According to series Producer Yoshinori Kitase, the Final Fantasy XIII series owes a lot of its success to the character of leading lady Lightning.
Her popularity has brought about an opportunity for not only a closing chapter to her saga, but also a brand new game in a brand new world in the form of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. With an all-new gameplay experience, both Yoshinori Kitase and Director Motomu Toriyama hope to satisfy fans and maybe newcomers alike.
Following the official reveal trailer this past December, Square Enix invited a select bunch of press to get an early look at the game proper. Not only was I treated to an unfinished version of the game - said to be the earliest build of a Final Fantasy ever shown publicly - but I was also able to quiz the developers and get a deeper understanding of what they're aiming for with this title.
The presentation began with a new extended version of the Jump Festa trailer. While there's a few extra glimpses of the city Luxerion, the most notable addition is the appearance of Noel Kreiss – Final Fantasy XIII-2’s time-traveling protagonist. Appearing in his original garb, Noel isn’t here to help Lightning, but instead surprisingly is here to fight against her. His motivations seem obfuscated in mystery, but one thing’s for sure – he doesn’t believe this Lightning is the real one.
The titular heroine Lightning is back - after taking a back seat for the last game this one is once again firmly her story, and one that allegedly will lead to her final ending. With 13 days set until the end of the world, Lightning has been tasked as the Savior to guide the souls of mankind to a new world that will be created when the current one ends.
The world of Nova Chrysalia (formerly known as Novus Partus) is a strange land. Four continents make up its base and include the city of light Luxerion, a vast natural landscape dotted with villages known as The Wildlands, and The Dead Dunes, a desert location featuring many dungeons hidden beneath ruins that hark back to FF's past.
The game begins in Luxerion as Lightning is seen exiting the monorail in North Station. The gothic-styled city is one of faith and religion. Those who live there worship the god Bhunivelze, although not everyone is pleased with his coming creed.
Having stopped aging, the people of Nova Chrysalia have become burdened. A heavy weight lies upon their hearts and now a group wishes to stop the Savior at all costs. Serial murders have started taking place in Luxerion, the victims resembling Lightning - someone is out to get her. This particular city of God is soaked in blood, and after three people are killed in as many days, Lightning hunts to find the culprit. So intent are these detractors that they’ve hung an effigy of Lightning near the town’s clock tower. The group responsible is a bunch dressed in white. Their goal is as much as a mystery as the story itself.
The demo begins with a bit of an adventure. Lightning takes to the streets, questioning those in her path while following trasmitted advice from Hope Estheim – a familiar FF13 character. By moving around the city, Lightning can collect evidence and in turn traverse through many shortcuts to get to where she needs to be.
Lightning Returns isn't about stealth, however, and Toriyama is quick to stress that sneaking will be largely optional and part of certain quests, not a component necessary for the entire game.
Trailing the white-cloaked people seems to pay off for Lightning - she discovers they have something of a hidden base hidden behind a gate. The only catch is she’ll need a code to open it that changes daily. Starting from the next morning, she proceeds to find these codes throughout town – one in particular hidden on a wall covered in mist. Lightning is able to catch on to this by other NPCs having a look.
It's here that Noel, FF13-2's hero, makes his appearance. Spared in that game, he has become the 'Shadow Hunter.' His belief that he must right the wrongs of the world lead him to confront Lightning, and ultimately Noel too is fighting against the chaos that has flooded the land, its people rendered essentially immortal yet unable to birth new life.
There's a lot of mystery to the story we've been shown so far, though it does appear that Lightning may have to battle more than one former ally in order to release their burdens. New girl Lumina was shown as well, although her true purpose remains shrouded in mystery. Appearing remarkably similar to Serah, she seems to be toying with Lightning at every turn. Just who or what is she? The developers were keen to tease, and offered no more insight.
