The world of Final Fantasy XIII was actually kind of interesting. It had interesting characters, strange techno gods, a cool creation mythos and an understandable power system. Sadly its sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2 had little to do with that world and the latest release, Lighting Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, has even less. It’s just a completely new RPG covered with a coat of Final Fantasy XIII paint, and without the powerful nostalgia that comes with that branding, Lightning Returns barely holds up.
It’s the end of the world and Lightning is the savior now, an agent chosen by god after she accidentally sent her sister to her death to protect a time goddess… or something… in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Chaos is leaking into the world like crazy and instead of trying to fix things by calling a Chaos plumber, God just says, “Screw it!” and decides to make a totally new world. It’s Lightning’s job to round up as many souls as possible in order to have them live in the new world. This does mean basically killing everyone around her but I’m sure it’s okay because, you know, God said to do it. She has had her emotions surgically removed by God in order to make her a good servant, and here I thought it was just the voice actors phoning it in. She takes orders from Hope who is now in command of god’s floating airship, and who has been transformed by God into a young boy again after growing into a man in Final Fantasy XIII-2… yeeeeep.
If this sounds like sloppy retconning, you might be right. The whole game bombards you with melodrama from square one and expects you to instantly care about the characters because you remember them from Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2. This game has nothing to do with Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2. There’s no mention of the fal’Cie or of Cocoon or, heck, even of Etro and Caius and all that time travel crap. The most we get are passing references, datalogs and an incredibly messy attempt to tie everything together in the ending. Think about it. It’s totally unrelated to Final Fantasy XIII-2, a game that in itself was unrelated to the first game it was based on. That’s two degrees of separation. Why couldn’t Square-Enix just make a new game? This would be a perfect Final Fantasy XVI, or maybe call it Final Fantasy Mystic Quest 2 or something, I don’t know. There’s no reason for these Final Fantasy XIII characters to be here.
Once you look past Lightning Returns’ thrown-together fan-fiction-esque plot, you get the joy of dealing with its flawed combat. In Final Fantasy XIII-2 Sqare-Enix reduced your party from six to nothing more than two characters and a randomly captured monster. In Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, Square-Enix decided to remove the party system all together. You only control Lightning for the entire game and it makes it begin to feel stale very quickly.
Battle is once again based on the active time system, but now there is a twist. Lightning has three active time bars, each corresponding to a “schemata.” Schemata are kind of like the roles found in previous Final Fantasy XIII games. They determine your stats and abilities, and you can switch to them at any point. Abilities are like items, and you can find them lying around the world, as the result of battles, or given to you as quest rewards. Unfortunately, you can only equip 4 abilities, one for each face button. You’ll probably want to assign one of these abilities to a guard ability so that you don’t die from more powerful enemy attacks, and another of your abilities is usually predetermined by your “garb,” which is basically the costume that determines your base stats. Factor those in, and you really only get to choose two abilities for each schemata. Oh, and yes, you heard me right. Lightning’s stats are based on whatever costume she is wearing. Lightning Returns essentially brought back dress spheres, the oft made-fun-of dress-up job system of Final Fantasy X-2.
You can move around freely in battle, but doing so is pointless. You move at a snail’s pace and enemies can basically hit you from anywhere on screen. Like I said, you’ll want to include a guard ability to reduce damage when enemies attack, because it’s the only thing you can do to avoid damage. Lightning has an EP meter, which allows her to do things like slow time, heal herself and so on, but these aren’t really spells. You only get EP for defeating enemies and even then you only get a fraction of an EP each battle, so they are more like last ditch gambits.
Aside from that, the only strategy in the game is trying to guess enemy weaknesses. Once you figure it out you just switch to the schemata that has the required ability, hold the appropriate button down until the ATB gauge is drained, then switch to your next schemata and do the same. Even though you are actually deciding what abilities to use, battles aren’t any more compelling than the auto battles of Final Fantasy XIII 1 and 2. The only difference is this time you are pressing more buttons.
