As 1UP's extensive preview points out, this is pretty much Lightning's show now. The battle system has been completely rebuilt to showcase her specific talents. The rest of the cast is out, and so are the battle menus. Lightning Returns isn't quite a full-on action RPG, but it looks pretty close. The only real holdovers are the omnipresent Active Time Battle gauges that moderate the use of each of Lightning's moves, which are mapped to the face buttons on the controller.
It's a move that will prove divisive as always, but I can't hate the reasoning behind it. The pressure's off. Final Fantasy XIII is very much a known quantity. If this is truly to be the grand finale for an already controversial set of games, why not be as experimental as possible?
With little to lose, Square is an ideal position to throw in whatever it wants, and it seems the team are doing just that. The adventure will take place over a limited number of days, for instance, with time serving as a currency of sorts for spells and other abilities. It will also apparently take the story completely off the rails and give Lightning an entire world to explore. These are just a couple of the big ideas that Lightning Returns has on its plate; I'm sure there are plenty more to follow.
Credit Square Enix for couple things. First, for putting in the effort necessary for both Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns to stand on their own, rather than putting out some half-baked semi-sequel. Second, credit it with having the wherewithal to realize that Lightning really was the most popular part of Final Fantasy XIII (not surprising given that she was basically Cloud 2.0), and building the final game in such a way as to feature her as much as possible; i.e., by making her the only character.
Final Fantasy XIII-2
There's been speculation that the new approach is indicative of the future of the franchise, which would seem to make sense in light of comments made by series producer Yoshinori Kitase to Edge last November. "In the global market we see many players moving away from games that used turn-based systems toward what you might term an action-RPG," he noted. But I would caution against making any assumptions about Square Enix's plans for Final Fantasy. This is a franchise that has a long history of throwing out new ideas, then quickly moving on. Change is its M.O.
Anyway, I feel like Lightning Returns is a bit of a unique case in this instance. The original was damaged goods, and Square Enix wanted to do away with the bad as much as possible while emphasizing the good. Lightning, who has always played well as a tough but caring older sister, was one of those positive elements. Mix in a desire to experiment a bit with action-oriented combat, and you get some of what we see here.
Square Enix's main goal, I think, is to ensure that Final Fantasy XIII goes out on a high note. Given that Final Fantasy XIII-2 was actually pretty good, I think they've got a fair shot. Assuming that it does, it would add to what has been a sneaky good run for them since the nadir of Final Fantasy XIV in late 2010. And it would certainly be a step in the right direction for Final Fantasy XV.
With that, history may end up being a little kinder to Final Fantasy XIII than we think. The original will always suffer from the bloat and lack of identity that comes with an overly long development cycle, but it's hard not to admire Square Enix's tenacity in trying to fix the problems that seemed part of its DNA. In the end, it lets us know they still care, and so should we.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.