LIGHTNING RETURNS: FINAL FANTASY XIII (PS3, 360)
Developed by Square Enix and Tri-Ace – Published by Square-Enix
Release Dates: Nov 21st 2013 (Japan) Feb 11/14th 2014 (North America/Europe)
It’s been four years since FINAL FANTASY XIII released to a very mixed reaction from fans. Detractors were quick to point out the poorly told story, the laughably under-developed characters, the broken A.I. partners in combat and how it seemed everything was just done with a style over substance philosophy. I was no doubt one of the harsher critics of the game and couldn’t believe my ears when I heard they would make a direct sequel. But then I played that sequel.
The improvements that FINAL FANTASY XIII-2 did upon it’s predecessor were stellar. Square-Enix had listened to practically every complaint people had about the first title and, together with Tri-Ace, did their best to fix every single problem of the first game. Some of it worked, some did not, but the game ended up a very enjoyable experience to me. I found the writing and gameplay improved on levels comparable to Red Steel 2‘s improvements on its predecessor.
I also really enjoyed what I played of the third and final game in the trilogy, LIGHTNING RETURNS: FINAL FANTASY XIII, when previewing the game last year. I’ve been eagerly following the game over the last few months since its Japanese release, waiting to get my hands on it and see what the full product is like. Now that the game is in my (digital) hands, there’s only one question left to ask.
Having liked the one of the two FINAL FANTASY XIII games, can perhaps Lightning strike twice?
With LIGHTNING RETURNS, Square-Enix has decided to do something quite bold for a direct sequel. The changes to the way the game plays and where the story heads is very different from the first two games, which had their own share of differences to begin with. It’s clear that Square-Enix hopes to win over the people who still aren’t satisfied with what FINAL FANTASY XIII had to offer while offering those that did enjoy it something completely new in the process. Unfortunately that comes at a price.
The plot of LIGHTNING RETURNS is as follows 500 years ago the world of Nova Chrysalia stopped. People were no longer ageing and they were no new children born ever since. Now, the world will end in seven to thirteen days and a god-sent saviour has arrived to lead the souls of the living into the rebirth of a whole new world. As the world is dying the saviour must deal with people of opposite faith that want her dead and the monsters that stem from the Chaos. The Chaos is a darkness that is invading the world since the events 500 years ago and is beyond god’s domain of vision and rule, so the saviour must fight it head on.
When put like that, the plot is pretty decent and could make for a quite interesting game. Unfortunately, a good plot does not make up for the way the story eventually unfolds and how it’s told. Straight off the bat you’re tossed into the game without any clear clue of what’s going on, even if you’ve played prior FINAL FANTASY XIII games, and in the first hour you’ve had so much exposition thrown at you through awkward dialogue in the saviour’s sanctuary, the Ark. This is where the biggest problem of LIGHTNING RETURNS‘ story comes in, and it sticks around throughout the entire game.
You see, LIGHTNING RETURNS hurts itself by being a sequel. All the connections to the first two FINAL FANTASY XIII games comes out of nowhere and doesn’t fit in with anything. The game is essentially telling a brand new story that’s pretty good, but keep on splicing in references and characters relating to something that makes things overly complex and needlessly tedious. The characters from the initial games hasn’t learned anything from the events they’ve been through and certainly haven’t grown at all from the 500 years that should have passed. In fact, it feels constantly like returning characters like Noel or Snow are acting completely out of character, and it truly takes you out of the game.
It reminds me of when a cheap to produce movie franchise gets popular and studios start rewriting discarded original scripts to make quick sequels, it rarely turns out good and this is no exception. And this is not me trying to knock the characters or the initial two games’ stories, I really enjoyed FINAL FANTASY XIII-2 and was looking forward to playing its sequel, but this isn’t a sequel. This is a new story wearing the mask of a sequel and it hurt my enjoyment of it.
However, that’s not the only problem. The story has a very strong lack of focus and just wants to move on to the next thing constantly, never stopping to actually get any depth into, or even properly explain, most events going on. When you reach the ending of the game, you’ve barely learned anything about what’s going on because the game rushes you through everything without a second to spare. The only thing the game keeps hammering in is the hypothetical question if Lightning is really doing what she should be doing, to the point where you’ll be able to solve one of the biggest plot-twists of the game within the first five hours of playing.
