Final Fantasy 13 Lightning Returns Returns PS3 preview – what Have Square got planned for the third 13?
Do, however, expect a giant leap for leaping. And clambering, and sneaking. This is the most physical Final Fantasy yet, giving you a range of movement and environmental challenges not seen in the series before. To gather evidence and interrogate locals, you need to hoist yourself up ladders, jump between platforms and sneak behind boxes to tail people. But although it’s unprecedented, the physicality came naturally when dealing with a lone protagonist, says Toriyama. “It was a big challenge to implement this new element,” he explains. “But obviously in normal Final Fantasy games there are three characters and here there’s just one, so we’re in a good position to allocate more energy, to make her moves more varied and interesting.” Still, the city’s not just an adventure playground. There are shops to buy abilities from, plus restaurants to eat in and gain a few HP. It looks a long way from being a convincing urban environment right now, but time’s on Square Enix’s side with the game pencilled in for an autumn release.
After chinwagging with all and sundry round the city, Lightning pinpoints that a gang of mysterious religious zealots in white hooded robes are likely the culprits. Now she must sneak through the streets and eavesdrop on a four-digit passcode that’ll get her into her compound, which – wait, what? Renaissance-styled city? Climbing and jumping? Hooded zealots? Stealth? What’s going on here? Did Lightning spend the past 500 years locked inside Ubisoft HQ? Comparing one game to another is all too easy, but the parity to Assassin’s Creed here is undeniable. Until you enter combat, anyway.
Remember how you could control characters in a fight with the left stick in 13-2? Well, now you can do that, and also map abilities to buttons, giving combat an action game vibe. The redesign’s might rile purists but now Lightning is the only character you control in combat, it makes a lot of sense to quicken the pace and allow more immediate feedback. You don’t have to watch an enemy begin its drawn-out pre-attack animation that allows you to get into guard mode – now you can use it as a block, à la fighting games, as and when the blows head your way.
Toriyama claims the new battle system is “the most important change” in the whole game, and much of that comes down to an overhaul of the Active Time Bar, or ATB. There are a ridiculous three of them on-screen now, teaming up with the health bar in the bottom left to create what the team’s calling the ‘amazing ATB’ (which is a bit like giving yourself a nickname). “In order to make Lightning’s battles much cooler than previous titles,” he explains, “you can control Lightning like in [an] action game.”
Each of the ATBS represents one of Lightning’s costumes (stay with us), to which you can assign particular abilities, weapons and shields. Just as the last game gave you the chance to prepare different loadouts for different enemies, these costumes let you adopt different styles mid-battle, and having three means you don’t have to sit around waiting for one to refill before you can attack. Initially it looks complicated, obtuse even – but as an NPC challenges Lightning to find and kill the Behemoth who’s been terrorising the block, we see it in action and it makes much more sense. Your foe’s no pushover, and where before you might have tasked one party member with healing while the other switched between guard and attack, now you react on the fly.
There’s also no sign of the creatures you used in 13-2, which means all you’re really doing in a fight is flipping between ATBs. Is that going to be enough in a 30+ hour RPG, or is Square Enix holding something back as yet? Cross everything it’s the latter.
Lightning’s in for her biggest challenge yet here, for better or worse. There’s plenty of potential in the concept of losing and gaining time depending on your actions, and it really looks like this ‘world-driven’ gameplay offers actual exploration and freedom, not the recycled areas 13-2 hawked. Put the two together and you’re looking at one charmingly odd game. But you’re also looking at a game with an unproven combat system that risks coming off as shallow. Most worryingly, you get the feeling the dev is trying to appeal to both the series hardcore and new players all at once, and there’s a real danger that in doing so it’ll trip up. Just as Lightning has to keep a keen eye on the clock if she wants to save the world, Square Enix has some tight work on the cards to do this ambitious project justice.