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Square Enix devs discuss Lightning Returns ahead of TGS presentation

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Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 will be available for play at the Tokyo Game Show next week, but it's not the first time that the public's gotten a chance to try the game out since E3. On July 27, Square Enix held a "premium experience" event in Japan where 180 members of SCE Japan Asia's online community got a chance to play Lightning Returns. A near-complete build of the game, no less, one fairly well advanced of the E3 demo.

"There were people who couldn't defeat Zartis, the dragon you fight at the end of the tutorial section," game design director Yuji Abe said in an interview with Japan's Famitsu magazine. "So now we have it so you can change the difficulty from normal to easy when you're defeated. That sort of thing."

"We're also adding a feature that lets you put the camera above the battle," added battle design director Nobuyuki Matsuoka. "Lightning generally fights by herself in this game, so normally we pan out the camera so you can view the one-on-one confrontation. However, some gamers told us that when there were two or more foes, they sometimes couldn't tell what enemies were up to when they weren't targeting them. That's what led to this feature."

Can you change the game's difficulty outside of the game's opening sequence, by the way? "You can't do that," Abe said. "It's something you'll have to measure yourself against and figure out before the tutorial boss fight. There's no difference in the game content or the items you get between normal and easy modes, so I don't think gamers need to put that much thought into the decision. Hard mode also gets added after you finish the game the first time."

Lightning Returns marks a pretty big change for FF13's fighting, something that Matsuoka got into some depth on in the interview. "Instead of taking the essentials of the gameplay from FF13 or FF13-2," he explained, "we thought about how to rearrange the system now that Lightning is by herself. So we enhanced the graphics so the visuals never look too lonely or desolate. Also, we set up this game so that the battles are sort of the icing on the cake you can advance through the story without having to go through a lot of trouble. That's why, instead of fighting battles to earn experience and raise your level, you become stronger by finishing quests."

Instead of providing a grinding opportunity for the player, the battles in LR feature more of a strategic element, to the point that even minion-level monsters have things like elemental resistances you need to pay attention to. "With boss-class monsters, if Lightning repeats the same behavior, they'll take action in response to that," Matsuoka said. "In addition, we've also set up things like having monsters that show up in groups to gather together at regular timings, giving you a chance to fell them all at once. There are monsters that take different action between day and night, and some that you can even destroy individual sections of."

Defeating monsters also earns Lightning new abilities, of which there are many. During the July demo session, tons of these abilities were made available to players, allowing some to come up with killer ability combos that could even defeat the final boss of the demo in short order.

"We've fixed that now, but there were a lot of incredible combinations that I really shouldn't talk about," laughed Matsuoka. "There's this vast selection, and you can also power them up by combining them, and so you might just see another combination get discovered after release. We wanted to give players a goal, to have them defeat this or that foe because they want a certain ability. If it becomes plain that you need an ability, I think this system makes it clear what to do next. The closer you get to the end of the world in the game, the stronger the monsters get, but the higher-level the abilities they drop as well."

How do you power-up these abilities? "Abilities each have their own level," Abe said, "and you can only combine abilities of identical level and type. Doing this cuts down on ATB gauge consumption and boosts the effect of the ability. After enhancing an ability to maximum, you can apply a certain item to it to raise its level. However, as mentioned, enemies start dropping high-level abilities as the world starts running out of time, so you can still get high-level ones even if you don't engage in enhancement."

Lightning Returns is due out Nov. 21 in Japan and mid-February in the rest of the world. How long will it take to complete? "It depends on how you play," replied Matsuoka, "but a regular playthrough will take about 20 to 30 hours, I think."

"If you want to trigger all the events across the whole land without skipping anything, I'd say it's about 50 hours," Abe added.