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'Lightning Returns: FFXIII' demo impressions

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It’s been nearly four years since the release of ‘Final Fantasy XIII,’ the series entry that was poised to rock the PS3/Xbox 360 generation to the core. Although its critical reception may not have been as positive as developer Square Enix may have hoped, they have stuck to their guns and continued the series with 2012’s ‘Final Fantasy XIII-2,’ and with the soon-to-be-released ‘Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.’ The promised conclusion to this trilogy is the last chance for Square Enix to salvage Lightning’s saga and impress once-loyal Final Fantasy fans disillusioned with the XIII series as a whole. To meet that end, the demo featured during E3 2013 for ‘Lightning Returns’ was publically released on Jan. 21 for PS3 and Xbox 360.

The very first thing the demo asks when you try to play it is if you’d like to enable Outerworld services, AKA social media integration. The options are to link the game with Facebook or Twitter or both. Completing the demo and sharing the results of the boss battle at the end nets the player an exclusive armor set to be used in the full game, but the demo doesn’t spell this out. It probably should have done so in order to add an incentive for those who would otherwise ignore social media intrusion completely.

Back to the game. Simply put, Lightning is now Jesu- sorry, the Savior. As a servant of God, she awakens from stasis a week before the world is coming to an end. The world is being consumed by thick, black mist called Chaos, and its presence is somehow enough to herald the end days. Lightning’s mission, while not entirely specified, appears to involve saving people’s souls. By killing them.

A target of particular interest to her is Snow, who was once a party member in the original ‘Final Fantasy XIII.’ After the events of ‘XIII-2’ (two-year-old spoiler alert: his fiancée, Serah, died), he became the Patron of the city of Yusnaan and watches over an endless banquet that awaits the world’s end. In other words, he’s gone borderline crazy – but he is still intent on living to accomplish an undescribed goal, thus he refuses Lightning when she offers to save his soul. And by “save his soul,” she meant to let her kill him.

As expected of Square Enix, the demo’s beginning cutscene is lengthy, beautiful, action-packed, and utterly confusing. All at once.

At last, the player gains control. Combat in ‘Lightning Returns’ differs vastly from any game in the XIII series, and from any other Final Fantasy game, too. For one, Lightning is the only character on the player’s party – which means it’s not really a party at all. In exchange for forsaking one of the core traditions of Final Fantasy, the player gains in-depth of control over Lightning.

She can move - albeit slowly - around the battlefield using the left stick. Instead of a menu system, the four face buttons on the controller all correspond to an action Lightning can take. Lightning can bring up to three Schema, or equipment combinations, into battle with her. The shoulder buttons switch between her three Schema instantly, and each comes loaded with its own set of four actions. This Schemata system replaces the Paradigm Shift system of the previous XIII games, which was more suited for parties anyhow.

With the Schemata system, Lightning has 12 available actions during battle. In her default Schema called The Savior, for example: X is Guard, Y is Thunder, B is Attack, and A is Blitz (Xbox 360 controls). ATB, or the Active Time Battle element, is still relevant, since each Schema has its own ATB bar. In ‘Lightning Returns,’ the ATB bar essentially acts as an energy resource, since each action consumes a set amount of ATB. Each Schema’s ATB bar is independent of another, so if Lightning uses up all the ATB from The Savior’s bar, she can switch to Dark Muse instantly, which will be ready with a full bar waiting. As she performs actions in Dark Muse, The Savior’s ATB will regenerate in the background. The idea is to flow from one Schema to another to constantly perform actions and keep a steady offense going.

The remaining two buttons, right and left triggers, each perform an important move that remains the same under any Schema. Right trigger uses Libra at no cost, allowing the player to pause the game and peruse information about the enemy. Their reactions to various types of magical elements and attacks are listed, as well as some notes regarding their behavior. However, the information is not all given from the start, and must be tempered by experimentation. For example, an enemy’s reaction to Fire spells will be listed as ??? until Lightning tries some on it, at which point the info will be revealed, whether that means the enemy is weak, resistant, or immune to fire, or simply takes normal damage from it.

The left trigger is mapped to a brand new mechanic: an Overdrive system that momentarily freezes Lightning’s surroundings, allowing her to move at normal speed while the enemies slow to a crawl. While this lasts, Lightning can perform essentially resource-free actions that do not use up any of her regular three Schemas’ ATB bars. Combined with the vulnerability an enemy suffers while staggered, Overdrive proves deadly, efficient, and overall awesome.

Under this combat system, battles occur in real time. Since Lightning moves so slowly under natural circumstances, defensive actions must be used to lessen damage from enemy attacks. The Savior’s Guard skill stops an attack from knocking Lightning down and lowers the damage she takes by 40% - but it must be timed correctly to intercept the attack, and holding the button down too early would mean wasting some ATB. Blocking is not the only defense, as the Dragoon Schema possesses a counter. If struck by an enemy while holding the button down, Lightning swiftly retaliates with great force while dashing through the enemy.

Surprisingly, the equipment system in ‘Lightning Returns’ is the deepest the XIII series has yet to offer. She has an astounding six slots, as opposed to the four each party member had in the original ‘XIII.’ The first slot is armor, which determines her appearance in both the overworld and during battle. The second is the weapon slot, a large determinant for Lightning’s offensive capabilities, and the third is the shield slot, ditto in purpose except on defensive terms. The fourth and fifth slots are for rings and trinkets, none of which were available in the demo. Lastly is the accessory slot, which gives a bit of flavor to Lightning’s appearance, like some fancy shades, a nice pointy wizard hat, or even a long cat-like tail affixed to her rear.

Equipment provides a variety of stat bonuses, such as more strength or magic to boost abilities of those respective types. Some pieces also lengthen the ATB bar’s maximum capacity, allowing Lightning to perform more actions before running out of energy.

Though short, the demo provides a detailed glimpse into ‘Lightning Return’s’ workings and mechanics. With about seven preset Schema available to choose from, there is plenty of room for experimentation and the fine tuning of one’s preferred combat style – quite impressive for just a demo.

The demo’s boss, a fierce red dragon called Zaltys, provides a challenge that tests the player’s growing knowledge of the system. Experimentation is key in order to figure out his weakness quickly, stagger him with it and then pummel him with all of Lightning’s holy might.

All in all, the demo for ‘Lightning Returns’ confidently presents a fun, well-paced and flexible combat system.

As for the story, many people have probably already given up on it when ‘XIII-2’ introduced a mind boggling timeline correction plot.

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