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

prom dresses and weird fantasy hands on with lightning returns screenshot 2

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.

Story/Concept

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. 

Gameplay 

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. 

Presentation 

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. 

Takeaway 

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.

Deals

Amazon Prime Day deals are ending, but you can still get great bargains

Prime Day 2019 has come to an end for Amazon, but that doesn't mean the Prime Day deals are over. With deals from Walmart, Best Buy, and Amazon still going on, this massive shopping event is continuing on through the week.
Deals

Walmart extends Prime Day sale into Sunday: 4K TV, Apple, and Smart Watch deals

Prime Day 2019 has come to an end for Amazon, but that doesn't mean the deals are over. Walmart's Prime Day sale has been extended into the weekend. With 4K TVs, Apple Watches, and Nintendo Switch deals, there are great savings.
Gaming

Clobber Innocence with this FFXIV: Shadowbringers Crown of the Immaculate guide

Congratulations on making it this far. This FFXIV: Shadowbringers Crown of the Immaculate normal mode guide will teach you all you need to know of this enduring brawl against the final Sin Eater.
Gaming

Did your PS1 favorite make our list of the best PlayStation games?

Take a stroll down memory lane with the 50 best games ever released for the original PlayStation. From all-time classics like Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil 2 to quirky gems like PaRappa the Rapper, the PS1 had it all.
News

A fan re-created a FF7 Remake battle scene using Dreams and it looks awesome

Final Fantasy 7 Remake will arrive early 2020 but someone has made a modern spin on the classic JRPG using the tools available in Media Molecule’s Dreams. It follows the formula of the remake and looks pretty impressive.
Gaming

Here's where to find Xur and what he has for wares this week

The weekly vendor in Destiny 2: Forsaken always brings Exotic weapons and armor, some of the toughest loot to find in the game. Here's everything you need to know to track down Xur: Where he is, when he shows up, and what he's stocking.
Computing

The Keystone keyboard powers your typing or gaming with built-in A.I.

A new keyboard from Input Club, called Keystone, aims to improve consumer's typing response and accuracy by including an adaptive A.I. process in the hardware. By finding patterns in typists' behavior, it adapts for greater efficiency.
Gaming

Celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 with these awesome space games

50 years ago on July 20, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Moon. In celebration of their momentous accomplishment, we put together a list of the top ten space games.
Gaming

Send Hades packing with our FFXIV: Shadowbringers guide to The Dying Gasp

The final stretch of the FFXIV: Shadowbringers storyline brings you here: to The Dying Gasp. If you're already feeling the pressure from past battles, you'll want to read on.
Gaming

History unfolds in this Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers Amaurot dungeon guide

Practically throwing you back in time with his fancy creation magicks, you'll bear witness to the calamity that befell Amaurot, the ancient city of his people. In this FFXIV: Shadowbringers Amaurot dungeon guide, we'll see you through what…
Mobile

Get your game on with the best controllers for Android smartphones

If you're looking to do some serious gaming on an Android device, you're going to need a gamepad. Here are the best controllers for Android games on smartphones and tablets, with rechargeable and wireless options.
Gaming

These Xbox One exclusives are the definition of quality over quantity

Xbox One has a prestigious collection of handpicked titles that you can't play on other consoles. Here are the latest and greatest Xbox One exclusives, including some that are also available on PC
Gaming

Wage war on a budget with these fun and free first-person shooters

We all know about Halo and Call of Duty by now, but what about quality titles that won't cost you upward of $60? Check out our picks for the best free first-person shooter games from Paladins to Quake Champions.
Gaming

Get Nindie with it and check out these awesome indie games for the Switch

The Nintendo Switch's portability makes indies feel at home on the platform. Luckily, there are plenty of great titles to choose from. Here are our picks for the best Nintendo Switch indie games.