Digital Spy spoke with producer Yoshinori Kitase and game design director Yuji Abe to find out more about the inspiration behind the time limit, what downloadable content they have lined up and why Final Fantasy is still relevant today.
Was it always planned to deliver a trilogy of games with the Final Fantasy XIII name which have had such varied mechanics from one game to the next?
Yoshinori Kitase: "When we first started the XIII series, we didn't actually have a plan to create a trilogy of three games. For the first one, we had the Fabula Nova Crystallis crystal legends mythology laid out, and that formed the backbone to the game's story.
"After we finished that, we thought we'd like to explore the mythology and the stories in it a little bit further, and that was part of what we wanted to do with XIII-2.
"So when we came to create XIII-2 and we were trying to expand and explore this world and the characters in it, we sort of then had the idea of Lightning Returns as the third game, and that's when it kind of came into view that we were going to be doing a trilogy."
Do you think the mechanics and ideas introduced in Lightning Returns will return in future Final Fantasy games, or are they a one-off?
Yoshinori Kitase: "The next Final Fantasy game in the series, XV, was announced last year, so you've heard about that. That's actually been developed by a different team to our one here, myself and Abe-san here, who made Lightning Returns. They're probably going to be doing something quite different and using completely different systems in their game.
"From our point of view, the team we're involved with, for our next game - it's quite difficult to say really but no, we're probably going to be doing something quite a bit different. Maybe some influences somewhere but I don't think we'll be using exactly the same systems and the ideas in the same way."
Lightning Returns sets players a time limit - the game must be finished within 13 in-game days. What inspired that idea?
Yuji Abe: "One of the inspirations for the doomsday idea came from a presentation on a TV show. There was this academic who had drawn up an end-of-the-world clock, with the idea being: this is the time left for humanity, and if the whole human existence was depicted as a clock face with 12 hours on it, where are we now at this point?
"Then he explained, 'This year this happened in the world, so the clock's been moved forward or pulled back a couple minutes', and he was tracking the progress in humanity towards extinction using that kind of method.
"I thought it was a really interesting and exciting way of showing that kind of information, and it really got me thinking about how we could maybe use that in the game. So, that was the original inspiration behind the clock and the countdown.
"And then the reason that it's 13 days is, in the original Final Fantasy XIII, the events happened over a period of 13 days - it was in the original setup for the story. So we thought it'd be great to bring it back at the end in the final part of the series and show the final 13 days of the world. It fit in quite nicely."
Many RPG fans like to do every single sidequest and max out the characters' levels, which clashes slightly with the time limit concept. How does Lightning Returns accommodate those players?
Yuji Abe: "One of the things we've got for them is the New Game Plus function, where if you complete the game, you get to keep all of your skills and abilities, all of your weapons and items that you collected, and play on back from the beginning and continue expanding your collection from there. So for them, they can just carry on from there."
Lightning Returns was released in Japan late last year. What has been the response to downloadable costumes from fans?
Yoshinori Kitase: "The idea of what we were trying to do with DLC for Lightning Returns is a bit different to what we tried for XIII-2. We really wanted a costume change system where you'll have enough toys and enough variation in the main game without DLC to enjoy it.
"The extra costumes are very much a fan service kind of idea, stuff that people would like as an added extra or a thing on top. There's quite a lot of good feedback coming in from Japan about that. People seem to like that. But there are a number of people who are asking for new costumes as well, so there's still a healthy demand for that."
What level of downloadable content are you planning for Lightning Returns in the West?
Yoshinori Kitase: "The basic schedule for the DLC that's coming out in Europe is pretty much exactly the same as the Japanese one. Everything in Japan is going to be released over here as well.
"Obviously, the Tomb Raider costume is based on a very popular franchise in Europe. It was released in Japan as well a bit later on, but because Tomb Raider is such a big fan favourite game here, that's available on the first day of release. That's going to be coming out first. But the overall content is exactly the same."
Final Fantasy XIII-2 had several costume cameos from other franchises, such as Mass Effect. Will we see other franchises appearing in Lightning Returns, too?
Yoshinori Kitase: "Like you said, for XIII-2 we introduced Mass Effect and Assassin's Creed costumes in there. The coming together of the fortuitous circumstances for that to happen was quite original and quite unique, really. But the reaction to that was very mixed.
