A few weeks ago, I received a copy of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII – the newest entry in the long-running Japanese role-playing game series that hits stores Tuesday – for review purposes. As with most RPGs, Final Fantasy games are notoriously long, with this instalment taking a reported 50 hours to complete. I managed to put in 10 hours before losing interest completely.
I felt bad about that, because I try to finish every game before reviewing it. And I'm well aware, that to its legions of fans, Square-Enix's long-running series can do no wrong, and indeed criticisms often inspire some of the most vitriolic responses online. So, rather than giving Lightning Returns short shrift in an official review, let me instead explain my problems with the game, and the series as a whole.
I used to love Final Fantasy. The first game was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987, when I was just 13. While the graphics and sound were primitive by today's standards, it featured all the hallmarks of fantasy RPGs: wizards, elves, dragons and quests. Gameplay revolved around slaying monsters, gathering treasure and turn-based combat, where your characters would attack and then the enemies would go, or vice-versa. As someone who grew up playing table-top Dungeons & Dragons, it was the best approximation that could be had on a video game console.
Subsequent entries improved not just in graphics and sound, they also added characters and interesting stories. Final Fantasy titles indeed became famous – and hugely successful – on the strength of their story-telling, something that wasn't really found in many other games of the day. Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario may have been fun distractions, but they didn't exactly provide much food for thought.
But the medium evolved and eventually other games started focusing on narratives and characterization. In time, I lost interest in the series in favour of those alternatives for several reasons: its turn-based combat system had gotten old, its role-playing elements too complex and its storylines too weird. The last installment I played was somewhere around the time of the 2001 movie, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within – probably Final Fantasy IX for the first PlayStation.
Lightning Returns was thus my first Final Fantasy experience in more than a decade. I was excited to dive in to see how much had changed, but after spending a decent chunk of time with it, it was clear that little had.
The combat system has advanced somewhat to the point where it isn't truly turn-based anymore – protagonists and enemies can now attack at the same time – but the fundamental engine of the game still feels constrained, artificial and anachronistic.
The problem is that the game shifts into a side view of the opponents squaring off whenever protagonist Lightning, an angel on a mission from god to save souls, encounters a bad guy or monster. Once upon a time when console processing power was scant, such artifice might have been necessary to limit how much action was on screen at any given time. But now, in an age where thousands of individually animated characters can appear at once, the notion that the outside world needs to stop and everyone in it ceases to be while a fight takes place seems terribly unrealistic.
On top of that, the only movement the player is responsible for is tilting the camera around the battlefield. Fights are otherwise just a case of pushing the right buttons for weapon attacks, blocks or spells. At the end of the battle, Lightning spouts a catch phrase and a summary of experience points and booty is displayed. All told, it feels like a spreadsheet crunching numbers, with the visuals and player inputs just a superficial veneer riding on top.
Numbers is really what it's all about. While RPGs have been based on this truism since the 20-sided die was invented, plenty of modern video games – from Mass Effect to Skyrim – have greatly simplified the process or hidden it away from the player's view entirely. The character and inventory management screens in Lightning Returns, meanwhile, are still an unwieldy mess of statistics and numerical descriptors, which ultimately results in the action looking like a math equation. And yes, that's about as fun as it sounds.
Other RPGs have also made player freedom a key component of their appeal. Skyrim, especially, was a success because it allowed players to do anything and go anywhere in its giant, expansive world. Final Fantasy, meanwhile, continues to funnel players into artificially constrained environments, whether it's the fight arenas or the tightly defined cities and outdoor environments. Games are supposed to be an interactive medium that empowers players to do as they will; Final Fantasy continues to be the antithesis of that.
All of that notwithstanding, the biggest problem with the series may be that it has stopped making sense on any level. It's possible the games never made sense in the first place, but my awareness of the nonsense increased as I got older.
Take the minor issue of Lightning's name, for example. She has a deceased sister named Serah, which raises the question: What were their parents thinking? Serah, despite the unusual (and perhaps Torah-inspired) spelling, is a common girls' name, whereas Lightning is… well… not. Why would any parent give one daughter a normal name and another an odd one? It's like naming one son Joseph and the other Maserati. It seems to be a case of the developers making a character cool-sounding without stopping to consider logic behind it.
(Update: Thankfully, Lightning's real name is apparently Claire, which means she didn't have crazy parents after all. This fact, however, is revealed in a prior game and not explained – at least during the early parts – of Lightning Returns. The game's complicated backstory is yet another obstacle for newcomers to overcome.)
Lightning is also brought out of suspended animation at the beginning of the game by a god, named Bhunivelze, to perform the Biblical Noah-like mission of saving souls. Fed up with the direction his people have been taking, Bhunivelze is set to destroy the world in 13 days. For some reason, however, he has brought Lightning back mid-way through the whole process, with only five days to go. She can win more time through saving souls, which is a clever gameplay concept by the developers, but again there's no logical reason to explain it.
It's possible such nonsensical story aspects are explained later in the game, when I'd be well past the point of caring, but the illogic extends to the fabric of the gameplay itself. The core concept of the action is the hero's ability to instantly switch between outfits, known as schemata, in the midst of battle. Yes, that's correct – Lightning changes clothes while fighting dragons and gremlins.
The schemata, which can be customized with different weapons and magic items, are intended to be a strategic tool. One can be outfitted with defensive capabilities while another can be heavy on magic powers while yet another is geared up for tank-like offense. But again, it's another example of developers implementing a nifty game mechanic without a realistic – or even logical – explanation for it. Some other games have similar logic loopholes, but perhaps none are as egregious as Lightning Returns.
Like many of its predecessors, this is a game that does too much to remind you that it is in fact a game. It takes you out of the fictional world it's attempting to create far too often with its logical incongruities, which are apparent right from the get-go. Video games are all too frequently criticized as being silly or mindless; Final Fantasy is – despite its high-minded efforts at drama, themes and character-building – one of the worst offenders in this sense.
Final Fantasy games can generally be counted on for fantastic graphics – at least in the cutscenes; the actual in-game visuals are only so-so – and symphonic soundtracks, even if they are melodramatic, but if the plan is to hook new or lapsed players in for that 50-hour long haul… well, the logical inconsistencies are a major obstacle to getting there.
Some Japanese RPG developers have said that Westerners just don't "get" their games. That may be true – but they certainly aren't helping themselves with silly and uninteresting anachronisms like Final Fantasy.