Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Review

[As Read on GIO.]

The World Ends in a Storm…

Not with You, Sorry

Lightning’s story is far from over, though by the end of this game it will be kaput (I would think). From XIII-1 to XIII-2, to now, the heroine’s story and character has evolved (not always hand in hand). I for one have loved the character, though many of her companions do not receive that same love. Despite her flaws, Lightning definitely tops at least Cloud (mainly because she is less annoying, and has more epic hair). Then again, though Lightning Returns doesn’t have much of a story at all (a cohesive, good one anyway), its gameplay is where it delivers the old ‘one-two’ to the jaw. And definitely its best component.  The story continues based on what we’ve learned from XIII-1 and XIII-2, and continues in the vein of the whole “savior of the cosmos, souls, and the true redeemer” thing. The irony of this third and final title in the little saga within a saga that is Final Fantasy XIII, is that Lightning Returns attempts to be so different from its predecessors that it can’t help but win. However, the reality is that it still has old problems from the previous two titles, and then new ones from its newer format. All in all, as my score will show, Lightning Returns is far from a bad game. A flawed one- true, but a good one nonetheless.

The decision-making process in production of Lightning Returns is one that is hard to follow, mainly because the first major change to be made is to pretty much everything the other two games stood for- the combat dynamics. Despite these risky decisions (that one probably being the riskiest of all, after everything else is accounted for) the game nails its highlights, despite encountering new pitfalls along the way. The battle has been won so to speak, but it remains to be seen it is enough to actually win the war. As with Call of Duty’s downward spiral- if it is even possible to compare two vastly different games as these series’, Lightning Returns is technically a low point for the series, but it is still a quality production and a promising new title to return to Lightning’s world for one final, fantastic time. I liked some of the tweaks XIII-2 made to the already less-than conventional approach to combat and storytelling in Final Fantasy XIII-1, however, Lightning Returns makes these tweaks seem paltry in comparison by completely throwing out the whole classic “stand-still combat dynamics” and adding in a liquid, flowing battle system. No longer do you rely on your companions for support as in classic role-playing games- instead, you now control Lightning alone and actually attack based in real time, making timing and strategy all the more important and uniquely difficult to master as well.

For once, the hardcore battles the series and many traditional role-playing games are known for are made much more interesting than just grinding of levels and countless attacks to whittle down an impressively large health meter on some massive behemoth of a creature. Though this is not a close example even, the game that came to mind first than holds a similar yet more conservative view on timing and synchronization in battle is Lost Odyssey, the 2008 role-playing game from Mistwalker. Sure, that particular game still held many classic role-playing techniques in its thrall as well, but it did some interesting other things similar to what even the first two Final Fantasy XIII games would do later on as well. Since the story in Lightning Returns definitely takes a back burner, it is no surprise that combat is therefore the next largest portion of the gameplay, and thereby actually the most polished element of the game. Lightning’s main goal in combat encounters is to weaken and ultimately throw down her foes by switching strategies in the midst of battle- helpfully allowed by her skillsets known now as “schemata” or schematics and blueprints for battle. These weapons and abilities and movesets are openly customizable and subject to change in order to fit your playing style as you progress through the game. One thing that Lightning Returns is all about is definitely freedom, even in the wake of your impending doom a la Majora’s Mask.

One of the better things about the schemata setup is that, unlike modern loadouts in games such as the aforementioned Call of Duty, while you can only have up to three or so at any one time, you can customize them so that even just one is tailored towards multiple play styles, or you can dedicate one to one way to play and win and forget about the others altogether. It’s completely up to you. Boy, isn’t free will just great? This serves once more as a tool to break the mold of what is considered “classic” gameplay, and is in my humble opinion a well though out addition to the series, as well as an interesting strategy to employ during the fast-paced combat that ensues. Switching schematas strategically offers you the chance to cripple multiple foes with only a few hits to their weakest defenses as well. One of the most interesting and equally overbearing (and rightfully so) gimmicks of the game is the countdown timer that chronicles the thirteen days (rapidly sped up, usually) of in-game time you have in order to save the world, or not. The timer doesn’t include combat time or dialogue and cutscene time, however, it does add a high replay value to the game and encourages wiser exploration instead of grinding and exploring every nook and cranny. You are forced to prioritize your explorations and exploits if you are to successfully avert the apocalypse.

