This may come as a surprise to fans of Final Fantasy VI, which ostensibly starred Terra, the amnesiac magic user who gradually discovers her roots as an esper. But Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII director and series veteran Motomu Toriyama (who came in on Final Fantasy VII, it should be mentioned) has an explanation.
"We feel that every person within the party [in Final Fantasy VI] is a main character, but we feel Lightning is very impactful as the main female protagonist in the Final Fantasy series." Toriyama says. "Not only is she the first female protagonist, she is very powerful, cool, calm, and collected. So we believe that is another attractive feature of hers."
Toriyama says the goal is to flesh Lightning out and make her more than a high-flying Cloud expy: "Upon considering the development of Lightning Returns, throughout this Lightning Saga she has been depicted as this cool and powerful woman, but by the same measure she's been so cool that she's also come off as aloof. We want to expand on her character some so we can have everyone fall in love with her even more."
"Love" might be a bit strong in this instance. She was certainly one of Final Fantasy XIII's more successful elements, but her overall lack of depth made it too difficult to really become attached to her as a character. Still, when Final Fantasy XIII-2 arrived last year, Toriyama says that Square Enix heard from fans who wondered when Lightning would be back in a starring role. Hence, Lightning Returns. What's funny, though, is that, for all of Square Enix's promises that they will be using this installment to flesh out Lightning as a character, she's really more aloof and unapproachable than ever. The Lightning in Final Fantasy XIII was icy to be sure, but she could be caring as well, especially when dealing with her younger sister Serah. She was believable as a leader, and she was believable in her personal relationships. That alone made her more likable than 75 percent of the Final Fantasy XIII cast.
In a recent Lightning Returns demo, however, I saw a character who was closer to the god-like figure depicted in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Lightning's first appearance comes when she strides out of a train with a handful of morning commuters, clad in black, revealing armor and wearing a heavy sword across her back. It's not the kind of entrance that screams 'this is a down to earth examination of Final Fantasy's first female protagonist.' But then, I'm not sure that's what fans really want. I expect that many of them want a cool, fearless female hero. In Lightning, they'll be getting one.
What'll be interesting to see is whether she can carry a game on her own. Lightning Returns isn't quite a one-woman stage performance, but this is the first Final Fantasy I can think of that features a character that fights solo through the whole adventure (Dissidia Final Fantasy doesn't really count and Dirge of Cerberus was an action-shooter hybrid). Can Lightning carry a whole game by herself? That will be the real test of her character.
Thus far, the signs are positive. I like the battle system, even if I'm not so sure about the quests themselves. But then, that's pretty much par for course with Final Fantasy XIII.
Not only is she the first female protagonist, she is very powerful, cool, calm, and collected. So we believe that is another attractive feature of hers.- Director Motomu Toriyama
Having watched Lightning Returns' new, ostensibly more action-oriented system at work, it doesn't seem as far removed from the Final Fantasy XIII system as I first thought. Like the original game, the strategy consists of switching between sets of skills and exploiting enemy weak points. The four attacks, even one mapped to a difference face button on the controller, operate under the familiar active time cooldown timer. The major difference is that Lightning can now move, dodge, and block attacks.
I'm curious how deep this battle system will ultimately be, but thus far, it passes the eye test. The battles themselves are visually interesting but curiously measured – not the frenetic hack-and-slash fests one might expect. My one concern is that it will turn out to be repetitive, which was my knock against Final Fantasy XIII's battle system as well. In that game, boss battles in particular had a tendency to take too long, and too many of them involved using the same attacks over and over again. I worry a little that Lightning Returns will face some of the same issues, not the least because summons won't be around to break things up.
If that's the case, it should make for a nice update. Thus far though, my main takeaway is that the Lightning Returns has a battle system that is more similar to the original game than I originally anticipated, despite featuring only one character. This is for the best, I feel. As far as action games go, we already have Kingdom Hearts. There's no real need for Final Fantasy to go in the same direction.
As for the rest of the game, I'm going to reserve judgment for now. It's clear that Square Enix wants Lightning Returns to be even more open-ended than the previous game, which specifically set out to remove the limiters from the original Final Fantasy XIII. In that, it offers some interesting touches. For example, the omnipresent doomsday clock in the upper right hand corner of the screen runs pretty much in real time, and people's routines actually adhere to that clock. Thus, you're not apt to see many people about the train station at 5 AM.
What I see are plenty of opportunities for time-bending overworld puzzles in the vein of Majora's Mask; and indeed, Toriyama has hinted that many of the game's challenge will revolve around manipulating the clock and managing time. The quest shown during the demo, however, was curiously mundane. In it, Lightning essentially plays Solid Snake, with the much-maligned Hope taking on the role of Otacon, along for the ride to pass the hero information.
Lightning begins by investigating a series of murders, which eventually leads her to what seems like a creepy doomsday cult. The hunt for clues involves talking to people and looking for numbers engraved in walls, then confronting the group itself. All in a day's work, maybe, for Lightning, but not the kind of stuff that really brings home the fact that the world is about to end. Most likely it's an early game quest that is meant to highlight the fact that Lightning can now indulge in Tactical Espionage Action, which will undoubtedly come up again later in the game.
During the demo, Square Enix did drop a hint or two about what to expect. Final Fantasy XIII-2 protagonist Noel will be back ("He feels very guilty [from the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2]," says Toriyama), and is seen picking a fight with Lightning. There will also be a new character named Lumina, whom the narrator specifically notes looks a lot like Lightning's sister Serah. Subtlety never has been Final Fantasy's strong suit.
We'll know soon how Lightning's final adventure turns out, because Square Enix is planning a global launch for fall 2013, which already feels just around the corner. I will say that, at this early date, I appreciate Lightning Returns' ambition. It has its similarities to the earlier games, but it's no rehash. Time will tell whether Final Fantasy's first female lead is interesting enough to carry a complex story by herself, but at a minimum, she'll be going out with a bang.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.