Hands-On Preview: Square Enix executes RPG mastery with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
Lightning strikes in the same place thrice
Lightning Returns marks the last adventure of Square Enix’s flagship heroine, and the developers are intent with letting the epic femme fatale go out with a bang. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is filled to the brim with fantastic RPG elements that founded the iconic franchise, while incorporating its own unique intuitive and dynamic mechanics to provide truly immersive gameplay.
Even if you’re not a hardcore fan of the first two titles in the series, Lightning Returns isn’t a game you’ll want to miss out on. The story is shrouded in mystery and the characters have grown since we’ve last encountered them, and Snow Villiers has even become a nefarious villain in this iteration.
The true heart of Lightning Returns’ enjoyable gameplay is its impressive combat structure. Square Enix has been known for raising the bar and pushing the boundaries when it comes to role-playing mechanics, and their innovations are clearly seen even in the first battle.
With Lightning Returns, Square Enix has brought gamers back into the world of Coccoon for one last journey, one that closes Lightning’s epic adventure and quells the Chaos that threatens all of existence. From the game’s incredible graphics to the bizarre and memorable visuals to the compelling story arc and influential battle sequences, Square Enix has crafted yet another amazing adventure into the heart of the Final Fantasy universe.
Game Mechanics: Real-Time Combat, FX & Schematas
Lightning Returns has fantastic combat that’s portrayed in real-time, with liquid-smooth effects and elegant, sleek fluidity. The power of our femme fatale is higlighted even moreso in this title, and Lightning has an expansive array of spells and abilities to use while in combat. Lightning’s myriad of skills empowers gamers and makes them feel akin to near godliness, and affords near limitless tactical strategy with endless potential to mix-and-match every ability.
While Lightning does have a smattering of offensive spells, she also has defensive abilities that mitigate damage, reinforce defense, and heal lost HP. Interestingly enough players can block any time while in combat to reduce damage taken, and players can also move about the battlefield and aren’t constrained to one specific area.
Rather than selecting abilities in a classic list, Lightning’s abilities are separated in schematas, or pre-defined classes with their own specific set of usable skills. There are three different schematas to make use of in Lightning Returns:
- Dark Muse
Each schemata has a range of offensive and defensive skills to use in-battle, many of which are specific elemental attacks that have different affects on different enemies. Each schemata has its own ATB bar that depletes when certain skills are used, and schematas can be switched on-the-fly in combat. It’s best to strategically utilize the abilities in each scheme, which gives players a strategic and tactical upper hand while in battle.
Each abilities for the schematas correspond with the four face buttons on a PS3 or Xbox 360 controller, giving players four main spells for each preset. Additionally Lightning’s outfits change with each schemata, adding a nice stylish flair to her appearance whilst in combat. ATB gauges are replenished rapidly whilst out of combat, and naturally regenerate in combat as well.
The most enjoyable thing about the schemata system is that it combines sentiments from mechanics seen in many fighting games: namely the combo systems, as players can tap any of the four face buttons to execute (or cast) certain spells and abilities. This is immensely rewarding and for a while players forget they’re playing a RPG, proving that Square Enix still has its hallmark magical flair for these types of games.
Mixing and matching schematas is extremely important and is the key to taking down tougher enemies. When one ATB bar is emptied, players can simply switch to a different schemata and cast/use the abilities in that pre-set. For example, if Lightning were to use up her ATB bar for her Divinity schemata, she could easily switch to the Sorceress class to wield powerful elemental affinities and crush enemies with blizzaga or firaga spells.
Upon entering combat, players have the opportunity to press a certain button in a sort of timed mini-game, and when pressed quickly enough enemies will have lowered strength in battle. Along with this enemies have their own strengths and weaknesses, keeping that familiar scheme of elemental affinities that has been passed down throughout the Final Fantasy series.
The enemies are varied in strength and sometimes team up to pose greater threats, and Lightning will often come across bosses throughout her journey. The E3 demo showcased a brief bit of gameplay with a mini-boss, and Lightning was the only character in the party during the playthrough. Whether or not other members will be included wasn’t showcased during the demo, but since it’s a Final Fantasy game, we could probably expect a three party team.
The special effects for every single spell were amazingly executed and truly instilled that sense of wonder that’s associated with the Final Fantasy XIII series. The graphics were pristine and crisp, and the cutscenes were remarkable–a sentiment that has also been reflected in every single Final Fantasy title since its inception.
Coupled with the incredibly refined graphics and spell effects, the fluid and sleek combat system complimented gameplay excellently and contributed to that impeccable sense of true majesty that can be found throughout the series. Gamers who enjoyed the first two Final Fantasy XIII titles will no-doubt fall in love with the franchise all over again, with a huge offering of dynamic mechanics to swoon over.
I was impressed with the true level of strategy offered with the game’s combat system, and the schemata interfaces offer a greater sense of control. Staggering enemies and dishing out bonus damage by taking advantage of their weak points is very rewarding, and every single casted spell or ability was a work of art in itself.
All in all my time with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII was a feast for the eyes and ears, and truly immersed my senses into a fantasy world that’s rife with magic and peril. The story arc underlined the desperation cast by the doom-spreading Chaos while keeping true to Lightning’s heroic persona, and brought to life yet another remarkable title in Square Enix’s definitive franchise.
Lightning Returns is a truly prestigious title that I cannot wait to experience again, and it looks to be one of the major RPG releases in the Final Fantasy franchise. Admittedly I was skeptical about yet another Lightning game, but once I tried the combat, I was hooked. The game’s combat system takes everything players love from a fighting game–the explosive and rewarding combos–and throw in traditional RPG elements to deliver something wholly new and original set in the definitive world that we know and love.
Square Enix has another winner on their hands, and although the story arc is somewhat convoluted and confusing, the game’s core elements remain strong enough to carry it for years to come.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XII is slated to release on Feb. 11, 2014 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. For more information please visit the game’s official website.