Lightning is getting ready to strike once again, for better or for worse. There were hardly any games this generation that were as divisive as Final Fantasy XIII. With the third and final game in the series in the works, some are waiting for the series to end and be done with while others are eagerly awaiting the epic conclusion. One of the most interesting things about the upcoming title, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, is that it is due to be different enough from its predecessors that gamers’ opinions of the first or second entry may essentially be rendered moot.
As you may know, I am one of the sole writers on here that is willing to defend Final Fantasy XIII, although I still understand its faults and where it went wrong for many fans of the Final Fantasy franchise. As I have mentioned before, I thought the second game was a substantial improvement, worthy of being a numbered entry in the franchise and in my top 5 games of 2012. When a third game was announced to wrap up the story, many groaned, but I thought this was an excellent way to show the world that Square-Enix can probably get their groove back after all. Admittedly, Lightning Returns was not exactly what I was expecting. I was actually hoping for something much more traditional, finally giving what I, and the rest of the fanbase, have been waiting for, what we thought FFXIII would actually be. Still, making it anything but what so many have been crying for was just as bold of a move, and perhaps better.
Here is the chance to make Lightning Returns not just that game everyone says they want, but something unique and unexpected. Final Fantasy fans received their traditional-FF fix with the underrated Lost Odyssey, but it never really blew up for whatever reason. While it may have lacked a bit of charm, it contained most of the core elements of the classic RPGs that influenced it. Regardless, it dissipated into the background with little recognition. Lost Odyssey may have been proof that the video gaming community is more in love with the idea of it all, and maybe those mechanics have become more archaic than some people realize. While nostalgia may be the easiest way out, it’s not always the best. Why then should we give Final Fantasy XIII one more chance?
Lightning Returns is supposed to have living, breathing cities, filled with events, people, shops, and mysteries. In its present stage, those have not been shown; however, shops have been confirmed to be plentiful. The player character and protagonist, aptly named Lightning, has been given much more dynamic use of her surroundings in terms of climbing, hiding, and sliding. As some missions require her to use stealth for following certain adversaries, it sounds to me like this might come across as more of a watered-down Assassin’s Creed. This may not be LR:FFXIII’s strongest-looking point as of now, but I hope it winds up with a niche to make it its own, and above all, make it tons of fun.
With some of these promises of more traditional RPG elements, like the towns and shops, Lightning Returns’ strongest aspect seems to be coming in the form of its combat system, which has always been the most redeeming factor and crowning jewel of the FFXIII saga.
LR:FFXIII is keeping the fundamental concept of the FFXIII battle system, which is not necessarily going and selecting a command from a long list, but strategically switching and flipping around your “Paradigms,” which alter your entire arsenal with the push of a button. Made quicker with every entry, Lightning Returns now takes this combat and picks up the pace even further with a more complex alteration of your strategies in the form of outfits. This is essentially a mix of the dresspheres from FFX-2, the field movement from FFXII, and the paradigms from XIII and XIII-2. It’s a refreshing and highly customizable way of mixing up tactics on the fly, depending on your situation.
The “Stagger” bar is also still present, which essentially lets you turn the tides of battle as you drive to soften up enemies with a healthy dose of magic damage, only to physically pummel them once they’re staggered and chockfull of ailments and/or debuffs. This feature has always been a very interesting way to keep battles in the FFXIII games fresh. In this way, battles feel much more rhythmic with a much more satisfying feeling with every victory. As whole, this constant tinkering of strategies never lets battles feel repetitive, regardless of what landscapes or hallways you are traversing.
In terms of plot, Lightning Returns seems to be taking a more modest approach to storytelling. Final Fantasy XIII had a great story that was poorly told, hiding a lot of the most interesting, vital information and lore within the game’s archives, or datalogs. Many gamers, myself included, don’t really want to read those pages and pages of archives from the television screen. Final Fantasy XIII-2 had a serious case of Back-to-the-Future-Part-2-what-the-hell-is-happening syndrome. Throwing time travel into the mix only confused players even more. Still, the time travel opened up a lot of opportunities for great new mechanics and plot elements, such as Alyssa Zaidelle, who turns out to be one of the best Final Fantasy characters I have seen in years (That’s all I can say without saying spoilers).
While Alyssa played a pivotal role in the plot, she didn’t get the screentime her character deserved. The writers simply did not take full advantage of her potential as a character. However, if she makes an appearance in Lightning Returns, I can only hope it will be in a big way, which will definitely add that punch of personality and character development that this saga needs. Hope Estheim was one character that many disliked for being a whiny kid at first, but grew to be a resourceful adult and a great character overall. Sazh Katzroy still remains the fan favorite character, however. From the start, he was the most sympathetic character with a great amount of depth. He seemed to soak up a lot of likeability from the other characters. What I am getting to is that with a clever entourage of characters, Lightning Returns can definitely be the excellently written tale that attends of the hearts and minds of gamers all over.
Originally slated for a 2013 release, Lightning Returns has been delayed and given a North American release date of February 11th, 2014 and a European release date of February 14th, 2014. The six-month delay ought to give the developers the time they need to really refine this title and turn it into something wonderful, something more fans can be eager about. This generation of Final Fantasy games may have gotten a rough start, but I have confidence that Square-Enix can actually surprise us all.
For those fans that won’t give this game a second glance because of the number XIII in the title, I would probably recommend they just wait it out to make a solid judgment call. In the coming months, we will be observing the developments, waiting to see if this is the class act to revitalize the faith of millions in the role-playing genre. Maybe it has taken Square-Enix quite a while to get it right, but third time’s the charm, right?
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII will be available for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
You can watch the latest E3 trailer below for a closer look at the game in the works.