In part two of our first look at Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, we’ll be covering a QA session with director Motomu Toriyama and director Yoshinori Kitase. Afterward I’ll be detailing my overall impressions and expectations based on the event as we anticipate the Fall 2013 launch. If you’re just visiting us at Final Fantasy Network today and would like more details on the various story bits and mechanics at play, I’ve detailed that at length in part one. Please feel free to read, comment, and ask questions about the game and I will do my best to answer them!
Before we dove into footage I detailed in my previous report, Final Fantasy series producer Yoshinori Kitase prefaced his presentation with some numbers. Recently, the Final Fantasy series had passed 100 million units shipped (not sold) globally, with Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 reaching 10 million. Kitase pins this success on “dramatic games full of colorful and unique characters”. For round three of Final Fantasy XIII, they point to Lightning as the key to the trilogy.
Lightning Returns will be the end of the trilogy, and Lightning’s saga.
So when approaching this game, Kitase elaborated on two major points. One: that this would be the finale, and that it needed to end in a conclusive way. Two: to stay true to the Final Fantasy series, Lightning Returns would need to be a new experience not only for XIII fans, but series fans.
But why call it Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII instead of “Final Fantasy XIII-3″? Kitase explained that since the game would be the completion of Lightning’s Saga, they wanted to satisfy fans of the character and those who wanted to use her in battle again. It also hits home the idea that this is a brand new experience, rather than a sequel for Final Fantasy XIII-2 fans.
Each of the three Final Fantasy XIII titles can be summarized with: Story Driven, Player Driven, and World Driven. Final Fantasy XIII’s beating heart was its cinematic approach, with the story at the forefront at all junctures. The game design decisions built around it intended to direct players toward that narrative until a certain point where there were more opportunities for exploration. Based on feedback from the game, the team decided to take a new approach with Final Fantasy XIII-2. A player-driven experience, much of the game involved players scouting through different pockets of time for the next story segment or to satisfy their own personal taste for exploration. The story itself was constructed around the idea that players would be skipping around in time rather than proceeding from A to B. Player feedback from Final Fantasy XIII-2 has informed them on how to to approach Lightning Returns, as it has throughout the XIII series.
Kitase and Toriyama outlined five major tenets to their approach to gameplay:
World-Driven Game — A world that is constantly changing and diverse, changing with time.
Time Management System — Players will learn to value the time they have remaining.
Action-Oriented Battle — Execution of commands is immediate, much like an action-RPG.
Lightning Customization — As broad customization of Lightning tied to her gameplay progression.
Plenty of Sidequests — Example: NPCs and bulletin boards where Lightning takes on quests.
According to Kitase, the Final Fantasy XIII series has provided them with two opportunities to continue Lightning’s saga while implementing player feedback. This couldn’t have been done had they moved on to a “Final Fantasy XV”, as everything would need to be created from scratch. During the development of Final Fantasy XIII-2, the team drew up plans through DLC and a third and title to expand and eventually conclude the story. Lightning, as they put it, was an attractive character to build a series of games around.
For Final Fantasy fans that are disenchanted with the Final Fantasy XIII series, the team wants you to know that this game is being designed as a new experience from its predecessors — a “brand new game that can be enjoyed regardless of prior knowledge of the series.” This is expressed with the new logo, a departure from the traditional Final Fantasy font overlaying a Yoshitaka Amano artwork.
Time governs all in Lightning Returns, and with thirteen days left, what was the decision behind the “Doomsday clock” introduced by Yujii Abe at the Final Fantasy 25th Anniversary Event in September? The inspiration from this actually came out of the Cold War, as Toriyama explained. “Let’s say there’s a country that is developing nuclear weapons and threatening Earth. As they do so, one minute is depleted from that time, yet as other countries pass laws to protect the peace, then they would gain one minute.” Through Lightning’s actions in the world of Nova Chrysallia, she’ll be able to hasten or delay the end of the world.
What the team wants players to contemplate as they play is: “how will I spend my time until the end of the world”? While the game is designed for multiple playthroughs, there may be points where you’ll need to consider how to progress carefully.
