Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Review
Extremely fun, engaging combat; Mechanics support the narrative well; Rewards different styles of play and offers real choice
Some ugly PS2-era textures; Contrived, incomprehensible story; Weak main character
At World’s End
Being the third in a series arc of Final Fantasy games, it’s difficult to discuss Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII without considering its predecessors. This is the most unfortunate aspect of this game; that no matter how much Square Enix worked to heed the complaints of its fans and critics, it must still continue the events of the previous two. Yet despite its marred history of never-ending hallways, and literally paradoxical narrative train wrecks, this latest installment finds a way to break the mold and be something special. The gameplay is engaging, and supremely satisfying, and you’re rewarded for doing things that are pertinent to the narrative. The amalgamation of all the mechanics in sync truly create an enjoyable experience for the Final Fantasy swan song of the generation.
In Lightning Returns you play as Lightning, having been appointed “Savior” by the God of the world, Bhunivelze, after being woken up from a crystal stasis of 500 years. After the events of FFXIII-2, the world is dying; therefore, Bhunivelze is going to create a new one and tasks Lightning with saving the souls of this world and storing them in an “Ark” until he is done in 13 days. The trick is that the world is going to die from the “chaos” in 6 days so Lightning must save all the souls she can and offer them to Yggdrasil (the tree of life central to the Norse cosmology) in order to extend the world’s remaining time. Bhunivelze revives Lightning and Hope Estheim, turns Hope back into a child, gives Lightning godly superpowers andÂ you begin your quest as savior.
If that seems hard to follow, that’s because it is, and they don’t really explain much more. Why has the XIII series never mentioned Bhunivelze before? Why can’t he see souls or chaos? Why did it take 500 years for the chaos to destroy the world? Why is it making it die in the first place, and how? It doesn’tÂ look like it’s dying. In fact, ground zero where the chaos exploded into the world is a grassy plain! Also, what’s up with souls you must supposedly save? You’re supposed to save these souls, and when you do the souls fly out of people and into Lightning, except the NPCs from which they came from will walk around and are just like they were before. What are the souls for then? Don’t you need them? If not, why all this fuss for them? These are just a few questions I came up with just while playing the first half-hour of the game, and there are undoubtedly more. Even the game says it’s not gonna bother with explaining itself.
I don’t know how I know the things I’m telling you. I don’t know who gave me the knowledge Â Â Â Â Â – Hope Estheim
Inversely, this is where the game shines its very brightest. Almost everything about Lightning Returns is different from the previous games. Your goal runs parallel to the narrative. You have a time limit to save the world, and to do this you must simply save souls. You do this by engaging in story quests, or shorter side quests where you help people with their problems. The game is entirely open-ended. You can choose which quests you want to do, and when you want to do them. If you get tired of an area you can just move on to another, and come back later. Not only can you choose how to play, but no matter what you decide to do there are several ways to do it. If you want to fight monsters and grind, you can do that, and gain gil which you can use to buy better weapons and equipment, or you gain abilities which you can fuse together with other abilities to make them stronger. If you want to run around and talk to people, the game rewards that too. The side quests are often just as open as the world. The main quests usually tend to point you in the right direction with a map marker, but the side quests are totally open. You have no idea where to find a certain person, or item unless an NPC somewhere tells you, or you find it yourself. This could be divisive, but if you don’t mind a somewhat directionless experience, this works really well. In any case, once you fulfill someone’s request, they are “saved” and their soul flies into you for safe keeping which in turn increases your stats, making you stronger, and giving you more in-game time to save the world. This is because this game has neither experience points, nor levels.
Fighting monsters does not gain you experience points as you would expect from a Final Fantasy game. Instead your power is decided in tandem by your stats (Strength, Magic, HP, etc.) and the strategies you employ in battle with your schemata. Like a mix between Final Fantasy X-2’s dress sphere system, and XIII-2’s paradigm system, the point is to collect different outfits called “garb” to mix and match clothing which determines your strengths and skills. Each garb comes with maybe one or two assigned skills while the rest you can choose for yourself. This adds a deep, rich font of customization, and I spent hours myself just trying out different configurations of skills. You can use three active schemata at a time, and these schemata are readily changeable during combat. You must switch them efficiently and often to make use of all of your skills. Each skill uses up points from your ATB (active-time battle) gauge which refills faster when you’re switched to another schema. Battle is in real time, and pressing one of the face buttons uses the skill that you have mapped to that button.
This combat system justÂ feelsÂ good. There’s even a perfect timing system for linking your attacks. Most abilities can be used one after another, and pressing buttons at the right time results in a bright flash, and doing plenty of extra damage. This is a satisfying blend of standard RPG strategy, with the gear and skill setups, and more skillful action gameplay. You can maneuver yourself around the battlefield at will, and attack with the skills you choose when it’s most effective.
Carried over from the previous games is the stagger gauge which this time is a stagger “wave”. If you’re unfamiliar, the monsters in the game all have the ability to be staggered, so long as you use the right abilities enough. This lowers their stats and defenses for a small amount of time allowing you to do extra damage. Most of the bosses require precision timing, switching schemata back and forth to block heavy attacks while keeping your assault on them steady to stagger them. It can be pretty challenging, and it’s a ton of fun. If the combat is too challenging, and you find the time constraints too demanding, it’s recommended that you play it first on easy mode because you won’t miss out on a thing.
