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Lightning Returns Preview Part III: Bold new ideas for the series, but are they for the best? By Erren Van Duine on January 20, 2013 at 4:56 PM

With the final entry in the Final Fantasy XIII saga, Square Enix has surprisingly and decidedly broken the tried and true mould set by previous games with that number attached with a strikingly different effort in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.

Rounding out the finale to an unplanned trilogy, they’ve a lot of work ahead of them to try and recapture fans who may have drifted away or become disenchanted as well as those simply disinterested in titular heroine Lightning. Having a chance to see the latest title at an early stage is somewhat of a blessing and a curse – but one that shows they’ve come quite a long way in trying to court both long time and new fans alike.

“With the Lightning Saga having expanded to three games now, there is a risk that some players have been driven away from the series,” Producer Yoshinori Kitase explained to us at the event. “At the same time, there might be this impression that people had to play the first two installments to enjoy the third and final installment. With LR we wanted to focus on giving it a brand new feel – a brand new game that can be enjoyed regardless of prior knowledge of the series.”

Shown 15 minutes of uninterrupted gameplay played by a Square Enix representative, it was easy to see from first glance that this isn’t a typical Final Fantasy. In fact, it seems to ape a good amount from Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII with the added bonus of Lightning now being able to more fully explore in more traversal gameplay. She can now jump, climb and move around relatively freely, quite the change from previous games.

Music and graphics described as placeholder and unfinished aside, what I saw at the preview event left me with the with a strange disconnect ringing in my ears; the game feels, for lack of a better word, disjointed. At a glance the game is most certainly a new breed of FF, though a worryingly large amount of it winds up looking like a poor man’s Assassin’s Creed. Much as jumping in FF13-2 didn’t feel as tight as it would in a proper action game, the traversal here didn’t have the finesse of a proper action game, even from a hands-off perspective.

Even at a glance, Lightning Returns looks and feels little like FF13-2 and even less like the original FF13. This carries over to its story, though this particular worry has been well documented in countless places, from our own comments threads to message boards all over and even an article we have devoted to the topic. Because of that, it might be more pertinent to instead focus our efforts here on a more neglected area – how Lightning Returns seems to play.

It’s difficult to draw conclusions about gameplay systems when we weren’t allowed to lay our hands on controllers, but there are conclusions we can draw and facts we can talk about. Most striking and obvious is how the traditional party set-up is now gone, replaced with a sole character in Lightning.

Battles have completely changed from FFXIII and XIII-2.

Battles have completely changed from FFXIII and XIII-2.

In battle the development team have stripped away nearly everything from FF13 and 13-2, paving the way for a more action-based combat system and other action elements to be introduced. Don’t be fooled, though – Lightning Returns is not quite a full action RPG. Instead, the game takes the traditional Active Time Battle system and bolsters it with something new.

The foundation of the battle system seems to stem from the original FF13 E3 2006 trailer – a visual that depicted Lightning fighting alone, with several ATB actions allotted to her. LR seems to expand on that even further with the ability to move Lightning around, performing actions such as guard or dodge when needed via face buttons. With abilities no longer tied to a single Crystarium system, an almost overwhelming number of options have become available to customize her.

Again, I stress it’s difficult to tell hands-off, but the number of options available certainly seemed extensive. Your opinion on this will depend on your perspective – it’ll be a dream come true for those who love reflexive, quick-fire decision-making, but I rather liked the relatively streamlined in-battle process in the previous FF13 titles. I prefer my micro-management to take place out of battle, and while there’s plenty of that there also seems to be an alarming amount in-battle – but mileage here will undoubtedly vary.

Customization in LR has been taken to entirely new heights. There’s not only costumes, but different components that can be assigned to each costume to create ‘Styles.’ Styles are a more advanced form of the Paradigm Deck, and create a sense of balance to the game where players can sort of choose their own way of tackling battles.

“The new system has been expanded so that players will have more freedom with abilities that they can assign,” Motomu Toriyama explained. Unlike the job system in FFV, where roles were more specific to each job, for instance, the system in LR is a lot more expansive.

To some micromanagement might be a greater draw, but I can say that isn’t the case for me. I’m not adverse to micromanagement – it’d be hard to love RPGs if I were – but micromanagement in the flow of a speedy battle system can often lead to frustration, and so seeing it play a part in the fast-moving battles of Lightning Returns is a worry.

Outside of battle, another system concerning and intriguing in equal measure is the game’s time-based approach. Comparisons to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask do fit, but only loosely, and it is a wonder how the time mechanic will fare in a game that doesn’t have the option to significantly rewind the clock. It’s simply too early to tell if this addition will turn out to be as genius as it has the potential to be.

Missing out on even the smallest details is worrisome due to the game's time limit.

Missing out on even the smallest details is worrisome due to the game’s time limit.

One of the largest boasts of the development team is that the world of Nova Chrysalia is vast – and there is a twinge of worry at missing a bit much due to the game’s time limit. Replay value is valuable, but the beauty of an RPG is often in slowly exploring the world and everything in it – and the doomsday clock, an exciting concept, could well limit that. Time keeps ticking regardless of how trivially you choose to spend it – there won’t be any hours wiled away in a casino as with FF13-2 here.

In this sense, LR looks like a game that is largely about management more than either of the previous two games. Not just of equipment and character development out of battle, but also of a plethora of skills in action and time-based battles and most importantly of your time as that doomsday clock ticks down.

With all those thoughts and concerns positive and negative laid bare, it is worth underlining how very difficult it is to judge Lightning Returns based on what little we’ve seen. The new world looks interesting even if it does seem surprisingly disconnected from previous games, and the battle system certainly looks refreshingly different – I can’t wait to play it first-hand.

That said, even Kitase and Toriyama couldn’t quite quell some of the concerns in my mind about how everything would fall into place – be it story, battle system, or otherwise. Square Enix has been brave to finally branch away from FF13’s systems in a notable way – I’m just completely at a loss as to if they’re on the right path or not.

As with Lightning’s attempt to save a world doomed to end in 13 days, only time will tell.

You can read our full demo report and developer insight through their respective links. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII will launch worldwide in Fall 2013.

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