A NOTE: Seriously, they should have called it Final Fantasy XIII-3. But, hey, spoilers ahead.
In 2013, burdened with a crippling deficit from the catastrophic launch of FFXIV, alongside “disappointing” Western ventures like Sleeping Dogs and Tomb Raider, Square Enix faced unprecedented losses numbering upwards of $138 million. Shedding their controversial CEO, Yoichi Wada, the company began a restructuring effort that would see them radically alter their business strategies moving forward. Among these was the shedding of ridiculous sales expectations for non-flagship titles, a buffing of the mobile department and a renewed emphasis on the company’s big sellers, starting with Kingdom Hearts III and the newly re-branded Final Fantasy XV, both of which received lavish trailers at that year’s E3.
In this fraught context, rounding out the Final Fantasy XIII sub-series was probably the last thing on executives’ minds, but ‘satisfactory’ sales for XIII-2 and its cliffhanger ending necessitated a true conclusion. With the grand ambition of ‘Fabula Nova Crystallis’ spluttering into irrelevance, the much-belaboured advent of Lightning and her anime buddies would arrive to mild indifference at the turn of 2014 after 18 months of development. The palpable lack of interest was unspoken confirmation that Toriyama and Kitase’s ill-conceived masterplan was mercifully – despite what Kitase would tell you – complete.
And yet, for better or worse, Lightning Returns warrants more than apathy. It is a fascinating miasma of a video game, filled with so many ideas and mechanics that its fall into relative obscurity is undeserved. The attempt is especially admirable considering how simple it would have been to recycle its predecessors’ assets and call it a day. Lightning Returns feels like the last-ditch effort of a development team with absolutely nothing to lose throwing everything they can at the wall in the desperate hope that something – anything – will stick.
It’s surprising how much of it does stick, but the narrative is not among them. Having to reconcile the bathetic misery of XIII and the time-travel madness of XIII-2 is hardly an enviable task, but Daisuke Watanabe somehow manages to re-loop the Gordian Knot in the process of concluding Lightning’s story. This time, Lightning is brought out of her DLC-induced crystal stasis by the dormant creator-god, Bhunivelze, who tasks her with shepherding the souls of Nova Chrysalia – the fragmented remains of the Chaos-ravaged planet – to the brave new world he is (somehow) fashioning. Christened as a “Saviour”, Lightning has 13 – count ‘em – 13 days to complete her mission before the old world ends.
On paper (how many times have we heard that now?), this is a brilliant concept that the gameplay beautifully exploits. Taking cues from Majora’s Mask and the Persona series, Lightning’s improbably-dressed adventure is chained to that critical deadline, one that can only be staved off by collecting Eradia. This substance, serving as both the life-force of Nova Chrysalia’s inhabitants and the fuel for Bhunivelze’s Tree of Life, provides a narrative excuse for the game’s central focus: Side-questing.
The game hinges almost entirely on its optional content and, happily, most of these missions are rewarding excursions that bulk up the game’s lore and reward the player with valuable loot and stat boosts. Lightning – the sole player-character – doesn’t level up through traditional experience points, relying instead on quest-bequeathed boosts and equipment set-ups to bolster her abilities. This is intrinsic to the re-jigged battle system, which eschews the Command Synergy Battle of its predecessors in favour of a system that closely resembles the Dressphere brilliance of FFX-2.
Lightning Returns employs the so-called Style-Change Active Time Battle, which plays exactly as it sounds with a few bells and whistles. By equipping Garbs and Schemata – essentially classes and command set-ups respectively – Lightning gains access to a variety of abilities that are fully customisable by the player. Each Garb can house four separate commands and up to three Garbs are equippable in battle, where the player can freely swap between them. Coupled with the surprisingly tactical ability to actually move around in battle (albeit slowly), the player has a variety of options in combat, which proceeds with more pace and stakes than either of the previous instalments.
This makes for an exciting and reactive system that emphasises speed and aggression, as the player juggles enemy attacks with cooldown periods, swapping from Garb to Garb to chain together enough attacks to stagger the foe and unleash a powerful combo onto them. It’s a steep learning curve, especially after two straight games of static Paradigm Shifts, but it’s a real thrill once the player gets to grips with it. That said, it still feels limited in comparison to the options of previous entries like FFV or the PlayStation entries, and the notion of implementing a party of three or more characters instead of a solo Lightning is too tantalising a prospect to ignore.
