Lightning Returns, in many ways, is a conscious attempt at creating the complete opposite of the original Final Fantasy XIII—aggressively so. Instead of a cutscene-heavy, linear adventure completely devoid of exploration and sidequests, Lightning’s last hurrah is a much more open, explorable experience comprised entirely of sidequests. It also attempts to address one of the biggest complaints lobbied against Final Fantasy XIII—the combat system—by jazzing it up with a very busy, very action-oriented, timing-based overhaul. Unfortunately, Square Enix should have aimed for something in the middle, which XIII-2 arguably was, but somehow they erred from one extreme to the other, and the end result is an adventure that feels empty of emotional gravitas.
This new direction is mostly misdirection, an illusion meant to make the familiar seem fresh, and when combined with a nonsensical storyline creates something that’s even more alien and un-Final Fantasy in spirit than the introduction to Fabula Nova Crystallis.
As the backward title no doubt clearly communicates, Lightning—Square Enix’s desperate attempt to capitalize on the intersection of female-protagonist appeal and Cloud Strife affection—is once more at center stage. And, point of fact, alone in the spotlight this time around. Reawakened from her crystal sleep 500 years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2, Lightning is tasked by the god Bhunivelze to rescue as many souls as she can to populate the new world he intends to create after destroying the existing world, Nova Chrysalia, in seven days.
These rescuable souls represent an abundance of side missions that form the bulk of Lightning Returns, ranging from your typical fetch quests to monster-slaying assignments and other rote chores. There’s not a whole lot of variety to be found, but there certainly is quantity—something that’s a must considering how much everything in Lightning’s return hinges upon their completion.
Director Motomu Toriyama, I suspect, has very fond memories of Majora’s Mask, because the hook to Lightning Returns is a 24-hour in-game day-and-night cycle, with each in-game day clocking in at about two or three hours of real-world time. It’s within this constraint that Lightning must help as many of Nova Chrysalia’s denizens as she can while also, ideally, completing five main quest lines, one in each of the game’s four main regions. No, my math’s not off. Four regions, five chapters—the largest houses both chapters three and five. Completing these is crucial, since they’re what buy the extra five days that pad the doomsday clock to 13 days total.
Depending on the time of day, certain sections within any given region may be inaccessible. So, the best way to kill time while you wait for the gates to Luxerion’s Old Town to open at midnight is to solve people’s problems. Plus, it’s the only way to permanently boost Lightning’s stats (HP, strength, magic, and so on). No experience points are gained through grinding, so packing on muscle the old-fashioned way when it comes to JRPGs is out the window. It’s all about managing time and juggling several side missions at once.
Enemy encounters in Lightning Returns instead serve two purposes. The first is a means to gather item drops that can be turned in at a job board containing its own set of sidequests. In this sense, battles still play a role in unlocking level progression. Winning battles is also the most consistent way for Lightning to earn back Eradia Points (EP), which are spent when activating a selection of unique powers called EP abilities that range from briefly freezing time to teleporting anywhere in the world to healing. But the problem here is that Eradia Points gained from besting beasties are usually doled out in decimal fractionals, that is, say, 0.15 EP. Several battles may go buy before one full point is restored, making fights in Final Fantasy feel more like a grind than ever before.
Topping this off is the aforementioned overly busy action-infused combat setup that borrows from the original Final Fantasy XIII’s Paradigm system, but with a twist. As a lone wolf, Lightning must serve as her own teammates. This is accomplished by juggling between three primary schemata outfits. On paper, the schemata system is very appealing. It’s the flexible customization that Final Fantasy is often known for, allowing players to assign up to four abilities to an outfit. But in practice, constantly alternating between schemata while jamming on attack buttons and monitoring enemies to know when to throw up timing-based blocks is a task just as tedious as Paradigm Shifts. Worse still, the idea demeans Lightning as a character, since playing dress-up is in no small way objectifying and undercuts her tough-as-nails soldier status.
The thing is, it’s again all conceptually very interesting and at least competently executed in that it’s not flat broken, but it never rises above boring. Battles are never engaging and never any genuine fun. They never manage to feel like something purposeful. And without any downtime, it’s all very incongruous to Final Fantasy sensibilities. Boss fights can escalate into 15- to 25-minute ordeals, something that would be perfectly suitable in a classic Final Fantasy in which you have time to think and strategize and catch your breath between rounds and evaluate, reassess, and adapt. But here, if you aren’t attacking enemies yourself, they’re unleashing a string of screen-obscuring attacks on you, forcing you to block with timing-based precision to avoid taking damage or at least minimize the amount of damage inflicted. Ten or 20 minutes of this only ever becomes a tiresome back-and-forth.
Partly to blame, of course, is Tetsuya Nomura, whose anime-inspired Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children seems to have driven the franchise in increasingly convoluted directions for the sake of style. The design strikes me as an attempt to create something hip and always in motion that demands reaction, not thoughtful approach.
Perhaps battling felt so vapid because there’s no narrative meat to bite into, something that’s always been one of the main reasons to play any Final Fantasy game—not to say that they haven’t been fun, in the past, just that the allure of Japanese role-playing games is character development and story (at least in the SNES, PlayStation, and even PS2 eras). And because the ante must always be upped in Final Fantasy, it’s not a fate-of-the-world scenario that Lightning faces but the fate of existence, a stake so foreign that it’s utterly unrelatable, especially when the world is one populated by so many bland, personality devoid people—FFXIII’s main cast included. Their appearances feel like reluctant guest-star spots meant to help players care enough to finish the five chapter missions and buy an extra day of laborious adventuring tacked on to a story that makes Greek myth seem fairly straightforward and tame. There’s no sense of cohesion, only a conclusion burdened by the decisions that preceded. Clearly, this trilogy was never a planned one. It just sort of happened.
For the few people genuinely invested in Final Fantasy XIII’s tale of gods and goddesses and Chaos and Saviors and Valhalla and fal’Cie and l’Cie and characters with names that emphasize whiteness, Lightning Returns—as a conclusion and sendoff—may be worth playing. To anyone else, it will only ever seem like an indecipherable mess that requires, at the very least, Wikipedia research to comprehend and a great deal of patience to slog through. Without pre-established attachment to Lightning and her friends, there’s no way to achieve emotional investment within the scope of its narrative arc.
You’ll wander about, help people find their lost cats, collect three scarfs from scarf-wearing monsters for some fashion-conscious person with a very cold neck, and wonder what kind of world is so universally obsessed with checkerboard patterns until the credits.
|Developer: Square Enix • Publisher: Square Enix • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 02.11.2014|
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII sends the franchise’s very first trilogy out on a fizzle. As a game—that is, a collection of loosely connected systems—it’s all very average, something that works but is wholly forgettable. Combat is more often than not a chore, the world is depressingly dull to look at, and the story feels like the last ingredient Square Enix threw in the pot, and at the very last moment no less.
|The Good||Final Fantasy XIII is finally over.|
|The Bad||Combat that had the potential to be interesting, but just feels clumsy and awkward.|
|The Ugly||Every line of dialogue and every single story beat.|
|Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is available on Xbox 360 and PS3. Primary version reviewed was for PS3 using review code provided by Square Enix.|