Square-Enix listens to fans occasionally – Lightning Returns Initial Impressions

lightning4Alright, cards on the table, I work full time and only play games in the brief periods between working and sleeping. So I may not finish a game every week and I certainly won’t finish a Final Fantasy title in that time frame. That being said I like to stay consistent so you’ll very likely be hearing from me every Sunday on a go forward basis (that’s more work-talk coming out, sorry about that, it was a long week). With all that being said I did play a lot of Lightning Returns (or Final Fantasy 13-3 Lightning Returns, if you’re interested in selling more copies of games) and I’m prepared to talk about it.

So, for those of you who have been avoiding the series on whatever-generation-of-console-we-were-on-before-the-current-one but still have a very long memory than you’ll recall that Square-Enix (or Squaresoft, depending on the length of the aforementioned long memory) likes to go out of a console generation A: late and B: with a metaphorical bang. Lighting Returns fulfills that goal, or at least it appears to so far.

As mentioned I am not finished with the game so I can’t spoil too much, in case you haven’t played it yet. What I can say is that it picks up where the previous game left off… but not really. You’ll recall in the first title *spoilers ahead* our heroes were victorious and at least somewhat happy while two major party members were *obligatory finger quotes* dead. The second title opted to take any ambiguity out of the decision of whether or not the ending was happy but probably not in the direction you were hoping. *spoilers ending* But what I mean by “not really” is that Lightning Returns deals with a world that was the victim of extensive time travel (see 13-2) and the whims of some very powerful and less than benevolent gods (see 13 and 13-3). So the events of the previous two games, while very real and plot driving are also a distant memory for most of the main characters, distant to the point of being folklore to the NPC’s.

Why is this important? Because it serves to create a very interesting experience for the player that I have not seen in all my extensive experience playing Final Fantasy titles. Because Lightning Returns is a single player character story and because they didn’t pull a Final Fantasy 4 and just revoke all of that characters development at the beginning of the plot the story was facing with a difficult dilemma. How do we make Lightning a fun, relate-able character while still leaving her with the power that she once used to *spoiler if you haven’t played the previous two titles* go head to head and survive in confrontations with gods. The opening sequence (found in the demo, for the love of god at least check out the demo) dispels any chance that you might think Lightning and Snow were at all going to be powered down versions of the playable characters they were in the first installment. If anything they are significantly more powerful than when you saw them last (and that’s counting the paradox ending in 13-2 where Snow has a boss flying motorcycle, damn, how great was 13-2? So great… where was I…)
In any event, if you were worried about the story or characters being anything less than what we’ve come to expect in the previous Final Fantasy titles then don’t worry, they did exactly what you would expect. Lightning comes off as hard but still just a little damaged. You really get the impression that she’s seen a lot, perhaps too much, but knows she has to continue the fight even if she is, mostly, alone. The other major characters are also scarred, some worse than others, by their long histories with and without Lightning and are made to deal with their trauma for your viewing pleasure. It’s dark, sometimes beautiful, sometimes sad but always true to what you know about these characters which was something I walked into hoping for but fearing I might not get.

But my chief fear wasn’t story or characters. 13 brought with it arguably one of the finest battle systems ever devised. The paradigm shifts spoke of what was great about 5 and 10, the lack of an MP bar was reminiscent of 6 when magic was used almost every round and very rarely run out and the speed/tactics took what was best about the ATB while removing all the waiting around. I loved it and to this day it is why 13 and 13-2 occupy top-five slots in my list of favorite Final Fantasy titles. But they had already re-used it once in 13-2 and, with only one playable character, it would be almost impossible to recreate in Lightning Returns. I knew it had to go and I was very nervous as to what they would replace it with. Early screens warned of real-time action sequences and looked disturbingly like Devil May Cry meets Dirge of Cerebrus (remember Dirge of Cerberus? No… not at all, huh? Just me then, that explains a lot about the sales for it) which only served to increase my worry.
Everything is fine though, fans of the speed and tactics of 13 and 13-2. Lightning still switches between three “garbs” (which are essentially paradigms or jobs) during battle and everything still happens roughly in real time. An interesting new element is the ability to “guard” and execute attacks with “perfect timing” (fans of Squaresoft’s non-final fantasy SNES title will recognize them almost immediately) which shifts your focus away from the “hold ‘x’ and win” style of play that bored a lot of players in the early stages of 13 and subsequently drove many away from the series entirely. You will now find yourself watching the screen and being aware of Lightnings positions in battle and that of the enemy much more than you needed to in the past. But, although you can move around in battle and it does help in some cases, you are mostly focused on having the right spells and abilities ready to go and being prepared to raise a shield when the enemy comes crashing down on you.

And I’m running long and this isn’t even a full review, one more thing, limited item storage. Does anyone remember Final Fantasy one? Or Dragon Warrior/Quest one, for that matter, before either series even felt the need to have a number after their title? Well one of the things I enjoyed most about those games is that they forced you to think about what you carried. Much like most Zelda games today (or Resident Evil, for a non-RPG example) you are afforded a limited amount of storage space which prompts two things. First, you don’t just buy 99 Hi-Potions and 99 Phoenix Down and become immortal, which adds a feeling of dread and mortality that I haven’t seen since way way back in Final Fantasy three before they invented the “save point before a boss” trope. Second, and paradoxically, you find yourself more apt to use items. To really understand what I mean check out Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. Basically when presented with a limited capacity for item storage and the potential for picking up items in the wild you find yourself using items more frequently both to free up space and because good game design makes the challenge much harder if you don’t. It’s ingenious and I like it and that’s all I’ve got for this week.