If somebody were to make a game out of that one twitter bot that proposes random situations (@AndNowImagine) the result would look something like Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. I really enjoy the game (Review: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. PopMatters. Feb 19 2014.), though I admit that I had an extended honeymoon phase with it that’s coloured my judgment. There’s a sidequest in the game where an alchemist tries to make a super potion by mixing deadly poisons together. That’s what Lightning Returns is. It’s a swamp haunted by the remains of a thousand dead RPGs except you can wear a tuxedo with cool shades and sling firebolts and do backflips.
One of favourite things about Lightning Returns is how much of a videogame it is. Not only is it proud to be a videogame (a rarity it seems) but it’s proud that it’s not a very novel videogame. In fact, one of my favourite things about it is that it’s recycled tropes permit it a sort of unchained weirdness and silliness that amplifies its voice (“Making Lightning Strike Again: The Recycled Tropes and Weird Fiction of Lightning Returns.” PopMatters. Feb 25 2014). And while Lightning Returns does linger perhaps a touch too long and become a touch too predictable, it still left a lasting impression on me.
As I’ve claimed in the past, one of the virtues of RPGs is how much they borrow from traditions of epic fiction (Valdes, Valerie. “Epic Conventions in Mass Effect.” Medium Difficulty. Mar 20 2013; Streasick, Timothy, “The First Gaming Epic.” Lusipurr. Jun 14 2013; Filipowich, Mark. “Scrapping the Underdog Narrative.” bigtallwords. Nov 12 2013.). Of the commonalities between epics and RPGs is how much of their respective content is in pursuit of cool; they’re also fairly straightforward about what they’re saying. When a character or a society or an event is propped up as the idealization of a thing, it’s as fascinating to see how the implication can be taken at face value as it is as something to be deconstructed. Both epics and RPGs posit ideas and let them flourish without restraint. I find that charming and interesting. In eschewing subtlety (but not nuance, I feel the need to make clear), both epic and JRPG conventions are among the most immediately recognizable, and therefore can be most profound when played with. The lasting appreciation I think I’ll take with me is just how openly Lightning Returns is a JRPG. It’s clever, but it’s also brash and colourful and campy when games aren’t supposed to be those things.
It’s not a secret that RPGs hit a patch of rough ice in the last few years, particularly those from Japan: Bioware and Bethesda in the west weathered the storm and handheld consoles were able to quietly keep the JRPG afloat, but outside of the notoriously shaky Final Fantasy XIII series and Lost Odyssey, much ink has been spilled on the genre’s epitaph. That said, Expeditions Conquistador, X-Com, Fire Emblem, Shadowrun Returns, The Banner Saga and Bravely Default show that more abstract, slower, menu driven RPGs can be cool again and I’m happy that these kinds of games are able to have an audience while also eluding the creative stranglehold that is triple A development (Lightning Returns notwithstanding). However, the above games differ from Lightning Returns in that even the remakes among them strive to create something new. They are trying to do something that the form has not done (or at least not done well or often). So much of Lightning Returns is defamiliarization of normal videogame conventions.
The game uses space to particularly great effect. There are only four areas in the game, none of which are particularly large. They are about the same size as the world of Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and the shifting tones of the space hold the same effect. Also like Majora’s Mask, Lightning Returns has a constantly ticking clock that winds down to the end of the game; unlike the doomclock of Majora’s Mask though, Lightning Returns‘s can be temporarily stopped but never reversed. As the time of day changes, locations take on different atmospheres. In Luxerion, people cope with the coming apocalypse with religious devotion. In the morning and early afternoon the city is cast in golden sunlight, people are friendly and the towering cathedrals and Gothic architecture loom protectively over the warm city. But later into the night the music becomes mournful and unsettling, the gold light turns harsh and synthetic from the streetlights, the city’s poor districts open up and another side of the city awakens, those tall building seem imposing rather than protective and those guards seen on every corner don’t wish you a good morning anymore because they’re talking about how the city would be so much better if they could just kill all the heretics.
