You know what Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII reminds me of? An old DS game called The World Ends with You, an action RPG that came out in 2008 from Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts team, and it and Lightning Returns share two key design tenets: an obsession with clothing, and an obsession with blunt-as-hell religious allegory.
The demo for Lightning Returns wastes no time diving into these two key concepts. In the demo’s stunning opening cinematic, heroine Lightning stands upon a tower in the midst of a lightning storm, with flowing cape and stylish sunglasses, and delivers the set up for the rest of the game; Lightning, made savior by God, has 13 days to save as many souls as she can before the end of the world.
At the demo’s beginning, Lightning is going about the saving of an old friend; Snow. In the 500 years since the previous game, Snow has gained a lonely place at the top; Patron of a city, Yusnaan, that is trapped in celebration of the coming end, and himself trapped in mourning a death from long ago. Not even his wild, Gatsby crossed with Tron-esque parties can shake his shadow, and he is, in a word, none too happy to see Lightning when she comes to crash the revelry and the Chaos, a world-eating darkness, that lies within.
The demo proper immediately begins after their introduction, where Snow escapes and Lightning gives chase, battling through the first Chaos enemies and introducing Lightning Returns’ real-time combat system, something I think is perhaps its greatest improvement. The combat system is based around these schemata, or clothing sets, that grant Lightning a selection of four moves mapped to each face button of the controller. In battle, three of these schemata can be equipped and swapped between at will, granting up to 12 different attack options. Each schemata is bound to an ATB meter, which essentially is a power gauge; run that down to zero, and you’ll need to switch schematas so that one can recharge in battle. Each schemata is also heavily customizable, with individual colors to be applied to the individual pieces of each base outfit and plenty of accessories, from swords and shields to hats and sunglasses. Tetsuya Nomura and his character designers must’ve had a field day with this.
This combat system is really, really solid, a drastic improvement on the already fun systems of the previous XIII games. Its frantic, fun, and tactical, and the level of variety is surprising; stringing together different moves can force enemies into stagger mode, where you can chain together massive attacks on them. Combined with Overclock, essentially the Limit modes of previous games except it allows unlimited use of normal moves, the potential for damage is big and the payoff is rewarding.
From the opening tutorial, the demo consists of a mad chase after Snow through The Patron’s Palace, but you’ll notice the appearance of NPCs with odd names above their heads. This is Lightning Returns’ Outerworld system, where messages and screenshots can be sent between players and to Facebook and Twitter using NPCs. While it is ultimately a minor system, the first area of the demo is filled with these Outerworld messengers to a nearly comical degree, and I hope they do not flood the worlds of the game proper like they do here.
The demo ends with a final confrontation with a new character, Lumina, who Snow describes in the opening as some sort of demon. She certainly acts the sort, stomping around and mocking Lightning for being one of God’s lackeys, shooting red lightning from her fingers, shattering Lightning’s sword in the opening cinematic, and summoning a big-damn boss at demo’s end. This is the demo’s most fascinating aspect: the sheer bluntness of its religious themes. Sure, in the previous games of Lightning’s saga these themes were there and relevant, but I don’t think they’ve ever bubbled to the surface like they do here. Lightning chews scenery in battles with sappy lines hyping up her position as “The Savior”, Snow is dowsed in all black, practically begging to be released from his torment, and you couldn’t get the enemy designs, like that beast up above, closer to classical depictions of Hell’s demons.
Overt religious allegory is a fascinating place to send your story for its climax, and its yet to be seen to which side of religious belief Lightning Returns falls on. Whatever side that ends up being, its bluntness carries a certain charm, and combined with its impressive combat system, it’ll be interesting to see how Lightning’s final chapter plays to its audience. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII will be released in North America on February 11, Australia on February 13, and in Europe on February 14 for Xbox 360 and PS3.