This year is shaping up to have a packed release schedule for gamers. Our collective wallets are going to be hurting thanks to great-looking new IPs like Watch Dogs, The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls, and Remember Me. You’ve got sequels like Dead Space 3 and Lost Planet 3, which both seem to be capitalizing on the apparently sizable “third-person shooter in snowy conditions” niche, God of War: Ascension, Gears of War: Judgment, Metro: Last Light, and even handheld fare like the newest iterations of Animal Crossing, Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei.
The Castlevania: Lords of Shadow franchise reboot is even giving us two sequels, a follow-up for consoles and an interquel for the Nintendo 3DS. You’re going to be buying a lot of games this year.
One of them that you probably won’t be buying is Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII:
The original game is still a lightning-rod for controversy and discussion even nearly three years after its US release. It has got to be the most controversial Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy VIII, and it didn’t even have the thankless task of following-up Final Fantasy VII. For every gamer who can forgive its issues with linearity and narrative style and enjoy the fast-paced battle system, beautiful graphics and great music is another gamer irrevocably burned by the reductive, watered-down RPG experience it offered.
That sentiment is clear when you analyze the sequel that maybe-possibly wasn’t originally planned by Square-Enix. It seemed the developers set out to prove all the criticism leveled at the first game wrong. Final Fantasy XIII-2 used a Chrono Trigger-esque time travel mechanic to facilitate multiple endings, or at least ending scenarios, and to foster in the player a more palpable sense of exploration. It was better-received by gamers than its predecessor overall, so don’t be fooled by its comparatively-lower Metacritic rating. It was funner and had a greater sense of adventure than the conveyor-belt of Final Fantasy XIII, which seemed to hurtle you along to the next cutscene at a relentless pace. However, the game was much shorter, much easier, and didn't look nearly as polished as the original. It locked half of its ending behind a DLC pay wall.
That number is both striking and of utmost importance to the purpose of this write-up. Those kinds of numbers for a sequel would usually doom another release in the same series, as the industry has become increasingly iterative with the whole idea that the next game sells more than the last. Yet here Square-Enix is: in a position where they are about to release a follow-up to a game that only half of its total user base wanted in the first place.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an outlier in the annals of the long-running series. It’s only the second direct sequel in Final Fantasy history, and was an overall better effort than Final Fantasy X-2, but, by the standards of the series, sold terribly.
However, it still made Square-Enix a lot of money. Profits were up following its release, and development costs for the game must have been far lower than its predecessor. This is due to the developers being able to re-use the Crystal Tools engine that powered XIII, as well as the leveraging of a relationship with Tri-Ace to help develop parts of the game. It should be no surprise that it was in development for a fourth of the time of its predecessor. XIII might have sold more than twice as much, but XIII-2‘s profit margin probably blew it out of the water.
So now we have the oddly, yet aptly, named Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. The title conveys Square-Enix’s intentions perfectly. If XIII-2 was a game with Lightning on the cover but not necessarily in the player’s control because you spent the whole game as younger sibling Serah and mysterious newcomer Noel, then Lightning Returns is the game that comprehensively leverages the pink-haired heroine’s appeal. You only play as Lightning for the entire game, with the gameplay systems built around customization and the shifting of different roles in battle to fulfill all the requirements of a traditional RPG party.
The battle system is internally known, rather unfortunately, as “amazing ATB.” I find it interesting that the concept of the ATB system, developed by Hiroyuki Ito for Final Fantasy IV, is still being utilized at all. Active Time Battle, aka “this meter that denotes the passage of time will fill up before you can take an action,” was developed to give those turn-based, 2-D Squaresoft games of the SNES era a feeling of dynamism and excitement. You couldn’t just wait all day when it was your turn; you had to act. This doesn’t really have the same effect in 3-D games on a 3-D plane, which is why X didn’t use it at all and XII used a free-roaming version of it that worked well enough, though some battles seemed to drag on forever and it wasn’t really perfected until last year’s Xenoblade Chronicles, which was developed by Monolith Soft and not Square-Enix.
The battle system in Lightning Returns seems to put a new spin on the venerable ATB in two ways. First, you will still change roles, or “styles,” with the relevant skills being made available to you, but you will also be able to mix and match skills belonging to different styles.
