Lightning Returns: A Reminder That Final Fantasy is at Its Best When It's Scrappy and Weird

Jeremy finds the latest Final Fantasy a bizarre, contradictory mishmash, and that's what he likes about it.

Preview by Jeremy Parish, .

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.

Also, there are moogles.

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.

One minute you see a dashing, stylish rogue; the next, a coquettish nymph.

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.

It's not exactly Skyrim, but it sure beats walking in a straight line for 40 hours.

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).

The world may be on the brink of collapse, but there's always time for giant neon Cactuars!

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.

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Comments 19

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  • Avatar for Thusian #1 Thusian 4 years ago
    This and the Bravely Default article I think show that people just need to calm down about some things. Yes, I know that's a good general statement of the Internet, but if we don't keep saying it, it won't happen. Did the FF series go off the rails for a lot of the fan base, sure did. Thing is the audience was heard, Square took some hits and it didn't crush them, rather its forced them to rethink their designs. Looks like for the better.

    Hopefully they take the same hit on the Mobile side too and rethink that, because their business models and game designs there are all messed up. Thing is we can take a breath say, nope I'm not in for that and wait for the adjustment to happen. Some pubs are just better when their backs are against the wall, so instead of screaming doom, just wait to see how they fight back.
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  • Avatar for cscaskie #2 cscaskie 4 years ago
    I can't believe that I've never made the Valkyrie Profile comparison with this game. I knew about Tri-Ace's involvement too. That's a really solid observation - and the idea may have just made the last push in getting Lightning Returns off of my "maybe" list.
    I'm going to hold off on grabbing the game right away though - I'm pretty convinced that there will be a DLC rich FFXIII collection down the line.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #3 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    I also think its going to be a disaster. I hear its more DMC, and nothing like profile
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  • Avatar for Macstorm #4 Macstorm 4 years ago
    As someone who enjoys some of the popularly "bad" Final Fantasy games, I'm going to give this one a shot. I am ready for Lightning to go away, though.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #5 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @Stealth20k It is nothing at all like DMC. I mean, you have a character who uses swords, I guess? But calling this game similar to DMC is like saying DMC is like Mario 64 (because it's 3D and you can jump, you see). I don't know who is telling you this stuff, but they have a bizarre worldview.
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  • Avatar for cscaskie #6 cscaskie 4 years ago
    @Macstorm I'm with you on that. The "black sheep" FFXII is actually my favorite game in the franchise. I also liked XIII quite a bit. People who expect FF to stick doggedly to tradition don't really understand the series or its origins at all. Final Fantasy has always served as a experimental playground for Square to tamper with the RPG formula and try new things - see what works - toss what doesn't. The "bad" Final Fantasy games contribute alot to the series from a design perspective and they're worth examining and celebrating for both their strengths and weaknesses.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #7 kidgorilla 4 years ago
    It feels like there's been a lot of very positive advance press for this, which is good. I haven't really liked the last few years of Final Fantasy that much, either, but I'm getting a little tired of the morose outlook on it. I'm more excited for this than I was for XIII and XIII-2, and I'm taking that as a good sign for an optimistic future for franchiseEdited January 2014 by kidgorilla
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  • Avatar for bengrande #8 bengrande 4 years ago
    I think this sounds like an interesting RPG with FF13 stuff shoehorned in. At this point it seems like they could swap out the few returning character models with new characters and have a new game that people not interested in whatever the eff is going on in the Fabio Crystál Nuvaring universe would be interested in. I do not understand Square Enix but I also understand they are now trying primarily to appeal to a different demographic than mine.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #9 kidgorilla 4 years ago
    @bengrande I think you pretty much nailed it. I've checked my plot expectations a long time ago, and I'm just looking forward to a good game
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #10 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish I wrote this after I saw your tweet and you responded. I am glad its not. I am kinda interested.

    Whoever told me is no friend of mine when it comes to this game
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  • Avatar for Waterfiend #11 Waterfiend 4 years ago
    "In part, that's because I've discovered a polished video game is a lot less interesting to me than an ambitious one."

    Interesting observation. I'm sure as a guy who reviews a lot of games, you remember the ambitious ones best - not necessarily the most polished.

    Polished turds are also memorable - though I don't think any developer wants to be remembered for those.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #12 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    Great article. It's nice to see this game getting some attention, it sounds like it's shaping up to be unique. I like linear games and I don't consider that a particular flaw of FF13 (there were other flaws to comaplain about) but I am certainly interested to see what they do with a more open world.
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  • Avatar for MissDeviling #13 MissDeviling 4 years ago
    Looking forward to the customization. The costume design leaves a lot to be desired, but the amount of possibilities is great.

    From what I've seen though, the sidequests seem really bland, which is a disappointment when I think of FFs like 7-9 which really embed the experience to the exploration of towns and such as opposed to making me fetch and kill things for the sake of padding a game.
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  • Avatar for #14 4 years ago
    Now that's how a review should be! Note the flaws, yet honestly say how they affect the experience and if it's fun anyway.
    Which I know is the basis for any videogame review....but many out there don't do it well.
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  • Avatar for Smack81 #15 Smack81 4 years ago
    Look how advanced the combat is in this game:

    This is absolutely crazy!
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  • Avatar for Critical_Hit #16 Critical_Hit 4 years ago
    A spiritual successor to Valkyrie Profile 2 sounds great. But IS IT really co-developed by Tri-Ace? I was under the impression that Square-Enix was just using them for outsourcing, much like how Nintendo abuses Monolith and has them pump out art for Zelda titles constantly now.

    At any rate, fascinating piece. But I don't know if this is an advantage; being weird. Final Fantasy XIII was that. So was X-2. So was XII. Really, the series has just been aimless & experimental for a long time already. People have seen all these all these elements, and we want another title like FF6 or FF7 that brings together the best pieces... which, of course, we're getting NOW. Thanks to Bravely Default & Realm Reborn.

    But I just don't know if people can excuse FFXIII-3's weirdness streak even with those games out there to pick up the slack. They're not exactly positioned as the heir to the single player, main console, big JRPG production for the series, yeah?

    But it's a great feature anyway. Well written, some great points are made, and it's gotten me interested in checking this out. Though, I also managed to hype myself up for the previous two XIII games, and I ended up hating them both. Luckily, I just rented them. But I don't use Gamefly currently, so I can't do that this time. I still don't know if I wanna take ANOTHER chance on Lightning...
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  • Avatar for alexb #17 alexb 4 years ago
    At the end of the day, it's still FFXIII, though. Fool me once, shame on, shame on you. Fool me, you can’t get fooled again.
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  • Avatar for Suzusiiro #18 Suzusiiro 4 years ago
    I feel like this is going to be another X-2- "blah" main story, great combat system, lots of fun sidequests.
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  • For the LAST time, stop implying that the Final Fantasy series was stagnating. The series didn't start to fall apart until they went to far from its roots. Every game in the series was different from the last, they never sat on their laurels and reprinted the same game over and over. People need to stop insisting that stagnation is killing the series, when its the exact opposite, to much trying to reinvent the wheel.

    That being said, I enjoy what I have played of XIII-3, but this isn't the direction I want the main series to go in. You can't and should NOT abandon everything that made the series what it was in a money grab attempt. Change things around, but keep the core. Other wise, why keep calling it Final Fantasy?
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