Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Review

By Spencer Pressly on February 11, 2014

Whether you have loved it or hated it so far, Lightning has returned to finish up the Final Fantasy XIII saga, but despite the reaction this micro-franchise has received so far, Square Enix is far from playing it safe with the third installment. That being said, Lightning Returns promises to be even more decisive than either of the two previous games, but for very different reasons. This is due to the introduction of quite a few changes as they look to try and drive the franchise on, some of which will be more jarring than others.

You will notice one of these changes almost instantly; you now only control one single character through the entire experience. Yes, Lightning Returns still has all the characters you know from Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, but you only play as Lightning this time around. And as Lightning, it is your job save as many souls left in the world of Nova Chrysalia before the end of the world. It is also up to you to decide how you spend your final thirteen days before the end of the world.

In Lightning Returns, it's safe to say that the overall story is by far the simplest out of the three to understand. And this is evident right at the beginning "“ you are given a clear objective. We find out that after the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2, Lightning has been in an eternal sleep for the past 500 years. It's at this point that she is awoken by Bhunivelze to find that the world has been engulfed by a mysterious chaos. The chaos has devoured so much of the world that Bhunivelze is going to have to create a new world and as a result, Lightning is enlisted to become the saviour. While god can make a brand new world to start over, Lightning is required to save as many souls as possible, so that they can be carried over to the new world. So as the saviour Lightning must use the very limited time she has to save as many souls before the world is destroyed.

Having you as the saviour is far from a new concept, but in this instance, it's important to note that it's not Lightning's job to save the world. She is simply there to save as many people as possible "“ it creates an interesting angle. It should also be highlighted that Lightning is only helping Bhunivelze as it's believed that by doing this task, Serah will be brought back from the dead.

Despite sole control being positioned around Lightning, you are not totally alone in this journey. Hope has become a servant of the god Bhunivelze, but now looks like a child and doesn't remember much after the events of XIII-2 when the chaos invaded. Hope acts as your eye in the sky, helping you understand the state of the world as well as guide you along in your many quests.

On that note, quests are a fundamental part of the story. The world will be reborn after 13 days, but when you start, you don't have that many days to play around with as the chaos is spreading too quickly. You are then tasked with delaying the end of the world by offering up the Eradia you earn by saving souls. Everything starts up feeling quite restrictive in this respect, but after the first main quest the game opens itself up to you completely and this means you can go to any of the four major areas in the game to explore at your own pace. This takes away previous restrictions, as you won't feel forced down a very linear story.On your journey to the end of the world you will run into many surprising faces and even though 500 years has past, the game does explain why no one has aged. It also explains why people might not be as you remembered them and seeing how the main cast of the past two games have changed or been affected by the end of the world creates for an interesting dynamic.

While there are quite a few major changes in Lightning Returns, the gameplay perhaps represents the biggest change, as it's quite different from for any of the previous mainline Final Fantasy games. Lightning Returns has its own battle system that borrows elements from the Paradigm systems in the last two games, but ultimately ends up creating a very different experience. You can now fully control Lightning's movements in battle and swap between three different outfits at any given time. Outfits (garbs) not only change the way Lightning dresses, they also directly affect her attacks, along with providing many different effects based on the type of outfit. This battle system ends up feeling like a way to create your own job given the amount of customization the game gives you, however, it will initially take some getting used to, as it requires so much more interaction than any previous system.

With any garb, certain elements are often locked, such as the style of the garb itself and maybe one or two moves that are mandatory. Besides that, you can pick your swords, shields, accessories, the color of your outfit, and even silly little extras that you can put on Lightning. The amount of customization is really nice for people who like adding their own personal touches to characters in video games and it diminishes the chance of two players having the same setups.

In terms of how this translates into a battle, each garb lets you assign an action to one of the four face buttons. It means you are able to tie any of your skills to these buttons, so it's up to you to determine the purpose of a garb. For example, you could choose to have a garb that's specifically geared towards melee attacks, or one that's designed to prevent damage. It's important to note though, that each action takes up a certain amount of your ATB meter when performed and the trick this time is to manage the different ATB meters all at the same time. In short, when you have a garb active, its ATB recharges quite slowly, but the non-active ones regenerate at a quicker rate. If you blast all your abilities straight away, on every garb, you will leave yourself unable to perform actions, and due to the interactive nature of this system, you will also be left completely defenseless. Yes, you are tasked with defending yourself this time, to the point that proper timing can negate all incoming damage.

As mentioned, this new battle system is much more interactive than any of the other mainline Final Fantasy games, and it will definitely take some time to master your first playthrough. Unlike previous experiences, Lightning Returns expects quite a lot of micromanagement on the part of the player. You will have to regularly monitor your ATB levels so you have enough left to perform actions/blocks, know the configurations of all your garbs inside and out so you don't perform the wrong actions and carefully analyse the attack patterns of enemies so you can time your blocks. It's safe to say that this just won't appeal to some people, as it's a far-cry from the fairly laid-back systems featured in the older games.

