This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.
With the possible exception of when Alone in the Dark became Stuck With Shrieky Love Interest In A Fire, no series has been more misnamed than Final Fantasy or, as it would be called in a sane world, Tortuously Drawn Out Claptrap. No, perhaps that wasn't a particularly fresh observation on Final Fantasy, but it's not like the argument has become less valid now that Final Fantasy XIII has had two spin-offs, the latest one being Lightning Returns. "Not to be confused with Batman Returns" was the first lame snarky joke that crossed my mind. I wouldn't have mentioned it, but the first we see of Lightning in this game, she's standing on a rooftop at nighttime looking broody, so it seems confusion may be more understandable than I realized. Was there much clamouring for a spin-off game about Lightning? I don't remember signing that particular petition, although I can see that it's a good idea, because among the casts of the many Final Fantasy games there have been, she's a real standout character: She's broody with a big sword, and stupid hair and dresses weird — talk about a round peg in a Square Enix.
When I reviewed Final Fantasy XIII, I did so after only having played the first five hours 'cause I had better things to do and so — I hoped — did the entire universe. Well, you'll be pleased to hear I did a bit better with Lightning Returns, and this time managed to play the first three hours of it; I'm hoping to get this down to one hour for the next Final Fantasy game. Anyway, here's what I gathered of the plot: Lightning's Brood-Factor went into overdrive after the death of her sister Serah Not-Spelt-The-Way-It-Sounds, so she put herself in what amounts to Cryosleep for five hundred years only to find, when she gets out, that the world is basically the same and no one's aged, so everyone she knew from five centuries ago is still around — one wonders, in that case, how the five-century time jump serves the plot in any way, except that it gave Lightning a chance to look all angsty, and cool. She must've felt like a right ninny when she woke up, though: "What? No one was aging anyway? Shit! I could've stayed awake and caught up on my The Wire boxset." The flimsy excuse given for nobody aging is that the world is ending, so apparently the first thing that falls victim to entropy is entropy itself. Make the plot holes bigger, Final Fantasy, I don't think this trainwreck's gonna fit through them yet.
Lightning is then literally given a mission from God. God's building a new world (with blackjack, and hookers) and Lightning has to save everyone she can on the dying one. In return, God will bring Serah back to life. Also, it is discussed in an early scene that God appears to have taken away Lightning's emotions, which explains why the End Of The World can be six days away, and she's not running around flapping her arms going (panicked whimpering) "Meh-uhhuherrhurr!". Hang on, though; God takes away her emotions, and then motivates her with the chance of an emotional reunion with the dead sister? Choo-choo, now arriving at Plot Hole Station!
Lightning is assisted by Hope from the original game (also emotion-deprived, presumably so he'd stop crying all over the place), who was apparently a young man in the last game, but has now been reverted to Original Mummy's-Boy Hope Classic. And you'd think a discontinuity like that would want to go unnoticed, but weirdly the game draws attention to it, and then mumbles "God moves in mysterious ways". This may all sound arse-bleedingly contrived, but the plot makes more sense if you mentally replace the word "God" with the word "Square Enix": Hope has been de-aged because it is the ineffable will of Square Enix, and Lightning has no emotions 'cause Square Enix couldn't be arsed to write an interesting character, fair enough.
In the Prologue, Lightning confronts Snow, from the old times, who has become the King of Party-Town, and tries to nag him into ending his partying ways and let Jesus into his heart before it's too late; the evangelism isn't so much a subtext as it is a hot pancake to the face. But Snow won't listen because he's still mad about Serah — oh for fuck's sake, why is everyone so hung up on Serah all the time; did her hooters dispense soft-serve ice cream? — and we're introduced to the combat, which is yet another instance of the game throwing all its toys out of the pram when you try to tell it it has to have either live combat or turn-based combat.
The combat GUI looks like what used to happen with old consoles when you pulled the cartridge out half-way through. How it works is that you select an enemy, then hold down buttons to attack or to guard their attacks. You do this until the batteries run out in your underpants, then switch to another pair of underpants with different guards and attacks assigned to its button slots, and all's lovely lingerie until you have to fight more than one lad, and you can only guard against the one you're selecting, and if someone else is winding up to kick your arse, then whether the 'Switch Target' button will select him, or the bloke rummaging through the dustbins ten feet away, is a matter left in the hands of the little Baby Jesus. And he's a baby; he can't hold shit!
It's not an efficient system for fighting things; it is a pretty good system for watching a character play dress-ups in a variety of outfits that were the results of a prolonged experiment to establish how many parts of a garment can be cut out before it turns into a sex aid, but as tends to be the case with JRPGs, the combat exists in another dimension to the rest of the game entirely; you're running through a crowded civilian city full of people announcing at the top of their lungs that they're about to have dinner, and then there'll be a monster bumbling along for you to fight, and the dinner monologues continue regardless, and it all feels kinda surreal. The game takes on open-ended qualities after the Prologue, perhaps because of the complaints that Final Fantasy XIII was basically sixty hours of running down a corridor, although they've done nothing about the irritating 'clop-clop' footstep sound that's like you'd got a metronome set up next to the hole in your skull, and there's a Dead Rising-y aspect wherein time constantly passes, quests must be completed within certain time windows, and if you just sit around watching The Wire, then the world will end earlier than scheduled and God will get his narc on.
The combat difficulty ramped up quickly, and suddenly regular enemies had healthbars like Christmas Toblerones that I could only patiently chip away at all through early to mid-January. I don't know if I was wearing underpants with the wrong stats, but fights quickly became tedious as well as a confusing mess of keeping an eye on both the enemy and the properties of the underpants you're currently wearing. Things came to a head when I clopped three complete circuits around the town like a two-legged badly-dressed donkey ride, killing things, taking quests and waiting for the window to the next story mission to open, but when it did the first enemies I met kept taking off all my health with one attack; blocking didn't seem to do shit! So what am I supposed to do now, game? Grind? Buy better underpants? I've only got four in-game hours to do this bloody quest.
I'm finding this whole timer thing very paralyzing, but not as much as the knowledge that even if I get through this, my only reward would be more time spent with Shite-ning and Hope-On-A-Rope whereas, if I just stopped playing, I could instead eat all the individual Mr. Kipling Apple Pies in the house. Sorry, Lightning Returns, you lose to Pie-tning Returns.
- Trousers Tightening: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- See I wouldn't call it 'fantasy' cos just imagine trying to explain all of it to your sex partner
- Now available for underpants modelling