Trying to please your own fans is a tricky business in the gaming industry. Square Enix should know this better than anyone. After releasing Final Fantasy XIII to Japanese audiences in December 2009, they took on board immediate criticisms of the games linearity and began work on a sequel that would hopefully satisfy those gamers who missed the golden days when there weren’t so many polygons to worry about.
Final Fantasy XIII-2, a game that I had a few problems with due to time travel induced plot holes and a general feeling of ‘why is this even necessary?’, was released two years later to bizarrely better reviews than its predecessor. It was not a better overall game, although granted it did have some charm as any Final Fantasy title does.
XIII was as epic as it needed to be; the first title of the series on a new console generation. It felt like a classic, modern version of Final Fantasy. For me it was the most enjoyable one since IX. I would perhaps say it was hampered in the end by a conclusion that made no sense, but since when has any Final Fantasy game truly made sense?
If ‘making sense’ is a high priority for you when it comes to purchasing a new video game then you’ll certainly feel like staying away from Lightning Returns. I’m torn as to whether or not I’d back you up on that initial assertion. You see, in some ways Lightning Returns makes a lot more sense than any other game in the series; in other ways it makes a lot less. It is a game confused, not knowing whether to treat the end of the world seriously or spend it pursuing new career options, set in a universe where retrieving a child’s ball from a ledge is on the same level as wiping an entire race of monsters off the face of the earth.
Assuming you know this really isn’t the best place to start from if you’re entirely new to the XIII trilogy, I’m going to skip the story recap that would involve trying to explain what a fal’Cie is, where main character Lightning gets her attitude from, or why it was necessary for Serah and Noel to jump back and forth through time in the last game (in fact, I’m not sure I fully understand that myself). Instead I’ll set the premise for Lightning Returns in a way that makes the most possible sense.
A substance known as Chaos flooded the world of Cocoon in the previous game, destroying all but four land masses on the planet. God, having decided the world is lost and resolved to create a brand new one, awakens Lightning from the 500 year sleep she started at the end of XIII-2 and appoints her as his ‘saviour’. Her mission, hence yours, throughout the game is to save as many souls as possible for rebirth in this new world. The catch is that you only have thirteen days at your disposal – meaning you (probably) won’t be able to save everyone.
In theory, this sounds like an exciting renegade mission, backed up by a cool opening FMV and prologue sequence that sets the rest of the game up well. In practice, you realise Lightning is actually a glorified errand girl whose job it is to fetch ingredients for lazy people, reunite long lost relatives, and go on a date with a lonely man whose wife had died. These tasks usually end in a kind of counselling session whereby Lightning brings some comfort to the other person and ‘saves their soul’ as a result, occasionally learning something about herself in the process.
Go on, you can say it. So far this game sounds more like a religious soap opera than a traditional JRPG. And at times it certainly feels that way. You don’t level up by the usual method of defeating monsters; it is the completion of these tasks that boosts your stats. Some of the more mundane ones you’ll find yourself trudging through for this reason only, while wondering what you ever did against Square Enix to deserve such punishment. Trying to cheat the system will only result in a swift beating by one of the games very hard main bosses at the end of each chapter.
Now, I know I’m sounding negative. I don’t mean to be too harsh. I know there are many players who will enjoy Lightning Return’s style of play – almost as many as those who won’t. In all honesty, I found myself quite enjoying large parts of it. Although I wonder whether this is because of the tasks themselves or the new time limit restriction imposed on players, forcing them to consider when and how they play the game like few others before it.
This game is set in real-time, or at least as ‘real time’ as games can get. Each in-game hour equates to about three minutes in real life; so each day in the game equates to an hour of play (bearing in mind the counter stops for cut-scenes and battles, it can turn out significantly longer than this). Other games have included this feature before, allowing the game world to transition between day and night, but remember the premise of Lightning Returns: in thirteen days the world will inevitably end.
That means the game itself gives you a set time limit in which to complete it. Such a feature was always bound to split gamers, between those who prefer the free roaming style without restrictions, and those who like certain restrictions because they add challenge and pressure to the experience. I personally belong to the latter category. Many other Western gamers do not.
In other areas, though, the game is less likely to split its critics. The battle system has been largely revamped, with Lightning now your only party member (aside from a couple of temporary cameos); a fascinating new direction for a series that once was known to give you control over as many as fourteen playable characters. The result, surprisingly, is not any less variety than you’re used to, but instead opens up a vast array of new and original possibilities.
During battle, Lightning can switch between different costumes (‘garbs’) which each have their own unique traits. You can set three primary garbs – each with their own set of ‘schemata’, which is basically assigned abilities, weapons and equipment – at a time. Considering these garbs represent well-known classes such as black mage or warrior, you can set Lightning up to fight as a practical one man army, a full party of three by herself. With each command assigned to a face button on the controller too – making a maximum of four, which creates a further need to be especially selective for certain fights – it will make previous Final Fantasy games you’ve played seem unnecessarily complicated and overly reliant on menus.
So then, how to sum up such a fan-splitting game as Lightning Returns will surely turn out to be? Should it be considered in the context of the overall series, as a conclusion to the XIII trilogy, or as a standalone title? No doubt all three categories are applicable. But I feel whatever context we place this game in, it should be praised slightly more than criticised. This is a style of game that is slowly dying out in the industry; the style that tests gamers appropriately and prevents them from getting everything they want, when they want it, for as long as they want it.
Yet, I also can’t help but feel frustrated at Lightning Returns. You can see here that Square Enix has the blueprint for a really great game that is unfortunately largely obscured under a pile of monotonous tasks added to fill up space and time. Add in an overtly religious theme intended to convey a typically anti-religious message (about which I could write a further essay based on this games content alone) and this obscures it further. In the end, I get the feeling that Lightning is indeed some kind of saviour, albeit one that is slightly confused over what we need saving from.
7 / 10.