At the ‘Future of Final Fantasy’ pre-E3 event on Tuesday morning, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Producer Yoshinori Kitase had a very short amount of time to explain his game to press salivating at the concept of learning more about the newly announced Final Fantasy XV.
“Is this really Final Fantasy?” he hypothesized they’d ask. Yes, he argued, it is.
Gone are the paradigm-shifting, ATB-driven turn-based battles of Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, replaced instead with a system that evokes those mechanics visually while being completely different in practice.
It’s certainly both brave and interesting. Kitase is right to assume that question will be asked, for at a glance, it doesn’t feel very Final Fantasy. Then again, with the series about to switch to a more action-focused slant for FF15, perhaps Lighting Returns is the ideal appetiser.
Square Enix is clearly keen to drive home to fans and critics alike of FF13 that this entry is something different and new. Unlike almost every Final Fantasy demo I’ve ever seen at any trade show, Lightning Returns had one focused on combat, not story - and it is rather different.
So what has changed? For a start, party members are gone. In this title you control Lightning and her alone. The paradigm shift system is gone, replaced by something known as schema - a sort of silly word for style. Switching style is a literal thing - it flicks Lightning’s abilities depending on which one you choose, but also changes her clothing in a move slightly reminiscent of Final Fantasy X-2.
Generally speaking all three of these outfits are pretty cool to look at, and many have quite cool call-backs to the previous two outfits Lightning has been seen in.
That said, there's a bit more flesh on display than one might wish for a character that began as a particularly positive example of a female lead. It's a shame, and this appears to be part of the path the character has taken in her execution, at first subtly, post-FF13.
In the final game there’ll be a ton more Schema, but no more than three can be equipped for any given battle, as with FF13’s paradigms - the lineage is clearly there.
Changing schema is a simple matter of hitting L1 or R1, and each of them offers a unique ATB gauge that charges independently, meaning that when you switch away from one Schema that ATB meter will keep recharging. Different moves cost different amounts of the ATB bar, too, so it’s easy to mix things up.
While ATB still drives this aspect of the battle system, it doesn’t feel anywhere near as dominating as it usually is - if you keep switching Schema, you can keep acting pretty much non-stop.
ATB is present but vastly adjusted, then, and so too is FF13’s Stagger mechanic. Here there’s not a meter to fill but a more context-sensitive implemention which pops up when you begin to hit an enemy multiple times in quick succession. Once you successfully stagger the enemy you can really go to town on them, as in FF13.
It’s a great way to make a staggered state even more devastating for an enemy, allowing Lightning to slow time for those around her so that she can dish out vast amounts of damage quickly.
The combat-driven demo is over quickly, but it does give a nice vertical slice of what it feels like to do battle in Lightning’s latest adventure. It's fast-moving, fun and satisfying. There's a weight to the combat, and Lightning's movement, that previous FF13 titles lacked.
What isn’t clear from this demo is just how the non-combat side of the game will shake down - as previous trailers have showed off slightly hokey-looking traversal stuff and a plot that seems, putting it politely, a stretch too far.
The game looks pretty good and is clearly pushing the cobbled-together ‘Crystal Tools’ that drove FF13 to their absolute limit, but does seem to vary between looking surprisingly beautiful and disappointingly muddy depending on the scene. The frame rate, at least, is rock solid.
The greatest shame in my eyes is that I know the adventures of Lightning and the world of FF13 have already lost a great deal of people. With FF15 now announced, they’re slipping ever more out of mind of even those without an axe to grind.
As such, it’s a shame that such satisfying combat has come so late. Too late to satisfy those already checked out, most likely. At the very least, I’m looking forward to experiencing more of this combat for myself when the game launches in February of next year. However you feel about Lightning, this is an interesting twist on the FF formula and one to watch.