With Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, the trilogy finally comes to an end. Take it or leave it this series has seen its ups and downs. This final iteration is no different. The game’s premise set up by XIII-2 gave Lightning Returns a head start. Unfortunately I don’t think it heard the starting gun. Lightning Returns fails to shake off some of the problems its predecessor’s faced. There’s a lot of wasted story potential, underused mythology, and bad writing for its main cast. However it’s not all doom and gloom. Square Enix still shows it can create a game that looks, sounds, and plays great, with fun and unique gameplay elements. Lightning Returns also goes against the tradition flow of RPG, much like XIII and XIII-2 before it. While not flawless, these non-traditional RPG elements work to its advantage and make sense within the context of the games presentation. For fans of the trilogy I will encourage you to play this game. Those who disliked XIII and XIII-2 might want to consider reading Wikipedia’s story section to see how the trilogy wraps up.
At the end of XIII-2 players were met with a cliff hanger (to say the least). Fast forward 500 years after Caius’s defeat. Chaos has flooded the world and as a result, time ceased marching forward and humans stopped ageing. This pseudo-immortality is more of a curse than a blessing. Death still exists in the form of disease, murder, and monster attacks. Those who lose loved ones suffer for centuries, kids can never grow older, and life for many is a struggle. To make matters worse, new human life cannot be born whereas animals, monsters, and plants can still reproduce. Without the infusion of life, the population continued to shrink. The remaining land mass of Pulse, renamed Nova Chrysalia, only has a short time left before succumbing to the Chaos. As the end of the world approaches, Bhunivelze, better known as god, releases Lightning from her crystal tomb. God has chosen Lightning to be the savior of this dying world. She is tasked to save as many souls as possible within the thirteen remaining days. Bhunivelze will bring these saved souls to a new world he has created. As a final incentive for her loyalty and success, Bhunivelze promises to save Serah’s soul.
One of the strongest aspects of the XIII franchise is its environmental artistry. Lightning Returns keeps the tradition going. Luxerion, the “Holy City” is highly ornate; the level designers went for a gothic/dark fantasy look and absolutely nailed it. Although I still don’t understand the random assortment of paintings adorning city walls, details like this give locations a certain flare. Luxerion is checkered with black/white marble, making everything look pristine as a Holy City should. Yusnaan, the city of revelry, is just as ornate as Luxerion but has a Mediterranean inspiration. The buildings and the city itself are more colorful here than anywhere else in Nova Chrysalia. The Wildlands, unsurprisingly, consists mostly of open green expanse with a few villages littered about. However, it is the most diverse location due to the Jagd Woods, Rocky Crag, and Eremite Plains. The Wildlands also boasts the most diverse enemy population. The last area you’ll likely visit is the desert expanse called the Dead Dunes. While there isn’t much to see initially, don’t let that fool you, the desert holds a lot of secrets. While there is a noticeable lack of locations, especially for an RPG, LR’s uses a compact level design making the most of every area. While the Dead Dunes/Wildlands have large open areas for the sake of large areas, they don’t feel empty. All in all, these locals remained interesting throughout my first playthrough and into my second.
Overall the game is graphically on par with its predecessors. Character models for the main cast and NPC’s look great. The monster designs are top notch, familiar foes and plenty of new ones will keep Lightning busy throughout her journey. Lightning’s various garbs (even when customized), weapons, and shields are all rendered perfectly during gameplay and in cutscenes. Sadly, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. While the environmental designs look great, they can suffer from bad textures. This was first noticeable in Luxerion when talking to various shop owners. The camera will zoom and pan around revealing bottles and fruits. Those background items look jagged, flat, and incomplete. I may be nitpicking here, but this forced me to pay more attention to textures. I began to notice wall textures can be hit or miss as well. Buildings are fine, but on plain walls; like the area with Baird the Soul Seed dealer in Luxerion or on rock masses in the Wildlands/Dead Dunes, the textures can look bad. For the most part you won’t notice them unless you’re looking for it. The lack of uniform quality in textures probably stems from the fact that LR is the most open game of the trilogy.
