Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII sees a new spin on an old engine

Square Enix brings back the Crystal Tools engine tools to create a seemingly open-world, Final Fantasy take on Nintendo's Majora's Mask formula.

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Square Enix has yet to give us video proof of Final Fantasy Versus XIII's ongoing development, but it did show the media and invited guests something else concerning the story of Final Fantasy XIII during its 25th anniversary showcase today in Tokyo, Japan. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, the official name for the final chapter in the FF XIII trilogy, seems to mix a lot of the old with the new.

The key mechanics game designer Yuji Abe presented during the showcase were "constant-moving world" and "customization". For the former, he explained that time does not stop for Lightning; she has to find ways to increase time to complete quests and forward the story since the world comes to its demise in thirteen days. One highlighted way is to defeat enemies and monsters. She can also perform certain miracles that could either shake up the in-game elements or the world itself, but at the cost of time. Yes, this concept may not be new as The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask pulled it off back in the Nintendo 64 days, but it's nice to see a time-rewinding mechanic of sort implemented in today's games.

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The game world of Novus Partus is using a day/night cycle; NPCs and monsters appear and act in accordance to this. There will be bigger and more dangerous encounters at nighttime when compared to the daytime. There are four islands for players to explore, and so far the one talked about in detail is the city of Luxerion. The main metropolis of Novus Partus seems to have both a mechanical and fantasy vibe to it, complete with gothic architecture, a monorail system for players to get around, and a black-and-grey color motif to the resident's everyday attire.

For the latter concept, Abe stated that players can customize Lightning's getup any way they want. This isn't purely cosmetic; different clothes and armor sets will affect her stats in combat, as well as give her extra abilities. For now, the armor and weapons count is "more than 10 or 20" according to him. We do hope that she gets more choices apart from swords and shields, but the promise of quick equipment-swapping mid-combat may hint that she can start multi-tasking with spears, claws and even assault rifles and other long-ranged armaments.

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The actual gameplay we were shown that isn't available for the public was still using the Crystal Tools engine used for the past two Final Fantasy XIII games, albeit with some minor graphical tweaks here and there. Instead of a party of three, you now control Lightning only. Producer Yoshinori Kitase and director Motomu Toriyama showed off a bit of the game's story scenario where Lightning had to find the culprits behind an unsanctioned public hanging in front of a clock tower in the city of Luxerion. As she talks to different NPCs and explores the city area, the time gauge at the bottom started to count down. While details weren't given if the timer reached zero, we would assume that a story point would be closed out and that the ending to the game would be affected if the world-driven concept was of any indication.

After much mucking around and finding for clues, the producer and director jumped straight into the game's battle system where our heroine squares off against a behemoth (a trademark FF beast). While similar to the Paradigm Shift system viewpoint at first glance, players can now move Lightning around the battlefield using the left analog stick. Her abilities are mapped on each face button so that she can use them when her action time battle gauge is filled; so far she has her old repertoire from past games like her Thundaga spells, protective buffs and combo slashes.

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While the game has a more action-like feel to it, the combat will still retain its semi turn-based roots. At the very least, controlling just one powerful character seems like a slight breath of fresh air if only because of the many potential battle scenarios the designers can put players in. The developers did say that Lightning is considered a powerhouse in this game compared to the past titles, so we hope that they include more fights with bigger villains within elaborate set pieces ala God of War to raise the stakes.

From the looks of things, there seems to be shades of an open world mechanic, or at least an illusion of one like in previous Final Fantasy titles. We also felt that the world-shaping elements could play out like a lighter version of action game-world-building hybrid Actraiser. Plus, there's hope that the combat will be more involved now that players have reigns over a pseudo customizable demigoddess. While this may not be the big news Final Fantasy fans are waiting for (that honor goes to Final Fantasy Versus XIII), at least gamers will know that the Final Fantasy XIII chapter will draw to a close soon in 2013 on both PS3 and Xbox 360.

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