Now here’s something that literally made me throw my controller at the screen in anger. Square-Enix took out the leveling system all together. You no longer earn XP for defeating enemies. Instead your base stats only go up when you complete a quest. You don’t get to see a quest’s stat reward until you beat it, so you can’t focus on quests that build Lighting up in a specific way. Completing a main quests makes your stats jump up a decent amount, but there are only six of them. Most side-quests, especially monster hunting side-quests, only increase your stats by one or two points. This means you have to complete a ton of side-quests just to keep your stats up.There is no joy in watching Lightning get more powerful. It’s just a chore that you have to complete in order to stand a chance at seeing the game through until the end.
The whole game is set in a huge open world and tied to a Dead Rising-style clock counting down to the end of days. To beat the game, you need to extend the clock that counts down to the end of the world from six days to thirteen. How do you do that? According to God, it’s by completing more sidequests. However, the clock keeps ticking and you only have a limited time to complete the quests you want to complete. Spend too much time doing some quests and you’ll fail other ones. If you fail quests, you fall behind in stats, which makes other quests harder to complete, which makes them take longer, which makes you waste more time on the clock, which makes more quests fail, which makes you fall behind in stats more, and the cycle of futility repeats itself until the end of time.
No, literally, it repeats itself until the actual end of time. If the clock runs out the world ends and you lose the game. If that happens, you have no other option than to start the game over from the beginning. On the bright side you get to play a new game plus which carries over all your items and abilities, but on the down side you now have to do all the quests you did before all over again.
Most sidequests, and main quests for that matter, will only trigger at very specific times on the game clock. You’ll repeatedly be asked to wait six in-game hours or even come back the next in-game day to complete some quests. This means you spend a lot of time waiting around doing nothing. It’s obvious that Square-Enix wants you to juggle multiple side-quests at once, but since so many side-quests are available at such very specific times of the day, it’s easy to miss your window of opportunity when you are trying to complete ten.
So you can’t focus on any single quest because doing so will take too long, and you can’t juggle multiple quests because it makes them too likely to fail. Instead, you just sort of wander around aimlessly hoping that you do the right things to complete quests by accident. Strangely enough, it works. It will eventually get you through the game but it’s not very fun to do.
Eventually you’ll just get bored enough to try and shotgun your way through the six main quests just to see what you have been missing. This is when you realize that these quests are all you really need to do to get to the final day. God says you need to complete tons of sidequests to extend the life of the world and he lies to you.
These six main quests are the only plot Lightning Returns has to offer, and they only account for a few hours of gameplay. The game is actually filled with more side-quest than plot. It almost feels like a bizarre parody of an American made open-world RPG like Skyrim gone wrong. Is this what Square-Enix thinks ARPGs are actually like?
There are a couple good things to say about Lightning Returns. It does do interesting things with social media. The game can automatically post your progress to Facebook or Twitter, and you can actually send screenshots to other players with items attached. This allows you to purchase powerful end-game items far earlier than you would normally obtain them, which helps ease the pains of an otherwise tedious and punishing difficulty curve.
Lightning can get retro costumes as well, such as her original Final Fantasy XIII outfit, or Cloud’s soldier outfit. Wearing these outfits changes the battle music and victory fanfare, and yes you will hear the classic Final Fantasy fanfare if you win a battle with Cloud’s outfit on. These outfits have powerful stats and are available early in the game as DLC, or as rewards for having complete Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 saves on your system, so they also help to mitigate the difficulty some. Speaking of nostalgia, some areas of the game also play classic Final Fantasy themes, like the theme of the empire playing in Yusnaan. It certainly makes you pine for the classic Final Fantasies of the past.
If I sound frustrated with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, it’s because I am. The game has a lot of potential, but fails to realize any of it. The idea of a quest driven real time open world RPG isn’t bad, but the way it’s implemented feels like busy work. The majority of the game is just hoping that you stumble into quests and then hoping you stumble into the items you need to complete them. There’s no aim or purpose here. It doesn’t feel like you are on a journey to save the souls at the end of the world, it feels like you are a minimum wage gopher out getting everyone’s coffee and groceries. It’s hard to care about anything because the main plot quests are such a small fraction of the actual game and the rest is just busy work. I know that there is an epic battle to save creation going on somewhere, but I’m just too busy collecting monster fangs and rescuing lost cats to enjoy it.
This review was based on a publisher supplied copy of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII for the PlayStation 3.