Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Wish List
Really? More? Have you not punished us enough, Square-Enix? Whatever specifically annoyed you about our blind and passionate support must surely have been calamitous, because forcing us to play this powerful satire on everything wrong with the JRPG genre has been a profoundly horrible and awakening experience. Another one, though – perhaps gratuitous.
What? These are legitimate games, existing not to parody but actually operate as genuine role-playing competition? You mean to tell me that Lightning’s ‘personality’ is not an attack on the surly one-note cliché that dominates the genre? The lack of any understandable plot is not a critique of the convolution found in the modern narrative? Noel is something somebody legitimised!?
In that case, perhaps a drawing board needs to be examined.
If I may, (breaking free from this obnoxious, hypothetical prose) I’d like to offer up a few suggestions…
1) Better characters
Granted, deep and meaningful characterisation has not been the priority of a Square RPG for a fair time. A brief spell of compelling leads materialised between VI and X, but outside of this bracket, personality has been non-existent or poorly realised. XIII is unfortunately one of the worst offenders. Not only are the characters bogged down in one of the most stupidly told and confusing stories this side of Metal Gear (more on that later), their motivations are built around relationships that are so ineffectively drawn, investing in them is akin to falling in love with a bin bag. Now, Square-Enix have somewhat boxed themselves into a corner, with Lightning retaking the mantel in lieu of her ditzy but equally monotonous sister, Serah – on top of her ridiculous name, she has been, unequivocally, the dullest protagonist in the series. Some depth elsewhere, beyond badly-hashed family paradigms and self-sacrificing heroism would be nice, even if it’s too late to save Lightning herself. Ground the inhabitants with a modicum of realism and the fantastical settings become all the more potent. Square-Enix need to take inspiration from Final Fantasy IX as it represents one of the better casts, with a nice array of conflicting motivations and opinions. Voice actors that sound like they’re not on ecstasy (I’m looking at you Vanille!) would also be a plus.
I’d also like to offer up some design tips, but they’ve already gone with the dominatrix-vampire-going-to-battle/porn-shoot look for Lightning; patently, all is well in that department.
2) Clearer story
Again, being the third in a trilogy, drastic thematic change is unlikely to take place. The very fact that the developers managed to further complicate the benignly multifarious story of XIII in XIII-2 still depresses me. Whilst the first was bogged down in pseudo-political, absurd-sounding jargon, the second decided to throw in time travel to this mix – when time paradoxes are plot points, you know you have issues. Early signs suggest that the manipulation of time will continue to feature as Lightning’s Return takes a Majora’s Mask approach to gameplay and story. This is conceptually fine, as long as the component parts of the narrative are made clear enough to the player, so that messing with the chronology actually has expositional impact. The sequential twist is perhaps a shame, though, as it speaks to a general malaise in JRPG narrative – the substitution of realistic, enjoyable characters for incoherently complex nonsense.
3) More engaging settings
Of course, the narrative and immersion are aided by a well-realised physical context. XIII-2 at least took strides in re-establishing a sense of place by opening out the areas. More of this would be great, and a better sense of geographical coherency wouldn’t go unnoticed either. The locations in XIII‘s saga have, at worst, felt linear and lifeless and, at best, felt derivative and under-populated. The explorable world is one of the most engaging things about a JRPG. The games’ usually mammoth run-times mean that the player gets to experience worlds more comprehensive than in any other genre. XIII and its sequel have always struggled to make the most of this. Whereas in VII, for example, the geography was varied but grounded by the world map and narrative threads, XIII and XIII-2 feel like a strange concoction of almost arbitrarily diverse landscapes that serve simply to add variety and not fit into a grander scale. For all its linearity, Final Fantasy X made it feel like you were progressing through a genuine geographical space, Lightning and pals have never seemed to have had such a luxury.
4) More diverse progression and combat systems
For all of the combat system’s problems, it did break free from the ‘spam x to win’ phenomenon, as more jobs became available in XIII and more Pokemon became catchable in XIII-2. It is simple to execute but difficult to be consistently effective with. It’s biggest fault, however, lies in its rigidness. Enemies often can only be taken down with a single ‘correct’ combination of paradigms. As a result, defeating both games felt like a colourful process of trial and error. A little flexibility would be massively appreciated. Whilst maligned for the need to incessantly draw magic from each enemy, Final Fantasy VIII’s junction system actually bestowed an impressive amount of choice on the player when building characters. Yes, the builds were temporal and tied to your controllable beasts, but the actual depth found in manipulating every facet of your character was brilliant. Final Fantasy X suffered a similar problem to XIII and XIII-2 – character progression was a limited ordeal. While paths could branch out, you were subliminally pigeon-holed into specific skill sets. Even if you did deviate, especially in XIII and XIII-2, it felt like you were on the exact same path to super-solider as everyone else playing.
P. S. Whatever you do, Square-Enix, don’t sell your JRPG identity for a broken, quasi-real-time compromise. Oh, you already have done? Typical.
5) Give up and release Final Fantasy Versus XIII
If I’m honest, offering up a wish list is ultimately a futile endeavour. XIII-2 stands testament to a company who clearly do not much care about the opinion o’Ben Fox. Surprising as this is, it would be a better PR move to give us some closure on the game we all actually want to play, and not let this current travesty limp on, surrounded by broken hopes and dreams.
My ultimate wish for Lightning’s return is, simply, that she doesn’t.