Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Publisher: Square Enix Developer: Square Enix
Genre: JRPG Platform Played: PlayStation 3
If you had told me Final Fantasy XIII would end up being a trilogy back when the original game was announced in 2006, I would have said, “You’re crazy!” But here we are, seven years later with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, the third game in the series. I will admit that I came into this game with a bit of trepidation; I mean, who wouldn’t with all the changes being made to the Final Fantasy staple – changes that included an open world design, a single playable character, or the abandonment of a traditional battle system. Also, to address the elephant in the room, this is largely a sequel of a sequel that many did not ask for. It certainly does not make someone very enthusiastic. But in a surprise turn of event, I am here to tell you that it is because of all these changes, Lightning Returns exceeds almost all of my expectations and concludes as the most entertaining title in the Final Fantasy XIII saga.
Lightning Returns takes place some 500 years into the future, following the aftermath of Final Fantasy XIII-2. Serah is gone again, the world has careened into chaos and despair, and Lightning (our titular hero) has awoken from her slumber due to the good graces of God. It is not without cause though; God plans to make Lightning his savior and demands her to the souls of the living so that they may carry into the new world he is creating. The catch is that she only has six days to do this, with seven additional days if she keeps pace with saving souls. This is the premise of Lightning Returns, and it is absurd to say the least.
I said the game almost exceed my expectations in every capacity. Final Fantasy XIII still cannot seem to get me to care about the story it is trying to tell. However, it is not because of the story that I do not care, it is not exactly too far off from what you would expect from a Final Fantasy. No, the issue continues to be the direction of how the story is told. It stems the little things that are supposed to keep our attention, but instead diminish it. Bad dialogue is clearly an issue with this trilogy, but it is a consequence of poor delivery, which is the bigger issue. Characters with truly heartfelt issues fail to resonate, and many simply stand idle as they pour their soul (literally and figuratively) out to you. Facial reactions do not match the severity of the issue, and thus loses its effect. There are many examples of this during longer quest lines, particularly when a startling revelation is made, and the NPC simply sits there and goes “Oh my.” Kudos for not being overly melodramatic, but shame on you for wasting my time.
On the flip side though, there is Lightning who has not changed a bit. She continues to be uninteresting, with a personality as flat as a sheet of paper. There is apparently an explanation for this, but it is lost on me by this point. If you are not on board with her at this point, I am afraid her very own game probably will not get you to jump on the Lightning bandwagon – well at least not the one Square Enix wants you on. For the record, I say this while acknowledging the fact that as a character design, she is legitimately cool. Do I care about her, though? Sadly no, and I pegged my hopes on this game to change that.
Well, now that the bad news is out of the way, allow me to explain why this game did in fact exceed most of my expectations. While the main story failed to keep me emotionally engaged, and Lightning continues to be uninteresting, the world of Nova Chrysallia was the very opposite. Four huge locales make up what is most Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII; the city of Luxerion, the Dead Dunes, the Wildlands, and the city of Yusnaan. Initially, you start the game in Yusnaan, and spend the first few hours of the first day in Luxerion. But after that, the world becomes your oyster – go anywhere for however long as you like, just make sure you save souls so that you can extend the amount of days before Armageddon. This amounts to what is possibly the most non-linear Final Fantasy game in the catalog, which is a stark contrast to the game’s predecessors. Final Fantasy XIII was essentially a straight line while its sequel was less so with its time travel approach. I do not get hung up on whether an open world design is better that a linear one, but I will say that I greatly enjoyed the ability to see the world at my own leisure. That said, there is a game clock running and you have to pay attention to it as it affects what quests are available, but more on that later.
While the world of Lightning Returns is wonderful, it is the battle system that really makes the game shine and redeems the plot’s shortcomings. Dubbed the “schemata” system, Lightning is able to equip three unique garbs (or outfits) at a time during battle. Different garbs give different effects, including, but not limited to, additional strength, faster recovery times, or even unique abilities. Essentially, it is just another variant of the job system, albeit a much more customizable one. There is no one garb that can truly be considered the best, and every player can, and likely will, play completely differently than one another. In addition, there are numerous weapons, shields, accessories, and abilities to completely tailor your style of play. Since you can only equip three garbs at a time, it forces you to really strategize your approach to combat. You can create three magic users, or an onslaught of physical damage dealers, or mix and match in all three. The choice is yours and the number of variants is staggering. This all amounts to a style of play is genuinely unique to each player, and gives a sense of choice that was needed in previous Final Fantasy XIII games. This is not apparent until you step into combat.
