Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII – An Uneven End to An Uneven Series

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is the capper of the Final Fantasy XIII  trilogy, and it has left me very conflicted. It is a very, very flawed game, which takes many liberties in gameplay presentation and storytelling. Yet, I enjoyed every second of my two and a half playthroughs, possibly more so than much more polished and well-crafed games. This has left me with a quandary. How much of the review should be the telling of my personal enjoyment of the game, and how much of it should be dealing with the very real flaws the game possesses. Since I don’t run a professional site, and people don’t rely on me for a recommendation, I don’t have an obligation for objectivity. However, I can’t bear to simply ignore the problems. So measure my bias evenly as we take a look at Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.

LightningReturns

The Good:

Combat – Pretty much everyone I’ve seen agrees – the combat system Square put in place for Lightning Returns is fantastic. No longer turn-based, Lightning Returns ops instead for realtime combat centred around ability and skill instead of simple levels. Lightning can equip three sets of clothes (called schema) along with weapons, accessories and shields. Each of these will have four ability slots to use in-battle. Each ability costs ATB, and when you run out of ATB, you have to wait for it to regenerate. To keep combat flowing, you have to switch between your three schemas in order to keep ATB regenerating as the meter fills up quicker when you aren’t on that specific one.

2593365-lr1Because of the realtime nature of the battles, Square has made certain adjustments to make every battle more dynamic. Timed hits a là Super Mario RPG rear their head into this game, allowing you to score bonus damage, or reduce damage, if you press the attack button at the precise moment Lightning strikes, or the blow hits. In addition, the guarding in the game is not optional. Enemies’s attacks are extremely damaging, and you don’t heal outside of combat (unless you pick easy). This means keeping a guard ability on at least one of your schema at all times, and has the side effect of punishing button-mashers and rewarding those who pay attention in battle.

It all works together perfectly. The combat is deep, and, even though you no longer gain experience through fighting monsters, you’ll still be engaging them a lot due to quests, so it’s good that it is entertaining. As before, there is the ability to stagger enemies via attacks. This is primarily done through spells in this game, thus loading up a schema with magic allows you to create a stagger monster. Once staggered, attacks, particularly physical attacks, do more damage and the enemy will often gain negative debuffs, which further turn the tide if your favour. Thus, switching between magic-based schemas for staggering to physical ones for damage, while keeping a third for either defence or debuffing the enemy is a pretty good set up, though far from the only one.

The Customization – Also in the good category is the customization options available to Lightning. As mentioned above, each schema has four ability slots. Some will be locked as part of each unique schema, while most will be free for you to slot abilities you find throughout the game. For example, the Cloud Strife DLC has one slot dedicated to an ability called Heavy Slash, thus you only have three slots left to customize. Every schema is somewhat unique as well. Some will give flat bonuses to attack or magic, while others will give you more interesting abilities such as regaining ATB upon killing enemies, or changing certain attacks to others when they are used. The Cloud DLC transforms that Heavy Slash into a monstrous attack called Slayer when the enemy is staggered.

Lightning_Returns_Final-Fantasy-13_37As well as the schema, each weapon and shield is unique both in appearance and inherent abilities. Some only provide raw stats, while others give unique abilities or detriments to balance them out. For example, there are some weapons that provide minus 50% to attack, but they hit twice. Sounds useless, but there is a strength cap in the game, and when you are strong enough to exceed it, these weapons can really shine. If that weren’t enough, abilities have their own levels and possible attached skills. A level one Fira is nothing compared to a level five Fira that gives 250 to magic. To get higher level abilities, you either have to either kill stronger enemies present on later days, or fuse similar magic together, which increases their strength and lowers the ATB costs if you upgrade them yourself. It’s a costly procedure, but it allows you to choose your subability and reduce ATB, which isn’t an option if you simply farm for stronger ones. Unfortunately, there is a limit to farming as each enemy type in the game only has so many spawns, and you can extinct them. This leaves a lot of the synthesis options to new game +.

Finally, for the fashionista within us all, Lightning is very customizable appearance-wise. Almost every single quest will result in you gaining adornments. These little decorations, which can also be bought, are additions to Lightning’s costume. They can range from the cool (sunglasses) to the ludicrous (horrifying 8-bit Lightning mask to wear over your face). Lightning’s schema all have different looks, and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself using a lot of them based on personal aesthetic instead of general utility. Further, you can customize the colour of the schemas via the use of a massive colour spectrum. If you’ve ever wanted Cloud’s costume in hot pink with bright orange shoulder pads, this is the game for you. With all of this, you have a lot of creative ways to customize each and every aspect of Lightning, meaning your Lightning probably doesn’t look like mine.

