The Final Fantasy XIII sub-series has had something of an odd history. When FF13 released in 2010, it was well received - if not critically acclaimed - though many series fans (myself included) were unhappy with how much it deviated from the norms of the franchise.
The story was interesting, but filled with uninspired, flat characters, and linear level design made exploring the world a chore.
The combat system was interesting if you invested yourself in figuring out its nuances, but it failed miserably at enticing players to explore its full potential. For many, fights were even more of a slog than the corridor-like maps.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 sought to remedy some of these flaws, and for the most part it succeeded. The first game’s protagonist, Lightning, took a back seat to her infinitely more interesting and likeable sister, Serah. Maps were much more open and interesting, and the inclusion of a Pokemon-like monster collection and training element took the seeds of greatness from the previous game’s battle system and made them more accessible and exciting.
The trade off to all this was that the story went out the window entirely; FF13-2’s plot was a convoluted, nonsensical mess, and I’d be surprised if even the writers understood what was going on.
Enter Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, the conclusion to the FF13 trilogy. Rather than going back to the series’ roots, like many fans had been hoping, Lightning Returns goes even further into uncharted territory, mixing in elements from just about every RPG subgenre. The influence of roguelikes, sandbox games, action games, and MMORPGs is clear. Sounds like a good thing? You may want to hold onto that thought…
As the title suggests, Lightning Returns brings back Lightning as the player character. Following the events of FF13-2, which - spoiler alert - had resulted in people being unable to age and the world being infused with the mysterious Chaos energy, Lightning had sealed herself away in a crystal. Now, with 13 days left before the world is entirely consumed by Chaos, Lightning has been awoken by the god Bhunivelze, and tasked with saving the souls of as many people as possible before the apocalypse.
If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. While far from the confusion of FF13-2, Lightning Returns’ narrative is bizarre and, for the most part, uninteresting. There is almost no significant plot development until the end, and this is a game that will last you anywhere from 20 to 40 hours. Had the characters been deeper and better written, the outlandish story might have been saved, but as it stands, there is little incentive to not skip cutscenes beyond visual spectacle.
When you’re not watching cinematics, you’ll be doing the usual RPG stuff - fighting fantastical monsters, exploring, aiding locals, buying increasingly powerful weapons, and saving the world. What separates Lightning Returns from its predecessors, and the genre in general, is a time limit on your game.
With the game taking place 13 days before the end of the world, you’re restricted by a clock constantly ticking down to the apocalypse. A day of in-game time equates to an hour of real-world time, and you’re initially given seven days until the end, with quest completion adding extra time up to the 13-day limit. Fortunately, the clock doesn’t tick down during cutscenes or battles, and there are ways to slow its progress.
While not a terrible idea in and of itself, poor implementation means that this restriction is one of the most frustrating and pointless mechanics in the game, and one which goes a long way to ruining the whole experience.
In order to complete the game, you have to work through five main quest lines that can be tackled in any order. Should you fail to complete them all before your time runs out, you’ll get hit with the Game Over screen and will be forced to start your adventure fresh from day one (while keeping your character progress and items.)
Were this a roguelike game, with a relatively short campaign and an emphasis on replayability, this wouldn’t be an issue, but it’s not - so it is. You’re looking at upwards of 20 hours per playthrough, with repeat playthroughs being more or less identical, making failure immensely disengaging.
The constant pressure to keep up with the clock also saps any fun that might be had from exploration, which is a real shame, because Lightning Returns has some of the best level design in the whole Final Fantasy series. Instead of enjoying the expansive, fascinating maps, you’re forced to rush from one objective to the next, never stopping to smell the flowers.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that, for the most part, the objectives are a joke. The five main quests are reasonably interesting, providing some further background to some of the characters from past FF13 games, but much of your time will be spent doing side quests that would make a World of Warcraft quest designer cringe.
“Help me find my doll,” asks one young child. “I need to speak to my buddy, can you ask him to come here?” requests a train station attendant. One quest even involves going on a date with a hopeless romantic. There are more interesting and exciting quests too, but they’re largely a minority.
To make matters worse, the quest descriptions are often annoyingly vague, resulting in a lot of time spent wandering around aimlessly until you stumble upon what you’re looking for. Sometimes the objective only appears at certain times of the in-game days, but it’s rare to actually be told this. Such design is bad enough as it is, but the time limit factor amplifies the tedium exponentially.
Combat isn’t quite so frustrating, but in a lot of ways, it falls far short of where it could and should have been. The game has been billed as an action-heavy title in the vein of Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, but in practice, it’s not all that much different to what came before. Technically, you’re able move Lightning at will in battle, but her walking speed is so frustratingly slow that doing so is a complete waste of time.
Positioning comes largely from using abilities that either make Lightning approach the enemy or retreat, in much the same way as FF13 and FF13-2. While not necessarily a bad thing, it’s drastically shy of the “full control” promised in all the game’s promotional material.
Like FF13, Lightning Returns’ combat has a lot of depth, but in a way that requires a lot of investment on the part of the player to get anything back. If you take the time to read up on or experiment, there’s a lot of tactical complexity here, but the game does little to tease you into it. If you want to see what the battle system has to offer, it’s on you to find it; if you don’t, the plentiful encounters are going to be one hell of a slog.
Despite what I’ve said above, I wouldn’t go as far as calling Lightning Returns a terrible game; it certainly has some redeeming features. As you’d expect from a main series Final Fantasy title, it’s visually spectacular, and this is only complemented by the wide range of costume options for Lightning and the densely populated environments.
There’s plenty of content to work through, particularly surrounding a few expansive end-game quests, and the usual handful of supremely powerful super-bosses will demand that you bring your A-game. As lacking as the story is, it does a good job of wrapping up the trilogy, and ends on a rather intriguing note.
Ultimately, though, the game’s flaws more than outweigh its strengths, making it hard to recommend to all but the most diehard Final Fantasy XIII fans.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
From: Square Enix