While some games such as Majora’s Mask really mess with time a lot in order to meet the countdown requirements and save the world, Lightning Returns does not do so- opting instead for a rather interesting method of “new game plus” after failed attempts to save your souls. Though you are given thirteen days, which is more than enough time to complete the paltry few main quests in the game, it is difficult to manage your time when the end of the world is constantly hanging over your head. Sure, it may only take six days to finish the main quests, but how do you appropriately balance in exploration of the world zones, or maybe killing time meeting old buddies and catching up? If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think Lightning Returns was some fantasy life simulator or something… Te overbearing yet necessary reminder of impending doom and possible failure gives you all the drive you need to complete your mission, and if you don’t then you get to start all over again…with many of the stats and items you heartily procured from your previous adventure. That is the beauty of the replayability of gameplay in Lightning Returns. What the game sacrifices in story, it more than makes up for in action.

Now, let’s talk about some of the game’s flaws, or rather  things it does that are interesting some aspects, but also painfully boring, tedious, or downright horrendously insane in others (for various reasons). The constant timer is great and all, but it also means that there are just several hundred things you literally cannot accomplish in one playthrough alone. The fact that the game is purposely made to be impossible to 100% in any one playthrough kills the completionist in me, but there’s not much I can do about that. However, there are some interesting aspects to this timer as well- which, if enough time is spent with them, will probably cause you to fail in your quest, but are still interesting nonetheless. If you eradicate enough of one type of adversary, you can encounter “the last of its kind” and exterminate the entire species. I guess that’s neat because you get special gear for doing so, but it always makes me think of Ender’s Game and the Formics for whatever reason. Call me weird. Another interesting point is that you literally upgrade and progress through defeating enemies and completing quests. This means that you could theoretically grind to get just about anything…if only you had the time, which you don’t. Well done, you’ve successfully prevented what is essentially as close to cheating in a single player game as you can get. Bravo.

As for quests, much of your focus will be on the plethora of side quests since there are only a few main quests to actually complete, and side quests are always something to focus on in a  role-playing game of any sort. However, despite there being a ton of the side quests, many of them are very similar and even more are simply just not fun. I know that seems like blasphemy to say, but it’s quite true indeed, sadly enough. Normally, the quests are time specific- meaning you can only do them on certain days, yata yata yata. Now, I don’t know about you, but as interesting as that is- that still kind of sucks. Not only that, but they also are normally three quarters fetch quest and one quarter combat- which is okay, if the items you were fetching were always worth the hassle, which they almost never are. The combat part is okay though. These quests are mostly boring, have poor scripting and dialogue, and the lack of time availability just plain sucks. But what is really sad is you have literally no choice but to go through as many quests as possible, since they are once more your only means of improving your skills enough in order to make it through the main questline. So they’re a necessary if terrible evil. The only other bad thing about this concept is that it essentially boosts whichever stats it feels like, and therefore you have very little control in shaping Lightning’s overall character aside from employing specific schemata in battle. I guess it could be a lot worse though…

As much as I love Lightning as a character (mainly for her exploits in the previous titles), even I will readily admit that Lightning Returns has a pretty bad story even by the random standards of Final Fantasy. At the least the other stories made somewhat sense. But making sense isn’t even the problem in this one- as it makes plenty of sense that the world will end and everyone’s souls will be in jeopardy. What doesn’t make sense is the heavy-handed and well-hammed approach to that story that flows profusely throughout the entire game and jeopardizes its very integrity. Lightning’s inner turmoil is all well and great, but comes off as literally petty at times, and sometimes at worst downright aggravating. She doesn’t progress any further than she did in XIII-1 as a character, and actually regresses at times, badass though she may be.  The logical fallacies employed by the game in order to explain events away as anything other than so-called video game magic are convoluted and annoying, especially when you’ve had one thousand years of in-game time to make up your mind about how to play something off. The story definitely ends here, but you’ll be so confused as to how it got this bad that you won’t realize the nightmare is over until the abrupt ending at the credits. I guess they got shock value right at the least, though that may be a testament to how shockingly poor the story quality is in this particular chapter of XIII.