Though time freezes during combat, the clock looms over every second of the game. It leaves the player in a state of constant decision-making, adding weight and importance to every choice. Along with naturally facilitating intriguing dilemmas (“do I do short quests in Yusnaan for less rewards or longer quests in the Wildlands for greater rewards?”) and mad dashes to hit deadlines, it means that all actions, no matter how minor, have innate consequences.
The openness of the world design also encourages judicious exploration, forcing the player to thoroughly consider exactly where (and when) they want to go. These environments, a far cry from the claustrophobic tunnels of the original XIII, are sprawling but never too vast. They cleverly side-step the problem of shallow open worlds by cramming relatively smaller spaces with tons of lore dockets, useful treasures and side-quest-dispensing NPCS (all of whom operate on their own schedules beyond the player’s jurisdiction). But the environments’ beauty comes at a cost. The game’s aging engine – the same used in both of its predecessors – simply wasn’t designed to accommodate more open areas.
As a result, the game’s performance is dramatically less pristine than either XIII or XIII-2. Slowdown and frame drops are commonplace, particularly in densely populated areas like Luxerion and Yusnaan, but they’re most egregious when they creep into battles, especially given the more frantic and hair-trigger nature of the game’s encounters. A dropped frame on a Guard attempt, for instance, is the difference between a perfect block and chunks of HP getting cleaved out of our heroine. This lack of polish wouldn’t fly in character action games like Bayonetta; for a flagship title from Square Enix, there’s really no excuse.
It does, however, demonstrate Toriyama and co.’s willingness to shake up the formula. Much like the similarly idiosyncratic X-2, most of the game’s content is optional. While the five main quests demand completion before the time expires, the rest is left to the player’s discretion. The time limit is also far from stringent, allowing plenty of time for the player to complete dozens of missions in their first play through, and that’s even counting the hour(s) lost upon losing a battle.
It’s the best of both worlds; the ticking clock provides the atmosphere of impending doom that the premise demands, but it’s not so strict to dissuade the player from going off the beaten path. It isn’t the clockwork genius of Majora’s Mask – nothing can be that – but it’s a solid approximation that distracts the player from the astonishing badness of the narrative proper.
The main problem with Lightning Returns – indeed, the critical flaw that doomed the narratives of both XIII sequels – is Lightning herself. Explicitly designed as a female Cloud, Lightning is a listless cipher with none of the swagger or personality of her spiky-haired forebear. The taciturn snarl of XIII and the distant Valkyrie of XIII-2 is subsumed into an emotionless, droning husk in her title game, one that shuffles from region to region in the same cloying monotone throughout the game.
The lack of a party to play off only throws these faults into sharper focus, resulting in a deeply unengaging protagonist that lends credence to her mock-status as Toriyama’s waifu, and that’s before we consider the juvenile sexualisation of the character that sees her pout around in micro-skirts and cat-ears, nyan-ing for the camera. Not only is this embarrassing to watch, it’s also a disservice to the paltry development she received in the original XIII.
Moreover, it’s a jarring disruption of tone that simply isn’t reflected elsewhere in the game. Though the developers do try to inject some levity here and there, to middling success, the game’s overall tone is appropriately apocalyptic, evidenced both by the clock along with hundreds of NPC interactions that reference it at length. Watching Lightning, wearing what can only be described as armoured lingerie (accommodating her enhanced bust), wander into tedious cut scenes spouting melodramatic dialogue about free will is as incongruous and unwelcome as it sounds.
Yet, this is still more bearable than Hope. Having inexplicably reverted to his teenage form between games, Hope serves as Lightning’s radio back-up. He takes to his new role with aplomb, since he apparently can’t go 30 seconds without whingeing into Lightning’s ear at every possible juncture, constantly reiterating established information as if talking to an infant. His interruptions are incessant, infuriating and, to my intense distress, unskippable.
Better still, his redundant splurges are accompanied by a shrill Codec-esque soundbite, which cannot be disabled, ever, no matter how many times you scramble through the extensive Options menu searching for it. Far more than any battle, Hope’s commitment to stating the obvious is the single most difficult thing to overcome in the entire game because he never shuts up.
