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What the hell's happened to Final Fantasy?

We need to talk about Lightning

Every time I see a screenshot of Lightning dressed as Cloud, I want to do a shot of my own tears. That may sound just a touch hyperbolic, but I don't think I've made any secret of my disdain for the current face of the Final Fantasy series, or indeed the direction the Final Fantasy franchise has been headed in for quite some time now.

Lightning, eh? Not the leading lady we want, but one we're bloody well getting until Square Enix decides otherwise. A lead character who can, in Lightning Returns, run, jump, climb, slide and roll. Emoting, however, is and I suspect always will be a tad outside her range. Poor old Lightning's personality is about as beige as they come. Her outfits, on the other hand - now that's a whole 'nother story.

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I'm never going to get along with the idea of neon pink chaps. A character's costume in Final Fantasy has always been at least in part used as shorthand for their personality. Yuna's modest nun-like robes in FFX symbolise the character's selfless modesty and her dedication to her calling as a Summoner (just compare her wardrobe to that of the self-obsessed Summoner Dona, for example); Tifa's shorts, boots, braces and t-shirt combo mark her as both a fighter and a simple girl-next-door. And also a top babe. Lulu serves straight up goth chic realness; you know she's not to be messed with.

So, if Final Fantasy costumes are so important to character, what are we to glean from Squeenix's decision to give Lightning over 80 costumes for fans to choose from? That she simply has no personality of her own. She's everyone and no-one, yours to play with however you see fit. To paraphrase that Aqua song (because why wouldn't I?) you can dress her up, make her talk, she's your dolly. That's why she has alternate Cloud and Aerith and Yuna garbs - the development team are praying that, if she looks enough like them, some of their magic will rub off on her.

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Of course, in case dressing her up isn't enough, you can further customise Lightning's clothes to an almost fetishistic level of detail. Change the colour of her slip, for example, or alter the hue of the stitching on the hem of her petticoats. "Create the Lightning character that matches your strategy and style," Square Enix tells us. I played a short hands-on demo of Lightning Returns recently, and I couldn't find a Lightning to match my strategy or my style. Mainly because putting together pretty outfits isn't really what I imagined myself doing in an action RPG, so I spent my time gawping at an NPC's magically moving moustache instead.

I could get on board with the stupid outfits and the bland characterisation. No really, I could. It's not as though Cloud or Squall were all that chatty for a good two thirds of their own games. But you know what really winds me up? The fact that this is what Final Fantasy is now, to a lot of people. A hot mess, and an action-oriented one at that. That experience is now earned through quests and not through individual battles is just the cherry on top. That sort of carry-on is - to me, at least - completely contradictory to the spirit of the franchise. Going off and grinding for a few hours to get my preferred team to the level that I wanted - that was me creating characters that matched my strategy and style.

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