Since the game deals with the passage of time, I was impressed with Square Enix’s portrayal of time progression. Within the 24 hours making up the day, mornings feel like mornings and evenings feel like evenings. There isn’t just “day” and “night” in the game; there’s a gradual change of the lighting that reflects the time of day. Square Enix really focused on the passage of time and made it work. NPC’s come and go during the 24 hours of the day, making cities feel more realistic. Even the overall time progression (days) is handled well. More side quests become available as you progress towards the 13th day and complete main story quests. Late in the game monsters become stronger and appear in higher numbers. Shops even get updated with new items as the game progresses. In regards to the locations themselves, Luxerion has more going on during the day, while Yusnaan has more going on at night. Stronger monsters are out at night in the Wildlands, while the Dead Dunes have stronger monsters during the day. This relationship between areas ensures players can manage their time effectively.
One of the major complaints with XIII and XIII-2 was the lack of shopping options. Lightning Returns addresses those complaints. Available to players are different shops to buy goods from, even sporting personalized names. For example, a “Forge” in Luxerion is called the “Mighty Grandville Forge”. These Forges sell shields and weapons, while Outfitters sell adornments and garbs, Sorcery Shops synthesis skills, and General Stores have recovery items. There are also a lot a wealth of food vendors. Sadly the only difference between these vendors is the type of food they sell. All stores have three options which restore a set amount of health. As a result it doesn’t matter which one you visit. Lastly, an RPG mainstay makes its debut in the XIII trilogy; Inns. The inclusion of Inn’s was perplexing to me at first. LR is a race against time, so every hour is crucial. Wasting away hours at an inn seems counterproductive (you’re literally killing time). At first you’ll largely find that using an Inn is a complete waste. I came to realize while playing on New Game+ they do serve a useful purpose. Main Scenario missions are often time sensitive, so using Inn’s will speed up your NG+ playthrough considerably.
It’s no secret that the XIII franchise has polarizing characters. FFXIII’s main cast had potential, so it’s incredibly frustrating when that potential never comes to fruition. I’ve argued the merits of XIII before, but I can’t argue for the characters of the XIII franchise. They are weak and have little development throughout the series. Lightning Returns makes little progress in that regard. Hope, who I thought had development in XIII-2, now appears before you as his younger self from XIII. While it’s explained why he’s younger, the reason why Square Enix decided to go that route baffles me. In a way, Square undid all the growth Hope had in XIII-2. He now spends the majority of the game repeating objectives ad nauseam. Half the time he even interrupts himself. As for our main heroine Lightning, in what seems like a copout, has apparently lost her emotions (she had those?) to due god releasing her from the crystal prison. That plot point must have been shoehorned. It’s as if someone at Square Enix finally realized her character is one dimensional. Her lack of emotions does have an impact on the overall plot (albeit a confusing one). It isn’t the fact that Lighting is uninteresting because she is stoic and suppresses her emotions. Those types of characters have been done before and have found success. The writing and script for Lightning is the main problem. Although, to be frank, it’s not just her writing that needed improvement, the same can be said for the rest of the cast and the story in general. Despite some shining moments, Lightning isn’t that great of a main protagonist.
As for the other “heroes” of the XIII franchise, you’ll run into them at one point or another. With the exception of Fang and Vanille, the other main characters are more of a side act than anything. Even, Sazh who is considered by many to be the best character in the series gets the short end of the stick… again. I don’t want to go into detail about the characters due to spoilers, but don’t expect too much from the cast then what you’ve already seen. The only major character introduced in LR is a mysterious girl named Lumina. You can surmise by her appearance that she plays an important role in the overall plot. Mischievous, playful, and entertaining, she has a tangible impact on Nova Chrysalia. Lumina’s presence could have been more impactful, as it is mostly limited to cutscenes. Besides the time limit, Lighting doesn’t have a tangible opposing force to go against. Lumina could have easily fit into that role.
Much like the characters in LR, the game’s story is underwhelming. I had high hopes leading up to the games release. The concept and premise of the game appealed to me much more than that of XIII-2. Square Enix wasn’t dealing with confusing time travel rules and XIII-2’s ending left me with a genuine interest in what happens next. Sadly, as in XIII, Lightning’s main goal is saving her sister. Although she’s saving souls this time around, saving Serah is a been there done that scenario leaving a lot to be desired. The game’s main quests are more akin to large side missions where you meet familiar faces along the way. Excluding the Dead Dunes main quest, they don’t build upon each other to form an overarching narrative. However they contribute a few (and I mean a few) bits and pieces to weave the main quests together. What results is a narrative that fits together in some areas, but feels incredibly disjointed at the same time. Square Enix tries to answer all remaining questions, but these answers seemingly come out of the blue. What results are perplexing and frustrating plot points making up a story that ultimately, isn’t very good.
