Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII promises to be just as divisive for the Final Fantasy (aka FF) fan community as the other two iterations in the Nova Crystallis series. Why does FF XIII, one of the most vehemently fought-over, love-it-or-hate-it games in all FF canon, have not one but two sequels set in its universe? Perhaps because in making the first FF XIII game, the developers ended out with twice as many assets as could reasonably be incorporated into one game, and decided to put out two regardless of demand. In their defense, FF XIII-2 does away with most of what fans hated about the first FF XIII game (Snow’s hat, and also his complaining), and Lightning Returns continues on the upswing. Snow’s finally figured out how to be interesting … and how to dress himself.
Why am I talking about hats? Because Lightning Returns puts fashion front-and-center. Even a side character like Snow is no exception (scroll down this page to watch Snow’s transformation from “embarrassment” to “class act”). But Snow and the rest of the familiar faces from the prior two FFXIII games play second fiddle to Lightning this time around because combat is no longer a group affair. Not only does Lightning get a whole game named after her return to the scene (FF XIII-2 mostly revolved around Serah, Light’s sister), she also has to do everything herself.
Since this is still very much a Final Fantasy game, Lightning has to be a fighter, a wizard and a healer—in turns. She must change classes and abilities multiple times per battle, by changing her outfit. Lightning’s clothing (and by extension, her abilities and moves) can be swapped with the touch of a button, and indeed, they must be—it’s almost impossible to do well against even the tiniest enemies without changing your outfit at least once. These outfits are called “schemata,” but really, that’s just an attempt to make a game about playing dress-up with Lightning sound ever-so-slightly more bad-ass. It is bad-ass, since each of these beautiful outfits has its own set of awesome abilities and weapons that you’ve selected carefully, but it’s also playing dress-up and if that doesn’t appeal to you, then this game will definitely not feel as fun.
Each outfit has its own meters, so if you’re running low on health or magic or ATB, a quick costume change will remedy the situation. Lightning gets three main outfits that you can switch between for each battle, plus several supplementary slots for outfits that you might want to wear later; different outfits have different advantages, but mostly the variety of looks are meant for show, since each outfit can be customized extensively. I love the look of certain outfits, many of which are callbacks from previous Final Fantasy games, and it is almost impossible to get bored with any one look since Lightning is constantly changing her clothes. And I have no problem spending some of Lightning’s hard-earned money on useless-but-pretty accessories, simply for the sake of making her look cooler.
Is it in-character for Lightning to be this into changing her clothes? Not even remotely. Have I always wanted the ability to change Lightning’s clothes, down to her hats and fashion glasses and bracelets and the colors of each swatch of cloth? Yes. Yes, I have. In addition to spending hours poring over the numbers behind the scenes on the menu screens—which sword is strongest, which item would work best with which ability, which abilities should I combine to form which new cool ability—I also really enjoyed the game’s obsession with sheer aestheticism. It’s not just a celebration of number comparisons, although in my more obsessive stat-comparison moments, I feel like I tap into what I enjoyed about playing games like Diablo and Borderlands. The game is also an unapologetic celebration of beauty.
The story of the game, which will make very little sense if you haven’t played the previous two, revolves around the end of the world, as so many videogames do. There are warring gods and a melting rift between the worlds that will soon lead to the destruction of the realm in which humans still live; the humans who remain have been stuck in time for hundreds of years, and they can’t age. Since the humans in question are all very beautiful and immaculately dressed, this seems like a very aesthetically pleasing tragedy, and true to form, humanity has decided to spend its last days partying and admiring each others’ outfits.
Even though it doesn’t seem in character for Lightning to be changing her clothes on a dime, it does fit the narcissistic yet depressing mantra of this game’s world: “You only live once … and also we’re all about to die, and our fates are in the hands of terrifying gods … so let’s party.” Lightning is the savior of humanity in this game, because of course she is, and that mostly means she has to kill a lot of monsters and save as many “souls” as possible before the world ends. If she succeeds, she might get to see her sister Serah again, but the circumstances seem rightfully suspicious, and it doesn’t take long for me (and, eventually, Lightning) to start seeing the holes in that particular agreement.
