GAME NAME: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
DEVELOPER(S): Square Enix
PUBLISHER(S): Square Enix
PLATFORM(S): PS3, Xbox 360
GENRE(S): Action, RPG, Open World
RELEASE DATE(S): February 14th, 2014
Graphically, it’s a collage of humdrum textures, unnecessarily washed out colours and an array of finer details that amalgamate into a lot of visual turmoil; aesthetically, however, it’s rather more compelling and manages an altogether convincing look on its world. As far as its story is concerned, there is an assortment of narrative subtleties, character extremes and personality quirks worth criticising, but those same, at times less than relatable, characters also manage to maintain relatively persuasive ideologies to which we can relate. Sure, they’re part of a convoluted set of circumstances in a rather perplexing world, but put those storyline foibles aside and what you have is a game that is, at the very least, worth delving into. What I’m trying to say about Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is that it’s a very neither here nor there sort of game.
The rather ambiguous status I’ve attributed to Lightning Returns comes down to the fact that it so desperately wants to please you, but it missteps in many regards. Make no mistake; Lightning Returns is chock-full of interesting ideas and gameplay mechanics very rarely seen, at all. However, it often stumbles on the execution or polish of those aspects. Take the ability to move the camera around during cutscenes, for example. While the player is only allowed to move the camera in a very constricted manner, it’s worth it for the opportunity to discover hidden objects and other related cameos throughout the backgrounds of said scenes. It’s a rather novel idea, which has paid dividends with a couple interesting finds on my part. However, the camera is rather temperamental at times and zooms in too much or focuses on things uninteresting to the player. And it’s that sort of one step forward, two steps back trend that mars the experience of the game.
One of Lightning Returns’ biggest detractors is its gameplay. In this regard, two of its biggest faults are also two of its most prolific selling points, namely: the time mechanic and the game’s combat. The time mechanic – issuing the player a limited number of days to achieve a number of side quests as well as progress along the story – doesn’t always gel very well with what makes a Final Fantasy game enjoyable.
Final Fantasy games, at least in regards to the flagship iterations in the series, are about experiencing the world and its characters. As an open world game, it’s tough to do and fully appreciate when you’re being forcibly pressed forward or forced to miss out on certain aspects to be able to have time for others. It might have worked if executed properly, but it isn’t unfortunately. There will be a number of times when you’ll be forced to abandon a mission you were enjoying because another has grabbed immediate attention and you’re running low on time. Or, more frustratingly – seeing as you score bonus time towards extending the indubitable end of the world by completing missions, some of the better missions, that involve well told stories or enjoyable situations, will be missed because they don’t provide as much benefit as another more mundane or laborious mission. And then you get missions that make very little sense when in context with the current circumstances the world faces. The world is about to end, so why is a chef so worried about making his restaurant popular in and among a food vendor market; a market, I might add, that seems suspiciously at ease. You’d think the end of the world would mean a more anarchic or chaotic time.
The other issue Lightning Returns faces is in regards to its combat mechanics. Don’t get me wrong, it’s something different and can be fun at times. But it’s also lacking in the way of polish and doesn’t flow nearly as well as you’d expect it to. Moreover, while the action orientated approach to Lightning Returns seems somewhat appropriate for the style of game, and the faster paced open world environment, it’s also quite clunky. Experience will inevitably improve your performance during fights, but there will often be times where you’ll die. And that’s because Lightning Returns is actually a deceptively difficult game at times. The game is difficult, if played on Normal Mode, because it’s unforgiving. You only have a limited inventory for recovery items, all of which can be burnt in a single long-winded battle if you make a mistake or two and tank too much damage. You’ll then find yourself facing a number of those same beasts, and this time without any way to recover. Moreover, you might find yourself trapped in a corner, forced to fight. Luckily, dying isn’t an instant game over but it does mean you lose an hour of time within the world, time you’re already hard pressed for.
The other problem with Lightning Returns’ less than forgiving approach is that it often hides potential fiascos, usually meaning multiple deaths, behind what initially seems like a rather innocent set of events. By that I mean, you might be completely competent with a particular set of enemies and so easily breeze through them. But you might also make a simple mistake, like not correctly blocking a specific attack, an event that will have you eat up many of your recovery items and send what was once a controlled excursion into enemy territory into a disaster waiting to happen. Then, throw in a new monster or two, monsters lacking an affinity with the rest of the monsters in the area and so can defend against the tactics you’ve been employing – you’ll only be able to adjust your item build to more effectively handle these new creatures post fight – and things just got a whole lot worse. Worry not, however, it’s not the end of the world… in fact, that’s exactly what it is because your nightmare just got worse, a boss is now in your way. If you take things slowly and think things through before engaging, you’ll have a much easier time; so relax, it’s not as though you’re on a time limit. Oh wait.
The game’s saving grace is a hotchpotch of interesting characters, events and narrative twists. They may lie in and among much less interesting characters or scenarios, but they’re diamonds in the rough worth discovering. I enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, but I agree that their stories had issues at many points. Lightning Returns is a much stronger story in many ways, but it’s also the weakest. Lightning, Lumina and Snow are all great characters within this particular title; they’re much more compelling than they were in XIII-2, for example. But the game also throws half-assed side quests, NPC’s or plot points at you; things you might not have had so much issue with if you weren’t rushed through events you enjoyed into others you might not so much.
Beyond being a sequel, Lightning Returns’ world, as a thing in itself, and without comparison to the rest of the trilogy, is a rather beautiful one. It’s not always so great graphically, but it’s well imagined and portrays its themes quite well. You won’t need to have played the other two, although I suggest you do – Final Fantasy XIII-2 is more important for the story of Lightning Returns than Final Fantasy XIII – but the game will give you much more if you’re invested in the story as a whole. Then again, it’s also a lot of wasted potential and that detracts from the game in so many ways. I sort of like Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, but I can’t really tell you why. I love Snow and Lightning as characters and I sympathise with their plights, even if they are a little, okay very, farfetched. Combat, in spite of its annoying habits, is quite fun and the ability to equip Final Fantasy X-2-esque dresspheres can be rewarding. But the game also makes me a little sad because I rather enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII and Lightning Returns isn’t the sort of sequel I’d have made given the chance.