Before I go into the gameplay, I wanted to stick LR’s music and Outerworld services here. I ultimately didn’t know where to put these and don’t want to give each their own section. If you don’t care all that much then skip ahead to the next paragraph. While the XIII series has a lot of polarizing elements, the music has been consistently great. Lighting Returns also sports a great soundtrack. The only drawback is that it draws heavily on past games. The new level and battle themes are solid with brilliant final boss music to top off the soundtrack. Switching gears, Square Enix has implemented a social feature in the game. While its inclusion is largely a waste of time and resources, they do a good job of letting players decide if they even want to use it. Outerworld services can be enabled or disabled in the main menu. The services can be linked to your Facebook and Twitter accounts, enabling you to share your exploits with your friends. If you do decide to use it, many NPC’s throughout the game will have dark blue description above their heads. You’ll be able to view photos and messages and even purchase items others players submit (although you cannot set the prices). Taking a photo and sharing it is easy to do. Square Enix provides the tools to angle your shot, zoom in on certain things, and automatically excludes your hub (e.g. HP bar). There are also ways to get unique garbs through SE’s official Outerworld NPC wandering around the different locations. The Outerworld is interesting, but most players will use it only a few times before getting bored.
It’s hard to find major flaws in Lightning Returns battle system; it’s versatile customizable and interesting enough to keep player’s attentions. However, it’s not particularly deep (something that can be said for both XIII and XIII-2). Even though both XIII and XIII-2’s battle systems featured a party, players were only in direct control of a single member. Lightning Returns cuts the fat and throws the party out the window. The paradigm system is gone, replaced with its spiritual successor, the schema system. This really opens up battle possibilities as there are dozens of schemata to use. The schema system in a nutshell is a half paradigm half job system hybrid. The system works, it’s engaging, highly customizable, and fun to use. Without a doubt the high point of Lightning Returns is the battle system. Even with strong gameplay, it amounts to nothing if the game is unbalanced. Thankfully that’s not the case. While the game isn’t exactly difficult, it posed more of a challenge than XIII-2. It forced me to edit my schema in an effort to exploit the weakness of various monsters and unlike XIII-2: debuffs serve a purpose.
The schema system allows for the creation of many useful schemata. I had schema with the purpose of maximizing physical and magical attack power (obviously). I also was able to create schema for debuffing, high HP schema for tanking, fast regenerating ATB bars, even schema built around their passive abilities and attack combos. These combinations are due to varying garbs purchased and earned throughout the game. I applaud Lightning Returns for putting most of the garbs in stores, allowing players to build up a large collection fairly quickly. The garb designs can be hit or miss. Some are designed really well; while others are extremely skimpy outfits that simple don’t belong on a battlefield. Schema customization is versatile, including aesthetics. Garbs tend to have one or two locked abilities unique to that garb, but there are no other restrictions regarding what abilities you can attach. Any Schema can use any weapon, shield, accessory, ability, and even adornments.
Before combat begins, a gameplay mechanic returns from XIII-2. Enemies appear in semi-random encounters; they randomly spawn, but you can avoid combat if need be. Attacking them before they attack you results in an advantage during combat, as enemies start with 10% less health. However, you can lose 5% of starting health as well. To up the ante, this is the first game in the XIII series where you do not heal after battle. That 5% HP reduction will not return once the battle is completed, as well as any damage received during battle. Healing items other than phoenix downs are now essential to buy and use. However, Lighting can only hold a limited amount of these items. Players will have to manage whether or not to fill those slots with pure healing items, phoenix downs, or potion buffs. With Lightning’s damage rolling over and a limited healing inventory, individual battles actually carry weight. This is noticeable during main missions when Lightning doesn’t have easy access to shops.