One of the key concepts touted when Lighting Returns was announced was the concept of 'World-Driven' gameplay. The largest driving force to this end is time, as this title's world revolves around a real 24 hour clock. That’s not to say that the game conforms to actual real world time, but its own system that cycles through about one day every real world hour. With that said, the player must take the concept of time into consideration when playing.
Much like Majora's Mask's day-based system, NPCs tend to change their behavior depending on the time of day. Early in the morning you won't see many people about, but by 8 or 9am you'll see NPCs gather as they commute to work through the monorail station. Different NPCs will also appear in different areas. You'll need to pay attention, as NPCs will hold vital information required throughout the story.
As the world continues to move it’s important to pay attention to its happenings. Time even passes during event scenes, and so the town and the time is shifting constantly. Some side quests are time-sensitive, so it's important to save time by taking shortcuts when traversing the world.
Toriyama suggests that this game might have the widest variety of shops to visit of any FF title - perhaps an indication that the development team have taken fan complaints from both of their previous titles to heart.
One of the quests undertaken in the demo involved Lightning heading out to hunt a Benemoth. Lightning must venture out into the city to find and defeat it for a reward. Instead of money, completing such quests will net materials which can be used for item creation later on.
Much like NPCs, enemies will appear at various locations throughout the day. Typically the appearance of people running from a given location is a signal that monsters hav begun to spawn in that area. In another instance, an injured person served as the warning that a threat was nearby.
Battle in Lightning Returns is surprisingly different to the other FF13 titles, now more closely resembling an action title. For FF fans, the closest comparison is Crisis Core - Lightning can be controled directly using the left analog stick, while commands are mapped to the four face buttons instead of on a D-pad based menu.
This battle system is unique, and Square Enix clearly don't intend to sell it short, giving it the moniker 'Amazing ATB.' Three sets of outfit and equipment can be set up prior to battle, essentially boiling down to three styles. Each has its own ATB gauge to utilize.
Abilities assigned to each style will consume part of the ATB bar depending on which face button you choose to press. Lightning can switch Styles on the fly through use of the R1 and L1 buttons, allowing tactical precision by changing costumes at just the right time. There's a thread of connectivity to Paradigm Shift here, but ultimately this is a very different system.
Lineage from the Stagger system can also be found here in the new 'Knockdown' system. This system is essentially boiled down to taking advantages of an enemy's strengths or weaknesses. If you watch the latest trailer, you might notice little icons under the enemy's HP gauge - these represent the features that relate to either a particular strength or weakness of that enemy.
In addition to the core of the battle mechanics getting a complete overhaul, Toriyama is also keen to point out that all of the in-battle graphics and visual effects have been given the same treatment, recreated for this outing in order to make Lightning appear “more cool.”
Through systems like these the developers hope that Lightning Returns can offer something gamers from other genres, such as strategy or action buffs. Toriyama referenced Lightning's new abilites such as blocking, dodging and free moment as reasons why she can go it alone this time.
Before combat, however, it’s important to customize Lightning. Not only can you customize her abilities, but with it her costumes and costume colors as well. Newly revealed Dark Muse and Shadow Dusk outfits were available as well as a myriad of brand new outfits not yet released in picture form.
Other Garbs included Cresent Moon, Heart Burglar and Sorceress – one of which was an elegant dress for Lightning, while another was a fur-lined ensemble that used a feather-like side skirt.
Although an early build, it's quite easy to see the direction the team is taking with this game. Following the live demo, Toriyama ran a brand new trailer (which is still unreleased to the public as of this writing) that showcased the two newly named areas of Nova Chrysalia. Of course, with new worlds come new monsters and the team promises nearly 50% of creatures in-game will be brand new.
Rounding out the event was one last surprise: a release period. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII will be available worldwide in Autumn of 2013 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 - just in time to be out of the way before next generation, no doubt.
...what did we think? That comes later. Keep an eye on the site for our dedicated impressions article, or read our thoughts on the game's setting through this link.
Disclaimer: Event travel and hotel accommodations were paid for in full by Square Enix.