Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII - Review  

Jesus, Moses, Valkyrie, Lightning
by Adriaan den Ouden

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20-40 Hours
+ Interesting world
+ Surprisingly great side quests
+ Fantastic level design
- Main story is ridiculous
- Time limit
- Unbalanced
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   The Final Fantasy XIII saga has had a long and rocky road. Despite widespread criticisms of linear dungeons and a slow start, the original title in the three-chapter series was still recognizable for its great cast of characters, unique combat system, and meticulously balanced challenge level. In an effort to placate the more vocal of displeased fans, Square Enix then released Final Fantasy XIII-2, which improved upon the dungeon designs, but threw the difficulty out the window, creating a game that practically played itself. Worse, it retroactively changed the ending of the previous game and presented a nonsensical time-travel plot that was impossible to take seriously. Finally we come to the latest entry, a game which nobody asked for but was made anyway. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII takes the lessons learned from the first two games and ignores them; it is unbalanced and often frustrating, and the few things it does well are hampered by questionable core features and the ridiculous legacy of Final Fantasy XIII-2.

   Lightning Returns takes place 500 years after the finale of Final Fantasy XIII-2, or roughly 1300 years after the finale of Final Fantasy XIII. Lightning, the sort-of protagonist from the first title, is awoken from a long sleep by God thirteen days before the world is set to end. She has been chosen as the savior of the world, and has to save as many souls as possible to inhabit the new world that will be made when the old one is destroyed. In return, God has promised to return her sister, Serah, who died at the end of Final Fantasy XIII-2, to life. The world is a very different place than it once was, thanks to the Chaos that was released in the wake of Final Fantasy XIII-2. Much of the world has already been enveloped by it and in the few remaining regions, the cycle of life and death has been broken: new lives are no longer born, and people no longer age.

   Much like Final Fantasy XIII-2, Lightning Returns' plot is a bit too ridiculous to swallow. It doesn't help that the main plotline tends to be rather preachy throughout, spewing out faux-philosophical dogma that is often contradictory. Lightning herself has become some sort of weird cross between Jesus, Moses, and the valkyries of Norse legend, and just to make it a bit more obvious, her ally Hope starts regularly shortening her name to "Light." That said, there is still some quality storytelling to be found here. The newly introduced character Lumina is fantastic, bringing with her a cheerful, taunting brand of villainy that's one of the only highlights of story. The other highlight is the world itself, and the side quests Lightning has available to her. There are dozens of them, and while the majority are the typical kill and fetch quests seen in almost every game ever, there are a few that hold stories of their own, and those are the moments that really stand out. In a stagnating world that has existed for 500 years without aging, there are a lot of interesting stories to tell. There are frustrated children who have been trapped in their young bodies for centuries, people burdened by loss and grief, and many other stories to discover. Finding them is far and away the most enjoyable part of the game.

   Unfortunately, the questing system in Lightning Returns has its own problems, particularly with transparency. While some quests do provide a solid amount of information to work with, a lot of them simply ask the player to find a unique item somewhere in the world. With the exception of the five main story quests, there are no quest markers to work with, which means players are effectively flying blind much of the time. In many cases, players will either stumble across the necessary items by accident, or won't at all. Thankfully, most of these items can be picked up regardless of whether or not Lightning has discovered the quest, so quite often players will be able to complete those quests the moment they find them. There's another major problem with the questing system, but it's largely tied into another core element of the game: the time limit.

These are pretty much the most annoying enemies in the game. These are pretty much the most annoying enemies in the game.

   Lightning Returns takes place during the final thirteen days of the world, and these thirteen days are a hard time limit players have to work with in order to complete the game. One minute in the game is equivalent to roughly three seconds in the real world, though thankfully time does not pass while navigating menus, during cutscenes, or while in battle. The game is also fairly generous with the amount of time given: I was able to complete the five main quests and a large portion of the side quests and still had four whole days to work with. That said, time limits as a general rule are a bad thing, and add unneeded stress to the experience. Players have no idea how much time it will take to complete each quest going in, and each completed day feels like another nail in the coffin. It doesn't help that the game also includes a feature that simply does not belong in a game with a hard time limit: a night/day cycle with events that are only available at certain times. Even in the main quests, there are a number of elements that have to occur at a specific time, or can't occur until a specific time, and considering that the game presents each minute as precious, this puts undue pressure on the player, because failure means waiting a whole other day. There are entire areas that are inaccessible during certain hours, quest characters that only come out at certain times with no mention in the quest text of what times those are, and events that have to begin at certain times on the dot. The game would have been much stronger without the time limit.

