I really don't know where to begin recounting my experiences. To be perfectly honest I wasn't a fan of Final Fantasy XIII. I felt it was overly linear. I didn't enjoy the automated gameplay and had a hard time immersing myself in the story. To top it all off I felt no love for the main character - Lightning.
I didn't hate the game or anything, but it wasn't the Final Fantasy I had hoped for. As I played Final Fantasy XIII-2 I started to warm up to it, as it was very apparent that Square Enix had listened to the critics, and with Lightning Returns it feels as though Square Enix could end the trilogy on a high note. Keep in mind that I've just spent an hour with a game the developers claim will last for around 50 hours, so any verdict will have to wait.
What strikes me at first is that you're all alone this time around. Typically you're guiding a group of characters on adventures in Final Fantasy, but Lightning has to save the world on her own. In order to spice things up with a little variation Lightning can switch between three outfits during combat. Her costumes have therefore been given further importance in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.
Each outfit has its own Active Time Battle meter. That means, for example, you can first dish out damaging jump attacks with the Dragoon outfit, throw fireballs clad in a beautiful evening gown and finally finish things off with water attacks after pressing a button that has Lightning put on a bikini. As you'd imagine there's no realism or reason behind this system (even Madonna and Britney Spears need a few seconds to switch outfits), but it quickly proves an enjoyable system that makes us think of the Final Fantasies of old.
One major contributing factor in this is that number of costumes at Lightning's disposal and in many cases these are based on old Final Fantasy Jobs like Black Mages, Lancers and so on. For someone who holds the often overlooked Final Fantasy V as the best game in the series, it's especially uplifting to see the Job system recycled in this way. In total there are around 80 outfits, and more than half are said to be fan service with references to old games.
Another thing I appreciate is freedom. Where Final Fantasy XIII didn't allow for any exploration, here I'm given - what appears to be - an open world. Sure there are some limitations, but it feels more like a role-playing game this time around. In the preview version I was tasked with finding a white Chocobo. I'm told that this is a very special Chocobo. In fact it's holy, and that it will only answer to a special chosen individual and will lead that person to a secret location.
As luck would have it Lightning is that chosen someone, and in locating the Chocobo, I see it's injured and needs looking after, in classic Tamagotchi fashion. I run around to collect goat milk and talk to people in the hopes of gaining something useful. These side-quests prove enjoyable and I find myself enjoying the experience, even though I'm just babysitting a white bird and feeding it seeds while dressed in something that would make Jean-Paul Gaultier blush.
Despite all the weirdness, I care about what happens. I want to know more, and when my preview session comes to end I don't feel like handing the controller over. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII feels very modern, but still retains that special essence of Final Fantasy. But all is not well. There is one part of the concept that worries me.
The adventure is played out 500 years after Final Fantasy XIII-2 and this has lead to a return to more of a fantasy theme. And there are only 13 days remaining until the end of the world. That's the amount of time Lightning has been given to save the world. An invisible clock is ticking. Everything you do takes time, and some fights you may simply want to avoid in order to save precious seconds. Yet if you run from a battle you will be further punished with lost time. And you can actually run out of time, which results in the game ending.
My opinion is that RPGs aren't something you should be racing through with a timer. I want to be able to freely explore things at my own leisurely pace. Take on side quest and so on. Square Enix promises that you will be able to replay the game with everything that you've collected during your first playthough (via New Game Plus) and thus explore content you skipped over, but frankly I don't find this a very good concept. This is of course something that remains to be seen when I grapple with the final version of the game.
There are positives with the timer as well. It makes for a more living world. For the first time in a traditional single player Final Fantasy we're dealing with a real, living and breathing world. People return to their houses in the evenings. They cook food and go about their business. They're not just there to interact with Lightning. As time passes day becomes night, night morning and so on. It's far from anything new in a game, but it's something significant in a Final Fantasy title and it adds a new dimension.
To sum things up I'm positively surprised by my brief experience with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. It appears as if Square Enix have really taken the feedback from its predecessors to heart. I catch myself caring for Lightning, enjoying the wonderful world and taking in the beautiful visuals (clearly the best to date in the series on console). How the clock impacts the experience remains to be seen, but hopefully I'm proven wrong. Perhaps this is game that truly manages to modernise Final Fantasy without changing the essence of what a Final Fantasy should be. It certainly appears that way.