Lightning returns. The Final Fantasy XIII heroine wraps up her saga with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. And it looks to be not only a very different Final Fantasy, but also to be one of the most interesting FF titles in recent memory.
Prior to the game's official unveiling, there were huge hints that Square Enix was returning to FFXIII. Many gamers, myself included, weren't exactly thrilled by the notion. Then something happened: Square Enix showed the game's concept, and it looked (and sounded) great. Lightning wasn't striking twice, but thrice. But there's more than that, Square Enix tells Kotaku.
According to the game's creators, it was necessary to return to the world of Final Fantasy XIII because there were so many loose ends that needed tying up. According to Lighting Returns Battle Director Yuji Abe, all of the characters either are burdened by guilt or have a deep emotional wound.
"'A battle with destiny', which is a theme at the root of the Lightning Saga, becomes a heavier burden on their shoulders as more events and people are sacrificed with each instalment," Abe told Kotaku in an email interview. "By spending three games to depict their stories, I'm hoping that they are released from what binds them to their destinies, and they will get to see an end filled with a true sense of hope."
The heavy emotional ties are not new to Final Fantasy — and they're, no doubt, something that keeps fans interested and emotionally connected to the games. Yet, when Lightning Returns was first officially unveiled, it appeared familiar — still Final Fantasy — but felt different. There was something about it.
Perhaps, it was the concept art that Square Enix showed. Isamu Kamikokuryo, the art director of Lightning Returns, told Kotaku about the game's artistic inspiration: "When I first looked over the proposal documents given to me by the director, I thought it would be a great fit to have the following three elements as the main pillars: the elements of a mechanical design, which is consistently used throughout the FFXIII series, elements of fantasy, which is characteristic of the whole Final Fantasy series, and an element of gothic design, in a very broad kind of way."
Kamikokuryo and his team used gothic architecture as a reference point, but also looked to as far as the 19th century too taking inspiration from the era's gadgets as well. "We are picturing the streets and alleys of London around the time of the Industrial Revolution, near the end of the century." Middle Eastern and Asian motifs have also found their way into Lightning Returns, depending on the location.
The game even gets a new logo — a new stylised logo. When it was first shown, Japanese net users compared the diamond-like Lighting Returns emblem to the Skyrim logo. Lighting Returns: Final Fantasy XIII producer Yoshinori Kitase told Kotaku why the game has a different logo from the other FFXIII (and batted down those Skyrim comparisons).
"We revamped the title logo because we wanted to convey the 'newness' of this instalment," explained Kitase. "Traditionally, the Final Fantasy series logo can be characterised by a delicate, yet bold illustration that is placed within the logo. However, this time our intention was to present a newness using an emblem with sharp edges and a symmetrical design."
"And so there is no relation to Skyrim whatsoever," added Kitase. "Of course, there are many members of the dev team that enjoy playing Skyrim."
The logo change and the various artistic inspirations, of course, doesn't mean that the game's previous look was thrown out the window. From what Square Enix says, it wasn't. The basis for the game's visual aesthetic is the previous two FFXIII titles. "With the concept of illustrating a dying world as our foundation, we are depicting how technology is slowly deteriorating," Kamikokuryo explained. "While we had illustrated a very high-level modern civilisation in FFXIII, we are giving it a more retro feel in this instalment."
It's not just a retro feel that Lightning Returns promises. The game's director, Motomu Toriyama, decided to go with a "world driven" title, something that Square Enix says will obviously give players far more freedom. However, within that freedom, there is a clever constraint: a time mechanic that ticks away the minutes and hours. When the feature was first revealed, gamers were quick to point out the similarities between it and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. "I'm afraid I have never played The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, and so I won't be able to explain the difference," said Abe. "However, based on my past experiences with The Legend of Zelda titles, the motif may happen to seem similar, but I believe the two titles are nothing like each other."
Continuing, Abe added, "While we create a livelier atmosphere through elements such as the town and its inhabitants with our titles, the Zelda games have a simple yet polished design. If by some chance the mechanics turn out to be similar, I'm sure it will be a completely different impression."
Similar time mechanic or not, the development time on many recent Final Fantasy has been notoriously long. According to Abe, this means that the differences between each numeric Final Fantasy has become bigger — not necessarily a bad thing! Still, gamers interested in checking out Lightning Returns hope that its development time won't be anything like FFXIII's. Square Enix, however, was able to get Final Fantasy XIII-2 out in a timely fashion. Lightning Returns is a new type of Final Fantasy, so the developers might need some room to breathe and get things right.
"Creating the graphics goes by fairly quickly, because of our past experience," says Abe. "But in terms of the game itself, we as a team don't have much experience on creating a game in which things move so freely, so I predict we'll be going through a lot of trial and error, especially for each idea we want to incorporate." That being said, Square Enix previously announced a 2013 release (in Japan, apparently) for the PS3 and Xbox 360, so hopefully, the game will hit that release. Last month, Square Enix revealed that development was 30 per cent complete.
With the upcoming Wii U release, some gamers have been wondering if Lightning Returns will come out on Nintendo's new consoles. Previously, Square Enix said the game would hit both the PS3 and the Xbox 360. When asked why the game wasn't getting a Wii U release, Kitase replied, "Since we've developed this title on the same game engine as the previous two instalments, the compatible platforms will be the same as that of the previous two as well."
Kitase is a long time, legendary Final Fantasy producer, with credits like designing and directing Final Fantasy VII. He seemed upbeat about Lightning Returns, saying, "What I think is the best part of working on Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is that I was able to take part in a trilogy with the same characters, world view and game engine."
Meaning? Meaning that Square Enix can continue to tweak and perfect. This is exactly what so many studios now do over a console generation: release a new game, then follow it with two sequels that hopefully perfect the formula. As Kitase explained, "We take into account all of the feedback we have received, and take great care in considering what we can do to make the next title better. The fact that we could polish the game from its previous instalment, but at the same time take on a new challenge, is what made working on this title such a great experience."
A great experience is exactly what many Final Fantasy fans hunger for. They might feel burned on a previous title or perhaps they just want something new and fresh. "The change to Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, for me, is not very dramatic in terms of the rules of the game, but I think it will prove to be a big difference in terms of how the game feels," said Abe. "I hope that this change in how the game feels will work toward bridging the gap between us and the players that have grown distant."