The Mediocre 

The Graphics – Near the announcement of the game, the director of Lightning Returns boasted that it would be the most polished Final Fantasy ever made. This is not the case. In fact, of the main series and their sequels, I dare say that Lightning Returns is the least polished Final Fantasy game ever made. Maybe something was lost in translation? The graphics are a noticeable downgrade from Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, and there is a good amount of screen tearing and framerate hiccups that should send the graphics snobs among you running for the hills. At the same time, the world is much bigger and open than either of these games, so you’d expect some sort of downgrade in this regard.

lightning-returns-moogleThe vast majority of the enemy designs and aesthetics were aped from previous Final Fantasy XIII games, so there isn’t too much to comment on. They still look great and I love seeing a Flan-type enemy with a siren on its head, or a cute dancing Ahriman-type enemy, but not much has changed. The few new enemies, particularly the final boss, are the overly-designed type of thing that Final Fantasy has often sent us (I’m looking at you Zeromus and Neo-Exdeath). The cities and locals aren’t bad, per se, but they aren’t exciting either. Two cities and two sprawling wildernesses are available for travel. The desert looks like every other desert you’ve ever seen in video games, as does the wild lands. It’s a shame, since both previous XIII games provided locals that were absolutely jaw-dropping even if they consisted mainly of a hallway.

The Music – This is another case where the game falters because of the successes of the past. Final Fantasy XIII may be disliked by many, but very few of them would disparage the music. Lightning Returns gives very little new, choosing instead to remix many of the original tracks from both XIII and XIII-2. Unfortunately, the remixes are all worse than the originals. The few bits of new music in this game are unremarkable, but not grating. If you were coming into Lightning Returns hoping for the level of quality of XIII, or the quirky uniqueness of XIII-2’s music, you will be disappointed. For the rest, it’s not bad, nor is it good.

233033-lightningreturns-spot2Equally, the voice acting is hit or miss. Most of the original cast of Final Fantasy XIII do a great job, particularly Ali Hillis’s Lightning and Troy Baker’s Snow, but the rest of the cast isn’t so good. There are also a few main players who seem lacklustre, but it’s mostly a problem with side characters. This is partially a problem with the dialogue, but I got a serious case of the phoning-it-in from some of  the supporting cast. It’s hard to blame them when they”re faceless “additional voices”, but there were still some issues.

The time limit – This may be a controversial point, but the time limit isn’t bad. During the game, a clock runs in real time, counting down the days. You only have 13 in order to save the world, and every second you spend in the field has this clock counting down. You start with only six days, but you gain more by completing main quests. This time limit is used for time-sensitive quests, as well as to give you impetus for your journey. Many criticize this feature because it stops them from stopping and enjoying the scenery, instead pushing them to get as much done as quickly as possible.

In reality, my problem is that the time limit isn’t restrictive enough. If you’re going to put in a time limit, you should make sure to make it so that nobody except the absolute best can do everything in the game during a single playthough. It should require precise planning and speedy execution. In this game, without a guide, I completed almost all side quests  and main quests by the sixth or seventh day in my first playthough. This gave me half of the days available to screw around with. Even the truly inept will not need for time. Particularly, you have an ability that stops time, which uses a resource that is gained via killing monsters. With this ability, you can conceivably beat the game in a couple of days without issue.

That is my problem. If you are going to use a time limit, it has to be for a reason. I’m not one of those people who thinks a time limit is always bad. A good developer can make anything great. However, the time limit simply wasn’t fully realized in this game, or there wasn’t enough content to really make it shine. Without the content, without the race to the finish, I don’t see a point in restricting people’s pace via a time limit.

The Bad

The Story – And boy is it bad. Fans of Final Fantasy XIII will remember that the ending was complete, leaving no obvious room for sequels. Fans of Final Fantasy XIII-2 may remember that the ending ended on a cliffhanger. Hopefully, you didn’t care about that, because Lightning Returns picks up hundreds of years later, and has very little to do with either past game. Since XIII-2 all humans have become immortal, though they can still die of sickness and injury, and they are all waiting for the end of the world so they can be reborn again via their god. Lightning reawakens in the world to find that she has been made the saviour for this god, and is tasked to save human souls in order to help ferry them into the new world the god is making.

