Lightning doesn't return, she takes us somewhere totally new
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is the Moulin Rouge of turn-based anime dress-up fighters set in a neo-noir biblical allegory. And nothing will make me take that back. From the title card, it’s an uncouth blend of mismatched tropes and conventions mixed together with what feels like reckless abandon. In the first hour alone, Lightning Returns takes all the best and worst elements of ten other games and mixes them in a pot just to see what will happen. It’s a chaotic, barely coherent mess of a game that spills out of the screen as one of the most colorful, interesting, and enjoyable games I’ve played in a long time.
By now, everybody has a controversial opinion on the Final Fantasy series. Mine is that there isn’t a bad one among them. Sure, Final Fantasy XIII is probably the weakest, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as most writers would have one believe. The catch, though, is that the Final Fantasy series—and the JRPGs that imitate its heyday—probably could have ended several years ago and been better for it (Mark Filipowich, “Finite Fantasy”, PopMatters, 11 June 2012). I won’t say that JRPGs are dead (if anything, it seems like they’re seeing a bit of a resurgence), but Final Fantasy has certainly felt stagnant during the most recent console generation. However, one of the best things about Lightning Returns is that it at first it hardly feels like a Final Fantasy game at all. It feels like something new entirely.
In my mind, the series has always been at its best when it mashes as many ideas together as possible and just lets whatever result. The series’ admirers and detractors are separated only by whether they focus on what works or what doesn’t. That’s an oversimplification, but Final Fantasy has always been about games that take high concepts to an extreme and allows them to intermingle in strange and unusual ways. They’re idea games. Many of those ideas are good, many of them are bad. The trouble is that after a while it started becoming apparent what a Final Fantasy game looked and played like. There was no need for experimentation or for alchemy because a formula had emerged. Lightning Returns, however, throws the formula out. It doesn’t reinvent Japanese video games, rather instead it takes every beloved classic that the country has produced and has stuffed them together to create something new entirely. It gets away with doing that by distancing itself from its source.
Lightning Returns takes place 500 years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2. A curse has on the world has prevented everybody from aging. People still die from sickness, violence, or accidents, but otherwise, people stay the same over the course of the five centuries between games. No new people have entered the world, and nobody may leave it naturally. The game begins in the last few days before the world ends, as people prepare for the end. Lightning is awakened by God to return to earth as the savior of the human race. Her mission is to save the souls of those left behind to prepare them for life in the new, curseless world that God has created.
If that seems like a bit much to keep up with, it isn’t. I had only played half of FF XIII and none of its direct sequel and never felt lost for lack of information. Characters drop all the exposition that the player will need because, again, it’s a game more about its concepts than its execution. Where FF XIII stumbled was in how it inundated the player with information about its world and demanded that the player take it seriously, become invested in it, and buy into a huge flood of meaningless terms. Lightning Returns spends little time establishing its motives or its setting because it appreciates what it is: a fun, colourful anime inspired RPG with fast action and up-front themes. It isn’t stupid—in fact, it’s quite clever—but it’s aware of what it is. It doesn’t suffer from DC Comic’s problem of masking its identity to reach a larger audience. Where the first FF XIII dropped an encyclopedia article into the player’s lap after every cutscene and played at being a dark political drama, Lightning Returns just has Lightning offer her personal feelings about what was just seen. It’s more personal and to the point. It gives the world a chance to speak for itself.
Speaking of the world, there are only four locations in the game, but each is imbued with multiple tones depending on the time of day. The holy city Luxerion feels so homely and warm in the morning, grand and populated in the afternoon, and gritty and unsettling in the evening. Lighting and music change enough to make the same space feel so very different based on when the player is exploring it. It’s fascinating to see how much one environment’s atmosphere can totally change the interpretation of a setting. It’s also noteworthy that over half of the space in the game makes up populated settlements. One of the complaints of the first FF XIII was that the lack of towns failed to communicate a sense of normalcy or population; the world amounted to a string of dangerous corridors. Lightning Returns is rooted entirely in how people live. The hedonistic Yusanon responds to the end of days with partying and avoidance of their confrontation with the end, Luxurion with prayer for salvation, Ruffian with a hunt for an ancient MacGuffin, and so on. People wander all over the world to breathe life into every square acre of it.
It’s also nice to see Lightning herself given room to breathe. Most characters spanning the FF XIII story are pretty one-dimensional, with the more layered ones taking far too long to grow. Lightning, however, never really got a fair shake as the original game’s brooding, reluctant protagonist. Granted, Lightning was only ever a gender-swap of the angsty teen heroes of earlier games in the series, but I don’t think I’m equipped to live in a world where it’s wrong to admire a James Dean figure that fights dragons and robots with a longsword. However, this version of Lightning is more rounded than her previous appearances. Her banter with longtime sidekick Hope occasionally borders on chipper, and without having to share perspective of the narrative with other characters, she feels far more human and introspective than in earlier games. Finally, Ali Hillis is a total pro in voicing the titular heroine. She puts on what may be one of the best voice performances that I’ve heard in a videogame.
Finally, the combat is a revamped compromise between real-time and turn-based fighting. Enemies appear at random and send townspeople running off in a panic, allowing the player to attack the enemy for some bonus damage when the fight starts or to flee and risk allowing the enemy to get the same. Lightning is allowed to equip three sets of equipment based on different outfits and cycle through them on the fly in a more streamlined take on Final Fantasy X-2’s dress sphere system. The player may equip up to four different skills per equipment set and attack until their stamina runs dry before switching to another skill set and letting unused ones recharge. Combat plays out in a restrictive but more stylish adaptation of Dark Souls‘s system, slowing combat down enough to look pretty while keeping it fast enough to feel tense. Fighting takes patience and study as well as a diverse rotation of kits.
In some ways, Lightning Returns is doomed in the West because it belongs to a genre that—for whatever reason—most Europeans and North Americans have declared dead. It’s very Japanese when English-speaking shores like a little W in their RPGs. It’s also melodramatic, campy, silly, and outrageous. It borrows from dozens of games, and even when the novelty wears off, it ends up looking an awful lot like just another 40-hour RPG. But Lightning Returns is also the first time in almost a decade that it feels like Square-Enix isn`t trying to check off a list of boxes. They might not know what they’re doing, but they’re doing it with such gusto that it’s hard not to admire them for it. Lightning Returns is a melting pot of ideas, and there’s a brilliance in that chaos worth looking at.