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Lightning Returns: solving mysteries and changing outfits in the strangest Final Fantasy yet

Lightning Returns is virtually nothing like Final Fantasy 13

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 does not look like a direct sequel to the previous two Final Fantasy 13 releases. It barely resembles what gamers have come to expect from a Final Fantasy game at all. And maybe Square has good reason for that.

As he introduces Lighting Returns to North American press for the first time, producer Yoshinori Kitase throws around some numbers about the previous games. Final Fantasy 13 shipped 6.6 million copies across two platforms. 13 and 13-2 combined have sold a total of 9.7 million. Kitase doesn't mention what putting those two numbers together reveals: There was a drop-off of over 3 million players between Final Fantasy 13 and its sequel. Whether it was disappointment in the first game, lack of interest in the follow-up or something else entirely, nearly half of the people who bought Final Fantasy 13 didn't return.

A new more direct naming scheme is just one of the ways that Square hopes to draw players back with Lightning Returns. "We wanted a new title because Lightning Returns is a completely new gameplay experience," Kitase says.

Kitase breaks the trilogy down as such: Final Fantasy 13 was story-driven to a fault; Final Fantasy 13-2 was player-driven; Lightning Returns is world-driven. The more developed world of the game is named Nova Chrysalia, but players will be spending a major portion of their time in Luxerion, a continent-sized metropolis known as "the divine city of light and prayer."

Though plot details remain minimal and mystifying, director Motomu Toriyama explains that Lightning Returns takes place several centuries after Final Fantasy 13-2. Following the shocking events of that game's ending, the citizens of this world have ceased aging. Series main character Lightning — who was absent for most of 13-2 — has to patrol Luxerion, helping the immortal populace with its many problems in attempt to slow the approach of the end of the world.

But no matter what you do, the world is going to end. With a 13-day clock that's constantly ticking down, NPC schedules to memorize for sidequests and serious time management concerns, the structure of Lightning Returns has drawn comparisons to The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. However, Toriyama says they were inspired by something else entirely: the doomsday clock. Unlike Majora's Mask (and similar to the real-world doomsday clock), causing specific changes within the world of Lightning Returns will delay your countdown to the end of the world. Even with that mechanic in place, Toriyama says time will be limited. It won't be possible to do everything in a single run, and the team is encouraging multiple playthroughs with several ways to solve quests and a new-game-plus system that will allow some progress to be carried over.

Toriyama is vague about what actions Lightning will be able to perform to increase how long her world lasts, but he gives some clues during a live demo of the game. In the portion of the game I saw, Lightning essentially takes on the role of detective, prowling the streets of Luxerion and interrogating witnesses to find clues to a series of grisly murders.

Lightning Returns is virtually nothing like Final Fantasy 13

No, really. It's nothing like what I expected.

Contrary to the sparsely populated settings that comprised most of Final Fantasy 13 and 13-2, Luxerion is a sprawling city full of NPCs to interact with. When Lightning finds someone who provides a serious hint for the mystery, the game helpfully informs you that a major clue has been found. But as far as Toriyama shows, it's left to the player to track down these clues and piece together the direction that they're pointing. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of hand-holding nor a giant star pointing exactly where you need to go on the mini-map.

It's virtually nothing like Final Fantasy 13, in other words.

Lightning's investigation eventually points her in the direction of a mysterious, cult-like gathering of individuals, which leads to another unexpected addition: a stealth sequence. Without hands-on time and in its early state, it's difficult to tell how this portion will actually play, but I'm shown several scenes of Lightning hiding behind boxes and pillars or around corners as she spies on the group in question.

Finally, they reach their destination, a phone booth in front of a giant gate. Lightning sneaks close enough to overhear their conversation. As they give the person on the other side a passcode, the gate opens long enough for them to run through. Toriyama says that discovering this passcode, which changes each day in the game, will be a significant part of Lightning's investigation into the serial murders.

