When I first heard the announcement of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, I had my reservations. Like many fans, I was disappointed with the ending to Final Fantasy XIII-2. For me, the ambiguous final scene did not instill thoughts of "I wonder what happens next," but rather "I'm done with this crap." So when Square-Enix announced there would be a third (and final) game in this series, I was far from thrilled.
Still, I followed every piece of news on Lightning Returns closely. I am first and foremost a Final Fantasy fan (I've been playing Theatrhythm pretty much nonstop since Christmas) and it is my duty as a staff member of EoFF to keep up with the latest Final Fantasy news. As details trickled out, the game started sounding interesting. Open world design? End-of-the-world countdown timer? If this wasn't a game set in the FFXIII universe then I probably would have been hooked.
A few weeks ago the good folks at Square-Enix NA invited us to another fansite event. I was stoked! The first event (featuring Final Fantasy XIII-2, covered here) was some of the most fun I've had as a Final Fantasy fan and a member of EoFF's staff. Then I found out it was about Lightning Returns and not A Realm Reborn or Versus (I can dream can't I?). Less stoked. Still, this generosity of Square-Enix is not something you take for granted, and I also like to keep an open mind. Plus I work about a block away from the event.
I won't go into the details of the wealth of information we discovered during the presentation and hands-off demo, since all that can be found in Freya's in-depth article here. Instead, I'm going to share my impressions of what I saw as a Final Fantasy fan and skeptic going in.
It started off well. The first thing we saw in the opening trailer was a train arriving at the station. Only the difference was that the train was upside down, with the track above the train rather than below it. I thought that was really cool and it reminded me of how these games can transport you to fantastic worlds where anything was possible. The trailer also featured the mention of God. I noted that it was not "gods," but a single God. I always love the injection of religion in these games as a lot of the strife in the real world centers around religion.
Next, producer Yoshinori Kitase and director Motomu Toriyama gave their presentations. Kitase focused on the direction of the series and the motivation for this game in particular, which really interested me. He first described the success of FFXIII and FFXIII-2 and how Lightning was a "key to the success of this series." He also shared that a lot of the feedback the developers got for FFXIII-2 was that fans wanted Lightning to be a playable character (she was featured prominently in the trailers and cover art after all). With all that in mind, the main themes of Lightning Returns are to be: 1) Conclusion, and 2) A new gameplay experience. That all sounded good to me and it put me on the right track to have more interest in this game.
Toriyama's presentation led into the hands-off demo, and much of that was detailed in Freya's article, so I'm only going to share points that either impressed or did not impress me. The first thing I noticed in the demo was the voice of Hope, who acts like Lightning's "guide" during the game (he was not shown in the demo other than his voice). This particularly interested me since Hope was one of my favorite characters in FFXIII and I'm glad this game isn't just the "Lightning Show." Later in the demo, we also saw the return of my favorite FFXIII-2 character, Noel, in which I had to stifle the fanboy in me by not yelling "whoop" at that moment in front of some of the top people at Square-Enix.
The "doomsday clock" aspect of the game has interested me since the beginning, and it was good to get a little more information on how it works. The world runs in real time, with people being in certain places at certain times of the day all over the expansive world. Many playthroughs of the game will be necessary to experience the whole story. For those Zelda fans out there, I bet this sounds familiar. Yep, I definitely got a Majora's Mask vibe from the time management aspect, which is fine by me since Majora's Mask was one of the best Zelda games, and video games period, of all time. Even though we did not see a lot of time management in the demo, I'd bet there is a lot more to it and I anxiously await more information.
The core of any RPG is the battle and customization systems, and these were what I wanted to learn most about during this first look. Unlike some others, I wasn't the biggest fan of the FFXIII battle system. The battles were too fast-paced and sacrificed the element of control I like to have over my characters. The improvements in FFXIII-2 were all very good, but the core mechanics were still intact. Lightning Returns appears to make much more dramatic changes, and it could even be called an overhaul. While the battles are still fast-paced, the level of customization and the assignment of hotkeys for each ability allows for much more control. The battles themselves are action based, as Lightning can move freely, attack or cast with a button, or even dodge. In fact, the battle system of this game reminds me a lot more of Crisis Core than of either of the FFXIII games. I liked Crisis Core's battles and didn't like FFXIII's, so this was good news to me. The Stagger gauge is still there, but it is more tied to finding enemy weak points or well-timed attacks than spamming "Auto-Battle" in a casting paradigm until it fills.
The customization system is much more in-depth than in either of the previous XIII installments, as you can give Lightning two types of armor that actually change her look instead of dumb accessories. She also gets a lot of cool varieties of swords. We can probably expect classic FF outfits and swords as future DLC, if that's your thing (it's not mine). The coolest part of the customization system is that you can customize her individual abilities to keys in battle, and have up to three sets of abilities. In battle, each of these sets has its own ATB gauge ("Amazing ATB" says Toriyama, doing his best Stan Lee impression). I found that to be a really cool addition and it caused me to really want to play this game for the first time.
One of the final showcases of the demo was all the various continents Lightning will visit in her travels. There are a lot of diverse environments to explore. In the demo, Lightning slid down a sand dune in the desert continent and explored some beautiful ruins on another continent. This was particularly important to me since thus far all the action we've seen has taken place in that drab town and I was afraid the whole game took place there.
What followed next was the interview portion. While I won't bore you with all of Penny Arcade's questions (Freya will have a recap of it up soon anyway), I will say that I learned a very important fact that explains why we are getting this game instead of a new IP: Square-Enix really loves Lightning. I mean really. They want to marry her. Ok, I made that last one up, but I could tell that the developers had a strong connection to this character they created and it was always in their plans to give her story a conclusion.
I'm a skeptical person by nature, but not usually when it comes to Final Fantasy games. I dove head first into FFXIII, and XIII-2 was worth a shot. After the inevitable third game was announced it became a case of "fool me twice, shame on me," and I was hesitant. After seeing this first look of Lightning Returns, I can say that my skepticism has been chiseled away. Lightning Returns has a lot of good things going for it, and it is very much "a new gameplay experience." Most importantly, the game looks fun, and in the end, that's all that matters.