Almost four years ago, I beat Final Fantasy XIII and blogged about it that evening. I never got around to playing the next game in the series, so over the past two weeks, I managed (mostly by fitting it in late at night) to put somewhere around 50 hours into Final Fantasy XIII-2. I was leveled to near perfection, except for my monsters, so I triggered the final boss battle, destroyed him, then watched the alternate endings on YouTube so I could save myself 10+ hours of work that it would take just to see a few cut scenes. The only downside was this meant I got 3-4 hours of sleep some nights because I’m so swamped with real work.
Then, last week, FFXIII: Lightning Returns, the third and final game in the series, was released. I’ve been playing it for a few days and don’t think it’s right to treat it as if it is in the same genre. It’s nothing like any RPG I’ve ever played and certainly has no connection, play style-wise, to the earlier games. Lightning Returns is more spiritually connected to Dark Souls or Castlevania: Lords of Shadow than it is Final Fantasy XII. There is no world map. There is a time limit. You have a single party member (unless you get the legendary White Chocobo which was priority #1 for me); specifically, you play as the eponymous Lightning, an ex-soldier, now messiah-of-God awoken from a 500 year slumber. I was really against it when I started (what designer thinks it’s a good idea to take away the very best assets in the Final Fantasy series then create artificial pressure to discourage you from exploring by saying you have a fixed amount of time to complete the story or you lose?) but thought I’d give it a fair chance. I’m glad I did.
It’s interesting to finally get a bit inside Lightning’s head as she embodied the problem with the entire FF13 series, in my opinion: You just don’t care about the characters, emotionally, despite spending hundreds of hours with them. You also don’t remember much about the journey. It’s a total storytelling failure. I don’t care what happens to Snow, Sazh, or any of the rest of them, though Caius was the best antagonist the series has had in a decade and I did come to like Serah. I can tell you nearly every room, every scene, every moment of Final Fantasy IX, or XII, or XI. The FFXIII family is an example of high budget over craft. Who cares how pretty they are if they don’t manipulate your emotions? The emotional experience is a huge part of the magic and these just feel … empty. Pretty, but empty. Art has to have a soul. The money and chemistry is found in causing the audience to have their own mirror neurons triggered so they feel as if it is all happening to them, not vectors on a screen.
The soundtrack so far is great. Arriving in a world that has just a few days away from all of creation being destroyed, walking around the dark city streets as The Sleeping City plays in the background, with the ambient tolling of the bells, is creepy, mystifying, and induces a feeling of loneliness. It’s a weird thing to be sitting in the middle of my living room at night, in the dark, surrounded by the sound system and hearing the footsteps behind me, the voices around me, the music shifting as I move.
I’m not sure how I’ll feel by the end of it, and with the Castlevania sequel coming out in a few days, I don’t want to feel rushed. If any of you happen to be playing it, what are your thoughts? I know it’s a bit of long shot since it had (as expected) the lowest sales in the series given it is the third installment and requires having completed the other two before it to have any semblance of an idea of what is going on in the story, but you never know.
As a consumer, I have a love/hate relationship with Square Enix. I think it’s spent 7-10 years living off the glory of its past, with the current managers inheriting the intellectual property created by geniuses who have now moved on to other projects. The financials reflect this. If you’re curious, you can read the English translation of the annual report. The firm should be minting money, but it has turned a wonderful portfolio of digital rights into a low-return, barely-profitable, commodity-like enterprise that doesn’t even justify the stockholders’ book value investment. This seems to be a problem in the sector, specific to Japan as Nintendo is making the same mistakes.
Just look … gaze upon it and despair: