As the last installment in what is now the Final Fantasy trilogy, it goes without saying that Square Enix has persisted on a set of games that were met with mixed feelings within the Final Fantasy community. Love it or hate it, common criticisms have always centered on the game’s linearity or its less than stellar plot coupled with a dragging out of a world that – while interesting on paper – in execution had much left to be desired. With the final installment looming one has to wonder if a common theme is hidden somewhere in a series never meant to be one or if Square Enix was essentially making things up as they went along as we enter nearly ten long years since the original game’s inception.
Long before the advent of Final Fantasy XIII itself there was Fabula Nova Crystallis. Drawn up by series writer Kazushige Nojima, the mythology has served as a set of guidelines for FFXIII and other Final Fantasy titles that set the pace as an overarching vehicle for the story. These “guidelines” have their roots in the various gods that exist in the world as well as the humans created by them who then have a preordained fate thrust upon them. Because of this, there has always been a sort of struggle between the humans and the burden of said fate tasked to them by the gods of the world. For example, in the first installment – Final Fantasy XIII – the sign of the l’Cie is considered an inexorable destiny and Lightning and her friends struggle to gain their freedom. In keeping with that theme, Lightning will work as mankind’s savior in this final send-off as she and potentially others attempt to fight fate once again.
With Fabula Nova Crystallis as the cornerstone of this XIII trilogy, the universe itself has set up its own creation mythology, including a handful of gods that attempt to dictate the happenings in the worlds. According to a video produced and shown exclusively in Japan in 2011, the universe of FNC is divided into two: the Mortal World where the souls of the living reside, and the Unseen World where the dead take their place. The extensive back-story for this mythology has gone on to span various novels as well as the blanket foundation for the upcoming Final Fantasy XV, however as producer Yoshinori Kitase explains, much of that content will remain in its homeland for the time being.
“In terms of the novellas that expand from the basic mythos, there was the Episode i novella that was translated for XIII-2,” explained Kitase. “Of course, if the demand is high, we would consider it, but for the most part we want to concentrate on the main games. The novels that expand on the original story aren’t imperative to read in order to enjoy the main content of the mythos that is present in the games.”
“LIGHTNING RETURNS IS MUCH MORE FAST-PACED WITH BATTLES PLAYING HOST TO A VARIETY OF SPECTACULAR ELEMENTAL ATTACKS.”
During a recent demo of Lightning Returns with Kitase and game design director Yuji Abe, the pair told Nova Crystallis that they do have a bit of hope when it comes to players eventually looking back on this trilogy once they play the latest game. “I hope that when players play this game, they can relate to that aspect in real life,” said Kitase. “When you’re facing a struggle in your own life, I hope that it can help with facing that struggle, whether it’s finding a way to break through or finding your own way to break free, and coming to terms with that struggle.”
Compared to its predecessors, Lightning Returns is much more fast-paced with battles playing host to a variety of spectacular elemental attacks. According to Kitase, the team wanted to revamp everything while maintaining recurring elements such as fire spells. “Almost all of the effects have been updated to be more flashy and exciting,” he explained. “That was a major factor in incorporating these new elements, but at the same time, the only playable character in this installment is Lightning. You don’t have a party with you, so we had to figure out how to make everything visually interesting to watch with just one person battling enemies. Abe-san, the game design director, brainstormed ideas on making it visually interesting, and that’s how the thought of filling the screen with elemental effects came about.
“You may have already seen it in the various trailers, but there are also other familiar spells from the Final Fantasy universe like Flare or Tornado, and they’re definitely going to make a reappearance in LR. We upped the ante on those spells, so we hope you look forward to seeing them in the final game.”
In the midst of the Wildlands demo – in which Lightning is tasked to save the injured white chocobo, the Angel of Valhalla – Lightning’s movements within the battle arena itself are paced in a manner unusual to the typical Action RPG. As she must keep enemies within her attack range, Lightning approaches them with a deliberate pace despite the player having the option to speed her up outside of fights with the press of a button. According to Yuji Abe, there isn’t necessarily a specific movement or ability to increase her stance in battle; the key here will be to manage your defenses. “Timing and distance is very important in blocking incoming attacks,” explained Abe. “While there won’t be abilities to aid directly in Lightning’s movement, there will be abilities that help with sidestepping in the middle of spell casting or evading an enemy’s attacks.”
