July 31, 2014

Any Of You Playing the New Final Fantasy XIII Lightning Returns?

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.

Final Fantasy XIII Lightning Returns

I am at the end of Day III before the world is destroyed, running around saving souls as God’s messenger before the collapse of the universe.

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:

Square Enix Profits

  • Paarthurnax

    Completely off topic from FF… But thinking about FF made me think about one of the FF movies I seen, than that somehow made me think of the TV show Serenity, and I thought I’d ask if you’ve ever seen it? It’d be on my short list of ‘locked in a room with only ## dvd’s for eternity’.

    • Paarthurnax

      Err the show name is Firefly lol, ship’s name is Serenity. *rolls eyes at himself*

      • http://www.joshuakennon.com/ Joshua Kennon

        One of my best friends in the world bought me the series on DVD and I’ve been saving it for 2-3 years until I’m in the mood for a marathon. I have no idea, really, what it’s about other than it involves space and some sort of wild west-type theme, but it’s sitting in the movie room. People rave about it. This particular friend also wants me to watch Buffy. And Doll House. Actually, I think anything written by Joss Whedon. I’ve never really seen any of his work, other than The Avengers for Disney.

        Edit: I did see Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long thing, and that was great. So apparently it’s not just Avengers. I’m looking at his Wikipedia page now. But those are the only two. Somehow I’ve missed his entire body of work, much to this friend’s chagrin.

        • Paarthurnax

          Cool deal. I think the episodes in their entirety is about 11 hours long. When they day comes that you want to dedicate a marathon day to it, it will be time very well spent!

        • JH

          I liked Firefly but IMO it gets a lot more accolades than it deserves based solely on the story. Only about a dozen episoes were aired before FOX canceled it, to the outrage of fans. I feel like there’s a mental model there, an irrational affection for something believed to be unfairly taken away.

  • Alexander Davis

    Joshua,

    If you haven’t bought Banished yet, you need to try that game. It is a medieval city builder and it is amazing for 20$.

    The more amazing part is it was made by ONE GUY in three years. I’m ballparking that he will sell at least 1,000,000 copies by the end and make over 10m for his three years of work.

    Pretty amazing story, the Banished reddit is great too.

    • http://www.joshuakennon.com/ Joshua Kennon

      I’ve never even heard of it. I’ll check it out tomorrow (I’m about to go to bed – I’ve been up for almost 48 hours with only 3 hours of sleep disbursed throughout there so I’m about to crash.)

      Thank you for this. If it’s half as cool as it sounds, I’m going to have a new obsession!!!!

      • Alexander Davis

        Based on the games you’ve written about it sounds right up your alley. Plus the developers story is a lesson in the value of creating and marketing your best IP possible.

        Resist the urge to read guides before you play, it is a lot of fun to just do the tutorials and learn about the mechanics of the game in your first town. Your first famine will be most memorable haha.

  • kevm3

    The square of now is nothing compared to the squaresoft of the past. Modern squaresoft has become something of the EA of rpgs. They are afraid to take risks as compared to their output in their prime, which was the SNES to PSX era. SNES era saw games such as several final fantasies up to 6, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana. Those were magical games. PSX era saw games such as Xenogears, Final Fantasy Tactics, FF7-9, Vagrant Story, etc.