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Paradigm Shift: Blending Action and RPG in Lightning Returns

Monday, 28th October 2013 11:08 GMT By Alex Donaldson

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 gets put through its paces by Alex Donaldson. He reckons it’s both new and exciting, contrary to gamer’s fears that the trilogy has stagnated. Find out why here.

After extensive hands-on time with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13, I can’t help but feel a pang of frustration for what I think the team behind the game are likely to experience with its release. What I played felt a solid and intriguing title that left me eager to see how its mechanics develop over the course of a full game – but I also know many won’t give it a chance.

Even the most staunch, loyal members of the Final Fantasy fanbase appear divided by the game – some are desperate to get their hands on it, but a growing number are tired and uneasy. FF built much of its popularity on being fresh. A different world, a different cast – different mechanics, even – with every game.

It’s a clever tactic – each game had its detractors, but that crowd could always look forward to the next, all-new entry instead. While the tenth also had a sequel, this generation has seen Square Enix defined by one FF, with the 13th entry becoming a series all of its own.

Lightning Returns battle gameplay in action.

The detractors of the adventures of Lightning and company are only getting louder and more frustrated with each passing month, and I get the impression interest in the FF13 series is at an all-time low with FF15 now firmly on the radar.

Many want something new – and I can understand that – but perhaps what they don’t realize is that the third entry in the FF13 series is in fact, rather new, rather different, and quite exciting.

“We’re talking about very fast-paced games,” FF13 series Director Motomu Toriyama tells me as he tries to explain the strange action/RPG mash-up system of Lightning Returns in a brief chat after my hands-on time.

“It’s got to be very intuitive. It requires a kind of agility and a very quick response… it requires the actual player to have particular skills.” He chuckles and shrugs. “That’s something that I’m not very good at!

“Playing which involves those quick reflex skills or agility, I’m not very good at all. So I’m not necessarily personally that keen on that style of game.”

The solution for Toriyama and his team is a curious one – a system that at its base is evolved from FF13′s dynamic-looking turn-based Paradigm System, but is ultimately completely different. Landing in battles is much the same as it was before, but once in an encounter the game is transformed.

Lightning battles alone, and with the player tasked with looking after just one character the game can offer more direct control. Much as in her previous outing, Lightning has access to three pre-set ‘classes’ of a sort within battle. These come with various costumes attached, reminiscent of FF10-2, but the real feature of the costumes are the abilities each carry.

The abilities players choose for each of their three battle roles are assigned to each of the four face buttons. One I have access to, The Saviour, is the iconic Lightning skill-set – Thunder, Guard, Spark Strike and a Physical attack.

Using each attack costs some of a meter that only recharges when that role isn’t in use – the idea being that you’ll carefully deplete each role’s meter in order before switching to the next role by hitting a shoulder button, reminiscent of FF13′s Paradigm Shift.

This leads to interesting possibilities and challenges in my hands-on. When I finally stagger an enemy – a surviving mechanic from previous titles – if I manage to keep the enemy juggled in the air is down only to my button inputs, attack choices and prompt class shifting. All inputs result in instant on-screen action – so it’s a far faster paced game than any FF previous.

“In turn-based play after you attack you have to wait,” Toriyama explains. “You sit and you wait for the enemy to fight back, and then you can attack them again.”

“In the meantime your character is standing still, doing nothing – more than anything, it’s very unrealistic to look at. I thought – how can I make this look more realistic? Making it speedier was the answer – and so that’s why we made it more fast-paced.”

Adding complexity in button presses and reflexes is, of course, dangerous. There’s a chunk of FF and RPG fans who enjoy those games because they’re frankly rubbish at action-based games. One optional powered-up enemy in Lightning Returns is battering me so badly another journalist at the event leans over and tells me the control input to run away – but me being stubborn, I don’t. It takes a Square Enix rep imparting the monster’s weakness to even get my foot in the door at damaging him – and even then, my sloppy, newbie inputs aren’t cutting it at a slice of the game I’m told is several hours in. Eventually I manage to kill one of the beasts and am quite ecstatic.

While inputs result in immediate action, what is still very traditional in Lightning Returns is that the game is all about meter management. As a lover of fighting games I can get behind this; players need to be constantly aware of the read-outs the packed HUD is giving and switching their actions appropriately. Deep within this game’s combat system there’s still a kernel of turn-based RPG flair – something Toriyama tells me he hopes will keep the game accessible to those fans.

“I just don’t want to make a game where fast button control is everything. I want each player to have time to think – what am I going to do here? Why should I attack this particular monster in this particular way?

“That sort of tactical element is important. We have to find a really good balance between Final Fantasy’s traditional tactical gameplay and the excitement you feel with action-packed gameplay. That’s something I want to achieve.”

Most of my hour with Lightning Returns is in the end spent in combat. It’s combat I found exciting, challenging and refreshingly different against more powerful enemies, although when battling weaker foes it does descend into simply hammering the nearest attack until they fall down. Automatic health recovery after each battle only encourages this, as there’s no need at all to be careful against less threatening enemies to preserve health.

