Square Enix's long in the making Final Fantasy XIII finally comes to North America in March, a game that is less like a traditional Japanese role-playing game, its creators say, and more like a first-person shooter like Call of Duty.
That is how Final Fantasy XIII designer and writer Motomu Toriyama describes the latest game in the 22-year-old series, born on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Toriyama told Kotaku that the design of Final Fantasy XIII doesn't follow the JRPG "template" intentionally, a choice that has received mixed response.
"The basic RPG functions are to go into towns, prepare for battle by going to shops, then go out in the field," Toriyama explained. "In that sense, Final Fantasy XIII doesn't have towns or shops—it's more that players are thrown into a story, presented with different situations as they move forward in the field and keep progressing that way."
Here's how that relates to Call of Duty, in Toriyama's mind.
"In that sense it's more similar to an FPS genre, like Call of Duty," he said. "That's not to say it's an action shooting game at all, so Final Fantasy XIII takes some different aspects of different genres, transcending different types of games."
If a Western designed first-person shooter having any sort of influence on the design choices made by the men carrying the keys to the Final Fantasy franchise has you feeling lightheaded, Toriyama doesn't see the series swinging too wildly in that direction. "Final Fantasy as a series will probably never [adopt] a first person shooter style. The concepts the teams are always working with have the character always on screen and visually trying to make battles look exciting."
"With the Final Fantasy series, there has always been dialogue, players relating to the characters in a sense that they see characters on screen," adds producer Yoshinori Kitase. "We really want the characters to have a personality," Kitase said, a series staple that would be affected by shifting players to a first-person view.
"Maybe a third person shooter style would be a more realistic fit with the Final Fantasy series," added Toriyama.
Final Fantasy XIII's creators appear to feel strongly about the balance of presentation and immersion in their game, due to arrive March 9 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in North America. They say that concerns about the game's oft-criticized linear nature are not lost on them, but that the decision to put players on a guided path was purely by design.
"We received a lot of comments about the earlier portion of the game game being quite linear," Toriyama said when asked about the game's response in Japan. "But from a development standpoint, this was an intentional path that we created for players. We really wanted the world and its characters to sink in with players, especially because the battle system was completely new. We wanted to ensure that players could get a hold on the system during the later portions of the game."
"Because of the Final Fantasy name, we saw that more players had a strict view of the game and had high expectations," Kitase said. "Players really took every topic and blew things out of proportion, especially before the game was released."
Players expressed concerns over Final Fantasy XIII's "foreign terms," Kitase said, taking issue with names like Cocoon, fal'Cie and l'Cie, as well as the game's story itself.
"Once people were able to play the game and have the story told to them," Kitase said, the mythology is "really explained in detail in the game."
The game's more highly praised and complex battle system, which features the role-changing Paradigm Shift mechanic and giant allies that players can summon and ride in Gestalt Mode, was in part designed by Yuji Abe, the man behind Final Fantasy XIII's battle moments.
Abe says that the game's battle mode was designed to be "speedy and to include a lot of tactics," to "have a visually exciting experience, but be able to control it as well." He says he was influenced by his own gaming interests, which include action heavy arcade games and card-based titles.
He cited arcade games like Sega's card-based real-time strategy game Sangokushi Taisen, Taito's Darius series of side-scrolling shooters and Capcom's fleet of fighting games—not previous Final Fantasy battle systems—as sources of inspiration.
"I like a lot of games that let you achieve high scores, so that might be something that's reflected in Final Fantasy XIII's battle system," Abe said.
As for the game's unusual Gestalt Mode, which sees the series staple Eidolon summons—Odin, Bahamut, Shiva, et al.—transform into rideable beasts and vehicles, Abe says they were added to introduce an "'element of surprise' where the operation of Summons would completely change." The game's giant summoned Eidolons weren't always something for the game's main characters to ride.
"One of the things that changed from the original concept was that Odin was originally going to transform into a sword," Abe said. "But then after [we decided to have] the Shiva sisters turn into a bike, we turned all of the summons into some form of a ride."
"It was really the art team that created the transformations. The goal was to make sure that they look completely different, that each of the summons are unique from each other." One of those summons, Bahamut, who has taken the form of a dragon in previous Final Fantasy games, references another vehicle familiar to Final Fantasy fans—the flying airship.
It was also influence by the real world, according to Toriyama.
"The car was inspired by the Toyota Prius," he said "and uses the clean eco-friendly Crystal Engine to operate it."