If you’ve played the previous XIII games then the battle system will be very familiar. Switching between garbs is equivalent to switching paradigms in the past. Gone is the auto-attack option and abilities are mapped to each of the face buttons. Chaining these abilities together can end in a stronger attack, while some abilities can change completely to a different attack. Staggering returns as a gameplay mechanic, but with modifications. In the past using a combination of magic then physical attacks would build up the stagger bar for all enemies. Using attacks does build up stagger, but each enemy comes with specific stagger conditions. Stagger has more depth in this regard and gives regular enemies a bit of individuality. However, this stagger is now shown as a “wave” that overlaps the enemies HP rather than the traditional “bar”. While nothing changes in its function, the wave makes it harder to see and determine exactly how much stagger you’ve built up.
The last two battle functions involve guarding and EP. EP, or Energy Points, can be used inside and outside of battle. How players manage their EP can affect how they play the game. EP can consist of healing, special attacks, teleporting (without a time penalty), or even stopping time. Guarding is an interesting aspect to combat, throwing up a guard will reduce the damage Lightning takes, while timing a guard right before taking damage results in a “perfect guard” effectively negating all damage. I enjoyed the guarding function; however it can be hard to see when enemies use attacks, especially during boss battles or when fighting multiple enemies. Even Lightning’s stronger attacks such as Blizzaga or Firaga results in a flashy attack animation, shifting around the camera. Enemies who attack when you use these make it almost impossible to time a good guard.
The biggest non-combat gameplay mechanic is the inclusion of time. Unlike XIII-2’s time travel, Lightning has a finite amount of time to save souls. This means the game will eventually end and players can lose (via running out of time and not being strong enough to defeat the final boss). This is an interesting inclusion, as losing a game and starting over is rare, especially in AAA tittles. So how long do players have to beat the game? Well, every minute on the clock is equivalent to 2.5 seconds real time. Every hour equals 2.5 minutes, which means every day is equivalent to 1 hour real time. With 13 days to save the world, players have 13 hours to finish the game. Don’t panic! I clocked (pun intended) over 60 hours of gameplay by the time during my first playthrough. This is due to the rules about when the clock runs and when it doesn’t, as well as what players can do to prevent the flow of time. The clock stops running while Lightning is in battle, during cutscenes, shopping, or when talking to NPC’s. Time can also be stopped at the players will using an EP ability called chronostasis. Outside of these situations the clock is always running. Lightning also loses time when she runs (defeated) in battle or when traveling by train to different locations. These time rules result in players having to manage their time effectively. Time management comes into play and is vital to players looking to complete large amount of side missions efficiently.
Square Enix aims for the clock to provide a sense of urgency to the players, but its execution is hit or miss. The game’s beginning can cause players to feel restricted and stressed, as the clock seems to work against exploration. The middle of the game is where this sense of urgency appears. This is due to players learning the rules of time, getting used to the clock, and gaining a larger amount of EP. However, late game the urgency disappears altogether and the clock becomes an annoyance. With the large amount of EP at the player’s disposal and learning which monsters to farm for EP, chronostasis can be abused to a point where game time can be extended indefinitely. Those wanting to do as many side missions as they can have the ability to do so, however they will have to repeatedly spam chronostasis (why I stated that the clock can be annoying at this point).
Remember all of the complaints Square Enix got for the lack of side missions and NPC’s in FFXIII? Apparently they listened. To put it bluntly, Lightning Returns is 70% side missions. There’s nothing too spectacular here, your usual “kill this number of enemies”, or “find these items/person”. There are a few side missions that are interesting to complete, usually due to the NPC’s involved. I did find out some side missions can be failed, as they had a time limit in which to be completed. Most side missions could be completed at any time, although players aren’t given information about which can be failed and which cannot. With side mission making up the bulk of the gameplay, Square Enix missed an opportunity to branch out some of these side missions by giving players multiple ways to complete them, weaving side missions together, or by opening up additional side missions by failing certain ones (which they did only once). Keeping with the theme of time, some NPCs are wandering the city at certain times of the day. That means some side missions can only be taken or completed by showing up when the NPC is available. It can be a pain to remember what time these characters are available, but it does add another dimension to time management. It also gives a little bit of life to the areas since not all these characters are standing outside 24 hours a day.