Other aspects of the game are difficult to judge in a short demo. The Majora’s Mask-style countdown is impossible to rule on in this context, while the deep customization of the weaponry, visual style and ability layout of each costume and class also needs more time to grow before it can be fully judged. Both seem promising, and like the combat I’m intrigued to see how deep they are and how fresh they remain over the course of a full-length game.

“We didn’t have an awful lot of time,” Toriyama admits. “An eighteen month development period. Even though we were quite busy and we had to move from one to the other quite quickly, we just managed to maintain the fresh ideas and the fresh feel of the whole scheme, so we’re quite happy about it.”

While it’s early days, based off my limited hands-on I’m inclined to say that with Lightning Returns Toriyama’s team has done a pretty impressive job – more so than the heavily-rehashed FF13-2. In its gameplay and combat this feels like a new, different and above-all exciting game, and a much more comprehensive evolution than FF13-2 offered.

The challenge it faces is winning over fans and players who have grown tired of the characters, story and world of the FF13 series – an ever-growing, incredibly vocal subset of people who have had enough; people who may not try this game even if they should simply because of what it is – another sequel to FF13.

Even if the game fails to win over those players, Toriyama describes it – and the entire FF13 series – as a vital learning experience for Square Enix and his team – and seems more relaxed and at ease now, with his work largely done, than on any other occasion I’ve interviewed him.

“We spent five years making FF13, and the lesson we learned from that experience is that you have to set out the engine at the earliest possible timing so that later on we wouldn’t have to suffer because of things we failed to do early on,” he candidly said when asked to describe the most important lesson he’s learned.

“In the future when we make more games for next-gen consoles, I think we’ll make sure that the engine is there and completely intact at a very early point.”

Toriyama pauses, and then there’s a smile and a shrug.

“Also, now Lightning is quite a big, famous character,” he enthuses. “Possibly even the most famous female in-game character ever. And that’s some achievement – we’re very proud of it.”

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 launches for PS3 and Xbox 360 in February 2014.

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16 Comments

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  1. Tormenter

    What the hell are these asshats thinking of?

    Any relevence/originality or point to the FF series died years ago.. the games are simply cut scenes with what’s become progresively worse combat and shallow generic characterisation.

    What’s with their obsession over “Lightning”? She has the the worst characterisation in the entire series, but they think that if they mention ‘her’ enough and put ‘her’ in enough games she’ll become cool and desireable? Fuck off.

    Fucking series is dead on it’s arse. If it’s not simply abominable gameplay that forces the devs to go back to the drawing board AFTER release, then it’s shitty shallow characters, who amount to less then their design and their story combined.

    It’s time the FF series was retired to the glue factory.

    #1 9 months ago
  2. Zana

    FF is still relevant, it’s just that people don’t want to admit it’s experimenting a lot (like the over-the-top reaction above). That feels more alive than most series to me.

    #2 9 months ago
  3. Tormenter

    “Don’t want to admit?”

    The quality of gameplay and characterisation is demonstrable, you make it sound like some kind of denial or delusion… how fucking dumb are you?

    However if you wish to put it in those… terms, then how can you be sure that the fans’, and yours, enthusiasm isn’t also a delusion.. an unwillingness to let go of a series that has been run in to the ground by banality and shallowness, with just a hint of fucked up shitty combat and protaganists who no-one cares about.

    I DID like FF way back when.. but it’s simply become pretty graphics with all the depth of a puddle.

    Oh and a word to the wise…… Companies who make games that run into the hundreds of millions dollars to make… tend NOT to ‘experiment’ with their products… It wasn’t ‘experimentation’.. they simply made a bad game, then continued to do so.

    #3 9 months ago
  4. Dragon

    @2,
    +1

    #4 9 months ago
  5. Gheritt White

    @3: And how the FUCK would YOU know anything about a videogames company’s decision making process, stuck on the side-lines like you are?

    Also, “good” and “bad” are entirely subjective. What’s entirely objective is how much your butthurt is showing.

    #5 9 months ago
  6. Tormenter

    @6

    Do you honestly belive what you are saying? :o

    Good and Bad are DEMONSTRABLE.. it’s OPINION that is subjective… and the general opinion outside Squeenix/FF fanbois is that the FF games hold no relevence for todays market (even if Sqee COULD get a new decent game to market.. which they even admit that they haven’t recently, how can blinkered fans ignore what the company itself has stated on several occasions….

    At this moment in time Squeenix are throwing everything they can at the FF franchise in order to breathe some kind of undeath into it.. but it’s getting worse, as the sheer desperation in the development is beginning to shine through.. it’s become a massive hotchpotch of busywork and shockingly tangential gameplay.. as for the reitterations of their own combat system.. jeez.

    I’m certainly not saying to anyone ‘DON’T PLAY IT’…. but I will say that if you do then you have no right to expect enjoyable gameplay or any kind of engrossing originality at this juncture.

    #6 9 months ago
  7. Gheritt White

    @7: You literally don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about and you’d save yourself a lot of ridicule if you just closed your browser, turned off your computer and went and lived in a cave somewhere for the rest of your life with no ready access to human communication channels.