Eventually the game devolves into clichés and surprisingly bad writing even on the original story stuff, to the point where it’s in the run for some of the worst writing I’ve seen in the last few years. And when the later bits of the story eventually just turns into a poor remake of the later bits of the first FINAL FANTASY XIII, you have to wonder if they were simply running out of ideas. It’s a shame that a decent, possibly really good, plot have been massacred in such a way.
But I don’t want to make it seem like I absolutely hated everything about the story, because I didn’t. There were some genuinely golden moments here and there that made for a really fun experience. Though I don’t wish to spoil any of these parts of the story in this review, I will say that the set-up and middle section of chapter two is absolutely wonderful and caused me to smile, laugh and have a really good time. A lot of the side-quests have good writing as well, offering some depth into the world-building of Nova Chrysalia, going far beyond what we’ve seen in the previous two games.
Lightning returns as out main character, having stood to the side in the latest entry. As a character she hasn’t changed much from her initial outing, but I never felt she was one of the bigger problems to begin with. However, that does mean she’s still almost entirely uncharismatic and devoid of personality or emotions, to the point where they actually make up multiple story-related reasons as to why she can’t show emotions as if that’s what we needed.
In the story she plays the role of god’s saviour, but her reason for playing her part in god’s plans is that he has promised her that he’ll bring Lightning’s dead sister Sarah back to life. That’s fine, except that it’s basically the same goal she had in the first game, but this time her attitude about it is way more self-centred and arguably egotistical with some of the things she does. I’m guessing this was an attempt to make her more interesting of a character, but it fails in that regard. She’s still not awful and I don’t think she’s as bad as people make her out to be, but she’s definitely sub-par at best and she is not a strong lead character at all.
There are very few new characters to LIGHTNING RETURNS, but one of them that you may have seen in promotional material is Lumina, the young girl with pink/rose-coloured hair wearing a gothic lolita dress, tormenting Lightning in every way she can. She’s easily one of the most fun characters in the game and plays a integral, and really obvious, part to the story as it moves along. Even though I figured out her goals and who she was early on, I did always enjoy when she appeared out of nowhere to harass Lightning about things. It shows a more playful side to the writing that should have been explored more outside of Lumina and side-quests, as that stuff is really enjoyable.
I also feel the need to talk about the aspect of god in this game, because the game itself is really confused on just what a god or goddess is. The god that sent down Lightning as the saviour is called Bhunivelze, Bhunivelze is almost constantly referred to as simply god by Lightning and other characters. This becomes more confusing when they refer to fal’Cie, the god-like world-rulers of the original FINAL FANTASY XIII, as gods as well at times. Not only that, but there are characters referred to as would-be-goddesses, almost-a-god and then there’s the goddess of death, Etro.
All of that is fine, but when they keep referring to one of many gods as simply god it becomes confusing. Even non-believers of Bhunivelze still refer to him as god when talking about him. If the writers only wanted one god in Bhunivelze and on goddess in Etro, that would have made more sense. But the constant use of the word for so many different things comes off as sloppy. It’s not a major problem in any sense, but it was enough for me to notice it often enough where I felt I had to mention it.
Ironically they keep using Bhunivelze as a deus ex machina for anything they need the story to do. Whenever there’s something happening, it’s because god has the power to make it happen and if something can not happen, it’s because god is stated as not omniscient and can’t make that specific thing happen. It gets to the point where several plot-twists and roundabouts for the story are just thrown in with a note saying “god did it” to avoid having to explain anything.
The promise that you’d be able to go into LIGHTNING RETURNS without having played the first two games, as stated by Square-Enix in their Inside The Square web-series, is a complete lie as well. While the first FINAL FANTASY XIII holds minor value to it all, FINAL FANTASY XIII-2 holds quite a bit more as it’s the cause of the entire story at hand. LIGHTNING RETURNS doesn’t take a second to try and give you any summary of the events, it will briefly go over the ending to FINAL FANTASY XIII-2 and that’s about it. You’ll get no character introductions, no details on the world and they don’t even explain characters connection to each other. Though, given how out-of-place the game feels placed next to the first two games, maybe going in blind will offer a better experience as you won’t pick up on these problems.
