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OPINION: Impressions & Afterthoughts of Lightning Returns

On Thursday, we brought you our coverage from Square-Enix's First Look event for the upcoming Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Tonight, I'm throwing a more personal spin on the coverage I provided previously. Hit the jump for obscure references I can only hope you'll understand.

Lightning Returns
She must not be talking to us. I think we know this already.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the following editorial are mine and may not reflect those of the TFF Community, the other members of the Final Fantasy fansite community, or any other persons noted in this article.

Let's just jump right in, shall we? First, some necessary background.

I LOVE Final Fantasy XIII. I will admit that this is due much in part to Sazh (as a personality... not necessarily as a useful character in battle) and Vanille (oh, that wonderfully secretive past). While many gamers were turned off by the linear gameplay, I enjoyed having a story compelling enough not to push, but to pull me forward as I moved through the chapters. Perhaps it took a bit long to give most gamers the space to feel like they were in charge of their actions, but an addictive battle system and structurally adhesive story certainly gave me reason to continue. And the ending... oh, the ending.

When FFXIII-2 was announced, I was skeptical, but hopeful. I questioned how a sequel to XIII would be possible, and then- WAIT! Time paradox. Campy, perhaps, but it was likely the only way. I really enjoy puzzles. Solving paradox loops absolutely qualifies. FFXIII-2 was addictive, and I plowed through that game amongst others during a week of vacation, though I still haven't secured all endings (something which will be rectified prior to Lightning Returns). The useful tweaks to the paradigm system were welcomed with open arms, and the game did not disappoint, even winning back some of my friends who had been downtrodden by FFXIII.

But here we are... past announcement of the inevitable cap of the trilogy. Knowing that FFXIII-3 Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII would come into eventual existance, I had fairly reasonable expectations for what we would see.

Then came the screenshots. With no UI overlay, it looked to be an action-packed thriller. That's cool... maybe... not really. Something felt off. Video surfaced. The first trailer showed glimpses of UI, hinting that the game might not be a button masher, but the clips were so miniscule that it was tough to really tell. Character movement seemed similar to Assassin's Creed (not a bad thing), but worried me that the entire game might play in the same fashion. I was not okay with this.

The invitation. Again, I cannot thank Rob and the community team at Square-Enix enough for their hospitality. Yes, I would LOVE to go see LR:FFXIII up close and in person... so I know if I need to cry myself to sleep. In retrospect, if they had any idea how hesitant I had become, they might have wanted TFF to send another representative.

Fortunately for Square-Enix, I know how to maintain a neutral stance. Fortunately for myself, I did precisely that upon entering that room.

Now, I'll tell you the story of how one little press junket completely changed my perception, and why I cannot wait for this game to arrive.

Lightning Returns Screenshot
Lightning is here to absolve me of my hesitations.

Regardless of how the event turned out, I was enthralled to have the opportunity to sit down in a room with names such as Kitase and Toriyama. Being able to share this moment with representatives and leaders of our fellow fansites was even more fantastic. I overheard a little tidbit when we were exiting the room regarding how the fansite questions were much better than those asked by the general press. Must be something about all that passion (and more importantly, knowledge) we have.

The event opened with an introduction, followed by that shiny "new" extended trailer that found its way to YouTube the next day courtesy of Square-Enix. Say what you may about the visualization, but remember that it's an early build and the Final Fantasy teams are always about remarkable appearances. I was still a little hesitant after that trailer, though the battle sequences were longer and I could finally feel the little pauses in the action. The close of the trailer brought a mild internal squee as I felt moved by this title for the first time since its announcement.

The live hands-off demonstration which followed was all I needed. Sometimes, you want to believe something can be good, but nothing you read or watch or hear can bring you to feel good about it until you've seen it with your own eyes. Lightning Returns was like this for me.

Lightning Returns Lumina
Yes, Lolita Serah Lumina, I can imagine. I can imagine the potential for this game.

