Revenge of the Cie'th
Does George Lucas moonlight for Square Enix? That was one of the questions I was asking myself after the 50 or so hours I had thrown at their latest and (hopefully) final entry in the Final Fantasy XIII series. There truly is something uncanny in how both this and Lucas’ embarrassing prequels follow a similar trajectory; a desperately poor first attempt, a slightly better but still quite rotten follow up, and now this, the best of the bunch, but only by virtue of the staggering ineptitude that came before it. That’s not to say that Lightning Returns doesn't have its fair share of bracing stupidity, because it does, and none more so than in its ‘so embarrassing it’s actually quite impressive’ narrative.
The plot finds the titular heroine awoken from a 500 year sleep and facing a dying world. Chosen by God, she must save the souls of the last remaining humans before the world ends, and by doing so ensure that they are reborn anew in a world God will create for them. That is the narrative at its most basic, and if that was all there was to it I could have merely passed it off as another generic JRPG plotline, but Lightning Returns has this strange delusion where it thinks its nonsensical metaphysics merit the kind of labyrinthine discussion one would associate with Plato or Aristotle.
That all this ludicrous drivel exists is bad enough, but even worse than that is the writing. The script is just one of the most hideous pieces of garbage I've experienced in any medium that purports to tell a story. That someone, anyone, thought this was at all profound, or even acceptable, is truly beyond me. There are no characters here, nothing resembles anything remotely human, and instead we get one-dimensional dolls with facile platitudes and empty moralising. Torturous exposition is given over and over ad nauseam, and for all the endless talk of loss, or grief, for all the melodramatic soliloquies about trauma and sorrow, there isn't any. There’s no blood, no dirt, it’s just sanitised, infantile bluster.
But on top of that, on top of all the portentous speeches and pretentious waffle about life, death, gods, and souls etc. the game throws in what I’m sure it thinks is incredibly poignant and beautiful dialogue, but in fact just makes me want to grind my teeth into dust. Sentimentality when handled well can be genuinely affecting, but Lightning Returns lacks the fundamental thing needed to make that happen; characters you actually care about or relationships you see grow and develop, not simply referred to as a bit of unseen backstory. As it is, the writing is simply incompetent and marks the lowest point in the game and perhaps my entire experience with Final Fantasy to date.
Thankfully however, Lightning Returns is a game and not just a botched movie. Unfortunately, but somewhat unsurprisingly, the worst part of the gameplay experience is very much tied in with the story; that of the time limit you have to complete the various quests. Each completed main quest extends the time limit by another day, giving you more time to complete more quests and thus gain more power and hopefully reach the 13th day when God will appear to create the new world. However, by having time constantly running down you are not given much opportunity to relax and enjoy things at your own pace. I found myself charging hither and thither at all times through the first couple of main areas, and while this kept the pace of the game up, it also left me frustrated at not being able to just explore and encounter things when it suited me. Happily the later quests are not as long and with the ability to stop time temporarily, I ended up having much more time than I probably needed, and spent the last few days simply grinding out more gil for more powerful weapons and equipment.
Character progression in Lightning Returns is handled rather more adeptly, where your health, strength, and magic power etc. are improved by completing quests. What’s enjoyable about this structure is that it creates a nice addictive quality to the gameplay. There are many side and notice board quests you can acquire and complete relatively quickly and it was a lot of fun to find that I had completed them by accident or was able to turn many in at one time. The game also does a nice job in presenting the rewards of a quest to you and the feeling of power you gain is much more satisfying than in previous Final Fantasy XIII games, especially as you will revisit areas and monsters and can experience first hand how much you've improved.
As it was in those earlier games, their battle systems did much to distract from the terribleness which surrounded them, and again with Lightning Returns it acts as the vanguard to everything which the game does right. Lightning Returns’ battle system is played out almost entirely in real time, where abilities such as attacking and guarding are all carried out instantly with button presses where timing and the correct combination of attacks is the key to victory. Lightning fights pretty much alone this time and so to compensate for that now has the ability to switch class, or “schemata”, on the fly when she is in battle.
Each schemata is custom made and allows for a huge variety in terms of how you want Lightning to be armed. You assign an outfit, a weapon, a shield, two accessories, and can assign up to 4 abilities which map to the four face buttons. You take 3 of these hand-crafted schemata into battle and as you use up ATB from carrying out actions (ATB essentially being your stamina bar), you switch from one to the other to allow for continued assaults and to give time to the others to recharge their ATB meters. Clever use of this mechanic, especially when tied to schemata that complement each other, can create very effective strategies and is essential to beating the game’s tougher enemies and hidden bosses. Battles themselves are generally fast paced and guarding plays a much more pivotal role than it has done before. Aside from a few niggles with the camera, battles feel dynamic and involving while still retaining a good deal of tactical depth and challenge.
When it comes to the visuals, Lightning Returns is rather hit and miss. While the art direction is impressive, as are the cg cut-scenes, the graphics themselves are relatively lacklustre and often don't do justice to some of the more lovely architecture and vistas on view. Textures vary from relatively sharp to incredibly muddy and with a chugging frame rate it often feels like a bit of mess technically.
In spite of that, and even though it is saddled with an abominable script, Lightning Returns is a decent game and an improvement on its direct predecessors. The guts of the action and myriad of customisation options work very well in tandem and serve to make the experience much easier to stomach as a whole. It’s not great, but it has enough sparks of creativity to suggest that something special might come in future, but I won't hold my breath for it.