My first hands-on session with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII and its interesting new combat system was, fittingly, lightning quick.
Just a few minutes at the end of a long night of seeing the stacked upcoming line-up of Square Enix's (and pals Deep Silver's) next games: the Deus Ex iPad game, the new Thief, the new Saint's Row, a game called Murdered.
The clock was ticking, Square's showcase, held in a hotel in Santa Monica a few weeks back, was nearly over. It was almost midnight. I was nearly a pumpkin. In the game the world is going to end in 13 days. In my favorite game ever, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, the world will end in 72 hours. Time limits were top of mind. Lightning Returns, Square's next big role-playing game, was just sitting there.
You know, I was expecting more of an action-RPG. When the game was announced in August, the detail that stuck out to me was that, as we wrote at the time, "Character control will be more dynamic. She'll be able to hang off ledges, pull herself up, jump, duck behind corners. You'll be able to move her around in battle, a first, they said, for the series." I was hoping that one of the things I dislike about many popular role-playing games—how the playable characters tend to feel like game-board tokens and don't feel like they're physically part of their world—would be remedied in this new game.
Lightning moves better than previous Final Fantasy characters, but she doesn't exactly animate with the smoothness of a hero from an Uncharted or Assassin's Creed or even, as I was hoping, a Zelda or Fable lead. She's still a bit stiff.
The combat, however, was indeed more interesting than I expected. Lightning fights alone, but, in a possible nod to Final Fantasy X-2, she can change her clothes on the fly and, in doing so, change her power sets. You jump into a battle, have free rein to run around and attack enemies and can switch from outfit to outfit.
Each outfit, or "schema," has a quartet of attack and block moves assigned to it. Each can be used as long as you have the requisite amount of your move meter filled. This drains with use and gradually comes back. It's the active-time-battle system introduced in Final Fantasy IV dressed up differently, in a matter of speaking. Good players will drain one scheme's moves, switch to another outfit, use its moves and keep swapping.
Naturally, she'll strike a different sexy warrior-woman pose depending on what schema she's wearing when she defeats her enemies.
You can also stop time, freezing enemies. That helps. It's called Overclock mode and is mapped to a trigger button. I'm not sure what you have to do to earn it. Again, we'll play more and figure out more.
You can also stagger enemies by discovering and exploiting specific weaknesses. This has been a recurring element in the FF XIII games. Hitting an enemy with attacks against which they're vulnerable will produce a stagger wave meter. More attacks will turn this meter red and eventually knock the enemy down, at which point the player can inflict maximum damage.
Hooray for new wrinkles to RPG combat, right? There are many things people like about Final Fantasy games, of course: the story, the music, the art style... a lot of that changes from game to game. Combat usually changes, too. How well this system holds up in battle after battle remains to be seen, but it's nice to at least see the Final Fantasy XIII series of games continue to try to add complexity to the genre's combat. Long gone are the days of just tapping the X button. Instead, we have yet another new, more ornate system—in-combat movement! clothes/ability-switching!—that hopefully gives way to more player-driven strategy and an altogether more fulfilling game through which to battle.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII will be out for Xbox 360 and PS3 on February 11, 2014. It'll be out in Japan in November. We'll be playing the game more at E3 and will have a more thorough description of how Lightning Returns works then.