Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Hands-on Preview - Time's Running Out
Written Monday, October 28, 2013 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
“The unseen realm of Valhalla, where Etro, goddess of death, once ruled from her throne. Before I fell into crystal sleep, that divine land of Chaos where I served as Etro’s champion broke free from its own dimension and spilled into this world.
“It was right here in the wildlands where the end began, 500 years ago. Perhaps that’s why the spectre of Etro is so much stronger here than in other lands. What will I find here now that I am Bhunivelze’s saviour?”
It was with these words that our latest preview session with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII began, as our pink haired heroine, fresh from a 500 year power nap, arrived at the grassy expanses of the Wildlands and attempted to get to grips with the enormity of the task at hand.
Although Lightning Returns is the final instalment of a trilogy that began in 2010 with Final Fantasy XIII, Square Enix has attempted to create a game which even those who have not played the previous titles should be able to enjoy. It’s standalone, hence the oddly ordered title. Yet some explanation is still needed for newcomers.
Lightning was a key cast member in FFXIII, who following the events of that game becomes the goddess Etro’s protector and merely a side note in the larger story of FFXIII-2. In Lightning Returns, she is front and centre as the game’s sole protagonist, woken from crystal stasis by the god Bhunivelze and charged with saving the world within 13 days.
Our demo picked up around two hours into the game, as Lightning - still piecing together her role in the world and attempting to decipher the voices in her head - arrives at a ramshackle agricultural village. A humble settlement, Canopus Farms is just a few shacks and a water tower, overlooked by some nearby rusty wind turbines.
It’s also home to Dr. Gyshal, who believes that the messages in Lightning’s head are being delivered by The Angel of Valhalla, a white chocobo that lives somewhere in the Wildlands beyond the villages gates. According to legend, this chocobo can be tamed and ridden, but only by someone special. You’ll get no prizes for working out who that someone special is.
Armed with this new information, Lightning strikes out in search of the City of Ruins where she hopes to track down the white chocobo. It gives us a chance to have a wander around the Wildlands’ rolling hills, while engaging with beasties and getting to grips with the game’s new combat system.
Rich already detailed Lightning Returns’ combat in a previous preview, but there’s a few other notable things worth mentioning. With a party system abandoned in favour of a single heroine, Lightning essentially becomes the party, able to quickly switch between outfits and move sets while throwing a blizzard of sword slashes and magic spells at enemies. Battles have more costume changes than a Beyonce concert.
The new combat system is also indicative of Square Enix’s attempts to pull more western gamers into the fold without alienating Japanese fans, as the prevailing wisdom is that we’re into action while they’re into strategy. The solution the developers have found elegantly combines both elements and it’s truly fun, but it’s hard not to feel that realising their own vision would be preferable to chasing the desires of fans.
This is reflected in the open world exploration which takes place over four different continents, born from a reaction to criticism regarding Lightning Returns’ linearity. While the Wildlands we saw in the demo were indeed expansive, they lack the sense of wonder and discovery found in the best western open world RPGs. Again it feels like something Square Enix believed fans would love to see and buy, rather the developers had a unique vision for.
We eventually tracked the down the white chocobo in the City of Ruins, injured at the feet of an impressively ghoulish monster. Considerably tougher than the gelatinous monsters roaming the Wildlands, the mini boss took a beating, absorbing everything Lightning could dish out, only falling thanks to prodigious use of the Overclock ability, which allows you to go nuts with attacks for a short period of time. We emerged victorious and headed back to Dr. Gyshal to help nurse our new white chocobo back to health and start the next chapter of our adventure.
It feels like Final Fantasy is at a crossroads. The first two FFXIII games in the trilogy have already been quite damaging, as the once mighty series has lost ground to its more expansive, progressive western cousins. On the evidence of our latest session with the game, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy will do little to turn that around. Fans will tune in for engaging, enjoyable combat system and the conclusion of Lightning’s story, but despite huge efforts by Square Enix to shake things up, there’s little here to entice new players.
Instead we’re already looking forward to Final Fantasy XV and hoping that Japan’s venerable JRPG series can use the next generation of consoles as a springboard for the resurgence it truly deserves.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is out on February 11th, 2014 in North America and February 14th, 2014 in Europe.