Once upon a time, there was a game called Final Fantasy XIII. This was considered a bad idea and made many people very angry.
Me, though, I actually thought it was pretty good. I mean, it was basically the ultimate logical endpoint of the "completely linear" branch of the Final Fantasy tree. (It goes: Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy XIII.) And it did that style pretty well. Some good characters, a great battle system... plus a completely stupid story and hyper-restrictive design. But it was good for what it was. I played it, I reviewed it, I said, "That was fun; now let's never do it again."
Square Enix, however, had different ideas. For some reason, they decided to follow up the most divisive Final Fantasy ever with not one but two direct sequels. The thing is, though, the sequels strayed pretty far from FFXIII's design; Final Fantasy XIII-2 had a slightly non-linear narrative that involved traveling through time. It was surprisingly good, even if it barely resembled a sequel at times.
But FFXIII-2 has nothing on Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII when it comes to flipping the bird to continuity. About the only thing Lightning Returns has in common with FFXIII is the eponymous protagonist, Claire "Lightning" Farron, and the perpetual voice in her ear over the course of her new adventure, Hope Estheim. Everything else is, so far as I can tell, completely different.
The most important thing FFXIII-2 retained from its predecessor was its combat system, the oddly hands-off battle style that saw players primarily playing an advisory role by changing the role of their party members and basically letting the characters auto-battle. It shouldn't have worked, but it did, dealing less in button presses than in charting the overall tide of battle and responding in kind to constantly changing situations.
But forget how well it worked before; Lightning Returns throws it out the window in favor of a single-character combat system that feels like a midpoint between Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X-2. Baffling? A little. But the new system works equally well, giving players tremendous customization and control over how Lightning approaches battle. She can equip up to three combat styles at a time, each of which comes with its own traits and skills (all of which can be adjusted based on gear and abilities).
These custom sets involve different costumes -- hence the FFX-2 connection -- and while there's been an unfortunate emphasis in the press and on forums on some of the more salacious outfits Lightning can don, the majority on display in the Tokyo Game Show demo hew more toward a different kind of fan service. Rather than showing off her fetish-friendly body parts, they call back to previous Final Fantasy games. One of her default costumes basically makes her look like Kain from FFIV, all the way down to her use of spear-based attacks (including a melee combo that ends with her launching into the air and darting downward to impale a target). Other outfits on display include "Heartbreaker," a thief-themed costume that makes her look like she's cosplaying the Yoshitaka Amano concept art of Locke Cole from Final Fantasy VI, and "Admiral," which is a dead ringer for Faris Schweriz from Final Fantasy V. There are also more generic outfits available, like a straight up Red Mage uniform, as well as some that seem to have no connection to anything whatsoever, such as an elaborate ball gown that doesn't precisely scream "combat-ready."
Players can toggle between these costumes instantly with the trigger buttons, and since each outfit has its own Active Time Battle meter, this allows her to keep the battles moving. Each combat style in the demo included some form of melee attack and a guard ability, but these weren't uniformly the same across sets; her mage set, for example, gave her "Rejene Guard" ("Regeneration Guard"), which would seemingly restore a small amount of health as a reward for a perfectly timed block.
But the combat revamp is hardly the biggest change in Lightning Returns. Much more significant is the way it seems to have jumped on the open-world design bandwagon slightly in advance of the rest of the games industry. The TGS demo set me in a rural village, which seemed like a typical Final Fantasy town... but when I did a 180 and headed out of town, I seamlessly stepped into a vast, lush grassland. Other towns could be seen in the distance, and an elaborate castle rose above the nearby mountain range. Just a few years ago, the FFXIII team complained about how difficult it was to create a traditional game structure in quality suitable for high-definition.... but here we are with a Final Fantasy that looks damn good despite its broad vistas and go-anywhere design.
The demo wanted me to go off to some narrow channel of land to do some quest involving chocobos, but my sentiment was, "Screw that." Instead, I set out in the opposite direction, toward the castle. I made it pretty far, actually -- passing the monorail that links the different continents of the world together -- before a Square Enix representative caught me studying the map and running off in the wrong direction. This prompted him to do the usual thing that happens when you play a demo at TGS with the intent of poking at the boundaries of the world rather than following the scripted experience to the letter: He politely told me what I was supposed to be doing with the same cheerful patience you use to address a particularly stupid child. Oh well.
But I was surprised by just how unbounded Lightning Returns' world has turned out to be. When I first heard that the game would be adopting an open-world style, I had concerns about how well they could pull it off given the tubes 'n tunnels style of FFXIII, and even FFXIII-2. But no; Lightning Returns looks legit.
It totally kills me that the game operates on a hard time limit, though. This is the kind of world that makes me want to tell the plot to go shove off while I wander aimlessly to see the sights. Preferably as my heroine kills monsters while wearing a pretty a ball gown. Just because you're stomping slimes in a mission to avert the apocalypse doesn't mean you can't look good, dammit.