Finally, the Fabula Nova Crystallis series of Final Fantasy — which mainly includes the Final Fantasy XIII “Lightning Saga” trilogy — is almost over. I’ve been one of those torn fans who has found the saga to be an interesting departure from the norm, mechanically and thematically, but one weighed down by an often bland or unexciting narrative. The unique, if streamlined, Paradigm battle system has somehow always overshadowed such an interesting world, one oddly populated with dimensional cardboard cutouts. I swore I would turn my nose up at any more Lightning games, snobbishly declaring that I was done with this cast of characters: and yet, after getting my hands on Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII during E3 2013, I may have to reconsider my position on Lightning & friends, and hypocritically return just for the engaging gameplay alone.
The Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII demo started mid-chase, with Lightning tracking down Snow Villiers (who surprisingly never utters anything about “being a hero” or anything about Serah during the demo). Snow has spent the last five hundred years as the world’s sole remaining l’Cie, still cursed with a terrible power. He’s spent this time serving as the Patron of Yusnaan, one of the four continents of the world of Nova Chrysalia, as its protector. While I didn’t catch the reason we were chasing after our once-trusted ally, the scenario leads you straight into an environment full of monsters, serving its purpose by showing off Lightning’s brand new Schemata battle system.
Much like the previous Final Fantasy XIII installments, how you engage enemies from the “overworld” map affects what kind of penalties you’ll inflict on your enemies — or earn for yourself — once in battle. Successfully attacking the enemies stealthily lowered their health when we engaged; and while I didn’t experience it during the demo, I’m sure if you’re caught unawares, the same may happen to you.
Once in battle, Lightning Returns immediately feels like an action-adventure game, with a dash of Final Fantasy XIII and a pinch of Final Fantasy X-2. With players controlling Lightning sans party this time around, there’s no need for managing a team’s Paradigm arrangement to tackle enemies. Players now have direct control of both Lightning’s movements and her attacks, the latter determined by the new Schemata system. Much like Final Fantasy X-2‘s Dressphere system, each of the Schema in the Schemata system confer a different set of abilities, stats, and appearances to Lightning, which she can switch in and out of during battle, near instantaneously. Even better, each Schema is fully customizable, with players free to swap in and out weapons, shields, magic, abilities and clothes to create different set ups and looks for every occasion. Each Schema also has its own ATB bar, encouraging players to switch Schema regularly to take down enemies faster and make full use of their time.
Speaking of time, Lightning Returns is all about managing your time. There’s a doomsday clock constantly counting down to the end of the world, and it’s always running, even during battles. With this idea comes a somewhat clever undertone to your actions in Lightning Returns, one that embodies the entire Lightning Saga: fighting efficiently and finishing fast. You won’t be rushed or judged for points like previous installments, but there’s always that knowledge that every second you waste, you may be missing out on the dozens of events that may be happening at particular points and in particular places, things you’ll miss unless you replay the game (or have the ability to send Lightning back in time).
Another surviving element of the Final Fantasy XIII Paradigm system is the Stagger mechanic, which still relies on creating combos and exploiting the weaknesses of enemies to achieve. When enemies are staggered, they’ll be far more vulnerable to Lightning’s many attacks and more susceptible to her magic, with larger enemies in danger of getting their body parts destroyed. Finally, rounding out Lightning’s abilities, is a block move, which allows her to defend against oncoming attacks, and the “Overclock” ability, which allows Lightning to to slow down time.
As someone who enjoyed the Dressphere mechanic of Final Fantasy X-2, Lightning Returns‘ more intimate control of Lightning’s abilities felt like a fresh extension (or evolution) of XIII‘s Paradigm system: maintaining the idea of combat flexibility with what is essentially being able to change to different load-outs in a shooter game while on the go. While the demo didn’t give me an opportunity to see much else the game offers (besides an enemy named Lumina, pictured right, who looks suspiciously identical to Lightning’s sister Serah), it did allow me to enjoy a cool new melding of the action and RPG genres: something that I much enjoyed with Kingdom Hearts, and something that has now made me less fearful of the more action-heavy direction of the Final Fantasy series (let’s be honest: Final Fantasy XV looks more like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta than your typical RPG).
With too little time on the game, I can’t know for sure how much Lightning Returns will evolve the franchise until I get my hands on some more of it. But if Lightning is supposed to be the messianic savior of Nova Chrysalia, then hopefully she can turn this doubter into a believer by the time this game releases to the PS3 and Xbox 360 on February 11, 2014 in North America, and February 14, 2014 in Europe. Check out the E3 trailer below and the following gallery for a closer look at Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.