Nobody likes change, as many would have you believe, but change can be good – glorious even. Change can alter your perception of someone or something, but it’s understandable that change can seem like a very scary thing on the surface. It’s this dilemma that Square-Enix has to deal with when Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII hits the masses of Final Fantasy fans all vying for their blood after the lacklustre Final Fantasy XIII and marginally better XIII-2.
However, despite the backwards name, the addition of interchangeable costumes and the fact you can only control Lightning herself, Square-Enix has managed to create one of the most visceral Final Fantasy titles in a long time. It’s hard to say if it’s the best – although it’s a perfect set up for Final Fantasy XV and quite possibly the best entry into Lightning’s story.
The preview demo I got to go hands on with was hardly an extensive look into the living world mechanics that really change the mechanics of play, but it was an excellent chance to get familiar with the battle system on show. Naturally, this means going up against some big creatures, familiar enemy faces, and familiarising my self with the new ATB system that’s inevitably been rolled out anew once more.
I’m ashamed to say that upon the initial announcement of Lighting Returns: Final Fantasy I was hesitant. I didn’t think Square-Enix could pull it off, after all, its track record with the XIII entries into its gargantuan series had been far from the best of the bunch. The change of direction in the battle system seemed sacrilegious, yet the liberation from the linear corridors and lifeless towns sounded incredible. I was torn. Now, I no longer am.
So, what makes the combat so darn enjoyable then? I’m glad you asked, the answer is nearly everything.
Unlike the traditional turn-based nature of previous Final Fantasy titles, this plays far more like a Tales of title in how it lets you move freely around the battlefield when fighting. You’ll still be pulled into a battle zone for fights – with ample opportunity to have pre-emptive strikes and ‘back attacks’ – but now you aren’t restricted to trading blows in turn. In fact, Square has managed to slickly bring in their action-oriented play that they’ve been trying to achieve since Lightning’s first outing.
It does this by mapping different attacks to the face buttons, allowing you to instantly activate them and chain them by just tapping away. It may not sound innately tactful, but it’s incredibly empowering from a Final Fantasy title. After a couple of minutes of play you then start to see the tactical joy buried in this new combat mechanic and the virtues of jumping between costumes to change movesets – akin to the Paradigm changes you could previously make. The main reason for changing, other than accessing different abilities, is to keep the pace of battle flowing.
Instead of the Active Time Battle System found in previous Final Fantasy entries, this time you’re given a stamina bar that is eaten away at with every move you make. It does recharge over time, but as it’s not shared between costumes the key to battle is to change and dish out damage with another while you let one of your other costumes recharge. And, as you can change almost instantly between costume sets, you can start chaining moves with wild abandon. It’s just excellent fun to stand back and stagger your opponent and then rush in to deliver some heavy blows. You’ve even got a block button that allows you to guard against strong attacks, and it doesn’t need to be queued up to be used.
There are some smaller changes too that bring it back into line with the more traditional aspects of Final Fantasy such as health and ailments no longer being healed upon exiting a battle. You’ll also have to delve into menus to get at potions in a battle and pre-emptive strikes dish out damage to enemies or yourself, adding not just a first-strike bonus, but also a health advantage.
However, it must be said that I’m not overly fond of the rather sudden sexualised turn that Lightning herself has taken. Some of her costumes are impossibly skimpy and battle impractical. They shatter my image of what she was like from the first two XIII entries. While I’m sure the story will correct this and make her the strong and steely female lead the series celebrated, seeing her in battle in some of the costumes and poses she pulls is enough to make your stomach turn in nervousness.
Either way, the battle system is a surprisingly good direction for the series, and it’s a shame that it’s coming at the end of the series projected path. But at least the team have finally nailed what Final Fantasy XIII should have been like from the start.