The Final Fantasy XIII trilogy had a strange and turbulent existence. I mean, it's right there in the name: "The Final Fantasy XIII trilogy." What kind of nonsense is that, creating three games as a subset of the 13th title of an ongoing saga?
It was therefore with some relief that gamers watched as Square Enix promised an end to the tortuous tale of Claire "Lightning" Farron, a journey that began with a trailer at E3 2006 and ended with last spring's Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Thanks to collective wariness regarding any and all things FFXIII, Lightning Returns turned out to be a bit of a dud when it launched. Of course, the waning existence of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 didn't help, but it clearly stung Square Enix to see Bravely Default—a 3DS game that the publisher had passed over for western localization—outsell a multiplatform HD game attached to a numbered entry in the company's flagship series. For the most part, reviews were every bit as unkind to the game as its sales. There were, however, some exceptions...
What We Said at the Time
Unlike most critics, I genuinely, unrepentantly, liked Lightning Returns. My reviews of the FFXIII trilogy were more positive than the average, but with both FFXIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2 my comments had an edge of ambivalence. Not so with Lightning Returns; the game had its share of problems, yes, but to me it felt like one of the few Square Enix productions in recent years to capture the sense of "damn the torpedoes, let's do something huge and weird" that made the publisher's projects so beloved back in the PlayStation era. Back when they were just "Square."
"Lightning Returns gives the impression that no idea was considered too weird or ridiculous to be included, and that the developers refused to throw away a single concept that came up during planning sessions," I stated, and I meant that in the best way possible. FFXIII was really one of the first major productions to demonstrate the scaled-back design that has become a hallmark of big-budget games this decade, a linear journey with RPG mechanics seemingly bolted on as an afterthought. Lightning Returns took the opposite tack, dropping players into a world consisting of four sprawling, open-ended regions and letting them sort things out on their own.
As a game, Lightning Returns seemed something of a paradox. It was an open-world adventure, yes, but one with a time limit. It played like more of an RPG than either of its immediate predecessors, yet it dropped the traditional multi-character party system in favor of a solo adventure. It used an engine designed for creating beautiful, contained, small-scale perspectives for a world of grand vistas and endless lines-of-sight. Yet even as those contradictions piled up, the game still worked—perhaps due to the freewheeling influence of co-developer tri-Ace, who infused the game with all the love no one would contract them to invest in a Valkyrie Profile 3.
"Lightning Returns never quite stops being something a mess," I wrote. "But it does work, albeit on its own messy, ridiculous, inexplicable terms.... Every once in a while it rises above mere B-game status to give a glimpse of the classic Final Fantasy spirit.... In such brief moments, the game recaptures the 'screw it, we're doing it on our own terms, and it's going to be spectacular' attitude that made the series so must-see in the PlayStation era."
When I went back and dusted off my PS3 to kick the tires on Lightning Returns for this recap, my opinion changed—surprisingly, for the better.
A lot has happened since Lightning Returns debuted nearly two years ago. A lot has happened in Final Fantasy in particular: The two games that originally were meant to be a part of the FFXIII trilogy (Agito XIII and Versus XIII) both became playable in some form for American fans. Not under those FFXIII-related names, of course. Agito arrived here at last as Final Fantasy Type 0 HD, and it shipped with a demo of Versus, which of course now goes by the name Final Fantasy XV.
Meanwhile, the open-world style that Lightning Returns adopted has become de rigueur for AAA action titles. What once was something of a novelty has become as clichéd as cover-based shooting was a decade ago. Maybe more so! I'm hard-pressed to think of a single big action game this year that didn't offer an open world... Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, maybe? Certainly that's the style FFXV is going for.
This year's rush to conformity, oddly enough, makes Lightning Returns feel more unique. Yes, it has an open world packed with odd missions to collect outside the main storyline, but its treatment of its explorable spaces works quite differently than the past 18 months' worth of sandbox odysseys. In fact, I can only think of two that have worked along the same lines since its launch: Metal Gear Solid V and Rise of the Tomb Raider. What sets them (and Lightning Returns) apart from the dozen other open world titles jockeying for sales and attention? Their sense of structured design.
When most developers sit down to build an open world, they create a huge space and populate it with points of interest. Size and scale are generally the objective with such an approach—and it's a valid approach! Far be it for me to say Fallout 4 or Just Cause 3 are boring games. However, they really do feel like sandboxes, designed to allow players to drive the experience. And that's fine. Lightning Returns, on the other hand, consisted of several large, open areas... but "large, open" is all relative. Compared to the previous chapters of FFXIII, which could best be described as "beautiful hallways," it felt absolutely boundless. Compared to something like Skyrim or even Dragon Age: Inquisition, however, Lightning Returns featured downright minuscule spaces to negotiate.
Despite featuring RPG-style combat, Lightning's navigation skills drew heavily on Assassin's Creed; fittingly, you can best gain a sense of Lightning Returns' strengths by comparing its cities to those of, say, Assassin's Creed: Unity or Syndicate. Both of the game's major cities—Yusnaan and Luxerion—appear as thoughtfully crafted spaces, finite in scope and just large and complex enough to force players to consider how they travel. There aren't many useless dead spaces in Lightning Returns, as nearly every corner of the game has some purpose, and there's a pleasant lack of the copy-and-paste design that typifies cities in games like Assassin's Creed.
In its way, Lightning Returns exists as a companion piece to Final Fantasy XII, offering a similar spirit of free-roaming quest design inspired by western RPGs. But it swings deliberately back over to JRPG tradition (whatever that may be) with a highly-focused combat system and, most interestingly, an overarching deadline that hangs above the entire mission. The deadline doesn't work quite as well as it should—there's a special skill you can use to slow the march of time, and it costs practically nothing in terms of skill points. For all intents and purposes, it ought to simply be the default state past a certain point. Despite that, the looming threat of a deadline does add some interesting tension to the mix, creating an edge that open-world games customarily lack.
The combat system remains as engaging as ever, and I love the game's unrepentant weirdness. Tonally, it's a train wreck, but it's not like the FFXIII saga had a story worth caring about. The ridiculous farcical sidequests (and, yes, Chocolina) made for more entertaining material than the central plot line. And that's not even getting into the various little secret features of the game, like the ability to drive entire species to extinction or keep a tally on the decimation of the human race. It's a strange game sometimes!
So Does It Hold Up?
What Lightning Returns lacks in polish it more than makes up for with its willingness to go all-in on new, different, and downright bizarre ideas. That's a trait we see far too rarely these days, and it makes Lightning Returns worth visiting. With the game due out eminently on Steam, I highly recommend giving it a look.
Yeah, it has plenty of problems. There's a ton of visual jank, the central story is dumber than a particularly imbecilic rock, and some of the early quests are off-puttingly poor. And poor Lightning herself falls prey to some of the sloppiest character assassination ever seen; her entire appeal in FFXIII came from her tough-talking, vaguely masculine comportment, but the costume schematic that serves for a class system turns her literally into a dress-up doll, with some ridiculously skimpy outfits that inexplicably turn her into a passive-looking, super-feminine sex kitten.
Give the game a chance, though, and it'll grow on you. It's the goofiest, most inventive, least predictable Final Fantasy since the PS1 days. All the ridiculous stuff they're probably going to trim from the Final Fantasy VII remake is present and lively here—all pulled together by an appealing (and surprisingly melancholic) game world, and great combat.