One of this year's big releases for Square Enix is, of course, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII – and last week was the first opportunity of 2013 for a select few press to get see some early code.
The event took place in the beautiful city of Paris, and as well as a great insight into how the game's development is coming along, none other than the game's producer Yoshinori Kitase and director Motomu Toriyama were on hand to answer a few questions.
Needless to say, we tagged along… here you'll find our impressions of the day – and look out in the next few days for an interview with the main men themselves.
The demonstration took place at a trendy screening room in the centre of the city, and when everybody had arrived we were ushered into the presentation area. Sinking into our cosy armchairs, we looked on at the projector screen displaying a large gleaming Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII logo and waited for it all to begin. We weren't disappointed.
The presentation began with a look-back by Kitase-san at the extensive Final Fantasy heritage. Over the past 25 years, Final Fantasy has grown into one of the largest RPG franchises in the history of videogames, and boasts a name that resonates with most gamers out there today. To be reminded to the awesome numbers we're talking about here - 100 million units shipped to-date, with 9.7 million of those being XIII and XIII-2 alone.
Kitase-san explained his belief that the defining feature of Final Fantasy games are vivid worlds and dramatic stories, and it's primarily this aspect which has led to the franchise being welcomingly received across North America, Europe, Japan, and Asia.
He went on to say that the XIII series owes a lot of its success to Lightning as a character, and that she's often considered quite distinctive within the Final Fantasy franchise. Lightning Returns is an opportunity to bring not only a closing chapter to a series that has been so heavily story driven, but also to create a brand new title that returns control of Lightning to the players and gives them a new gameplay experience.
Kitase-san pointed out that all of the decisions behind Lightning Returns have been led by feedback from the fans, a theme which has been prevalent over the course of the trilogy, in order to deliver gameplay and a story experience to satisfy the fans.
Like every fan out there, we were eager to see how the game was shaping up, and once the presentation moved onto a gameplay video it was hard to contain our excitement.
The first shot showed Lightning getting off a train, and this was our introduction to Luxerion - one of four continents connected by a train network, and arguably one of the most important places in the game. It was impossible not to admire a large, gothic-looking clock in the main court, when an undistinguishable figure toppled from the rooftop in what appeared to be a public hanging. After the initial panic from passers-by had subsided, a closer look revealed that the body was actually nothing more than a doll with an uncanny resemblance to our saviour, Lightning. Creepy.
It turns out there's been a bunch of murders, with each of the victims looking somewhat like Lightning – but what's this all about??
After investigating these murders and talking to witnesses Lightning is directed to a group of unknown, hooded characters that are thought to have played a part in these dark crimes. Hidden behind boxes, creeping around corners and staying out of sight, Lightning tracked the suspects through the town until they reached a gated building.
At this point, Toriyama-san explained that while stealth gameplay is a feature we've not seen before in the series, it doesn’t play a significant role through Lightning Returns, and was actually exclusive to this part of the story.
Concealed from view, Lightning watched the hooded group closely, discovering that to move beyond the gate and learn the truth about the murders needed a security code, which changed daily.
With that, the video ended and the live gameplay presentation began – our first chance to see some of the game's new concepts in action! Catching up with Lightning the following morning we discover that she only has a single day left to save the world from destruction. The in-game time was early morning, around 7:30am, and as a result there weren't too many of the city's residents on the streets – but it wouldn't be long before people started arriving on the train, going to work and getting on with their lives as best they could.
As you'd imagine, with the impending doom there's a very distinct depressive aura surrounding the inhabitants of Luxerion – yet the place does feel like a very real, very living world. HP Potions don't need to be your only source of health regeneration, and you can head to a restaurant to eat some wholesome food for the same effect – plus other abilities can be buffed in a similar fashion… for a price.
As we watched Lightning navigate her way through the streets and back alleys of Luxerion we saw just how Lightning's field abilities worked. Players are able to jump, run, dash and climb their way through the city, and there are hidden secrets and side missions ripe for discovery.
But back to the action, and next we saw Lightning run through the hustle and bustle of the business district, before long coming across a young girl who's survived an attack by a gigantic creature that's emerged among the chaos of the city and is causing wide-spread panic. Bounty hunters and soldiers have so far failed to defeat the monster, so of course Lightning takes it upon herself to deal with this threat.
This, frankly, is the moment we've really been waiting for – a look at the battle system for Lightning Returns. Before we start, we're shown the customisation options available to Lightning. Each of her outfits has different abilities and skills - such as Guard, Dash, and Thunder - which you can assign to different buttons. While the costumes, weapons and shield each have their own distinctive style, you'll be able to customise the colours of them separately, so that you can design you own version of Lightning that more resembles your own character.
After calibrating a series of costumes for the impending battle we follow Lightning round a close-knit path of alleyways to find a Behemoth attacking the residents of Luxerion. Because several hundred years have passed since the last game in the trilogy the Behemoth is in the strongest form we've seen it yet – pretty hardcore. Toriyama-san mentioned at this point that we'll also be seeing a number of new monsters, with each world providing their own very different enemies.
Like the previous games before it Lightning can gain an advantage in battle by dashing in behind the beast before initiating the battle, however the big difference in the combat this time around is that players now have much greater control over Lightning's movement – with the ability to dodge and move around your enemy, in real-time, using the left stick on the controller.
Three ATB gauges at the bottom of the screen now allow you to see the time left for each costume (and therefore set of abilities), which means that the key to success is monitoring those different gauges and tactically changing to the correct costume at the right time. This new sense of freedom in the battle coupled with three different sets of costumes has the unique benefit of blending action and strategy for an entirely new combat system, which in Japan they've labelled the Amazing Active Time Battle (ATB) System.
It's very clear while we're being shown the gameplay that, despite being early code, a high level of visual quality is still paramount to the developers - arguably one of the most iconic qualities of Final Fantasy games. All of the fantastical special effects that we've come to expect from Final Fantasy games are completely new for Lightning Returns, and when the gameplay demonstration ended we were also able to check out a short video detailing a few other areas of the game that we'll be able to experience.
The Wildlands are full of nature, green plains, towering mountains, and spotted with small villages to explore, while the Dead Dunes, are filled with dungeons and ruins to explore, creating a unique element of adventure-based gameplay.
And while - undoubtedly - Lightning Returns is a game that is a game that will cater for the fans of Lightning, it wouldn't be the same without some familiar characters from the Final Fantasy XIII series. Noel Kreiss returns, but this time with a palpable darkness around him. As the world's saviour Lightning must rescue people like Noel from the darkness in their hearts. Noel and Lightning were even fighting each other during the presentation! Why could this be?
Toriyama-san also revealed a brand new character, Lumina! Visually she looks very much like Serah and has a mysterious air to her. Unfortunately Toriyama-san wouldn't budge on any more details about Lumina – just revealed that you're going to find out who she is by playing through the main story.
One final gift from the developers before the presentation ends was an extended version of our first look trailer (below) with the exciting news that Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is coming to you in Autumn 2013!
Lots here to re-read and digest, naturally – but there's more to come. We'll be bringing you our interview with from Kitase-san and Toriyama-san (featuring questions from you!) very soon.