If I were to mention Lightning Returns to you, what would you think?
Judging by buzz on social media and other sites I've observed, it could be any one of several things: franchise fatigue due to Toriyama's apparent obsession with Lightning; whether or not Final Fantasy is "dead"; perhaps even the controversial comments made to the Japanese media regarding Lightning's appearance a while back. There doesn't seem to be a lot of positive buzz about the new game, though, which is odd and a bit of a shame; based on a short hands-on demo I had a chance to play with at Eurogamer Expo, it's looking like it'll be a decent -- and gorgeous-looking -- game, and a solid addition to the unfortunately divisive thirteenth branch of the Final Fantasy family tree.
The majority of the demo focused on combat; there was little of the open-world gameplay Jeremy had a chance to explore in our TGS preview. That's fine, though, as it gave me a chance to concentrate on the battle system and how it differs from the previous installments of not only the Final Fantasy XIII sub-series, but also Final Fantasy as a whole.
To be honest, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from combat. Hearing that it had gone real-time and action-based conjured up images of something akin to Kingdom Hearts, with Lightning wandering around the field and engaging enemies without switching to a separate battle screen, but the reality is somewhat closer to Final Fantasy XIII's quasi-real time combat. Encountering an enemy in the field switches to a separate battle screen, albeit one on which you only control Lightning and have relatively "full" control rather than the more advisory capacity you took on in the previous two Final Fantasy XIII games. Successfully landing a hit on the enemy on the field screen before battle penalizes them by 10% of their maximum HP at the start of battle; likewise, however, failing to score this first hit damages Lightning by 5% of her max HP before combat even begins.
The Eurogamer demo featured three of the possible "schemata" costumes it'll be possible for Lightning to equip in the final game. One of these was similar to her initial Commando and Ravager incarnations in Final Fantasy XIII, offering a combination of physical and magical attacks. A second, named Dark Muse, was strongly focused on heavy physical attacks -- shades of Auron from Final Fantasy X, perhaps? -- while the third Sorceress outfit was exclusively focused on magic. Each of the three schemata offered three offensive skills and one variation on a "block" skill, corresponding to the four face buttons on the controller. Each schemata has its own independent Active Time Battle bar that charges up while you're not actively using skills; making use of the skills drains it by varying amounts, with more powerful skills draining a significant amount of the bar in one go.
The interesting twist is that all three bars continue to charge even when you don't have that particular schemata equipped, meaning that it's pretty rare you'll find yourself in a situation where it's impossible for you to use any attack skills. Different schemata are more or less appropriate to different situations, however, since various monsters are weak or strong against physical or magical attacks.
Like the previous Final Fantasy XIII games, there's a strong focus on "staggering" your opponent in order to inflict additional damage. Unlike the earlier games, however, staggering isn't represented by a percentile gauge, and instead takes the form of a "wave" that appears behind the enemy's HP bar. As you inflict attacks -- particularly those that the enemy is weak against -- the wave's amplitude will grow, and it will eventually turn red, at which point the foe is almost staggered. Once they are staggered, it's time to get out your most powerful abilities and inflict massive damage.
Essentially, what the ability to have three schemata equipped provides is the opportunity for Lightning to fulfil several party roles as a single character -- her only limitation over a traditional party (such as that seen in Final Fantasy XIII, say) being that it's not possible for her to perform more than one action at the same time. That said, the speed at which you can swap schemata -- a simple tap of the shoulder button -- means that you can quickly and easily respond to any given situation, allowing you to maintain Lightning's health while whittling down the enemies. And if the worst comes to the worst, there's always the "Overclock" option.
Switching into Overclock mode allows Lightning to unleash a flurry of attacks without having to worry about her ATB bars; at the same time, meanwhile, enemies are able to continue attacking, but are at a considerable disadvantage speed-wise. Overclocking Lightning is particularly useful if you've already staggered an opponent, as it allows you to make use of a much greater number of strong attacks than you would otherwise be able to. Overclocking is a limited resource, however, so it's best saved for particularly dangerous situations, such as the strong beast unleashed by the mysterious and seemingly antagonistic Lumina at the end of the demo.
The demo was fairly limited and on rails, but it gave a tantalizing taste of what to expect from the final game when it eventually arrives on Western shores in February of next year. I walked away from the demo booth wanting more; always a good sign. Let's hope the finished product lives up to its potential.