Conversations: Is Lightning Returns More Weird than Clever?

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Square Enix’s demo for Lightning Returns, the third and final installment in the Final Fantasy XIII mini-series, was released last week. With the game set to release only a few weeks away, Tom and I dig into what the game seems to be doing right, and the lessons it might provide for the rest of the franchise going forward.

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Tom: How did we get to Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII?

No, I mean, imagine you have a time machine. Go back in time, to 1996, when Final Fantasy VII just came out. Tell your younger self that, in eighteen years, we’d have a third sequel to a Final Fantasy game that most people would rank squarely middle of the pack.

Then tell them that it would have Dresspheres (explain to them the concept of Final Fantasy X-2 first, maybe), a battle system where you directly control one party member, and, what the hell, enemies you see on the field. Then tell them it takes place during an apparently never-ending party at the end of the world, with the protagonist of the first Final Fantasy XIII fighting one of her compatriots, who’s become “King of the Party.”

1996 you would not believe you are a time traveler. 1996 you would call the police. They would flat-out not believe you. Nothing could have gone off the rails so severely. You’re saying one Final Fantasy numbered entry has more games than the entire Chrono series? Get out of here, time demon.

My reaction to Lightning Returns isn’t easy. I love it because it’s not like the others, but I’m not sure how it fits together. It’s so outlandish I almost can’t process that dozens of people in a Japanese city have spent years putting this game together.

Help me out here. Tell me why I should be excited with this. I want to be enthusiastic.

Ethan: Well 1996 me would probably have little frame of reference, given that I’d only have played “Final Fantasy III” at that point, VII being still a year out from it’s September 1997 release in North America (which is kind of bizarre in and of itself: for many of us, the spread of VI, VII and VIII was our introduction to the series, with Square darting back and forth from there between re-releasing earlier titles and shipping new ones).

While I get what you’re saying though, what’s playable in the demo still makes a strange kind of sense. It’s a mess of Final Fantasy pastiche, from the “Party”-goers’ strange resemblance to VIII‘s Sorceress Edea parade near the end of the first disc, to the clear nod to VII with the futuristic city’s Midgard-ian outskirt of industrial decay, complete with an elevated train, and the menagerie of Renaissance columns and arches reminiscent of IX‘s Alexandria that line “The Patron’s” court.

It’s messy in another way of course, even ignoring for a moment the clear dip in visual production (my Xbox 360 version at least looked muddled and rough around the edges, even compared to XIII-2). Is there any logic that ties all of Lightning Returns’ varied design choices and gameplay systems together? The “Dressphere” (which we can dig into more in a moment) is intriguing but also completely nonsensical, at least narratively. And the pseudo-real-time enemy encounters feel “fresh,” but seem to lack any purpose beyond sheer novelty.

Nonetheless, the demo was enough to convince me that Lightning Returns is a fascinating, beautiful, and ridiculous experiment whose results and “lessons learned” may go a long way toward resolving the conundrum of how to make turn-based JRPGs as fast-paced and intuitive as their hyper-interactive counterparts like Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls.

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Tom: Ouch. You’ve destroyed what little nerd cred I had. Of course Final Fantasy VII came out in 1997. The 90′s were just a period of intense time compression.

You’ve put into words exactly how this demo made me feel. It made me want to play every other Final Fantasy again. Lightning Returns is a delicious pastiche of every Final Fantasy Tetsuya Nomura has ever touched. His fingerprints are all over this, even though he’s just the character designer. This is his world. I’m surprised how much this seems like Final Fantasy Versus XIII, considering, you know, that that’s supposedly become Final Fantasy XV.

The progression between the three games in the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy fascinates me. The first title always felt like there was too much and too little, like they were afraid to throw anything out but at the same time threw too much against the wall. The second game, meanwhile, from what I’ve played seems like they said, “Oh, you think we threw too much out? Here’s *everything*.”