In regards to the new battle system that makes use of Lightning’s myriad outfits, Toriyama explained: “The new system has been expanded so that players will have more freedom with abilities that they can assign. The player can lean toward a more action-oriented style of battle with commands like Guard, Strike, or Dodge Roll. Or, for those more interested in a typical RPG style, you can customize Lightning to cast magic.” This combination of action-oriented combat with exploiting enemy weaknesses will ideally provide a hook for fans of action or strategy games.
On the subject of DLC, Toriyama explained that they have been observing feedback from fans about the reception of XIII-2′s DLC. It appears that the Black Mage and White Mage outfits for Noel and Serah were received quite well. With the second game, DLC had been planned from the start to expand the game’s story and eventually lead in to a third title. They’re aware of the criticism that some of the DLC, namely Requiem of the Goddess, provided the true ending of the game that wasn’t included on disk. Lightning Returns will end conclusively with the ending being contained on-disk.
The footage we were presented with was from an early build, Toriyama pointing out that it is the earliest they have shown a Final Fantasy game in development. This was confirmed when I saw a wealth of unfinished and placeholder assets that will be substituted for later builds and the final product, so we couldn’t get a feel for the graphical fidelity of the game beyond Luxerion. While we had some intimate time with Luxerion, it feels that the other continents comprising Nova Chrysalia will offer different gameplay experiences. However, with a malleable timer hanging over Lightning’s head as she explores, I was left wondering what length will of time players can reasonably expect to become acclimated to the world and its features before being pressed to move on.
There are parts of Lightning Returns that definitely feel inspired from other titles, perhaps even within the Final Fantasy series itself. I think one of the biggest challenges Lightning Returns will have is to make these elements of gameplay stick and feel that they are a natural part of the ecosystem, rather than an amalgamation of skimmed-over ideas. In the coming year before the Fall 2013 release date, this is what I will be most watchful of.
If I had to say there was any part of the game that I would personally like to play the most, it would be the game’s new battle system. By extension, this includes the mechanics of Lightning’s Style system. Exploration would be a close second, as it seems there will be a payoff for managing time to the fullest extent. I’m someone who is slow and deliberate in playing Final Fantasy games, taking the time I need to experience the content at my own pace. I hesitated at first with the idea of being presented with a ticking clock, but with the confirmation of a new game plus and content to discover on subsequent playthroughs — I’ve grown a bit more warmly to the idea.
The intent is to present us with a game that wants us to use our time wisely — to have Lightning consider how the last thirteen days of the world will proceed. Ultimately, we should be judging the game on those terms and how successful it is in presenting them in a compelling way. That also includes it’s protagonist and some of the hallmark features of Final Fantasy games: the world and its presentation.
I’ve often felt strangely about the Final Fantasy XIII universe as we head into the third entry. The world itself changed dramatically from XIII to XIII-2, and with Lightning Returns we have another drastic change to how this series proceeds. It leaves me with a since that Lightning’s Saga set in a world of constant Murphy’s Law, where nothing is safe or glued down.
Perhaps what is needed is that definitive ending, but I think a big part of the game will need to be clearly expressing this world and the story that has led us this far. Some of my reservations about the game’s time limit refer to this issue. Those of you who’ve followed some of my previous writings know that I’m a fan of Final Fantasy going to new places and stretching the definition of the franchise while keeping the fundamentals of what makes the series so palatable.
Going into the event I had a lot of questions, and now I have even more — but I can safely say that I’m intrigued at the direction of this title. I want to know more. There are still a lot of factors that signal red, but at this juncture, it’s a bit hard to judge how they’ll eventually play out in the final product. Those who dislike Lightning and her saga may not give the game a second thought, but I would encourage them to keep their eyes and ears open as development continues.
Yes, Final Fantasy games are more than the sum of their parts, but you still might find some of those parts worthwhile.
Stay tuned to Final Fantasy Network in 2013 as we bring you the latest developments!
Note to our readers: Square Enix covered travel and lodging expenses for Final Fantasy Network. Other questions provided during the QA come from EyesOnFF.com, FFandMore.com, FinalFantasyUnion.com, NovaCrystallis.com, TheFinalFantasy.com and PennyArcade.com.