It may seem odd to go this long in a Final Fantasy preview without talking about the battle system at all, but that's how deep into the demo Toriyama gets before it comes up. Like everything else in Lightning Returns, combat has been totally overhauled and reimagined. The fights from the previous Final Fantasy 13 games were already fast-paced, but Lightning Returns plays out more like a traditional action game, giving players direct control over Lightning in real-time combat.

Each face button on the controller is dedicated to a specific combat option. Using the PS3 version as an example, one build may have triangle as the basic melee attack, square as a block move, circle as a fire spell, and the x button as an ice spell.

Players will be able to change which combat options are available for mapping to the buttons by changing Lightning's "style" — or, more specifically, her outfit. The styles have names that are reminiscent of options from the previous Final Fantasy 13 paradigm system — equilibrium, sorceress, crescent moon, etc. — but they're tied directly to what Lightning is wearing. A melee focused class might include the bulky Valkyrie armor from the game's promos, while one of the magic-centric classes shows off Lightning in a surprisingly tasteful, elegant full-body dress.

Lightning Returns plays out like a traditional action game

Though it may sound something like Final Fantasy 10-2's dress sphere system, the styles in Lightning Returns are actually more customizable than anything from previous Final Fantasy games, both visually and in terms of gameplay. Players will be able to alter the color of each costume, and when you equip one, you can choose from a long list of possible skills to map alongside it. New skills will be purchased from shops, and it looks like there will be tons to choose from.

Though combat is now much faster, the ATB (active time battle) gauge that has been a part of Final Fantasy games for years is still present, albeit in a much different form. Players can go into battle with three different styles equipped, each with its own ATB gauge on screen. As you use attacks in one style, it will drain that specific gauge. Swapping to a different style by using the shoulder buttons will allow any styles not currently in use to slow refill their ATB meter. As with the paradigm system in previous Final Fantasy 13 releases, it's clear that fast, smart style changes will be necessary to succeed in tougher fights.

Toriyama says players will be able to approach battles how they want using the style system. The stagger mechanic from Final Fantasy 13 and 13-2 had combatants filling up a meter that would eventually "stagger" an enemy, leaving them open to more powerful attacks. In Lightning Returns, a similar mechanic called "knockdowns" is used. Enemies will have multiple weak points related to different styles that can be exploited to send them into a knockdown.

Toriyama shows us an example of knockdowns in action. Lightning accepts a sidequest from a random NPC to stop a behemoth that's rampaging through town. "If you're more into strategic RPG combat," Toriyama explains, "you can stand back and use your thunder spell, which the behemoth is weak to." For those more comfortable getting up close, a perfectly-timed block can operate as a parry, knocking the monster back for more hits — a system borrowed directly from action games.

Toriyama notes that battles in Lightning Returns will almost entirely be one-on-one affairs. As such, healing-focused classes and spells are no longer in the game. Options for restoring Lightning's HP during fights are limited to popping a potion, while outside of combat there will be numerous restaurants and taverns to visit for topping off your health.

Though monsters will show up in the city of Luxeria, especially at night, Lightning Returns has some less urban settings sure to be full of creatures. At the end of the presentation, Toriyama shows brief clips of a giant, open forest and valley zone called The Wildlands and a desert area called the Dead Dunes that will feature more traditional dungeons in the form of various abandoned ruins.

If you're wondering about the rest of the Final Fantasy 13 cast, Toriyama confirms that Hope will be aiding Lightning throughout the game. 13-2 co-star Noel will return in a more antagonistic role, attacking Lightning in one cutscene. And if you're not a Final Fantasy fan and have found yourself burned by attempts to get interested in previous releases, the shake-ups in Lightning Returns may finally be enough to pull you in.

The first look at Lightning Returns is a lot to take in, especially if you're expecting a clearer continuation of the story and gameplay systems from the previous Final Fantasy 13 releases. Final Fantasy 13 and 13-2 both had some sizable problems, but I grew to love their intense battle mechanics. For as much as I'm sure I would have enjoyed revisiting the paradigm system, I'm more excited to see Square try something wild, different and unexpected. It could be a complete trainwreck, but it's going to be interesting either way.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 is planned for a global launch this fall.

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