Said skills will be accessible using individual buttons instead of through a menu. Think of it like hot keys. I’m sure that equipping the skills you want available during battle through a pre-battle pause menu of some sort will be part of the strategy of the game.
This also seems to be mercifully replacing the “auto-battle” option of the first two games, which was one of the single most-criticized aspects of the Paradigm Shift battle system. In Lightning Returns, you can finally choose both the role and the action.
XIII-2 already played around with time travel and its successor is following suit. There are 13 in-game days the player has to complete the game. These days translate into roughly two hours each in real-time.
The two wrinkles to this system are that the player can perform certain actions to extend their time in the game by completing tasks given to them by NPCs. These will probably in the form of side quests where you hunt down a powerful monster or track down some sort of time-reversing item. Though there will be one canonical ending, there will also be multiple endings that require additional playthroughs to attain. It sounds like a hybrid of various aspects of past Square games: the multiple endings of Chrono Trigger, the completion aspect of XIII-2 and the need to playthrough the game at least twice to achieve that completion like X-2.
Not much has been shown about the customization aspect, but XIII featured passive boosts on many of its weapons and accessories. Some hidden combinations even provided more powerful boosts. XIII-2 had something similar but also added a modest synthesis mechanic where you combined drops with existing weapons to create more powerful gear.
And obviously you will get to play dress-up with Lightning, like the dresspheres mechanic in X-2 but hopefully with a little more taste and modesty. Little is known about what this will look like in-game and whether or not different looks will actually have enhancements tied to them. It’s possible that this will just be for visual preference only, like the various DLC outfits in XIII-2.
Hopefully, Lightning’s default outfits from the first two games won’t be ones you’ll have to pay for, but that’s wishful thinking.
It’s possible that Lightning Returns will sell to the same three million people that stayed for XIII-2. It might even sell less than that, especially on the Xbox 360 platform, which suffered a precipitous decline in sales between iterations, to the tune of 67%.
Given the various gameplay tweaks that made XII-2 a funner, albeit shorter, experience overall, one has to wonder something about the third game in a series a lot of gamers have long since checked-out on:
What if Lightning Returns is a really good game?
This is always a difficult quality to judge in Final Fantasy games since the design philosophy behind them is to do something different every time, at least historically. Yet, just as XIII-2 seemed to have been developed largely to address all the criticisms leveled at the first game, Lightning Returns seems to be taking that same ethos of refining and improving existing systems to its next logical conclusion. Now, you have a hot-keyed and streamlined version of a battle system a lot of us never fully grasped anyway, which will give it a pseudo-real time action feel. There will at least be the suggestion or notion of freedom as related to the countdown mechanic, as well as the purported customization options. At roughly 26 hours, assuming that each of the 13 days takes 2 hours and you choose not to extend the time or do a second playthrough, that’s still about twice as long as an Assassin’s Creed game, though admittedly paltry for a Final Fantasy game.
The issue here is control. I think most gamers checked-out of this series because the most cutting and pessimistic view you could have is that you were basically a cutscene director who just pressed “X” a lot. That’s either terribly reductive or extremely accurate depending on what your tastes are. If Lightning Returns finally gives us that level of control that we have come to expect from modern games, I think it really has a shot next year to generate some positive buzz.
Square-Enix has done a good job so far of branding this game the exact way it needs to, as it continues the story for people who have stuck with the series, but also welcomes new or lapsed players into the fold by setting it many years in the future so that you don’t feel like you’ve had to have played the previous two games. Lightning is unarguably the most popular aspect of this series, and at five games within a three year release window (including handheld offerings Dissidia 012 and Theatrhythm), is curiously more utilized than any other Final Fantasy character in history, including Cloud and Yuna, the stars of the franchise’s most popular modern entries. For better and for worse, Square-Enix is hitching its wagon to the character. Whether or not it’s a good game, and whether or not it finally returns the series to a 90+ Metacritic rating, which it hasn’t reached since the release of Final Fantasy XII seven years ago, there’s one thing both fans and detractors of this series can agree on: