Lightning Returns: A Hater’s Honest Opinion
To be clear I’m not actually a hater, well not completely. It’s complicated. I always intended to buy Lightning Returns to see how this whole crazy thing ends and because the demo made it seem like it could be fun.
I was, however, completely against the creators taking the franchise further away from what it always was to the original fans. An unrecognizable game in a series scares fans. My opposition to that continued departure from what made the franchise popular and the criticism that followed was what has gotten me labeled a hater by some new fans of the action-oriented, crazy story laden incarnation of Final Fantasy. I wrote some pieces meant to be tongue-in-cheek about this. I wrote them while I knew all about the game but hadn’t played it. People don’t like that by the way. If you use wisdom acquired over decades to draw conclusions apparently that is not acceptable. So we will set that aside because now I have it, I’ve been playing a lot, and I feel it’s time to bring this article series to a close with an honest opinion. No Friday Night Rant disclaimer is present this time, the rant is going legit. This is my final word on the subject.
Let’s start on a high note, the battle system. I got a taste of it in the demo and it made me hopeful. I think it is unique, clever, but most of all it’s damn fun. It’s the highlight of the whole game in my opinion. It managed to retain a certain amount of direct input and RPG influence that was missing from the almost entirely automatic Paradigm system in XIII and XIII-2. I’m not crazy about having the attacks mapped to the face buttons since FF games have always been best with menu and command based options. Still the fact that you can switch Schemeta on the fly gives you some pretty good access to abilities. Nothing near what was available in the past, but good for an action game. I think only having 3 Schemata in battle was a mistake though, if I run into something that I can’t take down without fire and I don’t have enough slots to keep it in stock then I’m screwed since I can’t get to it. I could have easily manged 5 schemes. Not a deal breaker though.
The limited number of items Lightning can hold is a problem for me too. There’s no need to challenge us in that realm, items are items so we should be able to have as many as we want. The ability to walk around in the field is kind of pointless and having to block in real time feels wrong, but I can deal with it. The garbs are a very cool way to put together schemata as they are quite reminiscent of the Dress Spheres in FFX-2. That game wasn’t exactly worth being canon, but no sane person can put down that battle system. It was ATB nearly perfected. As a born customizer it’s also very cool to play dress up, find the best colors, and assemble the best teams of alter-egos for Lightning. I probably would have been more okay with this battle system in XIII so long as there was an ability to have a party and switch characters at will. That would have been an amazing way to take on enemies in a bigger game.
The funniest thing about the battle system is that I have no idea if I’m playing it right, in fact I don’t think I am. It appears as though the huge focus on action is supposed to have people tapping the face buttons to execute commands that properly work on defeating each enemy. I don’t actually do that. I organize my functions onto the same buttons if I can, so when I need Thunder I’ll place it on 2 Schemata with both on the triangle button. Then I’ll just hold that button and when the ATB runs out I slip into a new form and keep holding. I do various combinations of this, holding down my attacks and changing them up when necessary. Ultimately it’s like shifting a car through a very hectic drive but I retain enough control so that it doesn’t feel like I’m just shifting an automatic car as with the previous two games. I just use attacks like gas petals and the Schemeta as gears. It’s quite fun. One big drawback is that everything is basically too fast for things like status ailments and buffs to matter much. Once you take the time to use them you are already behind, and if you bother to debuff yourself you’re wasting time that you need. This is why these games aren’t really RPGs any more, the bulk of what was once strategic is now useless.
Fun stuff aside, it is still very clearly a novelty battle system. I would expect to find it in an NIS game if they were interested in action. It quite simply isn’t suited to the epic struggles the franchise is known for. It gives you a neat little thrill but could never stand in for what we had to go through to fight Seymour or Sin in FFX. It’s not epic, just slick and fun.
I’ve got some serious problems with the environments and I’m going to post a picture right here to illustrate what I mean. It’s not a screen capture but it gives you a good idea of something that a lot of critics seem to have somehow missed: the whole “world” is a slapdash creation suggesting just how quickly this game was tossed together.
Look at Lightning, and look at what passes for windows in this game. What you see isn’t a rare occurrence. Almost every set piece would be at home in a PS2 game. Stretched, muddy, or overcomplicated textures have been mapped onto flat planes just like in the old days. Instead of constructing something like a casement a texture is just slapped over a flat space. Everything that should be rounded is made up of as few straight polygons as possible. It’s positively hideous. I’m playing FFX/X-2 HD alongside this game and you know something is off when the HD update of a 12 year old game consistently looks better than a new game on a newer console.
The world is quite small as well, with just a handful of locations to explore and time always pressing you. It actually seems kindof big since the game makes you run back and forth all over the place but compared to other games or the grandeur of what fans expect from a globe trotting RPG it’s really tiny. The saving grace of this is that it obviously isn’t supposed to be a grand journey, just a pit stop at the end of the world to save some souls. And since the spaces aren’t all that important I can look past a lot of it for the satisfaction of finishing quests.
