You can read our full preview of Final Fantasy XIII-2 in our print edition.
Our January issue, which is on sale now, features an extensive hands-on preview with Square Enix's new game, of which this interview forms part.
"Final Fantasy games are always an investment. This time, the returns are questionable," concluded our review of Final Fantasy XIII back in issue 213. While taking brave risks, the game's brand of super-linear JRPG polarised audiences and failed to live up to the progressive genius of XII. Now, Square Enix is looking to rectify XIII's "negative issues" with XIII-2, and we caught up with producer Yoshinori Kitase to discuss exactly how the studio's going about it, the newly introduced Mog Clock and the team's love of Red Dead Redemption.
You've been open about XIII not getting the hoped-for reaction from fans – can you identify any elements of the design that were especial sticking points, and what XIII-2 is doing to address them?
I think many players of XIII found it too linear, I think a lot missed some more traditional Final Fantasy features, like minigames. And they would have liked to talk to NPCs more and receive subquests from them. The Historia Crux system is the new interface we’ve developed for XIII-2, which enables the player to enjoy time-travelling elements in the game. So from that interface you can choose a time location you want to explore and go there straight away, and also in each area of the world there are several of these time gates – so if you find a gate and unlock it you can jump to another aspect of that world. So by making different decisions in different worlds you can almost customise the story, and so enjoy a more individual experience in XIII-2.
Secondly, I mentioned minigames. In XIII-2 you will find a casino where you can enjoy slot machines and also chocobo racing and some other minor puzzle elements incorporated into the world. Thirdly the subquests: In XIII-2 we call them 'fragments'. There are many more NPCs in the worlds you can talk to, and from them you get subquests and missions with their own goals and rewards. These make up much more of the overall play than in XIII.
Many fans felt that Final Fantasy XIII moved too far from the core strengths of the series, what's your perspective on that?
I don't think that's really the case. The nature of the franchise is presenting something completely new each time, I don’t think there really is an established model we have to stick to. But having said that we obviously received lots of feedback from fans and comments from the media about the story and mechanics. Because XIII-2 is a sequel to XIII there is certainly an aspect of continuation about it, so we’ve listened to [fans’] opinions very carefully and taken them all on board, but rather than bringing XIII-2 back close to what the franchise used to be, we just wanted to respect those opinions and try and rectify negative issues that many people agreed on.
So when you see the changes in XIII-2 it may come across like we are trying to go back to what we were before, but it's not like that; we really wanted to reflect what people said they wanted to see in XIII.
The Active Time Battle system was one of XIII's more well-received features, what changes are being made to it in XIII-2 and why?
When it comes to the battle system in XIII we wanted to go for two elements: one is speed, the other is strategy. On both counts we felt we did well, but we wanted to do even better in XIII-2. When it comes to speed we’ve added the cinematic action sequences, which are QTE-like moments that break into big fights against bosses. Before, what happened during a boss battle is that an event would play out in CGI and you couldn’t get involved in it, but now in XIII-2 you can type in certain commands and that is reflected visually on the screen, so it’s another type of interaction for us.
In terms of strategy, you can now collect around 150 types of monsters, and each of them comes with their own set of skills and abilities. You can also make them stronger and more powerful, and choose which ones to take into battle, which obviously gives you a very wide range of tactics. We think we've improved both of the core aspects in XIII-2 and it will be much more fun for players.
That sounds similar to Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker. What's the makeup of the internal team working on XIII-2?
The staff who worked on XIII are the team making XIII-2, and though I see there are definitely similarities, I would say the system you see in XIII has one great difference: it's realtime. So your role is mainly switching the monsters in and out to adapt to new situations, it's a different way of doing it than DQMJ.
The QTEs are the kind of thing you’d expect in God Of War or Bayonetta – is Final Fantasy moving towards that type of action in its combat?
In the global market we see many players moving away from games that used turn-based systems and towards what you might term an action RPG. That’s a trend, and you ignore things like that at your peril. That said, FFXIII and FFXIII-2’s battle systems have those elements of speed and action that are the key words for us, though that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to stick to the same route in our next Final Fantasy project. That’s something only time can tell.
XIII-2 also lets players change the difficulty, which is new to the series – was that a response to user feedback?
One of the specific criticisms we received of XIII were that there were several bosses that were very powerful. The game was intended to be quite challenging, that was part of the design, but some gamers just couldn't beat these hard monsters and had to give up. So we wanted to respond to that. Almost everyone starts playing XIII-2 in normal mode, but if that circumstance happens where you get jammed on a particular monster, then you can switch it to 'easy' mode to defeat it. Once you've done that you can switch the general difficulty back to 'normal'.
Does the Mog Clock – which gives players the option to flee a flght – have any downsides?
You've got beneficial sides but there are downsides as well – as soon as you encounter a monster, the moogle clock starts to tick down. So a fast player who responds to this quickly and decides to take this monster on will get advantages. But if you take your time, dawdle, and nevertheless go into the battle, then you have to deal with some disadvantages.
Where does Final Fantasy fit in the RPG world, and how active an eye do you keep on the competition?
I’m not quite sure about calling those games our competitors – we don’t actually look at them in such a way. Having said that, when we moved from XIII to XIII-2 we definitely took inspiration from several contemporary games, though not necessarily RPGs. For example, Red Dead Redemption – we love the game, and play it a lot, and you can’t help but be taken with its world. Skyrim is another game we have been following eagerly. We certainly enjoy playing other companies’ games and learning from them, but we don’t see them as something we’re especially competing against.
In the early days of FFXIII’s development, the Fabula Nova Crystallis project was a big deal for Square Enix. What has XIII’s reception done to this suite of titles – are any cancelled or being re-developed?
Firstly, Type 0 for PSP came out in Japan recently – it’s been received quite well, we think. Then there’s Versus XIII, which is currently in development. We released a trailer in January and since then there has been nothing, but I can assure you the team is working extremely hard on it and I think people will be excited when they next see it.
Was FFXIII a bigger hit in Japan than the west, or vice versa?
FFXIII has enjoyed commercial success of over 6.2 million units sold since its release. Over the three regions, Japan, Europe and America, it’s actually more or less an even split across the three territories. When you look at big western titles they’re often very successful in North America and Europe but not so much in Japan, and vice versa for big Japanese titles. So I think Final Fantasy is one of the very few big-name titles that are big in all three regions.
Motomu Toriyama is directing XIII-2, what do you consider his particular strengths?
He's the director, of course, but he also has big strengths on the production side of things too. For example, we've been talking today about rectifying issues people had with XIII, and he was very pro-active about that. As you know, we've merged with Eidos and this is the closest we've ever been to a western developer in terms of working for the same group, and Toriyami was very quick to have discussions with Eidos people and try to find out from the inside about the European way of making games. In terms of both collecting feedback from the fans and in terms of his interest in western production processes, Toriyama-san has shown great capabilities.