Sure, as we’ve been shown in the previous two Final Fantasy excursions- story obviously isn’t Lightning and co’s strongest point, but it really could’ve been ended and handled a lot better than this. Overall, it hasn’t impacted my score as much as it has in others’ opinions, but the damage has been done. Gameplay itself is the only saving grace of this Final Fantasy in particular, but also for the most part has been in XIII and XIII-2 as well. There are some silver linings to be had in this experience, but especially for fans of the series, they’ll be buried farther down and harder to dredge up than before. I truly hope the downward trend stops here, but who knows what events will happen between now and Final Fantasy XV, eh? The biggest disappointment for me personally throughout all my time with Lightning Returns was knowing that, in order to “go big or go home” the developers so willingly traded everything that worked in the previous two titles for something completely new in both combat and overall gameplay, and while they could’ve pulled together a better experience by melding some amount of new and old, they didn’t take advantage of the opportunities afforded them. Bittersweet though it is knowing that we will most likely not encounter any of the heroes or even the villains found in XIII’s universe again, it’s also ironically good to breathe a relieved sigh after such a struggle in getting here.

Now, a few final notes before I ultimately begin to wrap this rather longwinded review of mine up for good. Yes, the whole concept of clothing and different abilities granted through it is rather neat I suppose, and gives you compelling cross-dressers and fashionistas a reason to play a decent role-playing game as well. The difficulty has been noted to be quite extreme in some cases, and while- as hardcore a gamer as I am, I never had much difficulty on the so-called “normal” difficulty, I will note that it did seem more like a ‘Medium’ or so instead. So be aware of that factor whilst playing, and don’t be afraid to tone it down if the going gets rough- especially in the final hours where everything comes down to the wire. Once more, as a reminder- if you do fail epically or not-so epically, you can always start over and retain some of your better perks and traits in an all new adventure, however if you’ve successfully completed the quest you’re always welcome to continue playing in a  new mode in order to experience what you couldn’t the last go around. So ultimately, I’d recommend completing your mission in one playthrough with minimal exploration, and then exploring to your heart’s content even at the risk of failure in your second runthrough. Even then, you won’t find everything in the game, but you’ll have experienced a great deal more than ever before, so it ought to be worth stomaching the failure one more time.

Concept: A doomsday clock ticks off the days, hours, minutes, and seconds of your world’s life as you race to find a way to stop it in a terrible story that is almost as big an enemy as any you’ll face in the game. Thankfully, XIII-3 continues the trend of having worthwhile gameplay, so it isn’t all too terrible after all.

Graphics: The environments look just as good as the previous two titles, the main characters are designed well- as is their wardrobe for the most part, with some exceptions, and the cutscenes are well rendered. However, in the other aspects of the game, enemies, generic NPCs, and other objects have some pretty muddy and basic textures. It’s almost like the developers ran out of time or wanted to rush to complete the game, because some textures sort of fall flat on their faces.

Sound: While the majority of the music is retuned from the previous entries, there are a few new soundtrack additions as well, and for the most part- even if some are older than others, all of them set the mood and blend together quite well. Certainly one of the stronger aspects of the game.

Playability: The battle system, while risky to implement something so new, works very well and keeps your interest more than previous entries- making this one more of an Action-oriented role-playing game than anything else, and catering to a broader fanbase I’d reckon as well. As for other gameplay elements, while some are flawed in several ways as mentioned previously, they get the job done well enough to save the story in most places.

Entertainment: Maybe it’s better after all that the doomsday clock forces us to finish in thirteen in-game days, as the horrible thought has occurred to me that actually having the opportunity to drag such a poor story out could actually kill the world faster than any number of soulless enemies could… An intriguing thought indeed. Poor story, dialogue, and “epic” moment aside- Lightning Returns is an action title at heart, and its gameplay is where it appropriately shines.

Replay Value: High.

Overall Score: 8.0

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