Shortly before Final Fantasy XIII launched, I had a casual conversation with the development team about the game. Someone — I don’t remember who — mentioned that Call of Duty 4 had been one of the inspirations behind FFXIII’s design. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that comment, since at the time I had yet to play FFXIII (or, for that matter, Call of Duty 4), and I didn’t have a chance to follow up to learn more.
Looking back, though, I get it. FFXIII’s pacing, a constant forward push along a prescribed path dotted with story sequences and enemy encounters, really does resemble the hyper-linear design of the campaign in Modern Warfare and its sequels. The difference between the two, of course, is that Call of Duty’s linearity seems to go over well with its millions-strong fan base, while in FFXIII it proved to be a deeply divisive design feature that fractured the series’ popularity and continues to draw ire years later.
But of course. Role-playing fans tend to gravitate toward the genre because they love exploration, discovery, and adventure. Highly linear story-telling makes a much better bedfellow with first-person shooters than with RPGs. But more than that, I think Call of Duty’s narrative style works in Call of Duty because it places players in something akin to a real-world context: A modern-day military mission. Sure, the series presents a highly fantastic take on military ops, but players get it. They know about real-world soldiers, they know about real-world politics, and they know about real-world factions.
FFXIII, on the other hand, didn’t enjoy the benefit of reality; it thrust gamers into a strange world divided by bizarre geographical features, dominated by enigmatic gods, and suffering under the burden of history… none of which is ever really explained in-game, unless you page through dozens of dry database entries. Square Enix’s developers built a very detailed and very beautiful world in FFXIII, but the breakneck pace of the adventure and the game’s lack of downtime to let players to soak up context from NPCs and environments meant we never had the chance to fully understand the characters’ home of Cocoon, its past, or the nature of the conflict that drove the story. Infinity Ward doesn’t have to explain the tension between American and Russian soldiers, but who knows what a L’Cie is, or what role Etro plays in Pulse’s cosmology? This failure to provide context made FFXIII a strangely alienating tale, demanding players invest themselves in a hazy, 50-hour journey.
So it’s surely no coincidence that where Square Enix defined FFXIII as “story-driven,” its upcoming sequel — Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII — is being described as “world-driven.” The third and final portion of the FFXIII saga looks to build on the less restrictive design of Final Fantasy XIII-2 by dropping players in a huge, open world and giving them 13 days of in-game time (which ticks down on a permanent clock interface element at the rate of about one game-minute per real-time second) to prevent its destruction. I’ve already mused on the seeming spiritual connection between Lightning Returns and other apocalyptic tales like Majora’s Mask and (not coincidentally)Valkyrie Profile; now that the game is beginning to take shape beyond the extremely early pre-alpha version I saw months ago, though, it seems this might actually be a world players want to save.
“The concept of ‘world-driven’… kind of started from the beginning of the franchise, when it received player feedback on XIII. It was story-driven,” says Motomu Toriyama, who has directed the entire FFXIII trilogy. “The story led the player through the game. We did receive a lot of criticism saying that the game tended to be too linear. As a goal, we wanted to expand on the freedom that the player can have within the game in XIII-2. We tried to expand it so that the player has more choices within the story.
“In this installment, what we’ve focused on is depicting the world around Lightning, and how realistically we can express the passage of time. With that, the player can experience their own gameplay experience through that changing world. That’s why we arrived to that concept of ‘world-driven.'”
But what does “world-driven” mean for the Lightning Returns team? It’s hard to say without having played the game, but based on video footage Square Enix showed at a recent hands-off demo event, Lightning Returns seems to fall more in line with Final Fantasy XII‘s world design than that of FFXIII. Its events take place on a single continent divided into four separate areas, but within those territories it seems that Lightning will encounter far more freedom of movement and variety of scenery than in the past two games. While FFXIII-2 offered more open environments than its predecessor, those areas still ended up being fairly small and self-contained. If the early footage we’ve seen is anything to go by, that won’t be the case for Lightning Returns: The game’s environments allow her to move seamlessly from plains to valleys to caverns, or to travel through a forest and stumble upon a small village along the way.
If Call of Duty offered the impetus for FFXIII’s design, Lightning Returns almost seems to draw more upon Assassin’s Creed — and not just in the Ezio-like cape Lightning wears over her odd Tetsuya Nomura-designed combat swimwear. For example, we saw hints in the part where Toriyama demoed a brief sequence in which Lightning had to use cover and stealth to stalk a group of Templar-like religious zealots who may or may not be conspiring to end the world. But really, the Assassin’s Creed echoes have more to do with its apparent map design, which hints at the sort of organic, fully-integrated landscapes that made ACIII’s take on colonial America so engrossing.
