Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Review

Lee Abrahams

The short version of this Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII review is this: If you haven’t played FFXIII or FFXIII-2 then don’t bother with this. Frankly the storyline is likely to be a perplexing quagmire even for those who are au fait with the series, so newcomers would be best to steer clear. With that in mind you can also expect brief spoilers here for the aforementioned games. It’s kind of unavoidable, such is the nature of the beast. With all that being said we can now welcome back Lightning to her third appearance, which is a surprise in and of itself considering the very nature of the Final Fantasy series, but it’s debatable as to whether her return is entirely merited.

As heroines go Lighting is, without a doubt, pretty badass. Able to fell the mightiest warriors with ease and generally pull off the kind of acrobatic finishing moves that would make a ninja pack it all in and find a new job. What Lightning doesn’t exactly ooze though is charisma. In fact it’s pretty safe to say that she is without a doubt one of the dullest Final Fantasy characters ever to grace our screens. She could probably out-gloom Squall Lionheart – it really is that dire. So the fact that we are seeing her for the third time at all is a bit of a puzzle. It’s almost as if Square Enix has heard the criticisms leveled at XIII and XIII-2 and decided persistence is the way forward with this particular world until WE ALL LOVE IT, DAMMIT!

Unfortunately, third time is certainly not the charm, and Lightning Returns gets almost as much wrong as it does right. With novel quirks and genuine series steps forward at odds with often baffling design choices. Certainly this is a game that takes time, which is something that becomes a very important factor. The game begins to grow on you, though the problem is whether series diehards are ready to put in the investment necessary to make this a shower rather than a grower.

What is often the strongest link in any Final Fantasy game is undoubtedly the story. Only not here. After the linearity of the first installment, and the timehopping (and bloody awful ending) of the second, it seems like the developer has left itself with just too much mess to sort out and far too few interesting characters to do it with. Over 500 years have passed since Serah and Noel were successful (kind of) in their quest to stop Caius and the results of their actions have seen Chaos flood into their world. As a result time has gone mental and everyone has stopped ageing, then with the world approaching its end of days Lightning is awoken from her crystalline slumber by God to save everyone’s souls in readiness for the creation of a shiny new one. Got that? Doubt it.

Taking on overwhelming odds is routine.

The storyline makes so little sense that it barely feels worth following and, what hurts the most is that Lightning and company never have the emotional chops to really pull it off. Our dour heroine approaches every situation and character with the same deadpan resolve, so much so that she just doesn’t seem to give a damn and, as a result, neither does the player. The only time she seems on the verge of actually expressing herself is when her seemingly absent sister is mentioned, and she barely bats an eye when crossing paths with old friends and comrades. Old acquaintances pop up but none of them seem to have developed much in the way of character growth in over 500 years. It’s as if they literally sat in one spot in a slight daze until Lightning came along. They all have exactly the same hang ups and issues that they had 500 years before, with nothing new to say.

It’s a real shame, as you would have thought with so much time to play with, the characters could have been given new goals, new ideas and a new outlook. Instead it’s just the same old, same old and they even de-aged Hope for some godforsaken reason and have him serve as some kind of Batman-style Oracle. Frankly if they just wanted to continue with the hackneyed stories set up in the first installment, then why bother with the 500 year gap at all. A direct continuation without all of the hassle would have made more sense.

The plot twists and turns, with a final act that tries to wrap things up but never quite seems to manage it. Plus, whoever thought having one of the main antagonists as an annoying Serah-esque character that has gone into a Miley Cyrus style personality and fashion change must have been having a rough day. By the time the credits roll, you're left wishing the plot had just been left as it stood at the end of FFXIII before they tried to be too clever by half and failed spectacularly.

However, all is not lost as Lightning Returns does actually have a few interesting ideas that make it more than just a drab jaunt through an uninteresting story. To start with there is the much-vaunted time mechanic, which sees you given a mere six days to save the world, meaning as you wander the streets solving quests there is the ever-present passage of time. The way this works is well implemented and perfectly in tandem with the world you are let loose in. After a brief tutorial the shackles come off and you can travel around the world taking on quests as you see fit, with the five main storylines able to be hopped in and out of at will. Certain areas and quests are only available at certain junctures, while certain creatures and characters will only appear during set hours as well. It makes the whole affair a touch more tactical in nature.

This guy requires a gentle touch.

The open-world approach is a welcome one, and being able to hop between varied locales and dip in and out of quests means there is always something to occupy your time. Once 6am hits though you'll be whisked back to Hope and move one step closer to success or failure. Thankfully the completion of quests can add more days to your tally and you are soon able to stop the passage of time entirely or teleport to distant locations via your EP abilities, which can be replenished by defeating enemies. This means you can manage your time effectively and be where you need to be on schedule.