Overall, though, the story is not that important to me here. It’s not that I don’t care about what happens to Lightning and whether or not she sees her sister, nor even that I think the stakes of the game are high enough—if anything, I feel like the stakes might be too high, and that’s part of this game’s problem. I feel excited and thrilled to be playing as Lightning again, and in particular, I’m thrilled to play as only Lightning because I’ve never much cared about any other character in this game series. I’m even thrilled to play her against type by putting her in absurd outfits. But since this game is also about the end of the world, the entire thing revolves around a ticking clock and a voice in my ear (an unnerving but allegedly on-the-side-of-angels Hope Estheim) reminding me that I have to keep doing bizarre tasks. I think I would have preferred having infinite time to do whatever tasks I wanted to do, in whatever order I wanted, with no concern about the world ending at all. I’d much rather relax and lean into the costume changes.
The strict linearity of previous Final Fantasy games has opened up significantly in this game; Lightning can now go anywhere and talk to anyone, including hundreds of townspeople who have absolutely nothing of value to say to her … as well as the occasional Important Character with Information About the Story. Lightning can, of course, take on dozens and dozens of Dragon AgemeetsGTA-style side quests, like picking up other people’s mail and finding their lost items. Or she could just focus on that whole savior thing. Sort of hard to do that with all these other people trying to get her to pick up their dirty laundry, though.
Instead of feeling thrilled that I could finally play an open world Final Fantasy game as Lightning, who remains one of my favorite characters, I instead spent most of the game getting completely lost (this game’s map could use a few pointers from the GTA developers) and accidentally running down the clock either attempting to get back on track, or getting distracted by missions that weren’t the game’s focus. If you’re a more focused player than I, or if you have a stronger sense of direction, or if you’re just more intuitive about understanding which missions are best to do first and fastest, then you’ll probably feel more confident while playing Lightning Returns than I did. I managed to get lost while playing Journey. Yes, Journey. So, playing a less linear version of Final Fantasy was more stressful than fun, for me. I often felt anxious that I was “lost” or “doing it wrong,” and since this game is fifty hours long, that’s a lot of time spent worrying that you’re doing the wrong mission.
That said, I still love the feel of the combat of this game, and since it’s a Final Fantasy game, you have to love the feel of the combat because that’s almost the entire game. Thank goodness it’s also both visually gorgeous and stylistically satisfying. There are reams upon reams of tutorials, but none of them made me feel stupid or bored; I read carefully and felt at all times like I actually understood how to fight each foe. And once I had a handle on how to customize my own outfits down to the individual threads, I never stopped finding that fun.
Every time Lightning defeats anyone, she snags more abilities and items, plus she earns money to buy yet more items or outfits (or Hope gives her more toys out of the goodness of his spooky angelic heart). It felt like a constant positive feedback loop of beautiful clothes. So, if you like fighting monsters but also playing dress-up with dolls (incidentally, that’s a pretty good summary of my childhood pretending games), you will find those mechanical aspects of this game enjoyable. The plot will likely alienate and confuse you if you haven’t played (and, ideally, enjoyed) the previous two FF XIII games, however. As a person who did understand what was going on (well, mostly – these FF XIII games have complicated stories), I enjoyed this game’s story elements, but not nearly as much as I enjoyed the outfits and combat. I also kept getting confused that I couldn’t pick dialogue options, because the open world and fantastical feel reminded me so much of Dragon Age. You have far more choice than usual for a Final Fantasy game, but you’re still playing as Lightning, and Lightning will say what she’s going to say with no input from you, thank you very much.
I am interested to see what fans of open world games think of the decision to open up this game; as a person who gets perpetually lost in games even when getting lost is supposedly impossible, I am not sure that the world of this game was meant for a player like me. Still, there’s enough here for me to enjoy that I can recommend it to players who enjoyed the similarly outfit-centric game Final Fantasy X-2, as well as players who enjoyed the previous FF XIII games, particularly since FF XIII’s more irritating characters have grown up a bit and come into their own at last—and of course all of this story is helpfully supported by Lightning’s husky-voiced sarcasm. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Maddy Myers is Paste’s Assistant Games Editor. Her column Hyper Mode runs periodically in Paste. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.