Lightning Returns, and Now She Knows About Timed Hits
Final Fantasy continues its design evolution in this final chapter of the Final Fantasy XIII saga.
Square Enix has promised Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII will bring a definitive conclusion to the saga of its titular protagonist, Claire "Lightning" Farron. But the story the FFXIII trilogy tells about Lightning may end up being much less interesting than the one it tells about Square itself.
That Square has a third FFXIII title in the works should come as no surprise to anyone who's been paying any attention at all lately. The company's management has been hinting at it since FFXIII-2 launched at the beginning of the year. What may be surprising is the fact that the upcoming sequel's title isn't "Final Fantasy XIII-3", despite serving as a direct sequel to XIII-2 and (we're told) bringing the Etro-vs.-Chaos storyline of the XIII titles to a definitive close. This may not make much sense to you, the gamer who wants to have a consistent little row of game names all lined up neatly on your game collection shelf. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense from a marketing perspective: Lightning seems to command higher regard among many fans than the game she starred in. Why not give her top billing? Square's simply borrowed a page from its subsidiary Eidos' book, back when Lara Croft's name took top billing over the "Tomb Raider" title.
More to the point, though, the title "Lightning Returns" speaks to broader changes to the series. While it looks to be running on a modified Final Fantasy XIII-2 engine, its play mechanics hint at fairly radical changes to the entire concept of Final Fantasy. For starters, Lightning Returns really is Lightning's game. She's not simply the main character, she's the sole playable character. Not unlike Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII and its hero Zack Fair, the entire game revolves around her; she explores on her own, fights combat solo, and singlehandedly bears the burden of saving the world from a looming apocalypse. Surprisingly, the combat system takes an even more action-oriented style than Crisis Core. Square has completely swept away the menu-driven, hands-off system that served so effectively in the first two chapters of FFXIII, pouring its resources instead into a system that allows players to control Lightning directly in single combat against foes.
Menus are out. Instead, players instead can assign four skills or commands to the controller's face buttons and execute them instantly. If this sounds suspiciously similar to Kingdom Hearts, realize the overlap only goes so far. Lightning fights in a far less button-mashy style than Sora and friends, with considerably less air-combo time, and she's not limited to a single use of each power followed by a cooldown period. Instead, her commands run on a Active-Time Battle gauge in the classic Final Fantasy style, and each ability comes with a corresponding ATB cost. This system doesn't employ the same fixed costs as in FFXIII and XIII-2, though, and the meter isn't segmented as it was in those games. The result is a faster-paced battle system than in any previous Final Fantasy, but a far less manic one than in the earlier FFXIII titles. There's far less screen clutter and extraneous information flying about, and the battle camera stays fairly fixed on Lightning rather than cutting to dramatic angles in the heat of combat.
That's an essential design choice, because Lightning Returns drops the classic hands-off style of Final Fantasy combat for something much more focused on timing and reflexes. This is certainly no God of War, but nevertheless the game requires a nimble touch. Players can move Lightning freely about the field during combat, managing relative distance from opponents and dodging or parrying enemy attacks. Previous Final Fantasy games have flirted with the idea of allowing player control in combat, but even in Final Fantasy XI and XII it ultimately amounted to window dressing that had little impact on the action. By dropping the concept of a party and allowing the heroine to fly solo, Lightning Returns brings a genuine real-time mechanic to the series while integrating a touch of Super Mario RPG-style "timed hits."
This seems to sum up the essence of Lightning Returns as a whole: An attempt by Square Enix to properly realize all the different play concepts Final Fantasy has flirted with in recent years but failed to commit to. Real-time combat? It's there. An open world with a quest-based, non-linear structure? Supposedly that's in, too, and better realized than FFXIII-2's. Full character customization in which tweaks to her skills corresponds to visual changes? Lightning can go full-in as a physical bruiser, a spell-slinging mage, or even as a more nuanced combatant. From what we understand these abilities are largely gear-based, potentially offering her the same flexibility as characters enjoyed with the Materia system of FFVII and Crisis Core.