Conversely, the city of Yusnaan prepares for the end of days with perpetual celebration. It’s a city in constant revelry, coping with death by partying. During the daytime the city is bright and cheerful, cafés and shops are dotted across the small, tight streets while costumed performers dance and play music. An abandoned industrial district is replete with monsters and overclocked machinery firing on all cylinders to keep the social escapism running. Unlike Luxurion, there are virtually no guards save for Lightning’s first visit when she’s a wanted criminal; even then they’re easily distracted by nearby musicians or jugglers. When night comes fireworks light the skyline, performers amp up their acts and a grand play entertains the masses. The city explodes with life. However, after the play ends, an eerie calm is cast over the city; by 4am the streets are empty and a quiet despair settles over the streets, the city becomes hollow and abandoned. Again, all these changes transform the same space.
The wildlands and dead dunes transform as time shapes the atmosphere and the way that they convey different tones is similarly interesting, but without the population of the cities the changes feel decidedly less profound without people nearby to substantiate the difference in tone. Space is used to alter the mood of a single space, which is appropriate since that seems to be the initiative of the game in the first place.
It’s also appropriate that the central mechanic of Lightning Returns is the fluid and constant change of Lightning’s own appearance. Her abilities and stats change when she swaps out her garbs, which has as much narrative weight as it does mechanical (Joffe, Mike. “Uniforms in Video Games.” Video Games of the Oppressed. Mar 8 2013. Sorry Mike.), but not in so strong a way as Final Fantasy V or Final Fantasy X-2—previous Final Fantasy games that Lightning Returns bases its central mechanic off of—in that changes are far smaller. The main mechanic has Lightning transform her look. In an instant she can go from witch to warrior to paladin to rogue or various combinations of the above. Final Fantasy X-2 is especially pertinent here for reasons addressed by Todd Harper (“Dress for Success.” Stay Classy. Aug 7 2013.). She is not one RPG trope, she’s all of them mashed together and expressed at once. And while some of her outfits service the fanbase in extremely creepy ways, there’s enough room to manoeuvre around the creepiness*.
Anyway, Lightning Returns is about the loosening boundaries between established tropes. It therefore fits that the primary mechanic is the swapping in and out of clothing that represents these tropes. Lightning’s powers are directly tied to the uniform of tropes she’s wearing and she must swap out her uniforms constantly to keep fighting. This parallels neatly with the player’s constant need to swap out tropes to keep playing.
Lightning Returns expresses the power of fluid tropes through the power of fashion. Play hinges on the expression of different RPG, JRPG and Final Fantasy tropes through an overarching dress-up minigame. There’s an understood uniform for the healer, the warrior, the rogue, the gunner and so on, especially in Final Fantasy. Lightning Returns is the collision point for all these different understandings, narratively it’s the alchemical mix of randomly gathered tropes as much as it asks the player to cyclically alter the aesthetic representation of their avatar to different tropes from one battle to the next, even one move to the next.
So, not only does Lightning Returns transform the experiential qualities of space by changing the genre-guided use of lighting and music, it is mechanically driven by the player’s self-expression of a literal wardrobe of tropes. Avatar customization is often a great outlet for personalizing a game’s experience (Blades, Nathan. “Express Yourself: Being a Fashionista in the Gaming World.” Specs’n’Headphones. Sep 4 2013.) but rarely is it so fluid and so effectively used to reinforce the central theme of a game. Lightning Returns turns that personalization into a mechanic. There’s no constant uniform for Lightning because she’s all things at once, Lightning Returns is all JRPGs at once, all RPGs at once, all videogames and all pulpy low-art/high-art at once.
