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Prom dresses and weird fantasy: Hands-on with ‘Lightning Returns’

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is an absolutely absurd video game. True, most video games are absurd. This is a medium whose first icons were a ghost-eating yellow pizza with a slice taken out and a pudgy Italian who jumps on turtles. The Final Fantasy series is pretty odd in its own right too. The most famous entry in Square-Enix’s long running fantasia stars an effeminate super-soldier wielding a person-sized sword and hanging out with a giant talking lion. When you play Lightning Returns, though, steering around a character wearing a ruby red prom dress, carrying a shield made of roses, and trying to force feed a giant magic chicken goat’s milk, the ridiculousness elevates to a whole new level. Lightning Returns is a silly business, and based on our recent demo, that’s a very good thing indeed.


Weird as ever, but that’s okay. Final Fantasy XIII was so strange that it alienated many of the people who played it back in 2010. Strangeness wasn’t that game’s chief problem, but it certainly didn’t help people connect with its story. Final Fantasy XIII-2 doubled down on the weirdness with a time travel story that vacillated between too serious and too goofy to be taken seriously. Lightning Returns strikes a good tone and makes an excellent first impression thanks to the casual other-worldliness of the main character’s future world. Lightning’s quest to find the Angel of Valhalla, a mission set just a few hours into the game’s main campaign, has the character wandering around grassy plains, forests, and small town train stations that feel less like Final Fantasy XIII and more like Jim Henson’s cult classic movie, Labyrinth

Here’s the deal: It’s 500 years after Lightning goes into a mystical sleep after the last of Final Fantasy XIII-2‘s downloadable expansions. Tasked by a goddess with becoming the savior of the entire world, Lightning has to rescue the people’s souls as her planet transforms into something else. The story is oblique but not intrusive, thankfully. The only thing messianic about the demo was the name on Lightning’s default costume, called Savior (more on that in a moment).

Lightning Returns screenshot 4

Bird needs food badly. After meeting a group of farmers and artisans in the middle of the Grasslands, the good veterinarian Dr. Gysahl asks Lightning to go out and find a sick chocobo. Chocobos are, for the uninitiated, giant flightless birds that people use instead of horses in the Final Fantasy games. The quest takes Lightning out into the wilds, giving a taste of not just the game’s new unconfined vistas – small environments were the number one most cited problem in previous Final Fantasy XIII entries – but also the game’s one-person battles. 


One-woman army/fashion show. Rather than a squad that fills different roles like healer, attacker, and magician, Lightning has an expansive wardrobe that bestows different abilities on her. She can equip three different outfits from the wardrobe and switch between them on the fly when she runs into one of the enormous fanged beasts and blue blobs wandering the countryside. Each outfit gives you four basic commands mapped to the controller’s face buttons. The aforementioned prom dress that comes with the shield of roses, for example, lets Lightning cast the game’s most powerful fire spells and attack with a light rapier. When using that outfit in a fight, Lightning can keep attacking as long as her action points, represented by a meter, are full. When they run out, she has to switch to the next outfit, like the Savior outfit that gives her a giant broadsword and electricity spells, or the Lancer outfit that comes with ice spells. 

Hard to handle. If the fighting sounds a touch confusing, that’s because it is. The brawls are so swift that you can find yourself getting pounded into the earth before you know what’s happening. They’re also visually busy, with myriad bars representing Lightning’s health and AP, numbers popping up over monster’s heads to mark their life, and all kinds of flashy effects for both yours and your enemy’s attacks. Overwhelming though it may be, it’s easy to learn the peculiar logic and rhythm of the fights and you eventually settle into a natural groove, switching between outfits that carry the best spells for fighting Grassland monsters. It’s hard to say how good it will feel with the actual retail game, though. The demo gave Lightning access to far more skills and outfits than she would normally have at this point in the game.

Lightning Returns screenshot 3

Big bad. Even with all those extra skills, the demo’s big boss fight demonstrates that the game will not be easy. Director Yuji Abe started his relationship with the series as the battle system designer in Final Fantasy XIII, and it seems that he took criticisms that the game played itself to heart. When you find the big Angel of Valhalla chocobo you’ve been seeking, it’s guarded by what looks like an enormous, living boulder covered with moss and with two gaping mouths. Only certain skills dent the creature’s hide, so the fight forces you to balance using effective skills while recovering action points and defending. It recalls the light strategy of classics like Final Fantasy VI while feeling distinctive, not just in the series but also in role-playing games in general. 

Fetching exploration. After plowing through the boss and bringing the chocobo back to Dr. Gyshal, the second and best half of the demo gets underway. In order to facilitate the bird’s recovery, you have to collect a bunch of food and medicine like goat’s milk. It’s a good, old fashioned fetch quest that requires you talk to townspeople, take on new small quests for them, and explore all over the nearby forest and canyon to find what you’re looking for. It’s the kind of fun exploratory adventuring that made Final Fantasy a hit back in the day and keeps people playing modern role-playing games like Skyrim for hours on end. 


A very pretty face. The unspoken reason why there are three Final Fantasy XIII games is that the first game cost $65 million to make and Square-Enix needs to get all the cash it can out of the technology and art it made for the game. Final Fantasy XIII looked good, but the world felt inconsistent. Weird glowing tree forests sat next to dilapidated junkyards. XIII-2 looked better, but it was hard to look at thanks to an unreliable camera that tried to catch up to Serah in the slightly more open environments. 

Lightning Returns screenshot 5

Lightning Returns solves all these problems. It looks like a natural world, none of the disjointed hopping between styles from location to location. It’s also close to being as graphically beautiful as the 2006, too-good-to-be-true trailer for the first Final Fantasy XIII was. Even though the battles are sometimes visually overwhelming, everything looks lush and bright. 


Will Lightning Returns remain fun to explore for tens of hours? Will the game’s time limit before the world ends, a non-factor in this demo, make progressing at your own pace too stressful to enjoy? Those are questions only the full game can answer. In the demo, Lightning Returns is a refreshing breath of weird fantasy air in a stagnant series. This will likely be the last we see of the XIII world, and while most gamers may be happy to see it go, it’s at least getting sent out in style. Look forward to wearing that rosey prom dress in 2014.

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