Lightning Returns feels like that, but they’ve spliced in another whole game, too. My god, the battle system has everything and probably a kitchen sink, too. You can move around in battle. Why? No reason. You switch costumes on the fly, and then chain together attacks from each one. Why? Well, because it’s cool. Because it reminds you of other Final Fantasies. Because people want to dress Lightning up in costumes. Because they can sell a lot of DLC of classic costumes.

It works, and it doesn’t. It’s funny, I feel like if this and Bravely Default traded demos, then I’d be hyped for both of them. Bravely Default had a demo that showed off its systems but didn’t really tell us why we’d want to play it for fifty hours. “Lightning Returns: The Demo” offered us a lot of information about its nonsense plot, but not a whole lot about its systems. And what we have is only a tantalizing taste. This is supposed to be a radically different, open-world take on Final Fantasy. I wanted to see those systems. I wanted to see them lock together way more than I did.

Ethan: Tetsuya Nomura really is the alpha and omega of Lightning Returns. More than perhaps any other Final Fantasy, what’s depicted in the demo at least is the character designer unleashed, uninhibited–pure late-Final Fantasy id. And of course, that begins and ends with the game’s fetish for costumes.

Nomura’s characters have this origami-like quality: flashy but fragile, giving the appearance of depth even though they’re entirely paper-thin. This, arguably, extends to the worlds his characters inhabit.

It looks like the pre-apocalyptic mecca was created in order to justify Lightning and Snow’s costumes, rather than being the natural result of thematic requirements and soup to nuts world building. Let’s give the “Savior” armored lingerie and un-tinted goggles. Now where would someone dressed like that be hanging out? Better make it a cyberpunk’s vision of Rome.

What struck me about each of the “Dresspheres’” different job-based outfits (e.g. “Red Mage,” “Dragoon,” etc.) was how quirky and eccentric they each looked. Each makes Lightning look like she should be battling Iron Giants on a Parisian run-away than fighting to save humanity at the end of the world. There is a space between avant-garde fashion and the clothes you buy at the Gap that’s both evocative and practical, one which Nomura’s designs never seem capable of occupying.

I’m reminded of the scene from Devil Wear’s Prada when Meryl Streep is lecturing Anne Hathaway on the cyclical nature of fashion, explaining how exciting but absurd runway designs eventually trickle down into people’s everyday wear, helping each proletariat to appear (and maybe even become) a little more aesthetically interesting as a result. No matter how hard or long you look, that sort of grounded distillation is nowhere to be seen in the XIII trilogy. Instead it’s all heightened operatic glamor, all the time.

While Final Fantasy X showed fans the writing on the wall, Nomura didn’t actually jump the shark until XIII (indeed Square Enix management had to put its foot down to stop the designer from making Final Fantasy XV a French Revolution-inspired musical) . Lightning Returns feels like a chaotic embrace of this urge, the urge to flamboyantly disregard realism and plausibility, let alone practicality, to be liberated from the principles of world building, character motivation, narrative causality, perhaps taking it close enough to its absurd conclusion that this creative impulse can be put back in check for future Final Fantasiy’s.

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Tom: There’s a paragraph in the game’s Wikipedia entry’s massive section on “Development” that reaffirms exactly what you said. Nomura designed Lightning and Snow, and then everyone else filled in the gaps, trying to keep up with his Japanese hipster Meryl Streep persona. Good god.

My short time with Final Fantasy XIII-2 gives me the same feeling this game does. Things happen not because they make sense, but rather because they’re totally awesome. It’s like they made the first game–which is one of the most grounded Final Fantasy titles in history–saw people receive it negatively, and decided to throw rationality out the window. More than XIII-2, this seems to be the aesthetic here: who needs plot when you can look fabulous?

