Oh, Final Fantasy XIII. What a weird trilogy you are.
I didn’t exactly dislike Final Fantasy XIII. In the months leading up to its release, I wasn’t as worried as many fans about the huge departure it was taking from the series roots. XII had taken many unexpected liberties with its battle systems, and I LOVED that game (though, to be fair, there are viera in that game, so I may be slightly biased), so I was looking forward to SquareEnix’s next move.
I was initially unsure of the hyper-futuristic setting of Cocoon. I typically like the steampunk renaissance faire Final Fantasy settings better than the cyber punk sci-fi settings, but that’s just personal preference. While Cocoon never was that exciting for me, the weird, alien world of Gran Pulse was pretty fun to explore, and I got to ride chocobos and steal wool from sheep, so that was cool.
The battle system was very fast-paced and engaging, and even grinding was hardly ever boring. The game was, however, relentlessly linear and oh my God, did I hate every single one of those stupid characters except for the black guy whose name I had to look up because I could only remember it had a “z” in it. “Sazh” is a pretty weird name, even for Final Fantasy. I generally play RPGs for the plot, and it’s really hard to get into a story when you wish that all the characters would seriously spontaneously combust. It was difficult to sympathize with anything that any of them went through. I think this was caused by a combination of overwrought writing (particularly in the constant, dramatic voice over monologues), subpar voice acting (Vanille’s voice was like a flock of excitable birds shrilling in my ears), and uninteresting character arcs. Even Sazh, my favorite character, ended up getting kind of boring after the bit with his son is resolved, and moreover, the son in question was clearly secretly a demon that was terrifying to behold.
The over-arching plot with the fal’Cie was mildly interesting, however, and the battle system and the general shininess kept me playing. I beat it. I enjoyed my time with it.
FFXIII-2’s plot was so incomprehensible and idiotic that I don’t think I even played through a third of the game. I appreciated the monster-capturing aspect of the game. It was really fun to catch and level up creatures (not to mention ACCESSORIZE THEM!! <3) .
I liked that the game was more open, but it was frankly confusing. I kept forgetting where I was in the timeline, the story was incredibly incomprehensible even for a Final Fantasy game, and Serah was probably my least favorite character from the first game (aside from whinebag Hope, who is everyone’s least favorite character), so why the hell would I want to play a whole game about her?
So I didn’t finish it. So I don’t really have any idea how the game ended or where the characters eventually ended up.
So I do not know how I am going to feel about Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns. I have read a lot of mostly positive reviews about it, but I find that most reviewers tend to focus on the gameplay rather than story. The Game Informer review panned the game’s story, however, so I am not really hopeful about this one. I’m not sure how much story I can glean from a demo, or how much that story will make sense without having finished the previous game, but let’s find out.
So, much like FFXIII-2, this demo opens with an out-of-context cutscene that I’m sure makes sense in the game, but makes little to no sense now. Or maybe it would make sense if I’d actually finished XIII-2? It’s very shiny. And has pole dancers.
There’s a long shot of a night time city that is slightly reminiscent of Midgar (but maybe that’s just the train), and then we see Lightning herself standing dramatically upon a clocktower wearing future sunglasses (because all badasses, even future badasses at the end of time, wear sunglasses at night).
Now we cut to Pimp Snow chillin’ at his mansion with lots of Playboy bunnies, only one gets eaten by an Anubis that comes out of the wall and then Pimp Snow and Lightning fight a lot and Serah’s evil twin appears and giggles. This sounds like a bad acid trip, but this is actually what happened.
Opening cutscene out of the way, let’s see what the game is like.
…Wait, is this the SAME cutscene that I JUST WATCHED, only NOW it will make sense because we actually hear the dialogue? Man, fuck you guys.
Well, now that I can hear the actual dialogue, it seems to consist mostly of more overwrought voiceover monologues. The writing is as cheesy as ever. And no, the scene does not make any more sense now that I can hear the dialogue. Again, this may be because I didn’t finish FFXIII-2, but I am inclined to think that this doesn’t make any sense simply because it doesn’t make any sense.
Snow disappears into a wall, and Lightning has another voiceover to explain some things – Lightning is now the Savoir of the world, which is ending. She is here to save Pimp Snow. And Whinebag Hope is back, talking to her on a radio. Suddenly, another Anubis materializes! It wants to beat Lightning’s head in with an ax. So now I get to play some game.
