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Lightning Returns: first impressions - Destructoid

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MAY CONTAIN MINOR SPOILERS but nowhere near as bad as watching the game on YouTube!

The English language version is out tomorrow!

I have played this game for around 18 hours (play time) with a Japanese friend, starting from the beginning. 

I haven't been able to find much worthwhile in previous FF games I have tried, but I'm liking this one quite a lot and will definitely be getting it as soon as possible.
Here's what I think so far:

GAMEPLAY:

I'm extremely happy to see this real-time action battle system.The ATB system of previous games was not really turn-based, and it always felt too tedious and not-fun to me. 

In this game the real-time controls respond instantly and there were never any moments where I felt that my inputs did not register. You can cancel your own attacks with your blocking action, and positioning / moving around also become important in some battles. There is no dodge-rolling, and your movement is slow, which is a welcome change from other action systems.  Some costumes will give a dodge-jump ability, as seen in the demo, but we have not found one yet.

I wish there was a way to remap all the buttons -  I'm way too used to blocking with shoulder buttons, whereas you have to use the face buttons here.
Shoulder buttons are used to go back and forth between the 3 costumes you can have equipped. This feels way too restrictive as you only have 4 commands you can use per  costume, and costumes seem to come with at least one locked built-in command that cannot be removed, re-mapped or upgraded. One slot should be used for a Guard action, which further limits your free slots for offensive actions.

This means that trial and error is needed with some of the more serious enemies until you find what's effective against them . The first time you fight an enemy, information on their weaknesses and how to stagger them is automatically logged as you unleash the various types of attacks, and you can check it during combat by pressing R2 which pauses the game to show you the "Libra " screen. If you don't have the right commands equipped in your setup you may be out of luck.

There is some weird lack of focus with separate special abilities that you have to pause the game to use, and the self-healing Curaga command is placed there.  You also have to pause during combat to use healing or support items but you can only carry 6 items or so.

Health regenerates slowly outside combat in Easy mode only. In Normal mode it doesn't and your options are to use a potion, or use the Curaga ability if you have the experience points (which you slowly get by defeating enemies, I think), or get back to a town to get food or stay at an inn. So there is not a lot of healing you can do. There is a really cool Mediguard blocking ability you can get that heals you while you block, though.  SO much better than getting hit while drinking a potion!


Seems that Normal difficulty will provide a meaty challenge and it seems pretty fair so far, although I am sure the bosses at the end will be in keeping with the Japanese tradition.  I like the Easy mode as I'm not sure how the game will pan out with the time limit. 

There is a doomsday clock and I don't know what the consequences of running out of time are.  I'm not sure how well this is going to work out. I wasted an entire game day just getting to know my way around. I thought there were 13 days to go at the beginning , but then it seems it's only 6 and it's not clear what's going on with the time.  Quests can be failed by not completing them in time but this seems to be for side quests only (?) It would suck to have to re-start from scratch or a much earlier save because I wasn't fast enough....

There is no leveling up, only stats. You don't raise your stats by defeating monsters, which is a major difference from almost every other RPG out there. 

To get your stats up you have to complete quests and a lot of the side quests involve finding items or people in the game world, and you don't always get a clue. 

I don't know if the time limit is enough to complete all the side quests or if the player is supposed to pick and choose some, and then push on with the main quest.

Quest design is on the whole much improved and focused. Stuff happens as it's supposed to happen and as you expect it to happen.  If you keep attentive to what people say you can get clues, and there is a detective and stealth element is some quests, all fairly well executed if at times lacking in animation for some of the stuff that happens.  Lightning does have a good stealth animation but you cannot trigger it manually, it happens only if you're on a stealth quest (only one so far) and you stick to a wall.  Getting the fetch/people quests completed is more fun than a chore, so far, partly because the game world is vibrant and fairly alive.  You can teleport from anywhere to various teleport stations you have already discovered, at little cost, so the tedious running from A to B and back again for some fetch quest can be minimised.

Some more streamlining of the combat/skill system, with more actions available in real-time during combat would have made it more fun. There are some strangely restrictive and completely arbitrary design decisions through the game but it is nowhere near as meaningless and messy as the previous XIII games.


Overall, I still prefer the Kingdom Hearts real-time combat system where combat happens in the actual game world and not a separate screen, with all the delays and immersion breaking that involves. The transition is very fast here and you can skip the victory pose by hitting the X button but it still feels like an unnecessary relic. When you've raised your stats a bit you can kill minor enemies with a single hit, and it's mostly a waste of time as you don't even get XP from it.  Seems ridiculous to interrupt the game to be told I got yet another hairball.


