Let’s start with the obvious: Lightning is a boring character and arguably the worst protagonist in the entire Final Fantasy series. Her bloated backstory and unshakeable self-importance are potent symbols of a series that is seemingly stuck in a humourless, angsty adolescence, unable or unwilling to grow up and cease being insufferable. In other words: Lightning embodies everything that is wrong with Final Fantasy.
And now she’s back. Again. Hooray…?
A few weeks ago, Square Enix released a cute little ‘catch-up’ video summarising the events of FF XIII and XIII-2 with 16-bit sprites and music. Significantly, even in this radically condensed, highly digestible format, the narrative still doesn’t make a lot of sense. Not that it matters a great deal: all you really need to know is that Lightning is some kind of divine Time Lord now, entrusted by capital-g God to avert imminent apocalypse by harvesting the souls of ordinary people and feeding them to a big tree in the sky. (I swear I’m not making this up.)
Time is one of Lightning Returns’ main thematic and mechanical conceits. Lightning has thirteen in-game days to save the world, each day ostensibly equal to one hour of real-time. I say “ostensibly” because, with the countdown stopping for battles, conversations, and menu screens, it actually ends up closer to three or four hours. Big quests tend to occur on a fixed schedule, meaning you have to keep an eye on the clock, but because Lightning can regularly freeze time using her amazing Time Lord powers it never feels like a particularly severe imposition. Even if you miss the start of an event, you will in most cases be allowed to come back and try again the next day, or the next, or the next.
On the next level down in the quest hierarchy are Chocolina requests, which follow the “Collect X number of Ys” format where all the “Ys” are items you accumulate automatically in the course of exploring the world and killing monsters. This is a good system and acts as an attractive incentive to indulge in combat – the one area in which Lightning Returns truly excels.
Other than XII, Lightning Returns is the only Final Fantasy I’ve played where I’ve enjoyed combat enough to actively seek it out. There are no random encounters, thank god: as with previous FF XIIIs and countless other JRPGs, battles are triggered by running into (or getting the jump on) enemies as they stalk the sunny streets and moonlit wilds, terrorising people and wildlife with no discernible motive. As a consequence, battles don’t occur as frequently as they otherwise might and when they do occur they tend to be relatively high stakes, at least in the early game. Autopiloting with the attack button taped down is not advised.
Combat is in real-time and focuses on clever and timely deployment of schemata: customisable quartets of abilities, one for each face button on the controller. These are equipped three at a time and can be cycled in battle by pressing the left shoulder/bumper button, with the basic idea being that you swap schemata as the situation dictates. On the whole, it’s conspicuously similar to FF XIII’s paradigm system, the only major difference being that schemata change Lightning’s appearance as well as her abilities.
The stagger mechanic makes a welcome return and meshes well with Lightning Returns’ increased pace, lending high level encounters a sense of urgency as you race to a) figure out what makes your enemy’s “stagger wave” wobble, and then b) make it wobble so fast it explodes, stunning said enemy and leaving them open to further punishment. Most of your regular opponents are weak to at least one kind of elemental magic, but bosses tend to have more complex stagger conditions involving precisely timed attacks and blocks.
The downside of this system in combination with schemata it that you’ll often find yourself in scenarios where you don’t have the abilities required to stagger the enemy, necessitating a long and tedious battle of attrition. Escape is always an option and is always successful but costs EP – the same resource that allows Lightning to stop time, among other things. Which isn’t a huge deal, generally speaking, but is exasperating when it happens many times in a row. For this reason it pays to prepare by purchasing the cheat sheets (listing monsters’ weaknesses and stagger conditions) available at specialist merchants.
Like a mannequin or fashion model, Lightning is defined by the clothes and accessories she wears. There’s something like eighty outfits in the game, about half of which are hypersexual in a glossy Shibuya way typical of character designer Tetsuya Nomura. So: lots of tight, luridly coloured PVC miniskirts, superfluous lopsided belts, and glorified lingerie, much of it overly complex and impractical.
What the remaining 40 or so outfits lack in fan-service they compensate for with Phoenix Wright levels of pure ostentation: baroque lacework, ruffled cravats, billowing capes, the whole kit and kaboodle. These outfits are generally more fun to customise than the “sexy” ones, partly because there’s more outfit to work with but mainly because many of the “sexy” outfits seem sad and desperate, which makes them depressing to look at.
There are two main ways you can customise an outfit: with accessories, of which there are approximately 20 zillion, and by fiddling with its colour scheme. With a bit of time and effort it’s possible to construct some pretty rad ensembles, the consequent sense of accomplishment being one of the game’s most effective hooks. It’s like customising a car in Forza or decorating your home in Animal Crossing: complex enough to be gratifying but simple enough that it doesn’t overwhelm.
The whole dress-ups angle will already be familiar to anyone who played FF X-2, but the big and crucial difference between FF X-2 and Lightning Returns is that the former has a sense of humour and the latter emphatically does not.
Here’s a question: when have you ever seen Lightning crack a smile? Or do something amusing? This is the whole problem with Final Fantasy now: it’s lost its sense of humour. It’s not a coincidence that FF VI is both the funniest and best game in the series. Even Big No. VII, which is when the series started dying its hair black and moping in its bedroom, was a laugh riot compared to Lightning Returns. I don’t want Portal or Psychonauts levels of hilariousness, just some awareness – some acknowledgement of how ridiculous this world really is and a willingness to revel in it a little.
What I really want is for Lightning to shut up and go away. I’m sick to death of her at this point. I’m sick of her affectless monotone, her insipid and humourless dialogue, and her clumsy skin-deep sexuality. I’m sick of her inane, repetitive, and completely unnecessary battle chatter in which she makes braindead declarations like “Evil has a price!” with maddening regularity. Now that Square Enix has (hopefully) got its money’s worth out of her, it’s about time she and the whole pretentious mess of a world to which she belongs disappears and never returns.