Dressing up in a dying world: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a grand experiment for series
Disclaimer: Square Enix paid for air travel and a one-night hotel stay. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is the third and final installment in the Lightning saga of Final Fantasy games, and Square Enix looks to be using that as an excuse to toy with some interesting new ideas. The Report and some Final Fantasy fans sat down with Lightning Returns producer Yoshinori Kitase and director Motomu Toriyama in San Francisco to find out what we'll see when the game launches in Fall 2013 on the Xbox 360 and PS3.
The world ain't slowin' down
Kitase said that each game in the Final Fantasy XIII series has been driven by a different concept. The first Final Fantasy XIII, he said, was story-driven. The goal was to create something which felt fast, as though the game was pulling you from one story moment to the next. Toriyama compared it to the design of modern first-person shooters. The downside to this approach was that many players felt the game was too linear, lacked the depth of earlier titles, and robbed players of a sense of control. To rectify this, the team focused on making Final Fantasy XIII-2 a “player-driven” game, with a more open world and a story that reacted to player choices.Kitase said they wanted to explore the concept of a world-driven game, where the universe itself dictates what happens. To give the world a sense of sovereignty, Lightning Returns adds a clock which counts down the final 13 days of existence. The minutes tick by regardless of what the player has or hasn't done, and the world itself adheres to a schedule; if you head to the train station at 9 AM, you'll see more people than you will an hour later, because they're headed to work. Toriyama said the development team was inspired by the real-life Doomsday Clock, which advances when bad events happen and rewinds when good events happen. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to ask if players will be able to rewind or alter time, in keeping with the Doomsday Clock analogy. The reason for the countdown in Lightning Returns is somewhat convoluted – but then, what Final Fantasy plot isn't? Basically, a god has awoken, and tasked Lightning with shepherding souls from the currently-existing world – which will end in 13 days – to the new one. A mysterious cult doesn't seem to like this idea, and is methodically hunting down and murdering women who physically resemble Lightning. Players won't need to know the lore from the previous games in order to understand this plot, but in a world filled with words and concepts like fal'Cie, l'Cie, Bhunivelze, and Cie'th, I get the feeling it certainly won't hurt.
Pretty pretty dress-up
One of the most interesting new systems to come out of the hands-off presentation was the customization system for Lightning. With the new system, players can pick and choose up to three styles, each with their own look and abilities. Each style can then be further customized by mixing and matching equipment, abilities, and even color of the outfit. It's unclear at this point how many styles will be available or how different they are by default, but from what I saw, it reminded me of the older Final Fantasy games' job system. One outfit was fairly heavily-armored, while another forsook shoulder pauldrons for flowing fabric. Another, called “Heart Burglar” reminded me of Rikku's outfit from Final Fantasy X. While these outfits will change Lightning's combat abilities, core game play can also be context-sensitive as well. At one point during the demo, I saw Lightning crouched and hiding behind a piece of the environment as she stalked an enemy. Stealth game play in a Final Fantasy? Toriyama said that while such game play won't always be an option, there will be missions which require context-sensitive game play such as sneaking or collecting and analyzing clues. Each style has its own resource bar from which Lightning draws her abilities during battle, and switching between them is marked by a quick flash as the outfit changes; no long casting times, no cinematics, just a bright light and presto: new Lightning. It's interesting visually, and reminded me more of chaining together combos in Devil May Cry 3 or Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance than anything seen in Final Fantasy. Let's say you want to attack a monster head-on, so you choose a heavily-armored style with abilities and gear designed to reduce incoming damage while dealing high levels of physical damage yourself. Maybe you choose the active dodge ability, one of several new moves Lightning can perform. As you utilize Lightning's abilities, you deplete the associated style's ability bar. Since each style's ability bar is separate, you switch to a magic-friendly style and start to cast spells from a full bar. Hopefully this will turn out to be a good blend of modern action-oriented game play and old-school, party-based combat. Lightning may be the only character players use or see in combat, but with the ability to switch between customizable styles, she's a party unto herself. I foresee smart players building some destructive combos which utilize abilities tied to different outfits.
Lightning strikes twice
Although there was no hands-on time, Lightning Returns certainly looks intriguing enough. The differences may seem miniscule and separately, they are. Had Square Enix just added one or two of the changes, it might seem like a standard JRPG affair with a gimmick thrown in for good measure. However, with extensive character customization, new combat options like active dodging, and a world countdown clock, this may be one of the bigger departures from standard Final Fantasy games. Now it's just a matter of getting some hands-on time to see how it feels.