.
  • A lot of customization options.
  • Story still makes little sense.
  • FINAL VERDICT
    Click here or on the verdict image to the left for full disclosure of what these ratings mean!

    About James Headrick

    James is an aspiring game reviewer that plays primarily on the Playstation 3 & 4. He also works freelance as a graphic designer, doing print and branding based design.
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