You can lead a chocobo to water...
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The Final Fantasy XIII saga just keeps going, doesn't it? In spite of players' tepid reactions to Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2, Square-Enix has staunchly stood by the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythos that drives these games, as well as the characters that populate it.
I like Lightning, but I don't miss her when I don't spend time with her. As much as I enjoyed FF XIII and XIII-2 (against all odds), I'm not filled with unbridled joy at the thought of coming face to face with the gang once more, though I admit to some excitement over the possibility of running into Fang again. (I'd play a game starring this headstrong heroine eight days a week.) And if I feel this lukewarm towards another adventure in this world, I can only imagine how weary a design team might become when living and breathing the same fiction for so many years. With the release of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII looming on the horizon, I sat down with producer Yoshinori Kitase and game design director Yuji Abe, and with the help of a translator, asked them how they felt knowing that they would soon be leaving this story behind. Were they sad to be saying goodbye to Lightning, or just glad to be moving into fresher pastures?
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"We would never feel sick of these characters or these worlds," Kitase-san says. "Don't worry, we love them and we have an attachment to this whole story and characters. But in terms of this story, the whole Lightning saga story, this is going to be the end, and we're going to be moving on and not continuing in any sort of way. But the characters, since we do love them and do have an attachment to them, we're hoping there might be ways where they can make like a cameo, or something like that. For example, in Final Fantasy XIV, we're going to be doing like a collaboration with that game, and Lightning will make an appearance within the game. So we're hoping that there will be an opportunity to showcase them in some other form."
And so the end is upon us. And it is not a wishy-washy conclusion. Kitase-san tells me that there will be no downloadable episodes, no plot holes to be filled in later. Lightning Returns is also Lightning's farewell.
There's a lot riding on Lightning. She is one of Final Fantasy's most ubiquitous characters, the star of both Lightning Returns and Final Fantasy XIII, as well as a major figure (and the first character you control) in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Square-Enix clearly sees something special in her--something so special that Lightning Returns doesn't feature party-based combat. When it comes to exploration and battle, the pink-haired chosen one is a lone wolf. What makes Lightning so special, so different from the role-playing heroes that preceded her?
"What sets Lightning apart from the other [Final Fantasy hero] characters is that you don't see very many female heroines being the main character," says Kitase-san, "of course apart from maybe Terra from Final Fantasy VI. So that's definitely something that sets Lightning apart. She's not only a woman, but she's also very strong and also very cool, and she can put up a good fight. That's definitely one of her positive features. Even outside of the series, I got to go see the show floor at E3 and at Gamescom, and looking at other publishers I noticed that Lightning is probably one of the only female characters that pushed out in the forefront for their game titles. Of course, we had Lara Croft when Tomb Raider was about to be released, but now that that has launched, Lightning is one of the only female characters that is out there being the face of a title."
When I sat down to play a demonstration of Lightning Returns, I was struck by the lead character's visual graces. Lightning is sexy but not sexualized. A pointed collar and hard-edged pauldrons communicate her strength and stubbornness, but her cape and skirt waft effortlessly as she moves through forests and fields, softening the angles. My time with the demo was limited, and I didn't have much context for where I was and why I was there. What was most important, however, was that I find the white chocobo that was destined to deliver the world's savior to a final confrontation with the Chaos engulfing the land.
Lightning is that savior.
After chatting with the local villagers, I discovered the existence of a creature that feasted upon such a rare chocobo, and headed to the location where it had last been seen. On my journey, I engaged a number of flan and became quickly accustomed to Lightning Returns' fighting system, which uses some elements of the previous games while rearranging the specifics. The ATB (Active Time Battle) gauge returns, and each action you take depletes that gauge. The gauge is quick to deplete as you press the face buttons assigned to each action. Therefore, you must switch frequently between collections of skills called schemata, which replace the paradigms of earlier games. You equip three schemata at a time, and each schema has its own ATB gauge. When you switch to one schema, the ATB gauge of the one you were just using gradually refills.
This system doesn't make Lightning Returns feel quite like an action game as much as it makes it resemble the Tales series, in that you issue a command and your character quickly performs it. I quickly became accustomed to the demands of combat as I zapped flans with the lightning spells they were most vulnerable to, while using guard commands (like the ever-helpful medguard) to fend off direct attacks.
What Lightning will be fighting against is the inevitable doom of the world.
