Rumblings of a third installment of the Final Fantasy XIII saga started not too long ago. But unlike the rumors that captured the attention of those anticipating Versus XIII, it was quite believable that Square Enix would give Lightning one more go. Enter Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, the final chapter of the XIII series, set to solely feature the series' most prominent female protagonist. Personal feelings aside (likely in sync with just about every fan of the series), such announcements have always followed with a very 'no use crying over spilled milk' philosophy. That being said, let’s delve into Square-Enix's latest JRPG.
So what exactly does Lightning Returns have going for it? Brand new story direction? Check. Real-time action-oriented battle system with greater control of movement? Check. Single character focus ala Crisis Core? Check. Now for the loyal fan, all of this sounds alarmingly like Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus, the Vincent Valentine spin-off shooter.
And just so I can get this out of the way now, I for one didn't mind DoC, at least from a storytelling point of view. It certainly wasn’t Game of the Year material (or even B-Game of the Year material, for that matter), but it was a solid title with a couple of memorable characters; Shelke arguably brought the most depth of the newcomers whereas Rosso mind-screwed everyone with that accent of hers. It wasn’t necessarily the most conducive move to keep the hype-machine chugging for the famed JRPG and the gameplay could have certainly used some polishing, but it should not be as maligned as it has come to me. Regardless of all of that, it appears as Square Enix wants to give this very formula another shot.
While Dirge of Cerberus took place in the familiar world of Final Fantasy VII, it seems Lightning Returns will introduce players to a completely different world set hundreds of years after the events of XIII-2. How is that possible? Well, you’ll just have to play the previous game…or you can just Google that shit like I did. The world that Lightning finds herself in is called Novus Partus, or New Birth in Latin; possibly even meant to be read as 'rebirth'. Comprised of four islands connected via monorail the image developers are going for is a very “gothic, mechanical, and fantasy” style of design; pretty much what the last two XIII installments showcased. And having a new world to explore is a great move on Square Enix's part, especially when FFXIII setting doesn’t exactly epitomize memorable. but this factor alone won’t win over too many jaded fans however. So what else does Square Enix think is going to help make this sequel worthwhile?
Fans love customization, oh yes we do. Even the ability to change the color of an outfit can win us over in a stupidly easy manner. Hell, I was giddy as can be when I realized that depending on the color I chose in Persona 4: Arena, I could make a Narukami vs. Chie match look like a Fred vs. Velma from Scooby Doo – don’t judge me. Now the deeper the options for alteration the better of course, but anyone expecting to give Lightning the ol’ Commander Shepard treatment may be disappointed. Amongst the few statements made during Final Fantasy's 25th Anniversary event, Square Enix assured that there will be a great deal of control over Lightning’s appearance and fighting style.
One could surmise that each piece of armor and weapon acquired will have very noticeable and distinctive designs that will appear on Lightning when equipped. Color changes and perhaps even the ability to create unique equipment are likely inclusions as well. As for combat, the first thing that pops into the collective heads of gamers when presented with a lone protagonist is Skill/Perk Trees. Whether this will win out over the more traditional concept of Magic, Tech, and Summoning is also unconfirmed. Of course there’s no ban on making some combination of the two. How much of the gameplay Square Enix intends to transform into real-time will ultimately dictate what works best with bolstering Lightning’s abilities.
Departing a moment from the Dirge of Cerberus principle and delving into its Majora’s Mask-esqe feature, it appears that the latest in the XIII saga will also sport a doomsday clock which will countdown to the end of the world in thirteen days; though mum has been the word on what awaits for Lightning and Novus Partus when the timer runs out. The timer will be active throughout the entire progress of the game and even actions such as riding the monorail from island to island won’t freeze time from passing. This will undoubtedly add a semblance of extra tension and urgency to the overall feel, but whether it’s merely just a device for the story to play off of or an actual factor in the elements surrounding the game’s completion is yet another box to be opened in the not so distant future.
I’ve said it before and have absolutely no qualms about saying it again, the justification for another installment in the Lightning saga must solely be based on the personal gratification of completing a story near and dear to the hearts over at Square Enix; sales numbers and overall reception have hardly warranted the need for one let alone two sequels. While there appears to be many changes to the gameplay style, they are purely garnishes to a main dish we’ve yet to see much of.
This may not be the first time a Final Fantasy game has seen an action makeover, but if there is one thing Dirge of Cerberus has taught us it’s that the only thing worse than beating a dead horse is dressing the dead horse up in a raccoon outfit before going to town. If the central gameplay and story are no more than fancy facades that crumble a few hours in, Square Enix will come to regret this trilogy in the future. Why they haven't already is just another mystery for the ages.