Lightning Strikes Thrice

For me, Final Fantasy XIII was like that essay you keep poking and prodding at in fits and starts, never with much enthusiasm, and then don’t finish in time to turn it in (kids, do your work and stay in school!). The fans of it always said “stick with it, it’ll get good,” and the detractors always said “I couldn’t endure it long enough for it to get good.” Speaking as a man who experienced the brilliance of Final Fantasy VI very early in my gaming life, I was all too willing to believe that with enough time and patience, FFXIII would turn into something incredible. After all, the house that made FFVI, Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, Kingdom Hearts, and so many other games that astounded and amazed me… they built this game over the course of five years with the vision of it laying the groundwork for a whole suite of games- selling five million copies and being, in their own words, “the ultimate single player RPG.” There had to be something magical buried in there. Right?

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After dropping and coming back to the game a half-dozen times, playing a cumulative 21 hours (that’s by the game clock, of course- not counting any Game Overs), wincing at the story and lore almost as much as the voicework explaining it, I couldn’t tell you. If it’s there, if the soul of a gem is buried in that game, it’s deeper than I was able to dig. I liked a few of the characters, especially the main character Lightning, and so despite my exasperation, I kept a quiet eye on XIII after giving up on it. When FFXIII-2 made its debut, I toyed with the idea of grabbing it… but an aggressive campaign of DLC that should have been included with the game was insulting, and worse, the game starred Serah- a character I absolutely hated in the original. My interest evaporated as quickly as it had come.

Square-Enix just refuses to give up on FFXIII, though, and in under a month we’ll be faced with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. The initial reveal made me roll my eyes- like everyone else, I suspect. But as the game has neared released in America, a strange thing has happened. The buzz around it is… positive. Journalists speak of interesting combat, writing that uses Lightning’s super serious attitude to poke fun at itself, and screenshots of a lot of pretty amazing outfits. Does that last one seem like a minor note? Clearly, you haven’t seen some of these pictures. Here, let me assist:

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Bam! Pretty dress. Plenty more where that came from, too. In fact, I don’t think I’ll use the same outfit in a screenshot twice in this article. It’s Tetsuya Nomura off the leash, weaving costumes with as much intricacy and detail as he desires. The (in)famous designer even throws in some classic threads from Fantasy less Final- you can throw on Cloud’s SOLDIER uniform, Yuna’s summoner garb, and more (retailored for Lightning’s build, naturally). It may seem silly, but it actually proves to be a key feature of the game. See, beyond just looking awesome, every costume is reflected in the game’s cutscenes. What’s more, no one comments on it- a case where an absence actually makes the thing better.

Let me explain. The plot is Final Fantasy’s take on what I would call the greatest game of all time, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. The world is going to end in thirteen days, and it is up to you to stop it. Anything you do eats at the clock, which cycles in real time- any time wasted is a second closer to the apocalypse. The world is filled with characters from the previous FFXIII games who are not doing so hot- centuries of nothing to care about or hope for have left them lonely and bereft of hope (except Hope, har har). Clearly, it’s a somber story, and you’d think it’d be short on levity. That’s where the costumes come in.

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Whereas the story is deadly serious, and full of melancholy anime apocalypse cliches, at any moment Lightning could be wearing an outfit made of a bunch of stuffed Moogle dolls tied together. Or dressed in Aerith’s pink dress and jacket from FFVII. Or wearing a fly purple suit with a top hat. The simple, stylish addition makes sure that the game only ever takes itself as seriously as you want it to, and having a Final Fantasy that acknowledges how melodramatic it is is so refreshing I could cry.

The final piece of the puzzle is the combat, and I am delighted to say that after playing the demo to completion I don’t understand it. Calling myself any sort of combat expert would be a bit much, but from Disgaea to Devil May Cry to God Hand, games whose combat seems overly complex or deep to others feel right at home to me. I don’t by any means master them- put my gameplay on YouTube and I’ll look like any other idiot- but getting started and understanding how they work comes quite naturally to me. The sign of good combat, for me, is if by the end of the demo I feel like it’s just starting to open up. And Lightning Returns’s weird hybrid of FFXIII’s ATB system and a Kingdom Hearts-style action RPG was fascinating. I can’t wait to get my hands on more.

I honestly can’t tell if it’s a good game yet, or if it is just uniquely suited to my kind of crazy, but Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII looks like it will be my first triple A purchase of 2014, and certainly one of the most unexpected. I’d practically written Square-Enix’s entire Eastern branch off, not to mention Final Fantasy as a franchise and FFXIII as a series. It’s a strange twist of fate that has led me to FFXIII-3’s Amazon page, but I’m not gonna fight it. Lightning, I’m glad you’re back. Again.