I don’t want to go on about the storyline and characters forever in this review, but you have to understand that when you commit over 40 hours to a game like this you want to be told a really good story, and I wasn’t. I will end by talking briefly, without spoilers, about the game’s ending. I will be perfectly honest and say that I felt insulted by the game when the ending cutscene played, having gone through all those hours for the pay-off I got was far from satisfactory and it’s possibly one of the worst endings I’ve seen in a modern AAA game. Many of the problems with the ending are mentioned in the paragraphs above as problems with the overarching story, but in the very end every single bad thing comes together to really hit you with how bad it is. A damn shame.
LIGHTNING RETURNS takes place over the course of seven to thirteen days. While playing the game you’re constantly working against the clock, not unlike a game like Dead Rising or The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. This time around, less focus has been put on having the player fight monsters and other types of enemies. Instead, the player is expected to solve problems through exploration. A major shift from not only the FINAL FANTASY XIII games, but from the entire FINAL FANTASY series as a whole in my experience.
The world is split into four regions, all with their own set of main quests, side quests, monsters, NPCs and other secrets to find. The world is rather large and outside of travelling between the regions, which is done via train, you’ll never see a loading screen when you roam the land. This includes when you enter certain buildings or dungeons as well. For example, in the area Dead Dunes you’ll find a large vast desert landscape covering a huge set of tunnels underground, which are fully accessible by just running down the various entrances. Seeing as the FINAL FANTASY lately games have preferred presenting smaller areas that connect together, it’s nice to see Square-Enix working to get around that for a more immersive experience.
Throughout the world you’ll also find various sections that only open up at certain hours. These sections are closed off with time gates that open and close in real time. As you play through the game you’ll have to manage your questing alongside these gates, the same goes for certain shops or quests which have their own little time limit. All of this makes for a really tense and stressful experience, but in a fun way. Working against the clock in videogames is a tricky thing to pull off, but Square-Enix have done a tremendous job on making it one of the highlights of the game-design.
There are some oddities in the exploration design though. During some very rare instances the game will suddenly expect you to play the game as a platformer. These sections felt out of place and very forced, not that they were too challenging, but they came out of nowhere and did not fit the game design no matter how more flexible they made the movement by letting Lightning slide down poles and grab ledges. If you want to make a platformer Square-Enix, devote your full attention to it, this was just sloppy.
The main quest is divided into five chapters, which you can access in any order you wish, though it’s recommended to follow the numbers. You’re presented with these five chapters after you’ve finished your first day in the game, each chapter is divided into smaller sub-chapters that act as stepping stones towards the big picture. The sub-chapters are varied and fun, but mostly serve to lead you to fight boss fights. You start seeing a pattern as you make your way through them and it can get a little stale.
That’s where the side quests come into play. The game is filled with side quests of all sorts that you’ll be taking on as you make your way through the game. You can find side quests by talking to NPCs in the four regions or by accessing Chocolina’s message board. There are many different kinds of side quests, some relating to killing enemies, some are fetch quests, some are based on exploration and sometimes it’s all in one. They become the meat of the game for more than one reason and you’ll most likely spend most of your time playing LIGHTNING RETURNS doing these side quests.
And the game will not hold your hand while doing so either. Side-quests have no markers on the map or clear pointers on what you’ll be doing, when you take on helping a person in LIGHTNING RETURNS you’re expected to hear their pledge, read the quest description and keep an eye on your log to make progress. This was something that truly made me respect the game in a lot of ways, because it’s not often these days that you see a game that will treat the player as intelligent and able to draw their own conclusions.
This is first demonstrated as you first step down on Nova Chrysalia and immediately get to take part in a murder investigation to lead you to your first main quest. You’ll have to talk to witnesses, search the crime scene and report your findings all without anyone telling you what to do or where to look. This philosophy in game design remains throughout every single side quests and I’ll admit that I was not smart enough to figure out every problem I was faced with in my first run of the game. It reminded me of old Computer RPG’s in a lot of ways, where reading was a key-part of being able to understand and playing a game. Though I’m sure this design will not be for everyone, it struck a note with me.
