I mentioned in yesterday’s Eurogamer Expo piece that I had also played Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII at the event, and was waiting for a video I made to finish uploading to Youtube before saying too much about it. Now that the video’s up (it only took about seven hours), I’m going to share some thoughts on the demo.

The playable segment begins with a little discussion between Lightning and the strangely young-again Hope. Lightning is being overly formal, much to Hope’s chagrin, and he points out to our heroine that Snow is her priority. We’re in Yusnaan, the area over which Snow serves as governer, and Lightning is hot on his trail. For some unexplained reason. Enjoy the video (sans audio unfortunately, as the demo pods had headphones), and then treat yourself to my impressions below.

The short slice of gameplay (lasting roughly 15 to 20 minutes) begins in an opulent ballroom-type area, and I must say the game looks lovely. Watching over my friend’s shoulder, I was struck by how much better it looked than XIII-2 (which, to my mind was a bit of a downgrade visually from Final Fantasy XIII), though when I sat down it was harder to tell; sitting so close to the screen, the image looked very jaggy, but you’re unlikely to be playing the final game from about 18 inches away. I had to keep leaning back in an attempt to alleviate eye-strain. At a proper distance, I’m sure Lightning Returns will impress.

We’re treated to a few short, in-battle tutorials that walk us through basic movement in battle (move using the left stick), the schemata system, blocking (which drains ATB for as long as the button is held) and the new stagger implementation, Stagger Wave, which wasn’t particularly well-communicated. Hitting an enemy’s weakness reveals a pulsating waveform around their HP bar, and when it turns red, you can attack again to stagger them. At least that’s how it was explained. It seemed a bit more random in practise, and far less clearly-signposted than in previous games.

The schemata system is very interesting; essentially a mix of the previous games’ Paradigm Shift system and FFX-2‘s dresspheres, Lightning can have three equipped at any time, switchable via LB and RB, and each has four different abilities mapped to the four face buttons. In the demo, we had Divinity (Light’s default costume with Thunder, Block, Attack and Galestrike abilities), Dark Muse (Electric Blitz, Lesser Guard, Light Slash and Heavy Slash) and saucy-ress… I mean Sorceress (Firaga, Lesser Guard, Ruin and Blizzara), which was a bit more revealing than I personally think suits Lightning, and came complete with a rather suggestive end-battle pose.

Battling feels great in this game – if I was to imagine how to re-work the FFXIII battle system for a single character, I feel like this is exactly what I’d come up with; with no party members to worry about, it makes perfect sense to be able to move Light around the battlefield, and the use of skills and abilities on the face buttons, balanced with individual ATB bars for each schema, is a good answer to the question of how to meld turn-based and real-time fighting. Having all your skills quickly accessible means you can attack how and when you want, and the depleting ATB gauges mean that you can’t simply button-mash or spam the same attacks repeatedly. The fact that each schema has an independent ATB forces you to switch up your approach regularly, and thanks to this you’ll get more use out of all of Light’s outfits. I can see collecting all the schema becoming very addictive in this game.

One thing that has changed from the previous games is that Lightning no longer recovers HP in-between battles – you’ll have to dive into the menus and treat her to a potion if you’re starting to accrue too much damage, just like in pre-XIII games. While I’m sure many will rejoice that item management is back in a big way, I have to say that I liked that you could fearlessly dive into any battle in XIII without having to top everyone up beforehand (but then, there was plenty that I think worked well in FFXIII, but wouldn’t necessarily want every game in the series to do). In XIII, this meant that even standard encounters could afford to be quite tough and you generally had to be on your game at all times. As long as battles in Lightning Returns are balanced well though, it shouldn’t pose an issue.

Having trained us with a decent handful of battles (and treated us to a little light environmental traversal), the demo comes to a close with a battle against Zaltys, a large dragon summoned by the mysterious Lumina. Lasting a bit longer, this battle puts everything you’ve learned in the tutorials to the test and it was great fun to defeat. I’m glad I got the chance to play Lightning Returns – I’m buying it anyway, as I’m a fan of the XIII games (I just wish the story slotted together a bit better…) – but the new battle system has really sold it to me. I can see myself having a lot of fun when the game launches in February.