Lightning Returns Demo

Going on eight years since Final Fantasy XIII’s teaser debut, Lightning Returns begins to live up to the action Square Enix originally put on display.  It doesn’t make anymore sense than the previous two entries in the sub-series, but it’s something that can be looked past if gameplay comes together.  I’ve spent some time with the demo now (after having played FFXIII, and the demo for FFXIII-2) and I can’t shake the feeling that Lightning Returns offers too little, too late.  The gaming world has come a long way since 2006, but Square Enix has fixated on acting like it’s 2006 every year, pretending it can still capture the enthusiasm of a fan community that was eager to see a new generation of Final Fantasy.  But it’s a game from a series of waning popularity, on a platform of waning significance.

Lightning Returns focuses its action on the titular character.  You’re given full range of motion and can act in an instant.  It’s a very gratifying transition to make after the at-a-distance gameplay that earlier games offered.  Square Enix certainly appears to have gone back to that 2006 teaser trailer and built on the concept.  But they also seem to have identified complex systems as one of the series’ lynchpins and attributed it’s earlier success to it.  After all, something needs to unfold for there to be a 30+ hour adventure.  Prior to Final Fantasy XIII, this felt like something that the player was actively discovering.  Now, it feels like it’s something that’s dumped on the player instead without any of the reward or satisfaction of putting the pieces together yourself.  Complex systems don’t lend themselves well to an action-oriented Final Fantasy format.

It’s probably easiest to explain the combat system like this: you are still controlling a full party of three people, but they are all Lightning wearing different outfits, only one can fight at a time, and they all share a life bar.  As you act as each Lightning, you’ll expend action points.  Each face button on the controller is pre-mapped with an action outside of battle.  Once your AP gauge has been depleted though, that Lightning has to tag out and let another take over the fight.  All of the Lightning’s will recover AP simultaneously.  It’s a flow that has interesting potential, but in the demo it quickly becomes a noisy mess.  The HUD is crowded by attributes to apply to the current Lightning, all the Lightnings, and then there’s information strewn about the environment.  Larger enemies require you to build an enemy’s stagger meter.  You don’t stand much of a chance until these enemies are staggered, at which point you can really hurt them.  Factor this into jumping between three characters you’ll be forced to pick and choose what you can afford to pay attention to.  In the demo, anyway, it can feel more like you’re doing battle with the game than you are with the enemies.

All-in-all, it’s an improvement that’s way past due, but Square Enix would have been better served to have made these changes in 2010, and then make an even more radical departure from series’ convention now.  It’s still needlessly convoluted in story and gameplay and the demo doesn’t allude to much that will change anyone’s mind about the FFXIII sub-series.  We’re at the end of one console generation still waiting for promises that were made at the beginning.  Here’s a tweet that sums it up better than this blog post probably can…


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