Since the Lightning Saga began, interest in the Final Fantasy series seems to have dwindled, with once loving fans abandoning it in droves. Almost from the day of its announcement Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII has been subject to raised eyebrows and ridicule. In respect to the idea that it is not really a Final Fantasy game, that is understandable, but too many have written it off on that basis alone. Just because it does not tally with what has gone before does not mean that it will not be a good, or perhaps even great, game.
Note: This is the first of a 21 article series.
Final Fantasy XIII was widely criticised for being a departure from the norm, with its linear nature and reduced focus on traditional RPG elements being among the more prominent complaints. These alterations to the established formula were made in the name of allowing the narrative to drive the action; a noble enough reason but far from enough to save the title from considerable sledging. Final Fantasy XIII-2 sought to fix some of those errors with a “player-driven” ethos. The story was less linear in order to offer players choice in the way that they tackled the levels and this was bolstered by the presence of more sidequests and the Pokemon-like monster catching and training.
In contrast to this, one of the central concepts behind the development of Lightning Returns is “world driven”. To facilitate this, the game has adopted an open-world environment split into four distinct regions. There is more than this, however, with the inclusion of a day/night cycle giving the world a sense of being alive and active by tying into both narrative and gameplay. Most importantly, the development team has approached Lightning Returns with the intention of making it the most complete and polished Final Fantasy game to date and achieving this meant focussing entirely on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. And judging by the critical reception in its home country, this is a bet that has paid off, with Famitsu awarding it 37/40, though its sales figures have been somewhat lacklustre.
Central to almost any RPG is the combat system and that of Lightning Returns combines elements both old and new within a faster paced and more action oriented framework. Rather than controlling a party, as has traditionally been the case, players are put in direct control of Lightning with the ability to move freely about the battlefield. Additionally, attacks are now mapped to the face buttons rather than needing to navigate menus, which is intended to make battles feel more responsive. The Paradigm System has received an overhaul and has seen its core idea merged with the Dress Spheres from FFX-2. Lightning has access to up to three different outfits at any given time, with each one offering different buffs and bonuses and having its own ATB, thus prompting players to switch often in order to keep up the attacks. All things considered, it is geared towards a crowd that enjoys action, but going hands-on with it at the EB Expo last year showed the promise of considerable depth and strategy for players that care to seek it.
This revamp of gameplay systems extends far beyond the combat, though. As mentioned above, Lightning Returns features a new open-world environment, Nova Chrysalia, which is split into four islands with each offering a distinct environment and style. Players are largely free to explore these at will. If a single playthrough is your intent, doing so may not be such a wise idea due to the Doomsday Clock. This is a major new feature of Lightning Returns that actually limits how long you have to play the game. It begins with seven days on the clock though it is possible to extend this to as long as 13 days by completing sidequests and gathering an in-game resource called Eradia. One day in the game equates to one hour of the player, though it must be noted that the clock only ticks away during navigation. When watching cinematics, engaging in conversations and battles, it is paused. The player can also pause the clock using an ability called Chronostasis, but the effect wears out after a period or when players rest at an inn or board a train.
As for those sidequests, because of the clock, and the day/night cycle that is introduced alongside it, players will not be able to access everything that Lightning Returns has to offer in a single playthrough. Certain NPC routines are tied into the progress of time, meaning that some will only appear on certain days, or at certain times of day. Additionally, at 6 a.m. each morning Lightning is automatically returned to a hub called the Ark, a place where time stands still and she is able to collect supplies and equipment as well as spend the Eradia that has been gathered. The whole concept is a very interesting one that should add an extra layer of micromanagement to the game, along with a much needed sense of urgency but it is one of the elements of the game that has copped the most flak.
In a decision that is more deserving of being questioned, development of Lightning’s character has largely been removed from the hands of the player. You are still free to buy additional outfits and weapons, though the improvement of her stats are now tied directly into the completion of quests, with main story missions providing bigger boosts. The Crystarium system in previous games may have provided largely linear growth but the complete removal of options from the player, making it almost impossible to tailor the character to personal playstyle, seems an odd choice.
It has been said that it is not essential for people to have played the earlier Final Fantasy XIII games to follow the story of this one, though having done so will add to the experience. Following the events of XIII-2 time has ceased to march. The events at the end of that game caused Gran Pulse and the Unseen Realm (Valhalla) to merge together, creating Nova Chrysalia. Five hundred years on Lightning is awoken by the God, Bhunivelze, learns that the world has only 13 days remaining and becomes The Saviour, a demigod tasked with saving the souls of the world’s inhabitants. That core plot seems cliched, to be sure, but if the true depth of the mythology behind the title is included it could prove to elevate the story to a great height.
Lightning’s task is not an easy one, however. While she has been asleep, two religious factions have sprung up with very different beliefs and ideals, while there is also a prophecy stating that she is to destroy the world on the thirteenth day. As you can imagine this serves to sow distrust among the people. Most telling in this respect should be those points at which she meets up with those that she knew in her past lives. People like Snow Villiers, Noel Kriess, Fang and Vanille. They have scattered on the wind, their bonds broken and some seek to stand in Lightning’s way where once they fought beside her.
There is the promise of a very human and touching story to unfold within this framework, though whether Square-Enix manages to achieve this is a very different matter. More likely than not it will have its fair share of noteworthy moments, but the effectiveness of these will be tempered by an overly melodramatic tone and style.
Just about every promising aspect of Lightning Returns comes with a caveat, and those that do not have still been questioned by an audience that once called themselves adherents. It is shaping up to be a game that blends the old and the new together in an intriguing mix while carving out a unique identity. For this, for providing a wholly single player experience , it is one of our most anticipated titles of 2014. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII launches on the eleventh of February for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.