NYCC: Hands-on with "Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII"

It's the end of the world, but Lightning rages against the dying of the light. Coming Feb. 11 on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, "Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII" is the second sequel to "Final Fantasy XIII" and takes place 1,000 years after the original, and 500 years after "Final Fantaasy XIII-2." At New York Comic Con, Square-Enix provided a hands-on preview of the Wildlands area of Nova Chrysalis, a frontier wilderness ripe with chocobos-but where also lurks that famous bird's most deadly foe.

Though the Square-Enix team at the demo could not divulge many new plot points, we already know that Lightning's quest is to save as many souls as possible before the end of the world in 13 days time-an apocalypse that will occur "no matter what," according to the rep on site. At the bequest of the god Bhunivelze, Lightning has been appointed the role of Savior, tasked with bringing humanity to a new world that will replace the doomed Nova Chrysalis. What this destiny truly means will remain to be seen.

In the hands-on demo, Lightning arrives in a small village after "a maiden's voice, borne on the wind" tells her to find the Angel of Valhalla. Speaking with Dr. Gysahl, she learns that this "angel" is a wild chocobo, one so unbreakable that it seeks out its natural predator, the Chocobo Eater. Gysahl seems to have his own history with the "angel," but Lightning will have to locate the chocobo-and the Chocobo Eater-to learn more.

Unlike previous entries in the series-including earlier "Final Fantasy" games-"Lightning Returns" pits one heroine against the world in a fast-paced action RPG, without the support of a rotating cast of teammates. But Lightning herself puts on many guises and must switch between them to keep pressure on her enemies. The Schemata system, like the Paradigms of the last two "XIII" games, has Lightning switching between combat abilities on the fly, using up the ATB gauge with each action before switching to another Schema to repeat and then cycling back through as each Schema's gauge refills. Players set up a Schema with garb, a weapon and shield, and four abilities, creating a unique mix that can be tailored to an enemy's weaknesses. The garb, too, can be customized for aesthetics, altering the main color scheme as well as hues used for the lining and pockets. The abilities, meanwhile, will level up as Lightning gains experience and each come with offensive and defensive bonuses and weaknesses, adding another layer of strategy to configuring Schemata.

Entering battle, there is a tangible advantage to getting a jump on enemies-a 10 percent hit to HP to whichever side is put on the defensive. In addition to rapidly switching Schemata to stagger the beasties and do extra damage, filling up the Eradia Points gauge allows additional abilities, the first of which is Overclock, which slows time for the enemies. Later Eradia abilities include Curaga and Chronostasis, which stops time-useful both for timed quests and to slow the progression of the doomsday clock, which ticks away in the upper-right corner of the screen throughout the game. The clock can also be extended by collecting Eradia to restore the world tree Yggdrasil.

For a "Final Fantasy" traditionalist like myself-having grown up with the turn-based "IV" and "VI" on Super Nintendo and continuing through the more subtle battle refinements of following years-the Paradigm system of "XIII" was quite a leap, and Schemata is even more intense. Sorting out not only the right attack but the right set of attacks while in the thick of battle turns up the heat quite a bit, but mapping the switch to a trigger button makes the mechanic simple enough (and, more importantly, quick). It was clear from the demo that the level of customization benefits careful planning and character building, something that just isn't possible in a short tour of the game. Nevertheless, the control set felt intuitive, and it was easy to see how the various Schemata pieces would come together under different playing styles.

As the finale of the "Final Fantasy XIII" trilogy and the franchise's swansong on current-gen systems-the MMORPG "Final Fantasy XIV," of course, just relaunched with "Realm Reborn" and "XV" has been announced for Xbox One and Playstation 4-"Lightning Returns" offers a good mix of continuity and innovation. Reducing the cast to one playable character immediately changes the fighting dynamic, outside of the changes to battle mechanic, while retaining familiar faces in supporting NPC roles should allow every character's story to resolve. The centuries-spanning story is also one of considerable depth, making the trilogy as a set potentially one of the most rich "Final Fantasy" experiences in the franchise-subject, of course, to how it does wrap up after the big bad is defeated.

"Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII" debuts Feb. 11, 2014, on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.

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