Visuals & Sound
The game can have a grand feel at times, and it’s often to its benefit to look at the bigger picture. The environments create an atmosphere that engenders true exploration, and some of the bigger structures are a thing to behold from far away. The level design is akin to Dark Souls, in a vertically oriented sense. The maps can be so intricate, actually, that it becomes easy to rely on the mini-map, which can detract from the visuals. When one stops squinting, and inspects things closely, however, Lightning Returns becomes confusingly disappointing. A lot of the geometry is pretty basic, and some of the textures are flat, and of PS2 quality. If you can deal with some occasional unattractiveness, this shouldn’t bother you too much.
Sometimes it’s bright and colorful, and others like in the above industrial area, and Luxerion, can look washed out. In a game where day constantly passes into night, it’s disappointing that they didn’t do more with the lighting. There are often graphical quirks like the Â camera getting Â stuck behind walls and trees during cutscenes, and Â random NPCs waltzing into you or others during conversations. I even had one glitch wherein this girl kept collapsing. This random, unimportant NPC would run desperately in a straight line for about ten yards then fall flat to the ground. After a second, she would rise from the floor, and repeat this pattern.
This is a marked step back from what XIII, and XIII-2 were visually so it’s perplexing to say the least. That said, Lightning herself looks wonderful. Every detail on Â her character model has received painstaking attention. The 100 or so different outfits of hers have been meticulously realized with all the color and personality of a true Final Fantasy title.
The score is just what you’d expect of a Final Fantasy game. It builds, it swoons, it crashes, and accompanies the world and your actions well. It sets just the right mood. It lacks the catchy simplicity of Nobuo Uematsu’s work, but even his fans won’t be disappointed. The voice acting offers plentiful diversity. In fact, you can even download the Japanese dialogue if that’s your thing. The combat sound effects sound heavy, and lend a lot to your actions. They sound pretty visceral, and it compliments the action well. Sometimes there can be a lot going on though which can mar the quality a bit. The supporting cast’s voice actors return to reprise their roles, and do a good job. There are tons of side quest NPCs with their own names, and they have their own voices making for pretty memorable moments. The non-essential NPCs tend to remark on things happening or your clothing when you pass by. It makes the world feel alive, and it’s fun wearing different garbs just to see what people think of them. Lightning’s voice actress unfortunately has to play to the character’s personality which makes things lacking during the dramatic scenes, but offers hilarious deadpan comedy during the side quests. There’s a segment of the game in which to obtain a quest item Lightning must say the password, “meow meow, choco-chow”. The way she handles this ordeal alone is gold, and ironically characterizes Lightning better than any of the dramatic story sequences.
The story of Lightning Returns is what truly held this game back, and it’s mainly responsible for the score I give it. I had so much fun with this game, I’d have loved to give it a better score, but it can’t be ignored, and there is no excuse. It’s just bad. The plot holes, the presentation, and the weak lead all make this narrative a shoddy mess. It was fundamentally flawed from the outset. Everyone, even fans of this series are glad that it’s over. There’s also the ugly textures, and visual oversights, but those can mostly be looked over. Even Hope can be muted. This story cannot.
This is the worst part of the game. There was no effort to make it coherent, let alone cohesive. It all boils down to this: Things happen because God says they do. The ending even barely feels like a payout as it becomes really hard to suspend your disbelief, though at least they actually ended it this time. In truth, I’m thankful that they went with this route. Instead of the massively uninteresting datalogs that nobody ever seriously reads, or the “a paradox did it” hand waving from before, they seemed to realize that their story was fundamentally flawed and just gave up on it. One thing they could have afforded to focus on though was the characters. The story is undeniably supposed to be character driven, but the main character does very little to actually drive the emotional breadth of the tale home. Lightning, as a character, has always been disinterested (which is a really nice way of saying monotone and boring). Well this time,Â they made it a plot point. Lightning for some reason has no emotions, and believe it or not, that doesn’t make it any easier to connect with the character. It does make for some humorous deadpan moments in the side quests, but it really cripples the drama during scenes where I know I’m supposed to be feeling something. That said, the supporting cast is done very well. Their voice actors do a good job, and the characters’ traits and motivations are clear. The only problem with the supporting cast is, like I previously mentioned, HopeÂ never shuts up.
Surprisingly, this game does a lot to keep you interested. It looks to supply more DLC garbs, and it even has what it calls the “Outerworld Service”. The Outerworld Service allows players to send messages, items, and screenshots from their game to others. You can even take a screenshot and upload it directly onto Facebook. In fact, that’s how I got most of the screenshots for this review.
On top of the DLC, this game was absolutely made to be played several times. There are achievements, features, and side quests that aren’t even available until new game+. There’s the potential for a bad ending, and there are different versions of all the bosses. There’s even an unlockable hard mode wherein monsters drop better items and abilities. This game shines brightest on its second playthrough.
An inventive, exciting, genuinely original adventure. Despite it’s production value, it excels in its core gameplay, and is very fun. Its biggest drawback is having to follow up its predecessors, and this game, like the previous ones, can be pretty divisive. If you don’t mind bearing with the story, this game is definitely worth your time and money.