The returning cast fares little better. All of them – Snow, Sazh, CAIUS BALLAD, etc – are trapped in a web of navel-gazing misery, robbing them of what little character they’d previously had. The only intrigue in the narrative comes from Lumina and Bhunivelze; the latter doesn’t appear until he announces himself as the final boss (to the surprise of no one who’s ever played a JRPG), while the former is the only character who seems to be having any kind of fun. A gleeful mischief-maker, she’s the one spark of life in an otherwise vacant cast, and also provides the solitary moment of development for Lightning when she’s revealed to be our heroine’s repressed vulnerability, personified as a giggling pixie in Gothic lounge-wear.
This development also happens to occur during the most cringe-inducing conclusion to a Final Fantasy game since Dirge of Cerberus. Lightning Returns‘s ending is so monumentally appalling it makes XIII‘s insipid, Leona Lewis-scored finale look like Metal Gear Solid 3 or, hell, FFIX by comparison. It’s so bad, in fact, that I thoroughly recommend rocking it up into YouTube. Watch it alone, for your own sake, and feel your mouth gape open in stupefied amazement; marvel at how rapidly your toes curl over themselves in embarrassment, and shudder as the power of love and friendship conquers the anime super-god one more time.
Standard Final Fantasy fare, to be sure, but it has never been as mortifying, laboured or self-congratulatory as Lightning Returns. It sends the series off with the wettest of lingering farts with Lightning at its core, sucking all the charisma from the room. Even at the end of it all, she is as vapid as Square Enix’s DLC practices for the game were shoddy, shilling off alternate Garbs for £4 a pop. While not on par with Dead or Alive 5‘s obscene DLC cash-grabs, it’s a step down even from XIII-2‘s pathetic side-stories that were offered for less money.
Fortunately, the music does its damnedest to wrangle some drama out of this catastrophe of a narrative. With Mashashi Hamauzu, Naoshi Mizuta and Mitsuto Suzuki returning, the game’s soundtrack bristles with energy, both informing the game’s identity as a standalone instalment and re-incorporating themes heard throughout the trilogy. It never quite reaches the barmy heights of XIII-2, but it compensates for that by offering the best final boss music in the entire series. ‘Almighty Bhunivelze’ is ‘Dancing Mad’ on crack cocaine shoved into a kaleidoscope and spat out at the edge of reality. Better yet, it tells a better, more complete and satisfying story in 13 minutes than the entire trilogy manages in 120+ hours.
And that’s the dichotomy of Lightning Returns. There are so many compelling mechanics and fascinating concepts that are trampled in the service of a narrative that, while terrible in its own right, has to extrapolate two other games worth of terrible plots. The gameplay dares the player to carve their own path through the apocalypse, inviting them to decipher the missions and systems within, while the script hammers the same information into their skull ad nauseam with no room for player interpretation.
Toriyama is a talented director, insofar as fun game-play goes, but he is incapable of aligning his talent with the consistent awfulness of the plots he is charged with. The deftness of touch that gave Yuna her powerful arc in X-2 is absent here, as Lightning is relegated to a blinking, glaze-coated doormat that shuffles from cutscene to cutscene with nary a flicker of agency. One step forward, one step back, for 40-odd hours.
And yet, for all its flaws, Lightning Returns is an earnest effort to recapture the messy pluck that characterised the earlier instalments, warts and all. It is an attempt – no matter how fruitless – to salvage an abortive trilogy and reconcile it with the series. The team’s willingness to experiment, no doubt bolstered by tri-Ace’s returning involvement, should also be applauded, especially when we consider the creaking engine under the hood.
Money talks, however, and the game sold half of XIII-2‘s half of XIII‘s seven million copies – a clear sign that XIII fatigue had taken hold on a gaming populace that had already moved on to anticipating (and anticipating and anticipating) the upcoming FFXV. Its release at the dawn of a new console generation didn’t help, but the imminent obsolescence of the hardware seems appropriate in hindsight. It symbolised, more so than the doomsday clock or fan backlash, that the XIII trilogy was finished.
Lightning Returns is no masterpiece, but it deserves a cautious re-appraisal, ideally as far from its illustrious predecessors as possible. More than any other Square Enix project of this era, it represents a development team throwing caution to the wind and doing whatever they feel like. If nothing else, it’s a mesmerizing smorgasbord that demands attention, even as it rages against the dying of the light(ning).
At long last, Toriyama’s dream is done and dusted. 16 down, two to go. Next time – oh god – we dive into the arms of an MMO phoenix: Final Fantasy XIV.