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Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII – TGS Hands-on Preview

By Janelle | October 3, 2013 at 7:26 am

I’m sure a lot of people are approaching Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII with the same trepidation I was. The first two games were worth playing for their solid battle systems, though opinions on the merits of the other aspects vary widely. But on the Tokyo Game Show floor, for better or worse, Square Enix seems to have hooked me in for a third go-round in the world of Pulse and Cocoon.

Ridiculous as its moniker is–last year saw the system being called “ATB Amazing”–battle system was good. Really good. It’s interesting how, in this series, Square Enix has managed to start with three battle party members, and then find ways to reduce it to two, and finally one, without sacrificing the same sort of frenetic action that kept players hooked with three characters.

At first glance, Lightning Returns‘ battle system seemed like a press-button-to-win affair, but it held surprising depth. Lightning is given three customized costume sets, called Styles, to work with, each with a separate ATB gauge. The player must switch between them in battle to recharge depleted gauges more quickly and to maximize damage per minute. Each Style had a bank of moves that could be mapped to the face buttons, and bonuses associated with wearing it, such as increased elemental attack. If you want to get rid of your defensive skills? You can! Replace all the face buttons with all the -ga spells? You can! Playing around in the menu, it seemed as though there were mastered skills as well, which would boost Lightning’s overall stats when equipped.

Styles and their settings were fully customizable in the demo, to my surprise. In fact, the demo was littered with blue flan enemies, and one of the default costumes had nothing but ice skills, so players who messed around with the system were actually rewarded. Swapping the ice-themed costume for the fire-themed costume (which resembled a Flamenco dress) and watching the enemies burn to a crisp felt pretty satisfying, as annoying and gratuitous as the costumes themselves are.

I ran into a nasty large enemy that simply couldn’t be killed by button mashing, unlike the easier ones. I fought valiantly and actually managed to put a dent in his HP before he wiped the floor with me. Knowing when to guard, when to let the ATB gauge fill up, and when to make attacks happen was a pretty intense level of strategy. If I had known what all my options were and had a bit more time, it felt conceivable that I could have beaten this super difficult enemy, and that’s what made the system satisfying.

Contrary to the trend of most show-floor demos holding the player’s hand, Lightning Returns‘ demo plunked the player down in the middle of some kind of shanty town on the vast open plain. There were NPCs to talk to, quests to initiate and shops, so it felt, again, a step closer to those coveted “real towns” the FFXIII games have managed to dodge recently. There was a surprising amount of freedom, and it seems like everyone who I watched play the demo did something different. Some talked to townspeople and did sidequests, others took off towards hazy structures in the distance, and some made a beeline for the quest marker. I did a little of each, trying to fully take in the experience.

And it was a surprisingly deep and solid experience. Against all my expectations, the TGS demo has made a reluctant convert out of me. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII will hit Japanese store shelves on November 21 of this year, while European, North American and Australian players will be able to pick it up in early February 2014.

Topics: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, Previews, Tokyo Game Show 2013