And I mean, I have no problem with this. If it works, it works. And I love the concept of a hard time limit on a game. I’m a big fan of Dead Rising and Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, two games which used this concept. There’s a lot of good stuff here, but the demo doesn’t unpack most of it. I know there’s going to be a ludicrous, so low concept it’s high concept story at play here, but I’d be hard pressed to describe how the game’s going to play. That’s not a terrible thing. I’m interested in the things they’ve presented. The Dresspheres seem like an exciting twist on XIII‘s mechanic of having different paradigms. The battle system seems faster than the previous titles, which were already pretty quick.

But as to how they come together into a complete whole, though, I really don’t know, and I don’t think I could know from what’s presented here. If Lightning Returns is going to be the avant-garde dress of the videogame world, this is like showing us the strap and nothing else. We can see a small sliver, but not the whole picture. It might be brilliant, or it might be a mess. It might be both! I feel like it’s probably going to be both, but I’m not sure I feel equipped to make that call yet. How about you?

Ethan: I’m not sure I’m impartial enough to judge.

It took me several botched playthroughs of XIII until I finally stuck with it and completed the game years after its original release, and though I’m just now getting around to playing XIII-2, I’ve listened to the soundtrack emphatically at various points over the last year and a half. All of which is to say that I spent so much time hating the characters, writing, and overall structure of the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythos that all I have left is determined adoration for those elements I can’t get enough of (the locations, music, and flow of the combat).

I’m somewhat inoculated against Nomura’s excesses, such that I can enjoy the demo’s opening cinematic without being pulled out of the experience by dumb things like Lightning’s outfit or every word that comes out of Snow’s mouth.

I don’t care about the story or world established in XIII because I don’t really care about XIII (and vice versa), so there’s no expectation on my part that the game will somehow reconstitute a unified vision out of its cosmetically dispersed bits and pieces, nor the need for it to, just as Dirge of Cerberus wasn’t (for me at least) about developing the world and characters left behind in VII so much as exploring a cool environment with familiar weirdos all while listening to Masashi Hamauz’s melancholy compositions.

And at least Returns‘ combat won’t be so broken. But a note on the battle screen: how many meters can you stack on top of one another? Keeping track of each different color as ATB builds up for each different “Schema,” while  also making sure to keep an eye on my “Overlock” gauge and make sure I’m oscillating the enemy’s health meter enough to stagger it is a lot to remember, though still manageable, if only the entire system were laid more elegantly on the screen.

Overall though I’m extremely bullish on the game, even if I think it’s presentation and incidental eccentricities will scare off many critics and players from ever giving it a proper chance. The XIII era hasn’t been Final Fantasy at it’s “Best,” but too often I think the shadow cast by the franchise’s legacy has caused many to over look the smaller, individual accomplishments littered throughout the trilogy. It will seem a pale relic when held up next to the Mass Effect series, even if only a point and half separates them on the critical scale.

  • Simon

    Here, have a snickers, man, and calm down.

  • Craig

    Good article.

    Though you guys seem to be resting a lot of the blame onto Nomura rather than Toriyama. For a guy who’s concentration in recent years has been Kingdom Hearts and Versus XIII (Now XV) I doubt Nomura had too much of a say in the XIII games. Toriyama also directed X-2, so it seems that he is the one with the thing for costumes.

    • Tom Auxier

      In a lot of ways we do because Nomura’s more of a public figure than Toriyama. This game feels (to me) like an offshoot of Versus XIII–at least, the part that didn’t make it into XV–and Nomura was heavily involved there. There’s definitely a lot of Toriyama here, but his body of work is less discernable that Nomura’s. His “thing”, as far as I can tell, is dresspheres and kind of nonsensical stories, which are good things here.

      Well, okay, I like them. But they’re less obvious than the stylistic choices for the characters, which is a stage Nomura set.

    • ethangach

      Very good point! Especially because so much of what rankles us has to do with the lore of the XIII trilogy and character dialogue.

      It’s always difficult to know who is responsible for what with projects like this, but it will be excellent to see XV and how the series changes by being completely in the hands of Nomura.

  • ethangach

    Good feedback!

    What in particular did you find mind-numbingly stupid?