The main story of Lightning Returns itself has been largely left to mystery despite little bits and pieces explained in the numerous trailers released over the year. Recently, Square Enix shared a new main visual to let fans know that the gang from XIII and XIII-2 would be returning in full force – although for reasons unknown, only Lightning and Snow received massive makeovers while the others have essentially worn the same outfits for 500 years of game time. Kitase told us the reason for that design choice is steeped in part of the game’s narrative.
“After the events of XIII-2, the world was consumed in Chaos,” said Kitase. “Time stopped, people stopped aging, people stopped dying, and new lives weren’t being born. Things became very stagnant after the events of XIII-2, and each character that appeared in the previous installments has been living in a frozen timeline and stayed where they’ve been for a few hundred years.
“FOR DLC OUTFITS FOR THE OVERSEAS MARKET WE’RE STILL FINALIZING THE DETAILS.”
“In Snow’s case, his new look stems from how he’s the ruler of Yusnaan. In terms of Noel, his outfit has changed in some subtle ways, and his new appearance in the story is as a vigilante that operates in darkness, and he faces off with Lightning and opposes her. Vanille also will have a prominent role in the story, and her clothing had some tweaks as well. So in general, we’ve made some updates and tweaks in costume design relative to the new roles that each character takes in the story of Lightning Returns.”
One of the key elements of Lightning Returns centers on Lightning’s set of interchangeable clothing. Players will have the ability to switch in real time between different Schema that allow for defensive, offensive an other magic type abilities to be had. Many of the costumes in the game are actually inspired by classic Final Fantasy job classes but Square Enix has decided to take things a step further. Lightning will be able to find herself in the wears of characters from franchise past including Cloud Strife from FFVII and Yuna from FFX. At this year’s Tokyo Game Show, Yoshinori Kitase revealed yet another familiar fanservice garb on the way to Japanese fans in the form of Aerith Gainsborough – one currently exclusive to that market by way of a bonus for purchasing the game’s guide. We asked Kitase what would become of that outfit and other retail exclusive pre-order garbs when approaching the western market. “For DLC outfits for the overseas market we’re still finalizing the details,” explained Kitase. “In terms of exclusivity to a specific region, we try not to make it so that it is just Japan or just one region, so it might not be in the exact form – like buying a strategy guide to get a costume – but we’ll try to make sure that we are able to offer material for all of the regions in some way.”
In the Japanese version of the game, Lightning is voiced by Maaya Sakamoto – who incidentally also provides the voice for Aerith in the Compilation of FFVII and her other voiced appearances. That connection immediately stuck out to me as I saw the announcement video roll. The concept itself has its merits – once equipped, Lightning will sport Aerith’s weapon and animations. Square Enix has been mum when it comes to explaining what happens beyond that, although Kitase clarified that these bonus elements will go beyond just the aesthetic appeal into possible dialogue alterations. While not part of the game as a serious, main story element, Lightning will pick up various lines as well as their corresponding victory pose from each game as well as other FF nods easily recognizable by fans. Unfortunately, such bonuses won’t really be seen outside of battles.
But what about other characters? Surely with Final Fantasy sitting on over 25 years of rich history they might dig some other popular ones out of the closet? “Well…” laughed Kitase. “This is also still under consideration so please look forward to future information.”
I asked Kitase and Abe what was next for them and their team as the development on Lightning Returns wraps up. Kitase said that as the team has been apart of this project for quite some time now – the better part of a decade now – they’ll definitely be moving on but the future is still undecided. “We’ll definitely be moving on after the XIII Project comes to an end, but we still haven’t started up the new project so we can’t really describe it,” he said. “At the end of FFXIII-2, when we were asked on the same question we could say that we would work on the third installment which is now Lightning Returns. This time we don’t know yet, so we’ll be starting on the planning process in the near future.”