The moment you encounter your first battle, you are treated to one of the finer amalgams of traditional and contemporary battle systems in today’s JRPG environment. Perhaps even the finest. “That’s high praise!” you might say. And you are right, it is. But unlike Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, which used the traditional scroll menu of old, Lightning Returns uses dedicated button prompts in conjunction with the ATB bar (active time battle, for those unfamiliar) which actually worked with the pace of battle, and did not force you to rely on an “auto-attack” button. In a way, it reminded me of Valkyrie Profile’s battle system since Lightning would rush across the screen at with actions of a similar nature. Its layout is even reminiscent. It really clicks when you start thinking about how you are going to implement your garbs into battle. Deciding when to use certain outfits, and with what abilities can be the difference between a short battle and very long one.
While the pace of battle is extremely fast, you always feel well within control. Furthermore, battles are quite a challenge this time around as exploiting enemy weaknesses were more of a timed affair this time around, rather than just ambush a character with magic. In addition, there are special abilities that unlock over time which can help get players out of a pinch, but for a cost – more on this later though.
When the battle victory screen comes up to summarize your results and rewards. But now experience points are completely out of the picture. There is no replacement either, progression is tied to your progress in the game as a whole. Completing the main story quests (in addition to other side quests and tasks) improves all of the Lightning’s vital stats, in lieu of experience points. While it is nice not to be tied to fighting countless monster battles for the sake of grinding, it is a bit of a chore to do some of these quests for the sake of progression. Most of these are fetch quests (i.e. retrieve item from point A, bring back to point B). And this is all occurring while playing with the pace of the game clock.
As I mentioned earlier, players must complete Lightning Returns within a certain time frame. The mechanic is similar to that of games like Persona, and even Majora’s Mask. In order to get the most time possible, you must do as many of the quests and side missions as possibly can, with a total of thirteen days possible (or maybe more if you are a completionist). While this may seem like a chore to keep up with, it is rather manageable. As I mentioned earlier, Lightning has access to special abilities during and outside of battle. They cost “Eradia Points” (EP), and can allow Lightning to halt the flow of time, allow a flurry of attacks, revive mid battle, and more. However, the only way to earn EP is through battle. Thus, you have an incentive to engage in combat.Well, other than the fact it is the best part of the game.
To tie things up, Lightning Returns is a very pretty game… from afar. While many of the environments are very nice and aesthetically pleasing, many the character models are unimpressive. I think I was able to count the number of polygons that were on the dog models. It is not surprising considering the nature of the game; this is a complete deviation from Square Enix’s comfort zone, and it says a lot about how Final Fantasy XIII’s linear design aided in making it look the way it did. There are exceptions though; Lightning looks fantastic and the physics on the outfits are quite impressive. In addition, battles are clearly cut from the same cloth as the previous games. Particle effects are impressive, and all of the animations work very well, with only a few dips in frame rate here and there. For those curious about the music, rest assured the soundtrack is as good as it has ever been – if there is one constant across the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, it is the stellar music.
I will be honest, I am quite surprised by how much I enjoyed some of the aspects in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. The battle system is such a pleasant surprise, and made the game what it is, but the story is a major part of why people play JRPG’s. If a story fails to really have an impact or hold even a remote interest, then there is little to keep you going all the way to see it through. Coupled with its mind-numbing protagonist, the plot is clearly not the reason this game gets passing marks. It is the battle system, through and through. For those who want to see its conclusion, and see this journey out until the end like me, then you will at least have a relatively satisfying ending. It has been a hell of a ride, Lightning, I bid you adieu.
+ Customizable and entertaining battle system
+ Wonderfully realized world
+ Continuing tradition of great music
– Weakest story in the trilogy
– Lightning still isn’t an interesting protagonist
– Graphically inferior from previous titles
– Progression is a mixed bag
The Score: 7.5
Paco is one the PlayStation Editors, and fan of most things Japanese. He is also a die hard Laker fan, and a scuba aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter at @RTBL1990. Also, ‘Like’ Analog Addiction on Facebook to receive all of the updates as they’re posted.