I admit that I am an avid fan of anything that allows me to customize things. I buy Sims games because I want to use the "kaching" cheat and build dozens of wildly different houses and throw them together into one neighborhood. I don't give a flip what Sims live in them or what they do with their virtual time; I want to craft their reality and leave it at that. It took me an hour to start Dragon's Dogma because I wanted my player character to resemble my FFXI character as closely as possible... and then balance my pawn to be the perfect companion. I spend more time in Forza games customizing the paint jobs and performance of the cars than I do actually racing them. Gran Turismo had me tweaking torque and camber for hours, searching for the perfect balance. Even my actual car flips its seats into a myriad of positions to suit my daily needs.

I have avoided Minecraft as I fear that I may not return to the physical world should I ever venture in.

The "Wear" system, the Styles, and how it all integrates into a custom battle system (Amazing Active Time Battle) resembling a single-player paradigm shift... this is super cool. Watching Styles change in the middle of battle - if you go watch the extended trailer again and listen for the audio cue - and seeing how the ATB bars switch provided me with a much clearer aspect of the natural flow of battle. It helped immensely that the demo player actually ran out of ATB gauge in all three Styles at one point, leaving Lightning helpless. That exact moment was when LR:FFXIII no longer felt like it was trying to be Devil May Cry, and started to feel like it was just a complex, fast-paced FFXIII. This was very good.

Picking outfits? It's a start. Different costumes carry different attributes. I touched on this briefly in the First Look coverage. Seeing it in action is something else entirely. Lightning's sword changed - a different ability was available for her to set to the face buttons. Her shield changed; again, more new options arrived. Her garb? New options again became available. Which four moves would I choose to put in those slots? How would I want Lightning to handle? Should she mimic a Commando or a Ravager? Personally... if the game allows me to do so, she'll be the quintessential Red Mage, with all three equipped Styles containing a little bit of everything so that I may pace myself through the various ATB bars without ever running dry. One can dream - and it's this dream that has me excited. Oh, and while I know I mentioned you could customize the color of her costumes... I failed to mention that you have a full color wheel to work with. ALL THREE COSTUMES COLOR-COORDINATED?! Yeah, probably.

Seeing the dodging and counterattacking in action was also beneficial. My biggest worry with this game was how it would handle itself in combat, and every last concern I had was dissipated on Wednesday. It's fluid, but not so quick that it seems like a button-masher or an exaggerated series of quick-time events. It looks good, and can only look better as it gets balanced through the production process.

Outside of battle, Lightning is as Lightning does. Except for a new Assassin's Creed-esque stealth option (triggered by key events/quests), the game handles exactly as its predecessors did. It's the passage of time that really breaks the mold. Yes, you can tell me that Majora's Mask did it first and you would actually be wrong, although still not mistaken. Time Traveler did it in 1991, and I don't even know if THAT was the first instance of rewinding time in a videogame. Regardless, the mostly nondiscussed ability to add time back to the world is perhaps one of the most intriguing pieces of Lightning's newest challenge.

Lightning Returns Lumina Screenshot
I'll give you that chance, Lightning. Don't blow it.

Exiting the airport and climbing into my friend's car the day after the event... after staying up far too late writing the initial coverage, posting at ridiculous hours of the morning, and nearly missing a flight due to crazy airport shuttle drivers... I was loaded with energy and excitement. Speaking to fellow fans of the Final Fantasy franchise, I have practically (not literally, fortunately) foamed at the mouth praising the little changes. Some players might look at these tweaks and shrug them off. Others, particularly those who did not care for the first two games, might see just enough of a difference to hop on board - or shy away altogether. Me? I'm bandwagoning harder than a Chiefs fan who gives up after week three of the season. But I'm on the wagon. I intend to stay there.

Read more and leave your feedback on this thread at The Final Fantasy Forums.

Read more about the upcoming release and new screenshots on our forums.

Check out our Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII for more information, news, and updates.