When you finish quests and save a soul for the new world you gain a type of energy called eradia. At the end of every day you feed the accumulated eradia to Yggdrasil in hope of having the end of the world prolonged. As you start the game you’ll only have seven days, but expanding it to thirteen should not be too much of a hassle if you keep on doing quests. If you manage to gather even more eradia than expected you might get a neat secret surprise as well, which I won’t detail in this review, as it would ruin the surprise for certain.
Overall, the quest and time system is a lot of fun and works really well. Though there are a few main quest sub-chapters that seem a little low on time due to the time restraints, it all works out well in the end and becomes a very fun experience. The core gameplay here was designed to be open to the player and offer them a lot of fun things to play around with, and Square-Enix have truly delivered on this front, more so than in many of their other recent games.
A major part of the game is customization. Throughout your questing you’ll get garbs that you’ll be able to dress Lightning up in. All of these garbs have up to three custom palette selections where you can play around to get the kind of outfit you want for Lightning. There are currently 71 garbs available, with more to certainly arrive as downloadable content in the future, all offering many different designs to play around with.
Lightning is no longer a l’Cie serving a fal’Cie, which means she no longer levels up in the same way she did in the first FINAL FANTASY XIII. For the first time since FINAL FANTASY II, every single expansion of character is confined to specific stat increases. In order to get more health, strength and such Lightning must finish quests that will give her small or major stat bonuses or get better gear. You no longer gain stat increases from fighting enemies, instead the enemies will give you EP points, items and battle abilities.
This leads us to the battle system, which have been completely redesigned. Lightning now serves as her very own three-man party by allowing the player to equip three schemata designs which can be swapped between on the fly. Each schemata consists of a garb, a weapon, a shield and up to four abilities mapped to the face buttons. They also each have their own stats, including their own ATB bar.
In case you’re new to FINAL FANTASY, ATB stands for Active Time Battle and was introduced in FINAL FANTASY IV. It’s a way to introduce real-time into turn-based combat by having each turn recharge in real-time rather than being confined to a waiting spot. In the FINAL FANTASY XIII games, ATB works slightly different as ATB does not consist of one turn, but rather works as another statistic you may increase.
For example, if you have 100 ATB points and a attack costs 20 ATB points, you can toss it five times then watch as the ATB recharge, when the ATB has recharged those 20 ATB points you can toss the attack again rather than waiting for all 100 ATB points to recharge. This was something I always did like about the FINAL FANTASY XIII games, as it did offer some interesting tactical possibilities that were, unfortunately, rarely lived up to.
In LIGHTNING RETURNS, you’re encouraged to swap between the different schemata to basically treat Lightning as not one character, but as a complete party of characters. Like past games you’ll give your orders to your first choice, then your second choice, then your third choice and back to the first. That’s not the only way to play it of course, as it’s up to you, but it’s the easiest way to do it and makes it feel very familiar if you’ve played a lot of other games with a three man party.
Abilities range from physical attacks, magical attacks, guard moves and support spells. The abilities are won from battles and can later be combined at a sorcery shop to improve their stats and eventually be upgraded to higher levels. Most magic attacks come with a elemental alignment as well that can be useful or dangerous to use in battle, meaning that you’ll need to keep a good variety of options available at all times.
Lightning also have EP abilities which you gather throughout the story of the game, these abilities utilizes Energy Points, or EP. EP abilities include the ability to escape combat, at the loss of one hour of time, healing yourself or other specific tricks that you’ll unlock as you play the game. There are also EP abilities outside of combat, such as the ability to temporarily freeze time or teleport between regions.
Of course, you’ll also be using items as you’re making your way through the game. Lightning has a inventory limit which expands as you make your way through the main quest, starting at the maximum of five items and eventually ending up at a full ten slots. Items include potions, ethers, phoenix downs and other useful things. You can buy them at various stores throughout the world, which I would highly recommend since some battles can get a bit tough without them.
There is a problem with the battle system relying on direct input rather than the previously used menu system however, despite being very similar at the core. The game will sometimes have the enemies, most often bosses, perform major cinematic attacks. During certain parts of these attacks you will lose all control of Lightning and guarding can become close to impossible. It doesn’t help that the camera movement makes it hard to figure out where Lightning is if you were to try and reposition her out of danger.