    Then, and MAYBE then, you might be able to reclaim some dignity after the embarrassingly asinine comment you just posted.

    FF still sells like gangbusters worldwide – the brand is very healthy and so even the prospect of it needing life breathed into it is utterly ridiculous, just like your argument and I dare say your face as well.

    Plus, good and bad are ENTIRELY subjective, both philosophically and materially. All fashions, tastes and modes of behaviour and transient and temporally constrained. What is considered “good” by ione society may be abhorrent to another and vice versa.

    But, to your case in point, let’s take Bionic Commando developed by Grin and published by Capcom: I think it is GOOD. My friend this it is BAD. Therefore you are wrong. Not only that, but you also smell funny.

    QED, bitches.

    #7 9 months ago
  8. Ireland Michael

    @8, As much as I agree with your opinions on his post…

    “FF still sells like gangbusters worldwide ā€“ the brand is very healthy and so even the prospect of it needing life breathed into it is utterly ridiculous”

    …this is categorically untrue. Even the guys at Square themselves have admitted these problems.

    #8 9 months ago
  9. Gheritt White

    @9: Hmmm… then maybe I should say profitability. FF XIII and FF XIII-2 both made lots of money for the company and it looks that Lightning returns most certainly will as well.

    #9 9 months ago
  10. Ireland Michael

    @10 Do you have figures to back that up? Unless you know how much each game cost, that’s difficult to estimate, especially when you take into consideration that FFXIII had a good five years or more development cycle. Even with a few million in sales, I’d be surprised if the first one made any large profit. FFXIII-2 maybe, but only due to the countless reused assets.

    This is a franchise in trouble, and has been for a while now. It has no idea where to go, where to go, or how to appeal to the market, and the current core franchise staff are simply not capable of providing quality experience. Toriyama especially should have been out the door years ago.

    Video game development cost have jumped so high in recent years (mainly due to graphics) that simply appealing to the Japanese market is no longer enough to remain consistently profitable, especially not with AAA titles.

    #10 9 months ago
  11. Djoenz

    FFXIII was shit. . .
    FFXIII-2 was shit!
    FFXIII – LR will be shit. that whole universe is shit.
    Lightning is popular because they forced her on most fans. Disgusting.

    Well my opinion seems to be on line with a lot of old fans but that doesnt matter. They will do whatever. Bad decisions since FFXIII. SE complaining bout Tomb Raider while FFXIII LR will bomb. SE has it. They only have a revenue from mobile titles etc. these days.

    #11 9 months ago
  12. Ireland Michael

    While I have little fondness for FFXIII (good mechanics, but terrible story and characters), and I found FFXIII-2 fun but lacking, I honestly think LR looks pretty solid after the recent gameplay video they released, and I’m interested in actually playing it.

    Guess its just me.

    #12 9 months ago
  13. Djoenz

    Mr. Michael those games are an insult to your intelligence.

    FFXIII-2 is a reused asset game with pokemon element tacked on.
    FFXIII-3 is like a Lightning cosplay fetish game from what Ive seen. And the victory pose oh my.

    Anyway dont buy it full price if I were you. Renting a okay.

    Trick me once FFXIII sold well but disappointed many ppl due to linearity. Shame on you.

    Trick me twice FFXIII-2 a mediocre sequal that could have been one major minigame. Shame on me.

    Lightning Returns? haha. tsk.

    #13 9 months ago
  14. Dragon

    “Guess its just me.”
    Nope.

    Although I am worried about its sales though. Signs aren’t good even in Japan.
    Still, at the end of the day, I like the XII series, and that is all that really matters to me.

    #14 9 months ago
  15. Ireland Michael

    @14 I enjoyed the gameplay elements of the first game, but the story, characters, linearity, gating of the levelling system and the complete lack of decent end game content killed it for me. It’s the only Final Fantasy game I’ve ever traded in.

    FFXIII does indeed reuse many assets, and the story was an utter clusterfuck of stupidity, but the simple fact is that I enjoyed playing it. I thought the levelling system was a vast improvement, and the customisable monster system had a lot of depth to it, it also had a metric tonne worth of side content.

    I like what I’ve seen of the gameplay for Lightning Returns. Job systems are probably one my favourite mechanics of any Final Fantasy games, and the combat just… looks fun. I’m not going to let my biases from the first game dictate that.

    I’ll see what the reviews say about the gameplay when it comes out and make a judgement call based on that. I almost never preorder, so there’s really no rush. If it seems worth a full price purchase, that is what it will be.

    #15 9 months ago
  16. Lv01

    @13 and @15.
    and me.
    im a massive Final Fantasy fan, and i am very excited by Lightning Returns.
    i very much enjoyed XIII (enough to 100% platinum trophy it, which ive only ever done otherwise with Thomas Was Alone), and also very much enjoyed XIII-2. i admit that the story is not on par with other titles in the series, but i still found it to be entertaining. it has a beginning, a middle, and end, and so can hold my attention.
    and i am very excited by the tactical and strategical possibilities that the new combat system looks to hold. the amount of customisation there seems to be is insane! (and im not just referring to the changing of colours..!)
    roll on feb 14.

    #16 9 months ago