Finally, I find it further appropriate that a number of Lightning’s costumes are directly lifted from previous Final Fantasy games. Not only are her outfits from the previous Final Fantasy XIII games available to those with save files from said games, but costumes from Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 are available for special download and will presumably later be available for purchase. I initially figured that this was a bit of a chintzy money grab at the desperate Final Fantasy fanbase (which it still is), but it still further reflects the game’s melding of established tropes. There are outfits inspired by the different coloured mages throughout the series, a blue military uniform reminiscent of Ramza’s from Final Fantasy Tactics, a pirate’s trenchcoat reminiscent of Faris’s freelancer outfit of Final Fantasy V. Again, the game’s only novelty is in how it blends the old to create a new perspective.
I have a well-documented love of Final Fantasy VII if anybody happens to look for it, but Square-Enix has a much better documented history of fucking the game up every time they try to revisit it in a spinoff or sequel or cameo. Nonetheless, putting Cloud’s SOLDIER uniform or Yuna’s yukata on Lightning is appropriate because nothing feels out-of-place in Lightning Returns. There are body swapping cats, witchcraft scientists and gas-powered plant tanks. Lightning Returns is not a new Final Fantasy, it’s a return of all of them and of all the material even tangentially related to the series feels kind of at home here. It’s taking all those old images and suggestions and putting them in a context that they don’t belong.
The last thing I want to touch on is that as much as I like Lightning Returns for being as bonkers as it is for mixing as many conventions together in the way that it does, enjoying the game hinges on the player’s familiarity with those tropes. Therefore, being unfamiliar with the many, many tropes of the game might make it off-putting, or at least unreasonably weird. This kind of inaccessibility might explain the polarizing response to it. I know this amounts to saying “nobody understands it the way I do” and that’s the game’s fault for taking that direction more than it is a player’s for not understanding the source material. I hesitate to praise anything for being inaccessible, but at least its consistent enough in my mind to validate the party bag of source materials. It’s effective, even if it has to be obscure.
Still, I have found a lot of personal enjoyment in how Lightning Returns defamiliarizes. I appreciate how much it recalls its history only to put it in a light that it typically doesn’t belong in and I like how bold-facedly bad the writing is only to communicate something interesting. It’s the rehashing of space in different light, it’s the constantly shifting uniforms of old regimes in a world that doesn’t mesh but fails to mesh in spectacular ways.
*that doesn’t forgive the creepiness that exists and I’m not trying to apologize for problematic fan service, but even the skimpiest of Lightning’s outfits aren’t as sexualized as Final Fantasy X-2‘s dress spheres. Moreover, as discussed in Harper’s writing, there’s a conversation to be had beyond “it’s creepy or it’s not” regarding FF X-2 that could be extended to Lightning’s wardrobe so I’m not willing to write off even the worst of Lightning Returns‘s costumes even if I’m annoyed by them (“You Knew This Was Coming If You Were Paying Any Attention.” Stay Classy. July 31 2013.). Finally, for better or worse, Final Fantasy has always erotically tinged especially its characters, especially but not exclusively its women characters, so the flamboyant, fetishistic costuming could be another homage (Gach, Ethan. “Despite criticisms of Lightning Returns, Final Fantasy isn’t dead yet.” Pixels or Death. Aug 2 2013.). I feel myself drifting into apology territory but I felt compelled to bring it up.
**Lightning Returns allows players to upload screenshots to twitter and the site’s official website through the convoluted Outworld system. I like that I can take screenshots from my own playthrough, even if it’s nowhere near as convenient as it is in, say, Steam. All of the pictures in this article were from my own playthrough of the game and posted on a dummy Twitter account. I’ll close this post out with some of my favourite screenshots. I like to think of it as Lightning Returns retold in a virtual selfie photoshoot:
Further reading: Brice, Mattie. “Final Fantasy XIII-2 Looks Like a Company Grasping at Straws.” PopMatters. Feb 26 2012.
Naziripour, Mariam. “The awfulness and the importance of the dress-up game.” Kill Screen. Feb 16 2014.
Harper, Todd. “Me and Bobby l’Cie.” Stay Classy. Jan 28 2014.