"There were obviously some people who enjoyed that content, but there were quite a few people as well who really thought the idea of blurring boundaries between game universes and bringing in costumes and characters from other universes was a bit weird, and they didn't like it.
"So I think this time we decided to steer clear of that in a bigger way and maintain the boundaries between different people's franchises and properties.
"Obviously, the big exception to that is Tomb Raider because it's one of our games in the Square Enix group, who owns that, and also the common points are there - they both have strong female lead characters - so we thought it was a good fit there."
The mixed reception is interesting. The DLC is optional. Players don't have to buy it.
Yoshinori Kitase: "Yeah, I probably agree with you there, but we got that kind of reaction from both sides, really. The Final Fantasy fanbase, some of them really didn't like the idea, and then we had Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect fans who didn't want that. We thought it might be a bit better to steer clear of that this time.
"On the other hand, looking at the feedback we got for other DLC costumes in XIII-2, the ones that actually got a really good reception were the classic Final Fantasy costumes, like the white mage costume and the various ones that called back legendary characters from Final Fantasy.
"So for Lightning Returns, we thought maybe we should more go down that road, so you've got the Cloud, Yuna and Aeris costumes. That seemed to be what people want and we took that on board."
Was there a discussion to bring Lightning Returns to PS4 or Xbox One at any point?
Yoshinori Kitase: "There are no concrete plans for doing it. Technically, it would be perfectly possible. It'd probably take about half a year to get all that sorted and get the port done. But at the moment, it's not on the table."
What kind of experiences do you think next-gen consoles can bring?
Yuji Abe: "There are two basic aspects. Firstly, what you can fit into a single scene or a single shot or a single area in a game - the amount of expressive power you've got available in the new consoles - is going to be vastly improved.
"For example, you look at recent games on the PS3 like The Last of Us or Heavy Rain, those really cinematic-type experiences, which are trying to portray a scene and some of the emotions through that and the story, and I think that the new generation of consoles is really going to allow you to do a lot more to those individual scenes and make them a lot more deep and a lot more detailed.
"And then on the other hand, you've got the gameplay side of it. You can have so many more objects on scenes, more characters running around, and more into that area. If you can really try and play with that, you'll have some new kinds of experiences. Those two main ones, those main aspects are what the new consoles can bring."
Have you had much time with the PS4 and Xbox One development kits? If so, what are your thoughts on them?
Yoshinori Kitase: "Personally, I've just come off the Lightning Returns project, so I haven't had a chance to directly play with it or have a look at it yet. But certainly within the team, some of the programmers have decided to take on all the new hardware and how to look at it and see what it can do. So they probably have more of an opinion than me. But I haven't personally looked at it yet, but I will."
The HD remasters of Final Fantasy X and X-2 seemed to take a long time in development. Why was that?
Yoshinori Kitase: "First of all, it was the first time we've actually ever done a HD remaster and such a conversion like this, so that was one reason it took as long as it did.
"Then, certainly, a lot of it is to do with the fact that the original games were on the PS2, because the PS2 itself, when it came out, it was clearly a very advanced, high-specced and powerful machine.
"But the thing about it was, it had a very specific hardware set and games programmed for that had to be specifically tailored and made in a specific way, and it's actually not very similar to many other consoles at all, so there was a really big gap between doing something for the PS2 and other platforms. For example, the reason that the PS3 can do PS1 emulation but couldn't do PS2 emulation is because it's such a different system.
"So when we got into the conversion of all the code and the elements of the game, we found it took a lot of time and it was very difficult to get that from the specific PS2-programmed code and turn it into something we can work on for other platforms. So that was a much bigger challenge than we thought."
Will the HD remasters come to the PS4?
Yoshinori Kitase: "We can't talk about the future completely, but at the moment, no, there are no real plans for that."
The Final Fantasy series has been around for more than 25 years now. Why do you think it's stood the test of time and is still popular today?
Yoshinori Kitase: "The games themselves are games that we think are pretty good, but I think one of the main reasons behind Final Fantasy's longevity is we really put a lot of effort into the characters and the story when we create the games. Those are our main focuses, really.
"The stories we choose for the games are very much universal themes, not something that's restricted to one time period or one local culture or type of person. It's something that really appeals broadly to anyone at any time at any place.
"I think it's the use of those kinds of very universal stories and themes, and also the fact that we have such effort and care put into the character design - I think those are the two main reasons why Final Fantasy is even now popular and has so many fans who really love the series."
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is out now in Europe and North America.