There are two categories of side missions in Lightning Returns; those given out by NPCs and those from the Canvas of Prayers via Chocolina (yes, she returns). The Canvas of Prayers is a fancy way of saying “job board”. Most of the generic side objectives can be found there. The plus side is you don’t have to deal with NPCs. I mentioned that some are interesting; they can have unique back stories or have interesting tales to tell… sadly most talk for way too long. There are even a few side missions requiring Lighting to just talk to a certain NPC multiple times. I’ve wanted to skip quite a few (which you can), but for the sake of this review I sat through it. Also, the camera panning around during conversations provides really weird and awkward shots and angles.
The Canvas and NPC missions are the only ways for Lightning to grow stronger. There is no traditional leveling or experience system. However players feel about this, it coincides with Lightning’s role in the story. She is saving souls and does so by helping people with their problems. At the same time, it also effectively negates grinding. Be aware that there is a difference between the Canvas and NPC missions. Eradia is earned by completing NPC missions, not Canvas of Prayer missions. The game does a poor job of telling informing players of this. The datalog states Eradia is earned through “side missions”. Although the Canvas has side missions, apparently they aren’t true “side missions”. This is important as the amount of time Lightning has until the end of the world is extended via Eradia. The game gives you 6 days until the world’s end, but it can be extended to a total of 13 by gaining more Eradia. Unfortunately, players do not know the exact amount of Eradia they have earned or the amount needed for another day. All missions are ranked from one to three stars. One being the easiest and quickest to complete, but will also give the least Eradia.
There are a few final topics I want to discuss; ability synthesis and New Game+. Synthesizing abilities to create stronger attacks is an interesting yet flawed way for Lightning to gain stronger attacks, due to the exclusion of a leveling system. Players can acquire abilities via monster drops and in turn can be combined to improve that ability. While grinding isn’t much of a factor, farming can be. Abilities can only be combined with another ability of the same type and level. Depending on what is combined, an passive stats such as an HP or strength increase can occur. Fire cannot be upgraded to Fira. Fire can only combine with other Fire abilities of the same level. Eventually it will reach a final tier and need a rare monster malistone to upgrade to level 2. Here everything starts over again. Some abilities are already at their highest tier and can only be upgraded to different levels using monster materials. There is a lack of consistency regarding upgrading and synthesizing abilities making it a bit confusing at first; as some abilities cannot be upgraded, only leveled up. It’s a pain to synthesize abilities over and over and over again; as such leveling can feel cumbersome. The clunky menu doesn’t help matters. It is important to note that the game does not indicate that some abilities and malistones are not available outside of hard mode, which is only playable after beating the game. I found that out the hard way (again, pun intended… that’s two if you’re keeping track).
Compared to XIII and XIII-2, Lightning Returns does give players a reason to play the game again. With New Game+ all items (except key items), abilities, stats etc carry over. Players have the choice of playing on normal mode or hard mode. Hard mode unlocks all drops from monsters in addition to featuring exclusive garbs, weapons, and shields. Both modes feature tougher enemies and an item upgrade feature. Now both shields and weapons can be upgraded using materials found in new game+, even accessories can be upgraded by acquiring the item again. For players looking for an added challenge and exclusive items, hard mode is the way to go.
Lightning Returns doesn’t send off the trilogy with a bang. It stumbles over the same road blocks both XIII and XIII-2 have. The story is lack-luster and the main missions don’t coalesce well enough to give a sense of a true main quest. For a game centered on side missions, the main campaign should not be a series of loosely connected quests that feel like larger side missions. It’s a shame this is the case, as the main story only becomes interesting during the last story (before “the Final Day”) quest. The writing isn’t stellar, disappointing, but not game breaking. Characters both major and minor suffer from this, and as a result, won’t head into unfamiliar territory. Lightning Returns does bring some unique and interesting gameplay mechanics to the table; a well implemented time mechanic, side mission based leveling system, a solid battle system, and fantastic customization. The game looks great (with hit or miss textures), plays great and sounds great. Levels and environments are designed well and filled with new monsters and items to find. A new game+ option bringing new features, items, and tougher enemies will entice some players to give Lightning Returns another go. If you enjoyed the overall gameplay of the XIII franchise, then Lightning Returns has a lot to offer. I would suggest Lightning Returns to fans of the XIII series, but for players who weren’t head over heels for the other games might want to pass this one up.