It wasn't until I reached the dreaded chocobo-eater that I discovered just how tense Lightning Returns' battles can be. The creature was enormous and deadly, and managing the ATB gauges of each of my three equipped schematas, along with timing my guards properly, was more challenging than I had anticipated. I lost on my first attempt, and the game let me re-engage the monster--but only if I understood that I had lost two precious hours in doing so.
Why are those hours so precious? Well, Lightning has a limited amount of time in which to save the world from annihilation. There are ways to extend the countdown… but there are ways to waste time as well, such as escaping battle and restarting. Regarding Lightning Returns' time management, Abe-san says "In terms of the time element being an interference to the player, there are certain NPCs and certain places that you won't have access to at certain times of the day. Say for example a certain shop is closed after business hours, or things like that. So you have to effectively manage your time, as well as actively explore the area to be familiarized with what's available at different times of day."
"Time management is going to be a very big portion of how time plays into the game itself," he continues. "We set up this time restriction, this limitation on time, to tighten up the gameplay. The excitement and the fun element is to determine 'how should I go about going on my quests in the most effective manner?' or 'how do I defeat enemies in a very efficient manner?' Not only is there the time restriction, but it's supposed to make players more active in exploring the different areas and getting an understanding of what's available to them, very much like a time to race."
I never worried about the time elements, given how short my time was with the demo. I was more concerned with the white chocobo I rescued upon defeating its predator. After I returned to the village with it, it refused to eat from any hand that wasn't my own. Apparently, this was a sign not only that Lightning was the chosen one, but that this bird was to be my saintly steed. It was hardly in fighting shape at this point however, and I faced having to locate all sorts of victuals to nurse it back to health.
There was feedback about how sometimes the battle kind of dragged on.
Fortunately, feeding a chocobo is hardly the greatest challenge you face when the world's fate hangs in the balance. Lightning Returns is only the latest Final Fantasy in which you face grave danger on a quest that benefits the greater good. But what force of personality is to be your biggest threat? The series has not only given us some memorable heroes, but also many of role-playing's most interesting villains. The XIII games are not known for their extraordinary bad guys. Final Fantasy has brought us Kefka and Sephiroth, but does anyone remember Final Fantasy XIII's Barthandelus?
Sadly, Lightning Returns isn't poised to provide a villain that can stand toe to toe with even the likes of FInal Fantasy XII's Vayne. In fact, it doesn't seem as if there's a primary villain at all. Says Kitase-san, "As you may know, in the last installment, we had a character named Caius, the villain, I guess, who Lightning fought against. In this particular installment, this is difficult to answer--this isn't really somebody in the shape of a human. The whole theme of the series was that Lightning was fighting against her fate, and trying to break free from destiny and what she was fated to do. And so with this final installment, we've emphasized that concept, that they're fighting against the fate of their lives. In this case, the world is about to end. And so what Lightning will be fighting against is the inevitable doom of the world, and trying to break free, and trying to save as many people and fight against that fate."
Abe-san and Kitase-san are aware of how many fans see Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2; the games are often called out as the weakest of the franchise, and both men hope that Lightning Returns will not only address fans' concerns, but will also stand out as a great game in its own right. Says Abe-san, "Since I was involved in the battle aspects of XIII and XIII-2, I feel like in the first two installments, I was able to accomplish what I wanted to do for the most part. And there was some really positive feedback on the battle system in the previous games. But at the same time, there was feedback about how sometimes the battle kind of dragged on, and it took more time than necessary. So I wanted to tweak that and revise it, and so that was one of the elements that I feel was able to be revised in the latest installment."
Adds Kitase-san, "In the first installment, in the previous installments, the field and the map looked pretty but there wasn't much interaction between your playable character and the environment. You wouldn't be able to climb walls or climb ladders or things like that. So that's something I feel I wasn't able to accomplish in the previous installments. But going through the subsequent installments, and receiving player feedback, we were able to tweak the program, the map design, so that with this last installment we were able to get to what we wanted to achieve in terms of the freedom of exploration and being able to interact with the different 3D elements of the game."
So maybe hanging out with Lightning again won't be so bad after all. It was never Lightning herself that was the greatest of the XIII series' problems anyway. After venturing into the wilds of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, and after chatting with Abe-san and Kitase-san, I'm ready to invite the soft-spoken chosen one back into my living room. And who knows--maybe the friends she invites to join us won't be as annoying as they used to be. I can only hope.