Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII preview: time for change

By Andrew Yoon, Jan 17, 2013 10:00am PST

Square Enix has been oft criticized for its abundance of Final Fantasy games. However, even as we reach the third Final Fantasy XIII game, it's clear that the company never rests on its laurels. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a radical departure from the previous two games in the Fabula Nova Crystallis series. In fact, by moving to a new "Amazing ATB" battle system, Lightning Returns may represent the boldest change for a mainline Final Fantasy game ever.

Producer Yoshinori Kitase, who has worked on the franchise since FFV, introduced the game by setting up our expectations. The first game in the XIII trilogy was "story-driven," he said. It was a game very much driven by the vision of its creators. However, XIII-2 evolved to be "player-driven," after tepid fan response had the team go back to the drawing board. For the oddly-numbered sequel, players had far more flexibility in how they wanted to approach the story, jumping into time periods in whatever way they fit. Lightning Returns further evolves the game with a "world-driven" approach, which features a "living" world that evolves as players impact it.

The end result is an open-world game that harkens back to the N64 classic, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. The game places a great deal of emphasis on time, with a persistent clock appearing not only on your HUD, but throughout the world. In the hands-off demo we saw, Lightning was exploring a train station, looking for clues on how to infiltrate an enemy base. At 6am, the town was quiet and easy to move through. However, as the clock continued to move, the town became noticeably more lively. NPCs will have their own lives and schedules: they'll commute to work, go out to eat, head back home, etc. And like in Majora's Mask, certain missions are time-critical, and will only be available at certain spots in the day.

The flow of time not only introduces a "living world" to the franchise, but also adds a sense of urgency to the game. The world is ending, and it's up to Lightning to try and save as many souls as she can before the world comes to an end. A timer on the HUD constantly reminds you how much time is left before the apocalypse: in our demo, it said "2 Days."

Having a persistent countdown clock to what seems to be a Game Over screen certainly raises the stakes and ups the tension. It's clear that the Final Fantasy team is struggling on exactly how "hardcore" to make the game. "To be honest with you, [playtesters] did seem to experience a lot of stress," game director Motomu Toriyama told us. "We've modified the system a bit so that it's more about valuing each day, and to maximize how [Lightning] spends the time that is available."

Toriyama tells us there will be multiple ways to extend the amount of time available to the player, whether it be through fighting certain enemies or progressing to specific points in the story. In fact, he hopes that most players will be able to beat the game on their first try. However, Toriyama says there's plenty of reason to play through multiple times, regardless of success or failure. "We do encourage multiple playthroughs," he told us. "Time is constantly changing in the game, and there are different elements you can experience depending on what time it is." A "New Game+" feature should also make subsequent playthroughs more revealing.

While having a persistent clock already marks a significant change for Lightning Returns, Square Enix has also returned to the drawing board for the battle system. Players have direct control of Lightning throughout the entire game, whether exploring the environment or fighting an enemy. Even outside of battle, players have significantly more control over their character: Lightning can jump, take cover, and dash even when exploring the town. This opens up brand new mission types for the game, like a stealth mission that has you stalking a key NPC through the map.

Combat looks more like a traditional action RPG, with players mapping different abilities to the face buttons. You can customize three loadouts. For example, you may want a magic-oriented loadout, with different spells assigned to the different buttons. You may want a physical loadout with brawling moves, or a defensive loadout with status-changing spells. You'll have access to all three loadouts and will be able to switch between them freely; it's essentially Lightning Returns' take on "Paradigm Shifts."

When in battle, Lightning can move around with the analog stick and, for the first time ever in the Final Fantasy franchise, will be able to dodge attacks. However, it is a Final Fantasy game, so you can't really button-mash your way to success. You'll have to manage the ATB gauge for each of your different loadouts. For example, if you focus entirely on magic, you may find yourself needing to switch to physical attacks as that gauge replenishes. "It is a lot more action based... [but] we believe it has kept the goodness and strategy of conventional Final Fantasy ATB battles," Toriyama said to us. When grilled if this is too much like other action JRPGs (specifically Tales), he told us that "we feel like it isn't much like that of Tales."

Customizing Lightning will also play a big role in the game. Toriyama's directorial debut at Square Enix was with FFX-2, and I was amused to see how much emphasis has been placed on Lightning's outfit. You can equip new swords, shields, and more on the character--in fact, you can have one for each loadout. Lightning can become quite the formidable Barbie (and selling costume parts as DLC should prove to be quite lucrative, no?).

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII certainly has a lot of interesting ideas. However, one can't help but wonder if may be coming too late. Given its late 2013 release, a new generation of consoles are likely to launch near this game's release--will players want to see how the FFXIII trilogy ends? And the shift to an open world design has clearly affected the visuals, which even Kitase admits are not yet up to "conventional standards." (It's something that will undoubtedly improve as the game gets closer to release.)

Lightning Returns will release on PS3 and Xbox 360 this fall.

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