Also, Kingdom Hearts (2 and BBS) got it right by not re-spawning enemies you've just killed. FFXIII gets this VERY WRONG by re-spawning  monsters within seconds of walking away from the spot, like some fucking MMO.
]Apparently if you defeat a particular type of monster in every single location where it spawns (they all seem to have fixed spawn points), it will be wiped out from the game world. That would be awesome, but good luck with that... Some of the monsters have annoying range, if they spot you they will follow you around an entire area to force you to fight them even when they have no chance.  This can be fun for a while as NPCs are terrorized .  You can also terrorize NPCs by waving your massive weapon around, and you can get them to stop doing annoying things like singing while you're trying to concentrate on your shopping. 


There are no quicktime events and (relatively) few cut-scenes, which is great.  A lot of the story is there in optional dialogues and text.

We played on Easy mode and it's very enjoyable indeed. It is possible to just randomly mash buttons for some low-level enemies  but I think you have better chances of rare item drops and other rewards if you fight properly and defeat enemies in an efficient manner. 
You don't really get a Game Over screen on Easy mode as far as we could see, unless you want it. When you get defeated you get the option to re-spawn as you were before the battle, but I'm not sure if that option will always be available. You can also escape battles with no cost or penalty in Easy mode but I don't think that's the case in Normal. 

The story unfolds in a big semi-open world. There are time-controlled gates, and other typical RPG gates that are locked without explanation, to magically open after some point in the game.

You have waypoints you can set on the map but they don't seem to show on sreen when you're playing?

You get teleported back to your techno-angelic base once every 24 game hours, where you offer the soul energy you have gathered to a tree of life and watch it grow branches and produce fruit. It's all very trippy and sublime.

VISUALS, ART STYLE, DESIGN
This game is a visual circus, psychedelic, with a good contrast of dark and light. If you like trippy stuff you will like this. The particle effects in combat are awesome but can get in the way of seeing what the enemy is doing. It is sometimes better to zoom out by clicking the right stick. 

The enemies don't feel very substantial because they appear and disappear in puffs of smoke, so it's like you're fighting mirages rather than actual creatures. 

There may be a slight overuse of the checkerboard pattern. Cool things can be overdone. 

There is a good variety in the different areas, from desert dunes complete with awesome Journey-like dune-gliding and underground dungeons to green areas ( the worse visually, with some really poor textures and tree models) to gritty towns to a phantasmagorical city that is on a 24-hour festival as the world ends. 

The console limitations are too obvious at times and I would really love to see this game on a PC at 1080p with high resolution textures. Yeah.

SOUND


Yes, the sound! This game has the best soundtrack since Skyrim!  Just pause the game anywhere, sit back, relax and enjoy.

It still needs a control for music volume though. Stuff can get repetitive , especially combat tunes. I wonder if the designers thought that nobody would possibly want to mute the music and not get the complete experience.... 

NARRATIVE

I don't follow the story in videogames and I never saw anything worthwhile in the fantasy genre after Tolkien and Lovercraft, but I'm probably missing out on some good authors like LeGuinn.

The J-pop saccharine fantasies are totally not my cup of brew. The story in this game is easier to follow than the incoherent ramblings of the previous XIII releases, but is still utter pulp material with occasional good/fun moments.
Some strange Christian tone with God and the Savior, apocalyptic blah, but I think this changes further in the story.  Maybe this is the FF deconstructive take on the christian salvation myth, but maybe I'm being hopeful. 

Anyway, it isn't incoherent (if you consider that these characters live in a reality where time has gone crazy) and you can follow it if you don't care about the back stories of these characters too much. You might even get into it but this isn't good storytelling.

The good thing is that it stays out of the way and does not drag you down with 15-minute long unskippable cut-scenes where 3D models of people with angular hair try to show emotions with cringe-worthy voice-overs and plastic animations...

You fight bigger and bigger monsters that are invading the world for some reason. You talk to people and solve their problems by finding stuff for them. You find magical items and put them together to do magical stuff. You upgrade your stuff with other stuff. You jump around and annoy NPCs. You know the drill.  This game makes it all quite pleasant and even thrilling at times, and that's enough for me. I never expected a game with the words "Fantasy " in the title to have a mind-blowing deep storyline. The game has a great atmosphere and on the whole feels more dark and mature than anything in this series since Crisis Core, while maintaining a good amount of silliness.

Once you become wanted by the powers that be and you have megaphones in the city announcing how you are dangerous and carrying a massive weapon, you'll get a smile on your face.

So far I would give this game a 8.5/10.  I would give it a 9 if it had in-world battles.

 Past experience says that this rating will probably drop further as I get further in the game and things start to grind, but I'm going to give it a shot.



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