Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII finds itself trapped rather ironically in the large shadow cast by the recent announcement of Final Fantasy XV. I say "ironically" because back when XV was originally announced back in 2006, it was as the third chapter of the Fabula Nova Crystalis trilogy, Final Fantasy Versus XIII. Now it's gone on to become the next core entry in the series on a next-gen platform, while Lightning Returns wraps up the FFXIII story arc as a current-gen game a few months after the new consoles launch.
That's not an enviable state of affairs for any game, but it's doubly a shame for Lightning Returns because -- based on what I've played of it -- it's genuinely good. Who knows how the overall adventure will turn out, but the E3 playable demo (which according to producer Yoshinori Kitase and director Motomu Toriyama represent a near-finished version of the game) focuses heavily on combat... and Lightning Returns features an excellent combat system.
The battle mechanics differ greatly from the first two chapters of the FFXIII saga in that they focus on a single character -- the eponymous Lightning -- and allow for real-time movement, menu-driven but nevertheless direct actions, and defensive blocks and evasions. At the same time, you can see that they grew from FFXIII's battle system, with a functional equivalent to Paradigm Shifts that allow Lightning to take on different fighting forms and swap between skill sets and indepedent action gauges. It also brings back the Stagger concept, which leaves enemies weakened and vulnerable if attacked in specific ways, and this time around hitting the stagger point feels far more intuitive thanks to a simple visual indicator that highlights which actions are most effective for inflicting stagger.
At the same time, I do view combat in Lightning Returns with a touch of melancholy, because it seems to be part of a growing trend away from the classic menu- and turn-based combat that defined the series in its formative days. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy XIV features a fairly typical MMO menu/action hybrid system, and Final Fantasy XV looks to be straight-up action. I asked Kitase if he sees action as the future of the franchise. His answer didn't surprise me, but I was taken aback (in a good way) when he turned the question back on me for an intriguing hypothetical.
"It's true that it we used very action-driven systems for Lightning Returns, Final Fantasy XIV, and in the trailer for XV," Kitase said. "But if you look closely, there's a different flavor for each game. What we try to do with Final Fantasy is take each installment and think about how to structure the battle mechanics. We start from scratch with each installment we put together.
"Even with something like Kingdom Hearts, what you have there is something very different than the style we've created for Lightning Returns. For this game, we have an evolved ATB system with three different styles that we switch between... and even that's different than anything we've done before. So it's really hard to say where the series will go in the future.
"We do have action-driven elements, but also elements of strategy -- hitting an enemy's weak point to stagger it, or watching your timing to block. We feel it's reminiscent of the traditional Final Fantasy strategy, and we're hoping some people who grew up on Final Fantasy will find its strategy element interesting."
Kitase paused for a moment and looked at me. "Now, I have a question," he said. "I'd like to know, would you want to see a turn-based command style return?
"Here's a hypothetical question -- and this is just hypothetical, so don't read too much into this -- what if we were to take a game like, say, Final Fantasy VI that does have the ATB system but is basically command-based. What if we were to take that game and breathe new life into it? Make it into a current-gen game? Would users be OK with it in that turn-based style?"
Of course I said yes, because who wouldn't want to see FFVI remade faithfully but in glorious HD? But did I speak out of turn? How would you feel about a Final Fantasy remake that mixes up-to-date graphics with old-fashioned play mechanics?