It has been eight years since the world was first introduced to Lightning, a character that would lead Final Fantasy into the console generation and be the new poster child for Square Enix.
Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIII-2 and now Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII make up the Lightning Saga: three games revolving around the same cast of characters – a first in Final Fantasy history.
Is Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII the send off the saga deserves? Read on for our full review.
Five hundred years have passed since the events in Final Fantasy XIII-2. The world has been affected by the Chaos that was released at the end of Serah and Noel’s journey and has had the interesting side affect of making everyone immortal. People can still get sick and die from being attacked, but no one ages, and no new life can be created.
Lightning is awakened by the god Bhunivelze as the Savior, the one that will guide souls from the old world to the next. Unfortunately for Lightning, she only has thirteen days, after which the world will end, and a new one will be created by God.
Lightning is joined by Hope, who has strangely reverted back to his child-like appearance from Final Fantasy XIII. He operates out of the Ark, a floating base that also houses Yggdrasil the tree of life, which Lightning must help grow via Eradia, the energy of the souls she saves in the world of Nova Chrysalia in order to delay the end of the world as much as she can.
During Lightning’s mission, Hope provides valuable commentary to assist her. In fact, it seems that Hope has something to say about pretty much everything, which at times can be more reminiscent of Navi from Ocarina of Time than a simple objective reminder every so often.
As you visit the various locations left in the world, you’ll run into familiar faces from the previous Final Fantasy XIII titles. All of your favorite characters are back including Snow, Vanille, Fang and Sazh. Unfortunately the list of returning characters also includes some less favorable characters such as Chocolina.
One of Lightning’s traits whether intended or not, is her indisputable lack of emotion and what can be perceived of as a lack of caring. Whether it was intentional or not, Square Enix plays more into this for Lightning’s dialogue throughout the game. Finally coming out and saying that she doesn’t have emotions, and then seeing the way she interacts with the world actually makes her a more believable character this time around, which is something that has been needed for a long time. That having been said, some of the dialogue that was written is more often miss than hit, however, that can have a slightly humorous side effect as well.
At the end of it all however, the story of Lightning Returns falls flat. While not as crazy as the time traveling tale of XIII-2, Lightning Returns just can’t compare to the stories and level of emotion attached to characters in previous Final Fantasy titles. One of the strongest elements for Final Fantasy has always been the story and sadly, it’s the weakest in Lightning Returns.
When thrown into the world of Nova Chrysalia for the first time, players may feel overwhelmed due to the time element. They may think that that because of the time limit placed on the world, that they have to run around and do everything as fast as possible. At the end of the day however, while yes, it is true that at the end of the thirteenth day the world does in fact come to an end, the reality is that players will find themselves with plenty of time to do all the things that need to be done to successfully complete Lightning’s mission as the Savior. In fact, as you get closer to the thirteenth day, you might find yourself becoming bored and struggling to find things to do. If players want to do absolutely everything in the game, then there are ways to help slow things down such as the Chronostasis ability which temporarily halts the passage of time. If you want to go the opposite direction though and move ahead you can rest at an Inn for a specified amount of time.
Travel is also a small matter to consider. A train runs through the world using the city of Luxerion as its hub. Between the cities two stations, Lightning can travel between the city of Yusnaan, the Wildlands, and the Dead Dunes. However, trains run on schedules and using one will forward the clock a bit. Later in the game Lightning receives a teleport ability that will let her move around more quickly and easily.
There are also certain events or characters that can only be visited at certain times of the day. If you fail to show up at certain times for certain quests you will fail them, unable to try again. Pair all that with a dungeon whose mechanic involves doors that are only open at certain times during the day and you have a system that doesn’t provide a time management challenge for players as you might assume, but rather it just feels like its there to add frustration to the game.
One of the fan-favorite features of Final Fantasy XIII-2 returns and that is customization. Whereas in XIII-2 you could add decorations to your monster companions, Lightning Returns lets you customize Lightning’s entire wardrobe. Schematas, which are custom appearance and skill sets that you can switch between in battle, are comprised of a garb, which can have its colors changed to your liking, a weapon, shield, two accessories, then one adornment. This system will waste hours of your time if you let it, and it is actually quite fun to be able to fully customize Lightning’s appearance. However, there are certain garbs that you just don’t find a better replacement for and the freedom of customization quickly becomes transparent as you will, of course, want to use the outfits with the best stats, regardless of if they’re too your liking or not. What might look like a cool new outfit for Lightning may actually turn out to weaken her attack and so players might simply never use it even though they desperately want to update Lightning’s appearance. Because of this, players may find themselves using the same handful of garbs for their entire journey.
The battle system featured in Lightning Returns borrows the idea of paradigms (roles) from the previous titles but instead of putting actions into a menu like traditional Final Fantasy titles, Lightning Returns lets you designate four abilities for every schemata you have. You’ll collect abilities and spells from monsters, quests and chests as you progress, and some garbs even have actions built into them. Each action gets mapped to a single button, giving the player real time control in battle. Each action has an ATB cost and as you use these actions the ATB gauge for that schemata will deplete. Once you get low, you need to switch to another schemata in order to continue fighting. As you fight, the other schemata will regain some of their own ATB gauge, meaning that in order to keep a steady flow of actions during combat, players will need to not only cycle through each schemata, but also make sure to equip them so that their ATB gauges replenish at a decent speed so they aren’t caught in a position where they’re unable to use any actions.
