I've never been less emotionally invested in a character than I am in Final Fantasy XIII's pink-haired powerhouse, so when Square Enix tells me Lightning Returns, my response is "That's great. What else you got?"
She's gorgeous. She's powerful. She's relentless. She's fiercely dedicated to whichever path she finds herself on. Lightning embodies all the super-human properties that make fictional heroes so effective, but lacks the basic human qualities that allow us to see such legendary figures reflected in ourselves.
At least in Final Fantasy XIII she was constantly surrounded by friends and family, their warm humanity dulling her cold edge. In Final Fantasy XIII-2 she took a backseat to her sister Serah Farron and newcomer Noel Kreiss, both strong, passionate characters. I didn't miss her.
Now Lightning has indeed returned for the third and final installment of the role-playing saga, bringing with her more action-packed combat, a mall's worth of wardrobe changes, and an ever-present clock ticking towards the end of the world, and she's still completely uninteresting.
Note: I'll be touching on major plot points from the first two games in the coming paragraphs, and there will be spoilers.
Lightning Returns begins six days before the world's end. It's been some 500 years since the unfortunate "to be continued" of Final Fantasy XIII-2 left Lightning's sister for dead and unleashed chaos into the world. The world of Gran Pulse and the Unseen Realm have merged together into a new land called Nova Chrysalia, where humanity, untouched by time, has spent the last five centuries waiting for the final curtain to fall.
Having encased herself in crystal at the end of the previous game, Lightning finds herself awoken by the god Bhunivelze. The deity is creating a new world, and charges her with gathering the souls of humanity to populate it.
Lightning approaches this task with all the excitement of a Saturday afternoon trip to the grocery store. In her defense, it's not a very exciting job. Gathering souls involves completing side quests in order to resolve any lingering conflict in human hearts, purifying them so they can be reborn. Some of these quests are engaging, exploring what happens to the human heart and mind after centuries of ageless existence. Many are more like this:
"I can't find Holmes. I am worried. Can you find him for me?"
*Lightning walks 20 feet to where Holmes is standing*
"Hey Holmes, your friend is worried about you."
"Can you take me to him?"
"But he's right over there!"
*sighs, escorts, gains souls*
"Hey, kill this monster for me. It's just around the corner."
"Can you make sure all 13 of the clocks in town are set correctly?"
"I lost my doll!"
Centuries without death have transformed humanity into World of Warcraft NPCs. If not for the fact that completing quests is the only means of extending the game's six-day timer and powering Lightning up — there are no experience points or levels here — I'd have skipped the majority of them.
Somewhat more interesting are the game's main story quests. These larger, more involved undertakings generally see Lightning meeting up with the members of her merry band from the first game (sans Hope, who has been de-aged from the second game and serves as a sort of go-between for Lightning and her god boss). What has our cast of colorful characters been up to for the past five centuries? Oh, you know. Same old, same old.
Snow is still beating himself over his inability to protect Serah. Sazh is having trouble with his son. Noel continues to chase after his lost love. As much as I enjoy catching up with these characters, it's been five hundred years. Five. Hundred. A human being does not go five hundred years with at least a little character development happening. But no, they need the blandest character in the series to come along and make the changes in their lives that should have occurred naturally at some point over the past half millennium. What a missed opportunity.
Still, these massive quests do give players an opportunity to travel Lightning Returns' massive open world environments at their (relative) leisure. Four massive zones packed with secrets, quests and redecorated versions of the same handful of creatures are ours to explore in any order once the game opens up, a complete reversal from Final Fantasy XIII's oft-criticized linear maps. Players are free to ride, jump (yes!) and slide all over these sprawling locales, soaking in sights that doubtlessly put a massive strain on the game's aging Crystal Tools engine.
I'd have spent dozens of hours exploring every nook and cranny, if not for Lightning Returns' damnable countdown clock. I've never liked the tension-generating mechanic in my games — one of the reasons I never completed The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask — and here it just feels painfully pointless. Especially in light of the fact that the timer shuts down for battles and cut scenes. Nothing like making it to the final boss in a dungeon with seconds to spare and then watching ten minutes of exposition. Why did they even bother?
Lightning Returns' saving grace, as it was with the first two games in the series, is its combat system. Rather than packing a party with friends or monsters, Lightning fights (mostly) alone. Instead of assigning her different combat roles, players create custom load outs consisting of a sexy outfit, weapons, shield, and accessories. Three of these can be equipped at a time, each assigned four different skills or spells. Players are free to adhere to standard character class combos — I generally stuck with playing Lighting as a tank, a rogue and a mage-type — or create their own combinations.
In battle, each of these combinations (called Schemata) can be switched between at will. Each has its own action gauge, which slowly refills when spent. With the right combination of skills and suits, Lightning can unleash a constant barrage of damage and debuffs, taking down even the toughest foes in rapid fashion.
I have never spent so much time inside a Final Fantasy menu system. I'd say a good ten percent of my initial 30-hour play-through was spent going through outfits — there are so many gorgeous outfits — creating customized builds, optimizing skill sets and adding just the right decorative touches from the massive library of adornments I'd amassed. There is nothing as funny as taking on a powerful boss or participating in a serious cut scene while the main character is wearing a cone-shaped party hat or kitty ears. I just love those little collectibles.
Collectibles and combat — that's where my enjoyment of Lightning Returns lies. A third 'C' word might be "closure", for as clumsily as the game handles its characters, by the time the credits roll any lingering conflict is put to rest. The ending, while falling back on familiar Japanese role-playing game themes, features what can only be described as a "f**k yeah!" moment, rewarding fans who've stuck around for all of this nonsense for four years. At least the ones who haven't succumbed to World of Warcraft NPC syndrome early.
I don't hate Lightning. I don't love her, either. It wasn't until the very end of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII that I really felt anything for the character at all. That fleeting glimmer of appreciation and the hours spent playing dress-up death machine are all I have to show for 30 hours of my time. That's not nearly enough.
Looking for a more positive take? Check out Kotaku East's Richard Eisenbeis' impressions of the Japanese release.