Lightning_Returns__Final_Fantasy_XIII_13562490945430What follows is a weird mix of making a trilogy-ending game and a jumping on point for the series. As each character enters, Lightning will give a fairly in-depth account of who that character is. This is unnecessary for veterans of the series, and not nearly enough to leave newcomers anything more than baffled. Because, you have freedom to progress in the story however you want, none of the character interactions really jell together. Lightning herself is the only character that is given any development. What’s worse is that the entire premise of an immortal world ready to die is completely squandered. Most of the characters don’t act any differently than before, as if the centuries hadn’t brought any change. Some times the game will tell us specifically that some character has gone through a lot, or that they are different, but then that character will bop across the screen as bright and cheery as ever, totally ruining the point.

There is also a lot of inconsistency in the story. I generally ignore the pitfalls of overly complex stories. In these situations, it’s best to just accept that something is and move on. That’s why I don’t have any problem with the internal logic of games like Blazblue or the other Final Fantasy XIII games. However, Lightning Returns pushes this too far. Sometimes Lightning is aware of the extent of her powers (which are never satisfactorily explained), and other times, she will be completely in the dark. There is also a lot of repetition of facts, particularly from Hope. He’s your guide through the game, and his main purpose is to spout exposition endlessly, and tell you where to go. Frustratingly, Square chose the annoying child Hope to fill this role instead of the admirable adult Hope from Final Fantasy XIII-2 (never explained, don’t worry about it). There’s just too much inconsistency from the dialogue and the story for it to work.

lightningreturns-9985lightning2enThen there’s the reused plot lines. In XIII, Lightning was searching to save her sister Serah. In XIII-2 we had the interesting reversal of Serah trying to save Lighting. In Lighting Returns, we’re back to trying to save Serah. Couldn’t they give Lightning a motivation that hadn’t been done before as the focus for an entire game? The side characters are just as bad. Sahz, who’s only claim to fame was as a dad, trying to save his son, is, once again, trying to save his son. Snow’s protector plot line gets rehashed as well as Fang and Vanille’s ambiguous, though totally romantic relationship. This is why some reviewers say this game feels like fan service. Everything seems set up to show you the basest part of the character so you can say “I remember that!”. Unfortunately, nothing of note is done with any of these characters outside of the titular Lightning. The only new character worth mentioning is the mischievous Lumina, a girl who mysteriously looks just like Serah. I don’t have any problems with her. She’s enjoyable to watch from beginning to end, and a complete breath of fresh air when she’s on the screen.

That all being said, there are a few good things to say about the story. The game is definitively ended. There is no ambiguity, nor is there any room for another sequel. We get a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, even if these had little relevance to the previous games. Another advantage is that Lighting herself is actually a good character despite what throngs of Final Fantasy XIII disparagers may shout. She’s interesting and badass in a way few female protagonists are. More importantly, she undergoes quite a bit of development through the game, and we can accurately track her journey. This is undermined by the open world nature of the game, meaning only the beginning and end sequence are canonically chronological, but it’s still good. This doesn’t excuse the mess of a story, but it, along with the cameos from characters I already loved, made this bad story good to me. So, XIII fans may actually enjoy this part of the game despite its faults.

Quests – To gain stat points in this game you have to complete quests. None of them are good. It’s true that some are better than others, but they underscore all of the worst parts of this game. None of them make any sense considering the apocalyptic nature of the world, nor do they highlight major themes well. They’re just one shots with, often, identical-looking NPCs, sending you to collect something or kill something. The few involved quests are still bad because the sub characters are not interesting in any conceivable way. This leaves you with the primary way of levelling up being boring, and that’s a shame, especially considering the traditional method of levelling – battles – is way more exciting in this game.

What really grinds my gears is that there is a lot of potential here. Old faces could show up with real and pressing concerns about the end of the world and the nature of life itself in the dying land. Instead, we herd sheep and collect ingredients to save a dog. It’s not hard, and can be done mindlessly, but why add it in if it’s going to be mindless? I’d rather have way less to do, but what there is be amazingly crafted, then lots of busy work that does nothing but waste my time.

Verdict

lightning_returns_final_fantasy_13_23_605x

Despite the story, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII isn’t a bad game. It’s not as good as its predecessors, generally, but in a few categories like combat, it far exceeds them. This leaves me with the feeling that Lightning Returns is a 6.5 – 7.0 game if I were to put a specific score on it. However, none of that accounts for my personal enjoyment of the game. As a fan of the series, I had a ball throughout the story, problems and all, and got worked up by the ending. For fans, I would rank the game a full point higher, reaching 7.5-8.0. 

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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