   Combat is another area where Lightning Returns has both strengths and weaknesses. Unlike the previous two games in the Final Fantasy XIII saga, players take control of Lightning and Lightning alone. The paradigm shift combat system seen in the first two titles has been replaced by a new, similar schemata system. Lightning can have three schematas equipped at any given time, which are basically equipment sets. Each one consists of an outfit, a weapon, a shield, two accessories, and four skills bound to each of the controller's face buttons. In combat, each schemata has a set amount of ATB (active time battle) gauge it can consume before it's exhausted, and different skills consume different amounts of it. To counter this and keep fighting, Lightning must switch between her three schemata on the fly, allowing the ATB of the other two to regenerate in the meantime. On top of that, Lightning has an EP gauge, which grants access to powerful skills that are activated by pausing the action and selecting them from the menu. These skills include reviving Lightning when she dies, healing her, escaping from battle, slowing down time, and more that are unlocked as the game progresses.

   On the whole, the combat system has its charms. Though it isn't quite as strategic as the paradigm shift system was, it requires constant engagement and switching of schematas, which already puts it a step up from Final Fantasy XIII-2. The system's biggest issues stem from the EP system, which is good in theory but is too difficult to recharge. EP only recharges when an enemy is defeated, and Final Fantasy healing staples like Cure exist only as EP skills in Lightning Returns. Coupled with the limited recovery item slots she possesses, these are the only ways to reliably recover HP during battle. Most of the time this isn't an issue, but during certain boss fights this can be a real problem. Some bosses, and notably the final phase of the final boss, are virtually untouchable unless they are staggered first - a feature that returns from previous games and results in a severely weakened foe should players strike with the right attacks. Without the Overclock ability, which costs 1 EP, achieving this stagger state can sometimes be next to impossible, which means if players run out of EP, they have virtually no chance of winning.

   Another oddity of the combat system is how progression works. There are no experience points or levels in the game; instead, completing quests provides Lightning with a permanent increase to her basic stats. Surprisingly, this actually works fairly well, though it does make gauging one's strength a bit of a challenge. Players can purchase new equipment from various vendors throughout the world, find it hidden in treasure spheres, or earn it by completing quests, though players may find that true upgrades are hard to find, with most equipment changes being more of a sidestep than anything else. It's actually rather irritating that many of the pieces of equipment that would be true upgrades are hindered by crippling negative effects, even pieces whose abilities wouldn't even be all that potent.

Lumina is pretty much the only good part of the plot. Lumina is pretty much the only good part of the plot.

   The game is also very poorly balanced. There are two difficulty settings to choose from initially, easy and normal, though it is highly suggested that players play on easy mode for two reasons. First, even on easy mode the game can occasionally become surprisingly difficult, and second, normal mode includes a few negative effects outside of combat difficulty that players are not likely to appreciate. In normal mode, Lightning's health won't regenerate outside of battle, and worse, escaping from battle will cost her an entire hour of time. Even on easy mode, the game's difficulty can spike seemingly at random, and the tediousness of many battles can be dependent on whether or not you've equipped skills that they are weak against. There's also the matter of the optional dungeon that becomes available on the thirteenth day, which ends with a ridiculously hard boss toting six million HP. This wouldn't be an issue at all if it weren't for the fact that the game presents it as though it were part of the main quest. Thankfully, players can just skip it without any noticeable repercussions.

   One aspect of Lightning Returns the developers definitely need to be given credit for is the fantastic level design. Compared to the previous two games, it is a cut above. The game's world consists of four sprawling areas: two unique cities, an open wilderness area containing six different settlements, and a large desert complete with a maze of ruins buried beneath it. Each area is large and open, and players are free to explore them at their leisure, or at least what leisure the time limit affords. Quests and treasure can be found all over the place, so it is certainly worth taking the time to look around. The only downsides to the level design are the areas that are blocked off at certain times of day, an element that just adds needless frustration and doesn't really serve a purpose. That, and the Temple of Etro dungeon. This nightmare consists of bad platforming, an unnecessary health-draining area effect, and a design that allows a single misstep to result in Lightning falling all the way back down to the bottom of the temple.

   Visually, the game is what one would expect from Final Fantasy. The art direction is beautiful and varied, and features an exquisite amount of detail in the two city areas. Unfortunately, the open nature of the game's zones have resulted in a few minor problems. The quality of the models has taken a slight dip, and there are some noticable aliasing issues in certain cutscenes. It's also led to annoyingly lengthy initial loading times, though thankfully these only occur when players change from one zone to another. The audio is likewise of pretty good quality. The voicework is mostly solid, though it occasionally becomes grating, usually due to the dialogue rather than the actors themselves. While the music doesn't quite match up to the fantastic scores in Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, it is still quite good.

   Overall, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is more trouble than it's worth. While there are a few things to enjoy about it, the game is all over the place, and the banal plot and ridiculously neat ending make it impossible to take seriously. Ironically, if it weren't saddled with tying up the loose ends of the idiocy that was Final Fantasy XIII-2, the "world that never ages" setting could have made for a truly fantastic Final Fantasy game. As it stands, Lightning Returns is mildly enjoyable at best, and outright frustrating at worst. Diehard fans of Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 will probably want to play it just to see how it all turns out, but anyone who disliked either of the previous two entries is just going to find more to hate.

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