Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII will be Square Enix’s second attempt to atone for the missteps of the original game three years ago. After Final Fantasy XIII made its controversial debut back in 2010, producer Yoshinori Kitase and director Motomu Toriyama were left to pick up the pieces and figure out went wrong.
With the game’s newest spin-off due out late next fall, both designers have one last chance to win back old fans, and find some new ones, before the console generation and the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology upon which FFXIII was based come to an end. I’m usually extremely skeptical of all the buzz and positive spin that new video game previews generate, but the information that’s recently come out about Lightning Returns has even me thinking it might be a success, both critically and among hardcore Final Fantasy fans (I’m less bullish on the title’s capacity to spark interest in gamers previously unaware of the series).
Unlike past installments, what is effectively XIII-3 will border on being a third-person action game that resembles Kingdom Hearts meets Devil May Cry. Players will control Lighting, the titular character who is on a quest to save as many people in the world as possible from an approaching doomsday she herself is responsible for.
Exploration will take place on four continents which, as Destructoid’s Dale North explains, are each connected by train. The religious port city of Luxerion, the forested and mountainous region of the Wildlands, the arid Dead Dunes, and a mysterious fourth area yet to be revealed, will be the main environments that drive the game. In this way, it might not be too dissimilar from a game like Assassin’s Creed, a title where players spend most of their time in a few individual cities.
In fact, the similarities to the Assassin’s Creed may well run even deeper. As Jeremy Parish of 1up noted, the map designs recently demoed at a Square Enix event point toward the same kind of “organic, fully-integrated landscapes that made ACIII’s take on colonial America so engrossing.”
This is welcome news, especially since FFXIII and FFXIII-2 both failed to conjure an interesting, compelling, and immersive space to play in that felt both populated and genuine. With Lightning Returns it looks like Toriyama et al. have decided to take some real risks and actually create a living, breathing world with its own problems and which runs on its own schedule.
Which brings us to perhaps the most interesting design choice made with FFXIII-3. Despite many comparison’s to Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Lighting Returns will be based around a slightly different system. As Phillip Kollar reported for Polygon,
“[C]ausing specific changes within the world of Lightning Returns will delay your countdown to the end of the world. Even with that mechanic in place, Toriyama says time will be limited. It won’t be possible to do everything in a single run, and the team is encouraging multiple playthroughs with several ways to solve quests and a new-game-plus system that will allow some progress to be carried over.”
One of my top games of 2012 was Faster Than Light. In addition to being a rogue-like, which alone made it immensely fun to replay, FTL utilized a system of limited fuel and mass enemy movement that forced players to continue forward, even if they hadn’t yet managed to do everything they wanted to in a particular sector. The effect of a system like this is that it forces consequences on the player in a way that feels both natural and believable. I can only wonder how much less stilted Mass Effect 3 would have played if it actually mattered how long you took to face the Reapers.
Like Parish, I think Lightning Returns’ countdown mechanic seems more in line with something like Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, a game built around the idea that people will have to replay several times in order to really experience it, as oppose to Mass Effect, which though it can be played differently each time, is not predicated upon a narrative that emerges *only* via multiple playthroughs.
And then there’s the combat, probably Lightning Returns’ main selling point. There will still be and ATB bar that fills up, but rather than work as a meter that regulates the number of times you can attack, the bar will work more like a stamina gauge, with a certain amount necessary to execute certain attacks (which isn’t too different from Dark Souls or The Witcher 2).
More importantly, the paradigm system has been reworked. Instead of switching between attack patterns players will be able to switch between different pre-customized costumes while in the middle of battle—X-2’s Dressphere system but with a twist.
Prior to combat situations, players will be able to collect different outfits, many of which correspond to paradigms from the other two games (for instance there is a Commando outfit). Not only can the aesthetic of each outfit be tweaked, but players will also get to choose three total to take with them into battle, each customized to offer different abilities and stat bonuses.
Also, since each ATB gauge fills independently of the others, battles will move fast and encourage finding unique ways to switch between different tactics and strategies. So while guarding and dodging with one outfit, the gauge for a more offense oriented outfit will be restocking in the background. However, unlike in more recent Final Fantasys, players won’t gain new abilities by gaining experience and exploring some variation on a skill tree. Instead, most skills will be bought at different stores. Which could become an interesting mini-game in itself if certain vendors won’t share their wares with you until you’ve helped them with their own troubles, most likely in the form of one of the game’s many side quests.
On the whole, I think Square Enix has chosen a good overall design philosophy to guide Lighting Returns’ development. Focusing mostly on one character could help players relate better to the game by giving them one single avenue through which to interact with it, rather than trying to deal with the complexities of an ensemble. According to what Toriyama told IGN’s Luke Karmali, Lighting’s character arc will be a big part of the next game,
“You might be a little bit surprised to see her at the beginning of Lightning Returns because you’re going to find her even more distant and more closed than before, but throughout the story you’re going to find out more about her real emotions, and what goes through her mind. She will be getting more and more human and vulnerable, even as you play.”
And then there’s the commitment to making Lightning Returns “world-driven.” This is a key part of what has made many Western games so successful in the current console generation. Games like Infamous, Assassin’s Creed, and Skyrim gained immensely from being situated in one or a few places. Empire City starts to take on a life of its own because we spend so much time running around it as Cole. Renaissance Italy comes to life because time was taken to make the environments detailed, accurate, and heavily populated. And Skyrim is named after the very place you spend all of your time exploring. In each the gameplay feels less arbitrary and repetitive because it feels tied to a living, breathing place with its own problems and issues.
It’s clear that Square Enix is trying not just to make a Final Fantasy game, but to make a great game that succeeds on its own merits, regardless of its namesake. According to PAR’s Sophie Prell, the new game won’t even feature the iconic artwork of Yoshitaka Amano. It’s a questionable marketing move (in my opinion), but certainly shows that Kitase and the rest of the development team aren’t satisfied with what they’ve produced so far this generation. Hopefully with Lightning Returns their hard work will have finally paid off.