As a defining character for an entire (rather prolonged) sub-franchise, Lightning has never been the most likable of personalities. Square seem to love her, despite her cold indifference, so much so that there are now three games of varying quality and shifting styles that you have to wonder whether the fanbase actually exists. Final Fantasy XIII, widely (and correctly) derided for being one giant corridor littered with cutscenes and battles began this trilogy and introduced us to the colourful cast of strangely named clichés. Lightning Returns reduces everyone but the titular character to cameo roles, there to appease their specific fans while confusing the bejesus out of anyone new to the series. Heaven help you if this is your first foray into the world of Final Fantasy as the plot is shot to pieces by this point.
Set five hundred years after XIII-2, Lightning has now become a messenger of the god Bhunivelze, tasked with rescuing the souls from a doomed, dying world. Time restrictions have been seen in games before – from Dead Rising’s frantic dashes to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and its three-day cycle of lunar apocalypse – but never before have they been so intrinsic to a Final Fantasy. Sure, other JRPGs do it too, as well as the perpetual theme of the end of the world, but Lightning Returns does so in a way that feels urgent. There are so many distractions – from main story missions to an array of subquests – that you’re guaranteed not to finish everything on one playthrough. This means that sacrifice comes into play; who will you save? Where do your priorities lie?
This impending time limit, combined with an open world to explore with little hand-holding or direction, results in a game that initially feels overwhelming. Even Final Fantasy stalwarts may feel out of their comfort zone; Lightning is the single protagonist in this world of endless mortality, yet the familiar faces that should be points of reference have all changed over the centuries. Hope, last seen as a young man, has reverted to his teenage self and now acts as a divine go-between, stationed in a serene base of operations. There’s a tree of life (named Yggdrasil – a JRPG tradition it seems, last seen in Etrian Odyssey) next to his heavenly waiting room, ready to receive ‘Eradia’. ‘Eradia’, collected by completing quests, extends the oncoming end of the world by up to six extra days. So, it becomes a game of weighing up the options. Does Lightning spend her time on short, relatively easy quests or relentlessly pursue the main goal in the hope that doing so might save everyone? It’s a brain-frazzling concept but not an unwelcome one, given the linearity of previous games.
It’s an intriguing concept that heightens the surreal otherworldliness of the Final Fantasy series. Being the saviour of the world and a divine messenger is weird enough; the moments that happen in and on the way to Hope’s floating sanctuary wouldn’t be out of place in something like El Shaddai. The visuals feel both dated and beautiful; aside from the predictably stylish CG cutscenes, Lightning Returns has some beautiful sights yet the citizens are the same models dressed up in different (and occasionally very silly) costumes. The main characters have smooth, fluid animations yet parts of the world are nothing but flat textures. It’s a mishmash of beauty and cut-corners, as if some areas are there to add empty space.
Given the linearity of XIII, it’s a real pleasure to have a game with the freedom to choose quests. Of course, time constraints add a frisson of panic in the face of imminent destruction but there’s a pleasant reminder of games like Shenmue when you have to plan each day around a fixed schedule. Things are further complicated due to penalties – battles pause time but escaping them incurs an hour deduction, encouraging players to stick it out. The battle system, a logical evolution of the Paradigm Shifts from XIII, remains Lightning Returns’ strongest feature. Essentially revolving around an infinitely customisable wardrobe, each costume Lightning dons act as both armour and skillset. One dress might be attuned to magic while another offers more in the way of protection. Along with equippable weapons and shields they look gorgeous and there are so many that the diehard statisticians will have a field day tweaking them. Switching between your selected three outfits in battle gives Lightning Returns an immediacy in combat that retains the on-the-fly twitchiness of the Paradigms but with a real-time button-mashing intensity.
Enveloping these different gameplay systems is one of the most indecipherable plotlines in the history of the series. The focus on deities, divine deadlines and saving souls is a strange choice, but the way in which the atmosphere can shift from intensely serious to broadly comic is bizarre. One minute you’ll be staging an explosive opera, the next you’ll be nursing a chocobo back to health. At times it feels like Square have included these moments in order to show off their wondrous art design, given the delirious non sequiturs that crop up again and again. There are indeed moments where it feels like an out-of-place flourish to draw attention to something particularly beautiful. If you approach the game in this way, paying little heed to the overarching storyline, then it becomes a hazy fever dream. Perhaps that’s the best way to do it, really.
Lightning Returns is an accomplished curio, one that stands out amongst its predecessors in terms of originality and design. That’s not to say it doesn’t have issues – the convoluted plot doesn’t work and there’s definitely a sense of Lightning fatigue beginning to set in. It feels far enough removed from Final Fantasy that there’s little wonder the name of the game moves established franchise branding to one side in lieu of the rose-haired heroine. Topping off the XIII subseries with a competent capstone, Lightning Returns has some bold ideas lost amidst the glitz and glamour of Square’s schizophrenic tone-shifts. As an offline alternative to Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn it works, filling the time in the same way it ekes past on the onscreen clock. Although a greatest hits in a sense – what with chocobos, Moogles and more – Lightning Returns can’t shake the feeling of a track on repeat. Time is of the essence in real terms as well; time to move on, perhaps.