Doing quests can be fun in the same way it was with a game like Two Worlds II. You do them to experience the in-between times even though the actual quests are lame favors for helpless idiots that use hackneyed bits of storytelling which wouldn’t impress a juvenile. Could anyone have any sympathy for the dummy who wants you to give him proof of some kills so he can cheat on his test? No. Does Lightning’s deadpan response that she thinks he’s awesome for still trying to pass the test after failing dozens of time make you think she is growing as a person? Nope. And yet, I just keep on playing it anyway. Outdated fetch quests taking up this much of a game would normally kill it for me but there’s a certain amateur charm to this production that can keep one engaged anyway. You can just jump in, do some crap, and jump out.
The same goes for the non-combat gameplay. Running back and forth through the same areas is tiresome but at least having a little down time between the bigger encounters is a good thing. The time limits are not a good thing. Some say it gives the game a sense of urgency. That’s kind of the problem, any sort of RPG with a time limit is trouble. You’re liable to miss plenty of things just because you can’t run fast enough, and that’s pretty stupid in my book. I don’t really care if I can get to it with another play through because there’s no authentic attempt to make the side quests interesting anyway. Even though there’s little danger in running out of time on letting the world end, it’s just very annoying. Getting sucked up to the ark during a crucial battle does not help my enjoyment of the game along at all.
I’m more amused than anything at the field gameplay. It acts as if switches that open doors, jumping on boxes, and sliding down poles is a massive gameplay upgrade. It’s pretty hilarious and honestly quite fun. I do tire of the giant room puzzles that games try to put together these days and storming field territories in Lightning Returns is so retro it reminds me of the simple days of PS1 gameplay.
I mentioned how the side quest stories are soulless, the main quest story is trying to be something more at least. I went into it with an open mind, even though things have gotten weirder and weirder I of course wanted to allow the game to tell its story so I can accept it on its own terms. Without doing that it’s hard to have fun right? So there is, at it’s heart, a fairly compelling idea behind the plot. I like the idea that at the end of the world Snow is leading the revelry, a last gasp of fun from humanity. I think if we found out an earth killing asteroid was on the way we would see similar things happen. But Final Fantasy isn’t about whether or not things are realistic, it’s about a fantasy story we are meant to connect with. I think it was a good choice to return Hope to his young self to act as Light’s operator. Since the whole time screw up thing sort of never happened properly it makes sense to ditch that multiverse version of Hope and remind us of the young man Lightning counseled during the difficulties of the journey in XIII.
Moreover I like encountering the old friends and seeing what they are up to in these new circumstances. I can’t go without saying though that the whole series of events since XIII’s ending just doesn’t work. I know there is supplementary narrative in comics and such but you can’t handle things that way, you have to have the games follow in order and make sense. Besides being a lifelong gamer I have plenty of training in critical theory and the biggest problems with what was done and continues to be done is how the writers treat their fantasy world.
Of course it’s easy to make fun of Lightning somehow (seemingly magically) going from hunted enemy to some sort of Goddess to Jesus Christ. It’s implausible in reality, of course you can make it sound stupid, but if the writers were skilled they could have done it since we are talking about fiction. They weren’t skilled though, they mucked it up entirely. They tell and do not show, always. It has been a long time and Lighting was in crystal after Serah’s fate. Why? People don’t just turn to crystal because they are sad the last time I checked, there had to be some cause. It’s the end of the world. Why? I have no idea besides some kind of cosmic war that we were never actually a part of in any of the games. People are living for a very long time for some reason. Why? If we get somebody’s cat out of a tree we save their soul. Again, why? We are constantly just supposed to accept huge stacks of bizarre information that commits a cardinal sin of fiction, it doesn’t follow its own rules. It really just makes them up as it goes along.
Even the Chocolina quest board only works because it has been enchanted with “an ancient spell” that magically makes peoples wishes available in a special language that only Lightning can read. That example tells you how everything else functions in the game. It’s clear that there isn’t even 1/3rd of the thought put into the original L’Cie storyline of XIII in Lighting Returns. That solidifies it as a patently ridiculous fantasy. You know what though? That isn’t bad in and of itself. The many creative stories in Killer Is Dead are all over the place, constantly breaking up their own universe into an impossible collection of situations. It’s a lot of wild fun too. In the same way there’s plenty of neat compartmentalized stories in Lightning Returns. I liked settling things with Noel for instance.
There’s a serious problem with non-linear stories in Final Fantasy, and a more serious one with making it so ridiculous that it’s fun just as a piece of Japanese outlandishness, but that doesn’t make it a bad game. It does, however, highlight a direction that this franchise just shouldn’t be going in.
Recently Square-Enix seems to have figured this out when they made some comments about getting back to their roots following the success of Bravely Default and I hope that is true. Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD seems to be selling well and has probably (by some simply calculations) already overtaken the sales of Lightning Returns when digital sales are counted in so maybe there’s hope for old fans yet but my honest opinion of this particular game is that it is a fun distractionary title that is enjoyable but obviously not the right direction for the series.
Hey Square Enix, Lightning Returns is pretty cool! Let’s never do it again though ‘kay?