But will the game offer enough context to keep you interested in the welfare of this vast land? That could be the make-or-break factor in Lightning Returns — one which the developers may have difficulty reconciling with its primary mechanic of racing the clock. How do you create a world that, in the developers’ words, can be explored from one end to the other with a constant, crushing deadline? Toriyama admits they’re still struggling to work out how best to balance the game’s two very different personalities.
“We’re considering a system in which you can extend the time within the world,” he says. “At the same time, we did say that it is 13 days before the world ends. But Lightning is not allocated all 13 days to begin with. It’s more like she’s given a couple of days to start, and then through her completing quests or doing well in battles, she extends whatever days are available. The system is set up so you can gain days that way.
“To be honest with you, we have done some test plays, and yeah — in the earlier versions, the time limit was even more strict. Our user focus group results did show that players would be stressed about the time running out and leading to defeat. We’ve tweaked the system a little bit more. As mentioned before, she’s allocated a couple of days, and she can extend what is allocated to her. In addition to that, we wanted to emphasize that you’re valuing the time that is available, rather than thinking of it as time running out or time depleting. We wanted to emphasize how to value and manage your time wisely in order for Lightning to get through the game.”
Toriyama says his team is aiming to encourage multiple playthroughs of the game — something that might be worrying to anyone who felt burned by Final Fantasy X-2’s occasional “gotcha” requirements for perfect completion and the best ending. Thankfully, his description of the role of Lightning Returns’ New Game + mechanic seems to have more in common with the restart system of something like Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, providing a different and deeper experience with each pass through the story.
“In terms of starting the game over, we do have a system set up so that Lightning can carry over different stats or items in your inventory,” he says. “You can do a New Game + kind of restart. We have set up the game so it won’t be so hard to beat the game, per se, in one playthrough. But we do want to encourage multiple playthroughs, so that the player can enjoy different outcomes and different people and situations that they can encounter by playing the game over and over again.
“As mentioned earlier, time is constantly changing. Sometimes you might miss an opportunity to speak with a certain somebody in a particular playthrough. By completing the game and then coming back and doing a New Game +, you can experience a different encounter or a conversation with somebody you haven’t met in a previous game. In addition to that, in terms of the main quest, the big quest, we have set it up so there are multiple ways of going about solving it or saving the person that you’re talking to. You can go back and experience, in another playthrough, that same quest, but try to approach it with a different method and enjoy the process that way as well.”
Just as FFXIII-2 shook up its predecessor’s limited design by opening up its approach to progression, Lightning Returns aims to overhaul the series from top to bottom. In fact, it’s such a radical departure from its immediate predecessors that it might as well not even be a Final Fantasy XIII sequel. In my book, though, that makes it a perfect sequel. This evolution embodies the essence of Final Fantasy, a series that’s been defined by a willingness to reinvent itself with each new entry unique to the role-playing genre.
Of course, change alone doesn’t make a game great (witness fan response to FFXIII’s divergence from series’ standards), but the changes Lightning Returns brings to the table look to be pishing Final Fantasy back in the direction it was evolving naturally via FFXIII’s immediate predecessors — not just FFXI and XII, but the likes of Crisis Core as well.
Despite its seemingly vast world, Lightning Returns plays out through solo combat. Lightning evidently has elected to return all on her own, taking on foes by herself with an active battle system. FFXIII’s hands-on approach to fighting has been completely discarded in favor of direct control over Lightning; she can dodge, guard, launch constant volleys of attacks, and switch between different skill sets and classes on the fly. In a sense, these skill sets serve as the game’s “party members,” and each of her classes has its own active-time battle gauge that fills and depletes independently. Players can customize these sets with their choice of skills, meaning you could potentially use one class for attacking, one for defense and evasion, and one for healing and buffs. Since Lightning’s wardrobe changes with each class shift, you could almost treat this as a sort of evolution of FFX-2’s Dress Sphere system, if you wanted.
As the developers stressed throughout our demo session, much about Lightning Returns’ inner workings remains to be finalized. Still, I can see a great deal of promise in the unpolished material we’ve seen so far. And regardless of how well the game turns out, what we’ve seen already looks to restore one of Final Fantasy’s most important traditions: A willingness to try something wildly different without losing track of the series’ roots. Fundamental roots, like a huge, detailed, and — hopefully — properly explained world to explore.