Preview: ‘Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII’

An open world. A ticking clock. An active battle system. “Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII,” the second sequel to Square Enix’s first outing with pink-haired heroine Lightning seems to be answering for a lot of flack that game and its follow-up, last year’s “XIII-2,” have received from fans and critics alike.

And according to the game’s producer, Yoshinori Kitase, that’s sort of been the theme of this current cycle of “Final Fantasy” titles: a game comes out, the fans have “concerns,” and Square Enix reacts with a host of changes. But what does that do to a game in the long run–simply making it a checklist against fan demands? Or does “Lightning Returns” have enough of its own vision to get the lapsed “FF” fan excited again?

The game’s director (and 19-year Square Enix vet) Motomu Toriyama stood up and warned the three journalists watching the hands-off demo that everything we’d be seeing was a work in progress. While the some of the Japanese-language audio was in, the English subs were simply temporary. The visuals weren’t final, but we’d get a sense of what was going on in the Bavarian-themed metropolis of Luxerion, the main city of “Lightning Returns,” but only one of several destinations for the game’s heroine to visit in her quest to save the world from ending.

Oh, and she only has 13 days to do it.

More than any other change outlined in Toriyama and Kitase’s presentation, this one seems like the one with the most profound impact on how gamers will approach “Lightning Returns.” The steady crawl of time across the ticking clock on the side of the screen (it’s not clear if this UI is final) is a reminder to sprint instead of simply walking or running between locations (although this will cost Lightning some of her rechargeable ATP); look up–maybe there’s a climbable platform that will spare a few precious seconds when getting around the city; the open world between continents might have dungeons to explore and monsters to fight, but with only 13 days and counting down to save it all, maybe using the train is the best way to get between these places. Will players have time to explore the natural splendor of the Wildlands or the deserts and dungeons of the Dead Dunes?

The Kitase and Toriyama were mum on whether there might be ways to extend Lightning’s time in Nova Chrysalis beyond the 13 days (although a New Game+ feature will be available at the completion of the campaign), but this particular addition could be the thing that makes or breaks “Lightning Returns,” a more fluid version of the time management in the “Persona” games, whose freedom can also present the biggest challenge to players. With so many things to do in such a short time, will they be paralyzed by an overabundance of options? There are stalls and vendors to visit where Lightning can buy food and potions to restore her health along with new abilities, along with side quests to tackle and new enemies to defeat using the new combat system. If a player wanders off course or needs a little guidance, “Final Fantasy XIII” character hope serves as an advisor via radio earpiece to Lightning, detailing objectives and identifying points of interest.

Toriyama explained that the world would be active and subject to the kinds of NPC interactions we might expect in an open world game of this type, as we saw Lightning attempt to discover the identity of a serial killer who might be sending her a message. Around 8 AM, the empty streets of town begin to fill up with commuters heading to work and the train stations, providing more NPCs for Lightning to follow/interact with in the pursuit of clues about a mysterious cult with possible ties to the killer. This included a brief stealth segment where Lightning crouched behind pillars to eavesdrop on the conversations of cult members. Possibly anticipating the collective eye roll associated with “RPG,” and “stealth sequence,” Toriyama promised this was only a small part of the overall story.

The “Lightning Returns” team has dragged the combat into the current century with a move towards a customizable active battle system. In the gameplay sequences we were shown, Lightning juggled a side quest enemy called the Behemoth in the air after launching him with a knockdown attack. Enemies throughout the game will have weak points that will allow Lightning to knock them down in combat, letting her deliver a flurry of air-based attacks.

Her fighting styles can be customized and swapped out on the fly during fights using the shoulder buttons, each style possessing its own recharging ATB meter. Lightning too will have a higher level of customization, with a fashion show’s worth of new, upgradeable costumes, weapons, and shields, each with their own effects whose colors can be modified using the in-game menu.

Is there enough here to create excitement for “Lightning Returns?” It should be said again that everything we saw during the presentation was early, although Toriyama says we can expect the final game this fall.

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