Chocobos have been a part of the Final Fantasy lore for as long as we can remember. When we sat down to try the latest hands-on demo of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13, we were tasked with finding a rare chocobo out in the wild. All right. No problem. How hard could it be? Of course, we weren't the only things looking for the wild beast, and soon discovered that while finding a chocobo was easy, it was saving it from the Chocobo Eater that would prove difficult.
For those of you familiar with the Final Fantasy 13 battle system, you'll find the core of the combat remains intact. However, this time you'll be battling as Lightning all by herself, and instead of swapping between defense or attack types on the fly, you'll actually be changing Schemata. With a slight wink and nod to Final Fantasy 10-2, Lightning Returns uses various dresses to imbue Lightning with her abilities. You can have three different sets active at once, and you can change on the fly in the middle of battle to keep your attacks balanced. Since you don't have any other party members, it's up to you to manage Lightning's look and equipment to ensure she'll survive the seven-day adventure.
Keeping this in mind, we accepted our quest to hunt down the chocobo. This mission happened to be one of the story-based quests Lightning would be tasked with, but there were plenty of side-quests available, too. Since our time was short, both in the game and in real life, we decided to focus on the story. The wide-open world returns, and you could run around the fields and between the mountain paths forever if you wanted. However, in Lightning Returns, our protagonist has only a mere seven days to complete her journey. In the upper corner a clock ticked down every minute of every hour, constantly threatening us with our deadline. Even though it would have been cool to explore more, we were feeling the pressure to get things done immediately.
Along our way, we came across a group of chocobo riders. They warned of a Chocobo Eater, though they also offered that finding the monster was our best bet in finding the missing chocobo. Hurrying along, we soon discovered the advice of the riders was all too true. Lying beaten and injured was our chocobo. Standing over it was a hulking green mass with a mouth big enough to swallow us whole. This was the Chocobo Eater, and today, he would not go without his dinner. Like previous entries, you can see the enemies on the battlefield before the fight actually begins. You have a brief moment to try and gain an advantage by striking them from behind or while they're unaware to gain an advantage. Of course, if you get caught by the monster, you'll be at a slight disadvantage during the upcoming fight, too.
Once we're engaged in combat with the Chocobo Eater, we finally get to see this sequel's combat in action. Lightning has three attacks and one defensive maneuver mapped to the face buttons. You can swap between Schemata with the left and right bumpers, and pausing the game opens up your inventory in case you need a potion of some sort. Each Schemata has a finite amount of ATB to use (most are 100 by default, which can be augmented and improved), meaning you can only attack with the abilities tied to that set until it expires. ATB slowly regenerates over time, but swapping out Schemata causes it to regen a bit faster. With three different sets available in any given battle, you will rarely encounter a time when you don't have enough ATB to launch an attack.
Just tapping the attack buttons will do a small move, but holding the attack button down does a longer, more powerful attack or combo, but it also drains your ATB that much faster. You can also earn some overclock attacks, which give you an unlimited amount of ATB for a short burst. The timing for using overclock is key in not wasting it, so when we had the Chocobo Eater stunned, it made sense to clock into overdrive and lay as much smack down as we could for the short duration. The Chocobo Eater was a formidable foe, and even though we were whittling away at his health, he still managed to defeat us. Fortunately, there's no real death in Lightning Returns. Instead, you are penalized one hour of in-game time. You'll start right where you were before the battle kicked off, but now you'll have even less time to ensure Lightning can complete her quest.
The second time around against the Chocobo Eater didn't go much better, though we started getting a better handle on combat. You can move around instead of being stuck in place waiting to attack, giving ranged and melee weapon choice some credence this time around. It can also work against you though, as several times the Chocobo Eater ducked back out of our attack during a big blow. It's a more challenging, more active battle system, and it definitely gives you more of a feeling of being there instead of just being an observer. With that additional control over the combat, you feel that much more defeated when you lose. It's not a good feeling, we can tell you that.
Even though our time with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 was short, we learned quite a bit about the core changes coming to the series. Combat is more engaging than it has been in the past, and the Schemata, while a little silly at first, actually provides some real depth to the battle system. How it all holds up over the long haul remains to be seen, but Square Enix has piqued our interest, and we're dying to find out in a few months.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 will be out on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on Feb. 11, 2014.