These are strange times indeed for Final Fantasy, and -- as Bob Mackey recently noted -- the near-simultaneous release of Lightning Returns and Bravely Default proves it.
The two games don't really play much alike, but in a lot of ways they're spiritual counterparts. Bravely Default is a Final Fantasy game (specifically, a direct successor to Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light) that inexplicably has shed the Final Fantasy name. On the other hand, you have Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, which doesn't feel like it should be called "Final Fantasy." Sure, it carries over characters from FFXIII, and it features the franchise's standardized enemy and spell names, but if Square Enix were more honest the game would be published as "Valkyrie Profile III."
The pieces are all here. Lightning does indeed return from her exile in Final Fantasy XIII-2, and she plays the role of a valkyrie here even if it's never explicitly stated as such. She's an ascended warrior woman in the employ of God (or a god, anyway; the cosmology of the FFXIII games is an even more jumbled mess than the on-screen stories), and her mission is to reclaim and save souls before Ragnarok arrives -- though the impending end of the world is never directly called by that name, either. As a game, this amounts to an adventure overshadowed by a ticking clock marking time to the apocalypse, wherein Lightning travels the world completing a variety of core and side quests, fighting monsters in fast-paced action-based combat along the way.
So yes, it's basically a Valkyrie Profile sequel... which shouldn't be surprising, since it was co-developed by VP creators tri-Ace (who had previously lent a hand with Final Fantasy XIII-2). However, since it's being sold as a Final Fantasy title, Lightning Returns eschews Norse mythology in favor of that of the Fabula Nova Crystallis universe -- though for all intents and purposes, it doesn't matter. The overarching plotline of the FFXIII saga has gone so far off the rails that the only wise approach to absorbing the story here is just to sit back and let it wash over you as you focus on the particulars... which is to say, the mission directives.
Even the protagonist is something of a wash. Lightning begins the game with practically zero personality of her own, a fact that the dialogue specifically makes note of. She's effectively a blank slate, lacking any sort of motivation beyond the directive given to her by the latest supreme being to stake a claim on her actions; first it was the L'Cie, then it was Etro, now it's a guy called Bhunivelze.
Lightning's cipher-like state is even reflected in her costuming: In combat, she can switch instantly between several outfit-based "Schemata" that enable different skill sets (similar to the Final Fantasy X-2 Dress Sphere system), and her entire body language changes depending on her current choice of apparel. Don her in warrior garb and she takes a squared-off, masculine stance; doff it in favor of mage garments (read: Scant, revealing body wraps that border on BDSM gear) and she relaxes into a slinky feminine contrapposto. They say clothes make the man, but the instant changes that come over Lightning when she swaps outfits take that concept perhaps a little too literally and make it even harder to pin down the true nature of the character.
That same philosophy seems to extend to all of FFXIII's returning cast. The story begins in media res with Lightning squaring off against her former comrade Snow Villiers, who has somehow landed a role as the saturnine ruler of a dying city. Her mission navigator is Hope, who seems to be at a loss to explain how he's reverted from being the mature man who appeared in XIII-2 to his adolescent self from the original XIII. An enigmatic girl who looks like a gothic lolita rendition of Lightning's sister Serah taunts the heroine all along the way (Lightning wonders early on if this apparition is her sister, so she probably isn't). And so on, and so forth. At every turn, Lightning Returns features familiar faces who seem to have very little meaningful connection to their previous appearances and no particular reason to be present.
I realize I've painted a fairly unflattering picture of the game here, but in truth I find myself enjoying Lightning Returns despite itself. I suppose it helps that I gave up on trying to make sense of the overarching narrative of the FFXIII saga a few hours into XIII-2. And it certainly doesn't hurt that, despite its title, Lightning Returns has basically nothing whatsoever to do with FFXIII from a gameplay perspective. The world structure is even more open-ended than FFXIII-2's, and combat bears no resemblance whatsoever to the two previous FFXIII titles. You're dropped into a fairly unstructured world consisting of four regions (each much larger than any single section of XII-2), given some loose guidelines, and left to work out the story on your own steam.
There's a fundamental contradiction at work behind the scenes of Lightning Returns; it is at once the most open game in the series (save black sheep FFXII), yet it's also the only game to operate under the pressure of a constant, explicit countdown. A clock in the corner of the screen perpetually ticks down -- about one minute of game time per second of real time -- and your goals and options change with the shifting of the hour. In the central city of Luxerion, for example, certain areas remain locked between specific hours. Different citizens of the world (and their quest lines) become available or inaccessible depending on the time of day.
Lightning Return gives off an ominous, stressful, Majora's Mask vibe. The world is dying, and to be entirely honest the miserable state of the world leading up to its current state of soon-to-be-non-existence makes you wonder if in fact it's even worth saving. Grim details fill the game: You can speak to guards to catch up on the daily death toll as a result of monster invasions, doomsday cults are murdering girls who look like Lightning, beggars fill the streets, and everyone seems miserable. As in Majora's Mask, a handful of long-term quests exist in the game (such as speaking to a former child actress to learn her tragic true story) that need to be revisited every day while juggling travel from place to place. Meanwhile, time is constantly ticking, and while you have a handful of tricks up Lightning's sleeve to combat the march of time they expend finite resources.
At the same time, there's a bizarre disconnect within the world. As all of these terrible things happen and reality comes crashing down, the towns are full of people going about their lives. You'll overhear all kinds of weird incidental chatter as you wander the streets (including one little area where people keep talking about some guy's obsession with muffins, of all things). The clockwork world doesn't quite hold up on a technical level, as random NPCs will sometimes appear out of thin air, and they also have a tendency to exit their homes en masse as you draw near -- though you can often see them materialize behind their doors first.
Yet despite the sometimes ramshackle nature of the game -- its bolted-together plot and a game world that leaks at the seams -- I'm thoroughly enjoying it. In part, that's because I've discovered a polished video game is a lot less interesting to me than an ambitious one. And Lightning Returns is definitely ambitious, attempting to forcibly shove the Final Fantasy franchise out of the quagmire it's become stuck in. It contains a lot of ideas, and not all of them work smoothly, or together, but it certainly offers more appeal than a slow, wheezing death by stagnation. Realistically, hardly anyone will be excited about Lightning Returns compared to Final Fantasy XV -- but this seems more like an earnest attempt to push the series toward a viable future than FFXV (which has been in various states of development for eight years now at who knows what kind of expense).
My other attraction to Lightning Returns comes from my love for the weird Final Fantasy games and spin-offs. The further a sequel strays from the center line of the series' evolution, the more likely I am to enjoy it. We have steadfast franchises like Dragon Quest and Fire Emblem to play the role of RPG comfort food; Final Fantasy is at its best when it raises a middle finger to expectation and throws out the rules. Yes, FFVIII is a mess, and FFXII goes wildly off the rails toward the end, but they certainly do take interesting and unpredictable routes to get there.
Lightning Returns definitely comes in on the "weird, unpredictable" side of things. I realize that won't be to everyone's liking, but after sinking about five hours into the quest I find it's definitely hitting the right notes for me. It's succeeding in the things I find interesting about games. Maybe the story will come together in the end. Maybe the technical aspects will feel more refined in the final retail build. Then again, maybe not. It's OK, though, because I like to see developers taking chances and possibly failing spectacularly; it sure beats the tendency of so many studios to hunker down and wait for irrelevance to settle over them. In an industry defined by utterly conservative fear of risk, Lightning Returns is a disaster just waiting to happen -- and that's precisely why I like it.