One of the titles I was most reluctant to try out at E3 this year was the third installment in the Nova Crystallis series, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. I loved Final Fantasy XIII and greatly enjoyed the gameplay from Final Fantasy XIII-2, but the overall story of XIII-2 and the absurd ending to it all was bad enough to leave an incredibly sour taste in my mouth. When I first saw the E3 trailer for Lightning Returns, however, I felt the urge to return to Gran Pulse and finish the story. This time, there’s no L’cie and Fal’cie exposition muddle up the storyline. This time, there’s no Noel and all that guardian drama that no one cares about. This time, it’s just Lightning. She’s back and she’s here to change everything.
The world is ending. In thirteen (c’mon Square-Enix) days, it will all be nothing. Time plays a big part in the finale to the trilogy. As you progress, and when you’re not in menus, time will be ticking down. Now, it’s not known exactly how this would work, or even what will happen if you force time to run out. Square-Enix is not commenting on that at the moment. I’m sure that’s a trailer for another time.
What really caught my eye was the revamped battle system. This time,Lightning will fight alone. No partners. No monsters to catch. Just a shield in one hand and her sword in the other. There’s no random encounters and no more stupid Moogle clock. The enemies will appear in the dungeon. When you’re ready to fight, you attack the enemy. Well, you can just run up to them, but they take a 10% hit to their health when you attack them. So attack them.
Lightning Returns‘ new battle system does away with the turn-based encounters. This time around, you have full control over Lightning as placement, blocking, and attacking in the right places or times are crucial to your strategy. No more bracing yourself for whatever the enemy dishes out at you. This time, if you know how the enemy will attack, you can just get out of the way. I know games such as Star Ocean and the Tales series have been doing this for a while, but with the emphasis on one character, it feels and controls much better. Taking all of the extra baggage of your AI-controlled teammates out of the picture makes the battle significantly less hectic.
The special word in Lightning Returns is “Schema.” Lightning goes into battle equipped with three Schema. Each Schema has a different set of moves you’ll need to fight different enemies and you’ll need to switch them on the fly to deal with them. One Schema could be for buffing and defending yourself while you start a fight. Then you quickly switch to a physical based Schema to deal with the smaller enemies. Finally, you can switch to a magic based Schema to launch a massive fireball at a group of weakened enemies to finish them off. It kind of feels like a mix of the job classes from X-2 and the Paradigm Shifts of the previous two XIII games. Also, when Lightning switches her Schema, her animation, armor, and weapons change to reflect which Schema she’s currently using.
Lightning has four moves mapped to each Schema. No more going through menus to select which spell or ability to use. Just know that if Lightning is wearing chaps, she’s in her physical Schema and you can combo physical attacks. And if she looks like Yuna (from X and X-2), then she’s ready to deal magic damage so different magic abilities would be tied to each button. It’s a game of back and forth and, believe it or not, it adds a great deal of strategy.
I was surprised at how much fun I was having getting to play as Lightning again after so long. She’s more agile, nimble, and frankly, really sexy. The demo wasn’t long enough for me to fully be sold on the Final Fantasy series again, but I had a great time.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is due out February 2014.