As with previous titles, you can stagger fiends in battle, which will temporarily weaken them to attacks, allowing you to dish out more damage. Previously, this has been an easy to read bar. In LightningReturns however, that easy to see and read bar has been replaced by something more reminiscent of EKG lines behind the health bar that fluctuate and change color the closer the enemy gets to being staggered. These lines difficult to see and that in turn, can make stagger progress difficult to track. The interface elements for stagger in previous titles was much simpler and is a step backwards in a battle system that is largely enjoyable.
One important mechanic in the new battle system is guarding. A properly timed guard with your shield can be crucial to avoiding some serious damage. There are various types of guarding abilities such as steelguard and mediguard that work like they did in previous titles. However in some cases, guarding becomes a bit of a pain due to the time between when an enemy queues up an ability (which is announced via a red box that displays with the name of the attack) and the time of its execution and by the battlefield simply becoming too busy with effects and making it hard to even see the monster you’re fighting, let alone block their normal attacks. The camera is also another issue. By default the camera is not zoomed out in battle and it adds an extra step for when you initiate combat. A combination of spell effects and an odd camera work can sometimes work against the player.
Overall, the battle system is one of the best things Lightning Returns has going for it.
There are no level ups or experience points in Lightning Returns. Instead, Lightning will receive bonuses to her HP, Strength and other stats by doing quests either from NPCs located around the world, or by completing tasks on the Canvas of Prayers which are essentially item turn in quests. What’s great about these quests is that you can choose to accept them and go out and collect the required items, or you can just happen to gather them in the field and then turn them in later without having to have accepted it beforehand. This makes completing these quests a breeze as the required items are most often normal drops from enemies you encounter in the field and really compliments the open world setting. The downside of these quests however, is that they all feel like a stereotypical MMO fetch quest.
Quests from NPCs are a little more involved and have you talking to some characters, running around to different areas, or acquiring more hard to find items. These quests are move involved and feature characters that while aren’t terribly memorable, aren’t horrible either.
In Lightning Returns, players can climb ladders, jump over obstacles and even slide down poles. It’s great to have these types of options for exploration, however these actions feels anything but fluid in a world where open world games like Assassin’s Creed exists. One dungeon in particular requires jumping from platform to platform in several areas in order to progress and it can quickly became frustrating because you might miss jumps and have to circle back around and fight enemies in order to attempt the jump again. The ladders work as you might expect and the poles… well, they’re there for you to jump into from a ledge and slide down to look cool- they serve zero purpose and often Lightningdoesn’t grab onto them as well as you would hope. Jumping in Final Fantasy titles isn’t something that Square Enix has a lot of experience with and this game definitely shows that.
After all of the criticisms of Final Fantasy XIII being too linear, Square Enix has definitely succeeded in turning things around. Lightning Returns is an open world game and with the day and night cycles brought about by the time mechanic, it definitely feels alive. The art direction and tone that the soundtrack sets in the world and its areas is to be commended. Sadly, the Crystal Tools engine doesn’t handle some of these open areas well and a noticeable frame rate drop can happen while exploring the open areas such as the Wildlands. Additionally, while exploring the different areas of the game, the textures seen in the world and its inhabitants can be astonishingly inconsistent. Where you might see a lovely shot of scenery in one area, you might also then run into a dog who just looks appalling due to its complete lack of polish.
Another problem plaguing Lightning Returns is how the system creates random people to walk around towns.When talking to an NPC and completing a quest, a a character might show up in the background that looks exactly like the person you’re talking to. The way the game fills the various towns and cities with NPCs certainly makes the world feel more alive however, it also creates issues as the pathing on these NPCs often has them running into walls or each other. On several occasions these randomly generated characters will intrude into dialogue cutscenes with NPCs and at multiple points have actually run into characters in the conversation and pushed them out of frame. If that wasn’t enough, the camera work for the quest dialogue with these characters is poor as well. Where you might go to talk to someone in the hopes of acquiring a medicine for someone in need, the camera presents this person from an angle that makes it looks like you’re talking to a lamp post than a person. In some cases, NPCs will be wearing some of the very things that Lightning can use as a decoration in a Schemata and its glaringly obvious that these items were designed to be thrown onto any characters body. Over sized hats or out of place glasses look very unnatural both on these characters and on Lightning and are distracting when talking with them during quests.
After all is said and done, players can choose to start up a New Game + which will allow players to carry over most of their items, weapons etc. When starting up a NG+ game, you’ll receive the ability to upgrade weapons and shields. However, its annoying that this feature is only available in New Game + and because of that it’s something that some players may never even see. It already feels like the game doesn’t have enough content to fill all thirteen days and hiding features like this behind new game + just feels… wrong.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII starts out as a game full of promise, however things go down hill the further you get into it. The combat system is solid and the Schemata customization is easy to get lost in. The art direction and soundtrack are beautiful in and of themselves, however the areas of the world suffer from the limitations of the game’s engine and lack of consistency in quality control.
The story of Final Fantasy XIII and its characters is concluded in Lightning Returns, but both the ending, and the road to it don’t form a cohesiveness that you would expect from a Final Fantasy title.
~ Final Score: 6/10 ~
Review copy provided by Square Enix for PS3. Screenshots provided by Square Enix.