The oft-maligned Final Fantasy XIII (alongside with the Final Fantasy XIV debacle) drastically reduced my appreciation for the series. It should have helped me forget about all the half-assed Final Fantasy VII spin-offs, but instead it ended up being easily the worst numerical entry to date, a rare miss after nearly 25 years of industry-changing role-playing games. So my expectations of Final Fantasy XIII-2, which dumped the original cast and replaced them with a Kingdom Hearts reject and main protagonist Lightning’s little sister running around in a battle bikini, weren’t exactly high.
But then something surprising happened. Final Fantasy XIII-2 was good. Not perfect, mind you, but really damn good. A beautiful return to form with surprisingly likable characters, a complex time-traveling story that actually made sense within the context of its own rules (usually), and a relatable villain who is forced to watch a loved one die repeatedly across countless ages and realities. Final Fantasy XIII-2 also had extremely vivid visuals, great art design, and an insanely (awesome) schizophrenic soundtrack. Last but not least, it finally brought the monster-capturing aspect of Final Fantasy X-2 International back, making for a deep and thrilling combat system.
Yet, perhaps what I liked most about Final Fantasy XIII-2 was that it basically had very little to do with the original. Lightning played a minor supporting role but was mostly absent for the 40-plus-hour game. That brings us to Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, which as the title suggests, is squarely focused on Lightning, arguably one of the most paper-thin and boring characters in the entire Final Fantasy universe. And when I say it’s focused on Lightning, I mean you can’t even play as anyone else. But we’ll address that in the interview below.
Lightning Returns revolves around the end of the universe, which will occur in 13 in-game days. Our demo revealed a mission that had Lightning sneaking around, investigating the area, and talking to townsfolk for clues. It seemed a bit boring, honestly, and the slow pace was rather counter-intuitive amid, you know, the end of the world. Game director Motomu Toriyama was quick to point out during our Q&A session that this style of gameplay was just one aspect of Lightning Returns and that not every mission would involve stealth or searching for clues. We also saw a glimpse of the four different continents the game will take place on, which include the Wildlands (forest) and Dead Dunes (desert). These offer some much-needed variety compared to the port city of Luxerion (seen in the trailer), which is pretty bland and a little oppressive from a design standpoint.
Speaking through a translator, GamesBeat ended our hands-off preview with a Q&A session with Toriyama and Lightning Returns producer Yoshinori Kitase.
GamesBeat: With the 13-day time mechanic, can you talk specifically about any inspiration you may have taken from Majora’s Mask, Persona, or Way of the Samurai?
Motomu Toriyama: In terms of inspiration for the time system, when we revealed the concept video, we did hear Majora’s Mask come up a lot. Actually, though, the dev team — a lot of them haven’t played that game. They don’t see very much of a relation. If we were to say where we took inspiration for the time system, it would be the doomsday clock, which exists in our real world. The doomsday clock shows how much time the earth has left on its life. Let’s say, for example, that some particular country is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Then the clock would deplete by one minute. If President Obama came up with some sort of law against the development of those weapons, the clock would gain two minutes. That’s the inspiration that we did draw on for the time system.
GamesBeat: If the world is going to end in less than two weeks, from a character standpoint, what’s the point of helping people? In the demo, Lightning says, “If the Behemoth is running around causing harm to people, I have to take it out.” But ultimately, what does it matter if everything is going to be obliterated a few days later?
Toriyama: The point is — because it’s such a limited amount of time, the focus is going to be how you maximize it and how you value each minute that you spend in that time. Just a little background from the story: The world is leading to its doom, partially, because of Lightning’s own doing. This chaos invading the world of XIII is partially — she’s related to that coming upon the world.
Also, her younger sister Serah passed away in that process. Lightning has a very heavy sense of guilt. Part of this quest is her attempting to atone for that guilt. She wants to maximize the value in that limited amount of time and lead as many people to the new world after the current world is completely destroyed. There’s going to be a new world that people can be delivered to. That’s part of Lightning’s purpose, and it’s why she wants to save as many people as she can within this limited amount of time.
GamesBeat: Could you explain the creative process that goes into Lightning’s armor designs? Also, in XIII-2, Serah had not exactly the most battle-ready costume. What kind of balance comes into play when deciding between aesthetic appeal and functionality?
Toriyama: In terms of the process of designing outfits, if we were to look at it just from the standpoint of, “Is this realistic for battle?” and whatnot, we might end up with very bulky, chunky outfits — armor and stuff that you might see on soldiers in the real world. For Final Fantasy, we want to keep in mind the characters’ personalities and what their character is like. As far as Lightning, we would think about what befits her character and then design the aesthetics and allocate functionality to it afterwards.
GamesBeat: The entire Final Fantasy franchise — except for maybe Crisis Core and Dirge of Cerberus — has been about going out with a handful of characters and forming a bond with them. In Lightning Returns, it seems like Lightning is the only one who goes into battle. She has variety of her own — she’s got this semi-Dressphere system — but because this is a conclusion to the trilogy, do you feel like the opportunity for players to spend time with and say goodbye to their other favorite characters has been lost in the transition to this new battle system?
Toriyama: In terms of changing the battle system from having a party to just having one person fighting, it was definitely a challenge trying to express the flair and the visual aesthetics of having a three-person party while switching over to just Lightning fighting. The dev team had to come up with new ideas in order to depict that really well. That’s why we’ve revamped a lot of the visual effects, as we explained earlier in the presentation, like when she was casting her spells. We wanted to bring out the flashiness of a three-person party condensed down — we wanted to have the flair of a three-person party with just one character.
When it comes to saying goodbye to characters that have become familiar throughout the series, the characters that made an appearance in the previous two installments will be incorporated somehow into the story. The player should be able to have their moment of closure with characters that they’ve identified with throughout the series. I also wanted to mention that, of course, the main playable character is Lightning, but in some side quests, we’re considering having people accompany you in those battles.
[Square Enix PR asks if we have any other feedback.]
GamesBeat: Since I have you all in the room… [laughs] Like I said, I really enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII-2. But probably the biggest aspect where I felt shorted was the approach to downloadable content, in that… It had teasers built into the system. In the menu, you can select costumes, but you can’t unlock costumes in the game. In the same way, you can go to the arena, but you can’t do anything there. You go to the casino, but you only get half of the experience. You can’t do the one thing that seems like it would be the most fun. It’s like, “Thanks for stopping by. Come back later, and bring money.” For me, that was a little jarring, a little too obvious. Even if just one set of additional costumes was unlocked for beating the game or something like that, I would have felt infinitely better than just having an empty option there until I paid for it.
[Square Enix thanks us for the feedback and the interview concludes.]
After the preview and interview, I’m left skeptical. I’m all for developers trying new things (it’s that kind of pioneering that the Final Fantasy franchise is built on), but the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy has been all over the place in both narrative and design, with Lightning Returns being the biggest departure yet and not necessarily in a good way. The shift to a single character in combat across an entire RPG just seems like a poor choice, especially when so many other established characters to choose from are available (all of whom haven’t aged and still wear the same clothes as they did more than 200 years ago, apparently).
But even if the new action-oriented combat system (which takes a page out of Namco Bandai’s “Tales of” playbook) keeps the battles fresh, the execution of the story — something Toriyama and his team have obviously struggled with before — is still a concern. While the game has plenty more that we haven’t seen yet, I think the slow-paced demo and ridiculous sunglasses shot in the trailer pretty much tell me everything I need to know: What Toriyama thinks is cool and what I enjoy in my Final Fantasys are two totally different things.