This loss of control is the biggest problem with the battle system, which is otherwise a delight. The game also has a great deal of enemies that can put Lightning in mid-air for a good number of seconds which also makes you lose control for a more understandable reason, though it can still get frustrating when a game that presents itself with a very direct combat system takes away control from you for even a second.
AI Partners return yet again, though in a very minor role this time around. During certain areas of the game you may fight alongside a partner if you’ve performed certain tasks and finished certain quests, they will help healing you and attack the enemies, but that’s about it. You don’t need to keep track of them and they don’t make much difference in the end. AI Partners was my one of my biggest complaints about FINAL FANTASY XIII‘s battle system, but in LIGHTNING RETURNS I did not mind them due to this.
Compared to the first two FINAL FANTASY XIII games, the battle system has changed more in appearance than in philosophy. But I can’t help but to feel that it was trying to fix a problem that was already fixed. By making the player only control one character and having full control of that one character, the problem of dealing with the in-game party members that I normally would bring up with this series are all gone. This new combat system is good, but changing it like this in the third part of the trilogy feels like a bad move for the sake of consistency and I think it might have fit better in a whole new game, as much else. That aside, fighting in LIGHTNING RETURNS is a lot of fun and is another highlight.
What is not a highlight is the fact that you won’t feel the need or will to fight much. Since you’re on a very strict schedule you literally can’t stick around to grind in the game, Square-Enix knows this and that’s why they made it so that battles was not the key to progress in the game. Unfortunately, as a result, most battles outside of boss fights and the handful of battles you absolutely need to go through in the game feels redundant. When you’re in a dungeon you won’t have much reason to keep up fighting enemies, they only slow you down. It’s the curse of having a game on a timer, but I wouldn’t say it actually hurts the game much.
Unfortunately, the gameplay philosophy falls of the cliff entirely in the final stretch of the game. After having a game that doesn’t focus on forcing battles on you and offers open ended exploration, the game eventually turns into a corridor run where you’re expected to kill everything in order to strengthen yourself. It’s not something forced on the player, it’s an optional thing to do, but I can honestly say that if you don’t take your time doing it, you won’t be having the best time in the final stretch of the game. These moments were one of the very few moments where the actual gameplay of LIGHTNING RETURNS left me disappointed and outright bored.
The game itself is not too hard, much like its predecessors. Depending on the amount of quests you do you’ll end up doing a run through the story in between 20 to 40 hours without too much hassle. When you first start the game you’ll have access to Easy Mode and Normal Mode. Easy Mode removes the loss of an hour when you escape battles and also gives Lightning regenerating health when you’re running around the world, so you won’t have to manually heal yourself between battles using EP or items unless you wish to speed it up.
There’s also a online aspect to LIGHTNING RETURNS, though it’s minor. You can post screenshots and battle summaries to twitter and facebook directly from the game interface and you can also leave messages in the world for other players to find. These messages can include items and will appear as NPCs for players currently playing their game online, allowing them to get that item from your NPC if they find it. I never felt the need to use the message system, but it’s a neat little thing that doesn’t hurt or take away from the single-player experience.
The game has a big focus on replayability. You can not finish every single side quest in one go with certain ones outright encouraging you to start New Game+ before trying. For example, there’s a side quest that requires you to exterminate every single enemy in the game which outright tells you that you should relive your last days over and over again in order to succeed at it. As such, there’s a lot of reasons to come back to LIGHTNING RETURNS after your first run.
New Game+ itself offers new things as well, such as new battle elements and a way to upgrade your weapon beyond what the core game would let you. New Game+ can be activated on any difficulty and I highly suggest checking it out as soon as you get the chance as the game has a lot to offer after the credits have rolled. I am currently replaying the game myself on Hard Mode and there’s a big difference in how the game feels already. The gameplay content of LIGHTNING RETURNS is without question both impressive and truly enjoyable and leaves me with good hope for the gameplay of future titles.
Unfortunately the game suffers from poor framerate on far too many occurrences. Running along the wildlands, battling more than two or three enemies or sometimes even main-quest related cutscenes will stutter at a horribly low framerate that is frankly inexcusable for a game that doesn’t look all that great. While we’re on the games problems, at one point I found myself stuck on the in-game status menu unable to move the cursor or select the option that it was currently highlighting. There were also a few instances of the skybox doing some odd things.
