Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII – Square Enix switches tack

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The city of Luxerion is a stark contrast to the tight corridors of Final Fantasy XIII. Crowds of NPCs wander the streets, and Lightning – back once more in the hands of players – is able to explore these paths freely. There’s a day/night cycle, sidequests to pick up and roaming monsters to battle. It’s the rich, dynamic space that’s been sorely missing from an increasingly static series.

The architecture is ornate, classical and reminiscent of the sun-washed stone of Assassin’s Creed’s Renaissance Italy – and the similarities don’t end with the setting. Lightning is on the trail of a secretive cult, and we see snippets of her investigation, such as tailing hooded figures through winding streets and climbing rooftops. Square Enix says that quests will offer a variety of gameplay types to supplement the series’ trademark Active Time Battles.

In one example, Lightning must discover a numerical code in order to access the cult’s headquarters. The digits are hidden around Luxerion, scribbled on walls in hard-to-reach places. To form the password, she has to explore the city, collect the numbers and then piece them together in the correct order. Such variations in pace and quest structure should stop this game feeling like a procession of battles linked by lengthy cutscenes.

The majority of our demo is spent in Luxerion, but we do get some glimpses of other environments. In the Dead Dunes, we see Lightning sliding down banks of sand and exploring ancient ruins, echoing Journey. The Wildlands are home to lush forests and small towns filled with quest-giving villagers. Each island will offer a different style of quest, and Square Enix boldly claims that some of these isles are so large you can get lost in them.

Wherever you go, Lightning is the protagonist. The reason behind this, director Motomu Toriyama explains, is that there’s never been a strong lead female in the series before (he doesn’t count Terra). Lightning’s visually striking, sure, especially in her ostentatious new costumes, but her sullen demeanour – many have called her FFXIII’s answer to VII’s brooding Cloud Strife – doesn’t make for the most charismatic lead.

Like any Final Fantasy hero worth their salt, Lightning’s on a quest to save the world. The twist here is that she only has 13 days to do it. Throughout the game, a timer keeps you informed about how many days remain before the apocalypse. It’s difficult not to think of Majora’s Mask, although it seems Lightning won’t be able to manipulate time in the way Link did. Clocks are dotted around the environment, serving as a constant reminder that you’re battling against minutes as well as monsters. Many quests can only be picked up or completed at night, and some NPCs only appear at set points in the day.

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