The battle system is very different from the first two games in the series. There’s still an ATB guage, but the similarities seem to end there. Lightning is the only fighter; there is no party. This is a huge departure from pretty much every Final Fantasy game ever. You control her movement in real time. Abilities are mapped to each button on the Dualshock, and each ability consumes a certain amount of ATB. Once your gauge runs out, the only way to refill it is to change schemata. Schemata appear to essentially be a cross between FFXIII’s Paradigms and FFX-2’s Dress Spheres. Lightning can have three equipped at once, and a press of R1 or L1 commands an instant change of both her costume and her abilities. Right now, I have a choice between The Savior, her default costume, Dark Muse, who wears chaps and a beret and slings ice magic, and the Black Mage, complete with pointy hat. Anubis goes down easily.
I have a few more encounters. As in the previous games, I can see all of the enemies in the world around me. I can attack them before they attack me to give them a HP disadvantage, but if they hit me first, I take the HP disadvantage. I murder three more monsters before opening the way to the rest of Snow’s Pimp Mansion and unlocking the ability to customize my schemata.
Each schemata can have its own costume, accessories, weapons, abilities, and defensive items. I can also give Lightning different adornments. I trade her beret for a ridiculous feathered tricorn hat and play around with her abilities. I end up switching out the Dark Muse for the Red Mage and the Black Mage for the Dragoon because their abilities sound cooler. The depth of customization is astounding, and as you amass and level your various abilities, I bet it will get pretty addictive.
I run up the stairs, where I am accosted by a creepy guy in an elaborate mask an a hideous striped robe that looks like it was made out of a set of bedsheets. He offers to sell me things. As it turns out, Lightning’s HP does not restore at the end of battles, and she can only hold six items at once, so some amount of inventory management strategy is a definite must. What an interesting choice for the game to make.
I run upstairs, murder a few more monsters, and discover that I really like the Dragoon schemata. The Charged Strike ability deals a shitload of damage, and Lancet both deals damage and heals Lightning, something that could be critical in a game where HP will have to be carefully managed and conserved.
I chase Snow some more while Whinebag Hope blah blahs at me over his communicator. La la la, do not care, let’s murder more monsters. I travel through hallways full of rubble and caution tape. Did someone bomb Pimp Snow’s Pimp Mansion recently or something? I’m not really sure what I’m looking at. The level design is typically linear and slightly nonsensical, but it funnels Lightning efficiently towards more monster murder, which I suspect is its intended purpose. I reach a dead end, and solve the “puzzle” of pressing a switch on the wall to open a gate. Whinebag Hope observes that the Chaos in the room has spiked, whatever that means. There’s certainly a bunch of suspicious black mist floating around.
I enter the room, triggering an FMV cutscene starring Evil Giggle Serah. She giggles and taunts Lightning, and then summons a Motherfucking Dragon. Boss fight!
The stagger mechanic returns in this game, but instead of there being a stagger gauge to fill, you stagger enemies by exploiting weaknesses. The stagger tutorial helpfully informs me that the Motherfucking Dragon (the game insists its name is Zaltys, but I know better) is vulnerable to magic. The stagger gauge is replaced by a “wave” that looks like a seismograph laid over the enemies’ health bar. It’s kind of cool-looking, actually. As the wave gets more active, the stagger point approaches. After I stagger the Motherfucking Dragon, the tutorial invites me to use Lightning’s Overclock ability, which slows time for everyone by Lightning and allows her to use a bunch of attacks against a foe without it being able to fight back. The tutorial tells me that this is especially effective against staggered enemies. I overclock Lightning and murder the monster after a few successful Motherfucking Dragon staggerings.
I run on and find a door covered in Chaos. Snow is on the other side. Lightning wonders if Snow has gone crazy. But then Lightning is spotted by sentries and Hope teleports her out of Pimp Snow’s Pimp Mansion. Evil Giggle Serah reappears to giggle and make some disparaging remarks about both Lightning and God. My husband wonders if Evil Giggle Serah is possibly Satan. Her name is listed as “Lumina” in the cutscene subtitles, and the name Lumina does share a signification similar to “Lucifer,” so I’m going to go with that theory.
And then the demo is over. A trailer for the full game plays (advertising, hilariously, “NEW LANDS!” as a major selling point, probably because all the lands were recycled in FFXIII-2). The end.
Hmm. Well, I have to say I enjoyed the battle system. It’s fast-paced and fun, and I can see an endless amount of fiddly bits to play with in order to achieve prime Lightning costume optimization. Will I buy the game? Maybe? I enjoyed it, but I certainly didn’t feel driven to go out and grab a copy right the fuck now. This, like FFXIII-2, is a game that I’ll pick up eventually if I happen to see it for a good price at the discount grocery store. Which is actually how I acquired FFXIII-2. And then it will sit on my shelf for a few months until I’m really bored one day and I start playing it. Maybe I’ll finish it, maybe I won’t.
I can definitely say that this game is better than FFXIII-2. You can decide if that’s a selling point or not.