The only drawback with the system is that, main quests aside, the game gives you no map-based indication of any other quest giver's location. So unless you're prepared to scour every single location repeatedly, often at different times of the day, them you are likely to miss out on a bunch of quests entirely. If you get close to someone with a random task them you will spot stars over their head, but would it really have been too much to ask to have them highlighted on the mini-map? It makes finding quests more frustrating than actually completing them, which is madness. The only quests that are easily found are the dull Canvas of Prayers offerings that are pinned to noticeboards and require you to either find a unique item or beat up certain monsters, all in return for some paltry rewards. It means the time mechanic can often feel like it is breathing down your neck, and if you can’t find any quests that you are wasting valuable time with no clue of where best to spend it.

Another success story comes in the form of combat... well mostly. As just having Lightning (and the occasional quest) never feels like a step backward. Instead you can equip her with a varied number of schemata, which consist of outfits, abilities and accessories that all have their own active time gauge. So when you tap out the skills of one set, you switch to the next and continue the fray while the others recharge. You can also use EP in combat to deal additional damage or heal yourself, and the mix of abilities and outfits allows you to chain together canny strings of abilities and attacks. It’s a fluid combat system and one that seems to click together in a far superior way than the dumbed down mechanics of its predecessors. Another neat mechanic is the ability to basically make creatures extinct. By killing a buttload of an enemy type you will come up against the Last One of its kind, a souped up uberversion of the regular foe.

Everyone’s favourite mode of transportation.

Despite being accomplished, the combat is somehow rendered pretty much pointless. You see for some reason the designers saw fit to only have combat reward you with money and a slight EP recharge, as well as the occasional new ability and useless junk items that can be used for Canvas quests. The only way you actually level up your stats is by completing quests themselves, most of which require the bare minimum of combat. So with enemies appearing on the map, and for the most part being easily avoidable, you'll likely find yourself skipping combat entirely for the most part as it merely serves to slow you down. It seems like such a major misstep that the developer would go through the trouble of building a combat system that's the best in the series and then blow it in such a spectacular fashion, but there we are. It also doesn’t help that certain crafting abilities are basically blocked until a second playthrough, which is a pointless approach to a potentially handy mechanic.

Still for all the niggles the game certainly has plenty to see and do, with a plethora of quests in each of the four sizable locations and the New Game Plus giving you the chance to carry over your stats to another playthrough. It’s worth pointing out that the game can feel brutally hard even on Normal to begin with, as your EP doesn’t go as far and enemies hit far harder, though at least this is tempered by the fact that your foes will drop better gear and abilities on the higher difficulties, so ultimately the choice is yours. Though if you truly want to see and do everything, especially in terms of achievements which are fairly easy going, it might be worth opting for the Easy difficulty so you can truly see the sights.

On the whole, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII brings a few good ideas to the series but feels like one step too far, especially for the returning characters. The plot is probably the weakest of the three and it’s such a crucial part of any RPG that it really is hard to get past how weak it is. Even with the gorgeous cut-scenes and wonderful score, Lightning Returns just feels like a slog. On the plus side you have a lush open world to explore, clever time-based tasks to bounce between and a combat system that works superbly – if it only hadn’t been spectacularly undermined by the ludicrous leveling system. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a game that promised a lot but has failed to deliver, if only you could pause time to actually play it, then maybe it wouldn’t feel like such a missed opportunity.

A lovely score as you would expect, but some of the voice work feels dull and uninspired, though that may be down to the characters themselves.

Wonderful cut-scenes and Lightning herself looks amazing, but some of the secondary characters and environments have been given short shrift and look undercooked. It doesn’t help when people look like they have had moustaches and glasses literally stuck onto their face for comedy effect.

Solid combat mechanics mixed with a dumbfounding leveling system that encourages you to avoid combat, plus a nice open world with quests that are hidden away. Not to mention the pressure of a ticking clock that makes the world feel alive but also has you worried about every step. A real mixed bag of good ideas and poor execution.

Any RPG stands or falls on its storyline and this is the weakest Final Fantasy in a long time. Square Enix had a lot of loose ends to tie up and an interesting premise of people locked in time for 500 years, but it never goes anywhere and characters are left with no real growth or motivation.

An average list, and fairly easy too for an RPG, that will have you sampling a little bit of everything without ever getting too frustrated.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a disappointing conclusion to what should have been a barnstorming final chapter in the Final Fantasy XIII saga. Strong combat that's severely undermined, a feeble narrative and a veritable litany of hit and miss moments all conspire to make Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII an agonising missed opportunity.

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