I had never played a Final Fantasy game. For all the countless hours I've spent at a computer or a console, how had I never delved into this iconic franchise? Lack of access to the right systems and lack of time to devote to such lengthy adventures have come and gone as excuses. Maybe it's a question of desire? I don't often seek out Japanese role-playing games, but there have been a few over the years that have snagged my interest. I played and enjoyed a solid chunk of Chrono Trigger, and was charmed by the world of Ni No Kuni. I completed 2007's lovely, sentimental Eternal Sonata, perhaps the best experience I've had with a JRPG. A paltry resume, to be sure, but I've always been intrigued by the grand adventures and enduring characters that FF fans are so passionate about, and so I resolved to play a Final Fantasy game.
I chose the wrong Final Fantasy game.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII starts off with a splashy cutscene that shows beautiful people engaged in elegant combat in a fantastical city. This kind of intricately rendered video seems to have fallen out of fashion of late, but as aspirational introductions go, it did the trick. Even though I didn't know the players involved, I was intrigued and excited about the world I was about to explore, eager to learn more about the creatures and characters. But as a newcomer to the trilogy that Lightning Returns concludes (as well as the series as a whole), I knew I had some catching up to do, and I was a bit worried about keeping up with all the lore I was about to immerse myself in.
As it turns out, Lightning Returns does a very thorough job of laying the foundation for the events to come. It didn't take me long to understand Lightning's strange role as the savior charged by God to save the souls of the citizenry before God's own doomsday clock runs out. Apparently, the world of Nova Chrysalia has been in a slowly decaying holding pattern for five centuries since the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2. No one has aged, no one has died of natural causes, and no one has been born; they've all just coasted along waiting for something to happen as a mysterious force called chaos slowly encroached on their world.
It's an intriguing setting, one that raises questions about how a static society might change as its citizens grow wise, bored, or crazy after long years of the same thing. But Lightning Returns continues to explain the setting long after the stage has been set. In the interminable exposition sequence and subsequently through hours and hours of adventuring, the dialogue in Lightning Returns is riddled with redundancy. Characters make observations only to have their conversation partners reword and regurgitate the same information without adding anything of substance. This constant reiteration makes it seem like the only reason that people talk is to drill information into your head rather than to flesh out personalities, create dramatic tension, or evoke emotion.
And so Lightning Returns isn't initially confusing, as I'd feared, but initially dull. Lightning herself doesn't exactly sparkle with charisma, and in the early hours she acts like she's still a bit groggy after her epic nap. The fate of thousands of strangers isn't much motivation, but the chance to reunite with her long-dead sister gets her going even though, as she remarks, "God is using my dead sister as a bargaining chip." This quip is a welcome bit of sardonic self-awareness, and it's when Lightning Returns gets a bit playful that it begins to show a spark of life. A chef observes, "People are more health conscious these days, which is ironic, given the times." A public announcement seeking Lightning declares, "She has rose-colored hair and is carrying an enormous weapon." A random kid running through a plaza trips and falls. Unfortunately, these lighthearted moments are rare, and most conversations with townsfolk and quest givers are dry and colorless.
Interactions with returning characters are more colorful. Lightning reunites with a few friends from the past, though whether or not they are friends anymore is often uncertain. One clash pits Lightning against a grief-stricken former comrade in a test of how far each is willing to go for the chance to see a dead loved one again. Another relationship has become antagonistic over the centuries, and Lightning's musings about the passage of time and its effect on relationships resonate nicely with the intriguing setting. Yet these conversations, while often staged with stylish camera angles, nonetheless suffer from the redundancy that plagues so much of the dialogue. Characters repeat themselves and parrot each other frequently, as if trying to drill basic situations and concepts into your head so you don't forget them. Narrative development becomes belabored exposition, and even after I was well into the game, I still felt impatient for things to get under way.
The first proper task set before Lightning is to investigate a string of murders in the city of Luxerion. The worlds of Final Fantasy have always struck me as having an interesting mix of gothic, modern, and fantastical architecture, and this proved true about the streets of Luxerion. Attendants in trim, vaguely futuristic uniforms populate train stations with gold Victorian trimmings. A soaring gothic cathedral plays host to supplicants that wouldn't look out of place in a pop music video. Coming across these exotic pairings makes exploring the city enjoyable, though the abundance of drab plazas and dreary alleyways begins to get tiresome after a while. Luxerion has seen better days, but the glittering city of Yusnaan seems to be in a state of perpetual polish. Nightly festivals make this area much livelier and more visually appealing, but this hustle and bustle has a downside. Street musicians, loudspeaker announcements, idle chatter, and walkie-talkie messages from Hope can all layer on top of one another and create a cacophony in which everything is unintelligible.
The two wilderness areas offer quieter exploration, though the incidence of tough monsters effectively confines you to the urban areas for quite some time. You can travel freely between each of these four large locales, and each offers an array of quests that lead to the collection of the all-important souls. Some quests must be hunted down by talking to citizens, while others can be grabbed from a handy quest board staffed in each area by a character that looks like a cross between a tropical bird and a female prostitute. I'm not sure what turn of events led to this provocative reimagining of the iconic chocobo, but judging by some of Lightning's outfits, it's not a new phenomenon.
Some quests require more running around and listening to lackluster dialogue, but most involve the game's most enjoyable element: combat. Lightning enters the fray with three different gear sets called schemata. Each schemata is made up of a weapon, a few abilities, and a number of clothing options, all of which can affect your attributes and resistances. Switching between schemata on the fly isn't just a matter of bringing your deadliest attacks to bear on the enemy; it's also a resource management challenge. You have only a certain amount of energy per schemata, and once it's drained, you can't use any of that schemata's abilities until it recharges.
This makes combat a bit of a juggling act, which encourages you to design your schemata strategically. Early on I simply loaded all my best gear into one schemata and used the others to kill time while my best one recharged. As I acquired more gear and enemies grew tougher, I restructured my schemata to focus on physical attack, magical attack, and defense. Dealing the right kind of damage can stagger enemies, opening them up to serious pummeling, and timely blocking is essential in tougher fights. Nimble schemata switching and smart energy management are the keys to victory, and exploiting these tactics is an engaging and dynamic challenge.
Which is not to say that I was a terribly skilled fighter. I had to use heal and revive items frequently while clashing with formidable enemies, and occasionally made use of Lightning's handful of special EP powers to get myself out of a bind. As I progressed, difficult fights began to drag on longer and longer, and the lively juggling act of combat began to lose its luster. The challenge no longer seemed to arise from skillfully juggling schemata, but rather from simply grinding out tedious encounters. Combat was still tough, but as endurance took on a larger and larger role, my interest waned.
Almost 20 hours in to Lightning Returns, I gave it up. Perhaps if I had known the main characters' histories, their relationships would have resonated more strongly. Perhaps if I was previously enamored with the worlds of Final Fantasy, Nova Chrysalia would have intrigued me more. While I'll never know what my perspective would have been, I do know that, as a newcomer to Final Fantasy, Lightning Returns didn't feel unwelcoming. From combat to characters, the game did a lot to make sure I knew where I was, what I was doing, and why I was doing it. The problem isn't that it's a poor choice for newcomers; the problem is that it's a poor game.