Square claims the world of LR:FFXIII will be open for players to tackle according to their choice. Set hundreds of years after the events of FFXIII-2, the game transpires across four islands linked by a monorail and surrounded by a "sea of chaos" (or possibly a "sea of Chaos"). Of course, Square designed FFXIII-2 to be open-ended as well, but its implementation fell short in a lot of ways; we're very interested to see if LR:FFXIII tackles this concept more effectively.
The fact that the game cuts loose so many elements of its predecessors gives us reason to be optimistic. The FFXIII combat system was interesting, but for most modern audiences, a menu-driven combat system is a tough sell for a fairly realistic-looking high-definition RPG. As a game's visuals become more detailed and elaborate, the abstraction of a menu-based interface feels increasingly out of place (and I'm saying this as someone who's most recently been immersed in Etrian Odyssey II and Pokémon Black & White, menu-driven experiences in the most classic sense imaginable). LR:FFXIII trades the strategic, somewhat hands-off approach of its immediate predecessors in favor of a combat style that emphasizes skill and timing. Again, in the fine tradition of the Mario RPGs, a well-timed parry can leave even the most powerful foe open to a counter-attack.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of LR:FFXIII's battle system, however, is the new "Overclock" ability. Overclock allows Lightning to slow the flow of combat for everyone but herself, gaining the upper hand against difficult foes. The tradeoff, however, is that using Overclock costs time.
And time is of the essence in this game. Just as FFXIII spanned 13 days (revealed through flashbacks sprinkled throughout the story), LR:FFXIII also takes place across 13 days. In this case, however, that period of time serves as a countdown to an apocalypse. In just shy of two weeks, the world will end, and Lightning's goal is to prevent it.
This may sound awfully reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, but I think a better comparison might be to Valkyrie Profile or Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. As in Valkyrie Profile -- a game created by tri-Ace, who incidentally co-developed FFXIII-2 -- Square tells us that if you reach the end of the 13-day countdown without having beaten the game, you may be thrust into the final battle regardless. On the other hand, you may also be able to start over, potentially carrying across skills and materials (the developers have yet to determine the specifics). In that sense, LR:FFXIII reminds us more of Dragon Quarter, a game designed around the assumption that you'd screw things up and need to restart, replaying the quest with enhanced strength and abilities that built with every new attempt.
What makes LR:FFXIII particularly Dragon Quarter-like is the way it treats time as a sort currency. Treasures cost time to access (the more powerful the item within, the more time required). Overclocking apparently burns several minutes per use, much like abusing the ability to transform into a dragon in Dragon Quarter added to the constant advance of Ryu's deadly D-meter, marking your progression to the inevitable end of your quest. And should Lightning fall in combat, it's not necessarily game over; rather, a menu appears that allows players to choose to quit or cast a healing spell. The rub? Casting a spell like Arise costs 100 minutes, a not-insignificant investment when you're on a 13-day deadline. Is it worthwhile to burn time and continue or simply accept failure gracefully? Trade-offs like these give Lightning Returns the potential to force interesting decisions on players, requiring consideration and long-term strategic thinking.
If LR:FFXIII lives up to its potential, it will mark a much-needed update for the Final Fantasy series (and possibly for Square's internal development approach in general). I can understand why many people will greet the game's announcement with skepticism; FFXIII turned off a lot of fans, and FFXIII-2 didn't quite make good on its bold intentions. Still, what we've seen of Lightning Returns suggests a ground-up rethinking of what "Final Fantasy" means, from mechanics to story progression; for a series that's always thrived on reinventing itself, a successful total overhaul would make for a welcome return to form. If nothing else, Square actually seems to continue taking criticism to heart and adjusting its strategy accordingly, a refreshing change from the more popular modern publisher tactic of haughtily defending its work and subtly belittling customers in the process.
And so again, the most interesting story in the FFXIII saga may not be Lightning's, but rather Square Enix's. If FFXIII was a desperate Hail Mary by a company mired in its old ways, and FFXIII-2 was a determined effort to appease fans by giving them what they want without really grasping why they wanted it, Lightning Returns has the potential to bring this tale to a happy end with far more sweeping and -- hopefully -- well-considered revisions.