This combined with long and awkwardly placed loading times makes me wonder just how much polish went into this game. While I understand that the FINAL FANTASY XIII sequels are partially made off of the discarded and reused assets that director Motomu Toriyama mentioned were left on FINAL FANTASY XIII‘s cutting-room floor a few years ago, I was expecting that to mean that more care would go into tightening performance. In the end, the loading times and the framerate drops are not as bad as they were in FINAL FANTASY XIII-2, but that’s not really too much of a comfort. Especially when LIGHTNING RETURNS is less pretty than its predecessor. Toriyama stated in the past that LIGHTNING RETURNS was the most polished and complete FINAL FANTASY game, which feels like a joke having played it.
Speaking of visuals, it’s unfortunately a horrid mess. Poorly cut-out 2D images stand in for 3D models up-close at times, the most obvious being when examining a bunch of bottles on a shelf early in the game. The game doesn’t shy away from having environment-textures that quite frankly would look nothing more than acceptable if they were textures in FINAL FANTASY X rather than a game from 2014. It’s like looking at early renders of a prototype, not a finished product.
Luckily, that’s not always the case. Some areas, such as Snow’s palace where you start the game, look impressive and have some good details put into them. But being a game that puts so much style over substance, just like its predecessor, I was expecting the game to look far better. The fact that Square-Enix have three main-series FINAL FANTASY games out on the last-gen HD platforms that carry more impressive visuals than this one is a sad way to close out the generation for a franchise that used to be held as the benchmark of visuals.
But the game does have good art direction to help out. The four different regions of the game all have a distinct look to them and the designs are for the most part very memorable. Whether you’re walking around the city of Yusnaan or sliding down the sand hills of the Dead Dunes you certainly won’t be bored by any repeating scenery. I do wish more characters had received an updated look however, from the large batch of returning characters only Lightning and Snow has gotten any major outfit changes, which seems silly for a game taking place 500 years after the original game.
Why has Sazh, Vanille, Fang or Hope not tried out some new threads in all of these years? The same goes for the majority of enemies in the game that have basically just been lifted straight out of the previous two games with no changes at all. It feels less memorable and more lazy when you keep running into identical models of enemies that you fought four years ago in a different game. Practically every NPC is also just a mix of pre-set bodies and heads, with facial features and details simply being lifted from adornments that Lightning can use in the customization options.
Thankfully I’m happy to say that LIGHTNING RETURNS has the best soundtrack in the sub-series, which means it’s a good soundtrack overall. Though there are a few tracks that are reused or remixed from the previous two games, most of the original tunes are energetic and gets you into a great mood whenever you’re playing the game. The variety in having different battle themes for different regions is greatly appreciated as well, something that is becoming more of a FINAL FANTASY standard with both LIGHTNING RETURNS and last year’s FINAL FANTASY XIV: A Realm Reborn doing just that. Unfortunately, Crazy Chocobo is still on the soundtrack, which is always unacceptable.
When it comes to voice acting, Jessica DiCicco doing a most memorable job as Lumina. DiCicco have previously worked with Square-Enix when she played Olette in the Kingdom Hearts series and I hope she gets more work, because she’s no doubt the highlight in the cast. Ali Hillis as Lightning does a fine job with the lines she’s given and the rest of the side-cast is either barely in the game or mostly forgettable. There’s a Japanese voice pack available for download if you’d prefer it, though I played the game fully in English.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly where I should put LIGHTNING RETURNS compared to the rest of the games in the series. In a lot of ways, it does improve on its predecessors, but it also takes some steps back. It presents some inexcusably bad writing, an insult of an ending and a sad lack of polish on the technical side. But it also shows stellar gameplay with respect for the player and content to keep you occupied for days.
LIGHTNING RETURNS: FINAL FANTASY XIII is a mixed bag, that’s for sure, but in the end it’s a mixed bag that I did have fun with, and having fun is one of the most important aspects of anything, let alone any game. As such, I do recommend giving it a try if you still have any interest in the sub-series.