Now, Lightning Returns isn't just all battles with fearsome enemies, it actually has you exploring the four brand new areas. Each area has its own feel to it and these towns are much larger than anything in the previous XIII games. You can travel to the bustling cities of Luxerion and Yusnaan, but you can also experience the more open plan Wildlands and Dead Dunes. Every area is vastly different from the last, as one moment you can be in the middle of a fireworks show in Yusnaan and the next you will be sliding down the hot sands of the Dead. Having large open areas is one thing, but making them feel truly alive is another and Lightning Returns achieves this to some degree, lots of different people to populate the different locations.Although some players might find the massive size of these areas a bit confusing at first, and the ticking clock doesn't really help promote exploration, you will get to know every area better over time. The questing system doesn't help here though, especially considering how important it is to the story. While you always know what your main task is, it may not always be obvious how you go about completing your goal.

This is perhaps most evident with one of the first quests, where you need to try and find numbers on walls throughout Luxerion. It's clear that this quest was designed to try and help gamers become more familiar with the town, but let's just break down the scenario. You are aware that you have a limited amount of time in the game, so you will want to try and find them as quickly as possible. Aside from asking random people, you're given no real guidance about where they are and you have Hope constantly reminding you that you haven't found them yet, and that you only have a limited amount of time to do so. It creates a pretty stressful situation, and it's made even worse by the fact that the last one can only be found during a certain time of the day "“ yet Hope will still bug you about finding it. It's only after prolonged exposure to the game that you realise the whole time mechanic isn't that much of a big deal.

With side quests, which are crucial for getting Eradia, this system is even worse. Some are straight forward, but others given you almost no help. For example, you are asked to find a doll in a certain location. First off, it's not that near to this location and it only appears during a specific time frame. It means you could be running around the entire city trying to find this doll, but unless you go at the right time, it's impossible. It would have been better if specific way-points could have been assigned, or more clues offered.

Oh and did we mention that completing quests is the only way to level up now? It's a somewhat baffling decision, as it means grinding is no longer possible "“ a staple of the franchise. If you are finding boss fights too difficult, you will now have to rely on your skill and your ability to complete quests in order to progress with the story.

Still, it's not all bad. as mentioned earlier, you can actually complete the main story quests in any order and you can even start them all at the same time, should you so wish. This level of freedom is great and it helps to counterbalance the other frustrations you might encounter. It also means that if something is too difficult, and the main story boss fights really are a ramp up in difficulty compared to other things, you can go off, try something else and come back.

The side quests, despite their poor execution, also help you to grow closer to the people who are affected by the end of the world. You will encounter quite a few sad tales and while none of these characters particularly stand out in their own right, their stories do.

In terms of the overall experience, difficulty is now also an option in Lightning Returns. At the beginning of the game you can choose from easy or normal and they will promote different experiences Easy is basically the same as Final Fantasy XIII, where at the end of every battle you regain all of your health and if you lose in a battle there in no penalty. Normal on the other hand is far from normal for most Final Fantasy XIII players. Now not only do you not regain any health after each battle, but for every battle you escape you end up losing an hour of the world's time. Time is very important in a game all about using your time wisely, so you will want to think carefully about encounters you enter into.There are options available if you want to help conserve time, through the EP system. While random battles don't allow you to level up, they will give you gil, items and EP. EP can then be spent on things like warping around the world map, curing yourself or freezing time. It means that when you're running around somewhere like the Dead Dunes, fighting battles has a genuine purpose.

One last new feature to the world of Lightning Returns is the outerworld services. The outerworld service allows you to link your Facebook and/or Twitter account to the game. This lets you post screenshots that you take yourself during the gameplay or during the story for everyone to see. In each post you share online it will appear as an NPC to other people playing Lightning Returns online and you can even send them an item to buy, which can really help you out in a bind if you are in a tough dungeon or before a boss fight. These random NPCs with posts are all random, so the game won't flood your game with player's post. It is a very similar system to Nintendo's Miiverse support in games.

The presentation of almost every main Final Fantasy game has always been something that would take your breath away, and despite using a similar engine to the previous two games, the graphics in Lightning Returns still hold up well. There just isn't that wow factor that we had back when we first met Lightning. Lightning Returns still is a very good looking game, but the presentation has suffered a bit with the game having a much more open world nature. Now you notice quite a lot of very unimpressive textures of even townsfolk when examined closely and in comparison to the impressive models for the main cast of characters, it is obvious that not everything got the same level of attention. Still, effects in battles do come across as a shining light and although there are some framerate drops, sometimes so much is going on that you can't even see.

In a similar way, the music builds upon the previous two soundtracks and attempts to add its own spin. It means you'll be hearing some familiar pieces, but the original pieces are also in-keeping with the style promoted throughout the franchise. It means everything has a very unique sound, from the haunting town theme of Luxerion or the guitar heavy influence of the Dead Dunes. Battle themes are also just as upbeat and they get you pumped up for a massive battles that are about to happen. It's also pleasing to say that the voice acting is again of the highest calibre. The full ensemble is back, but the performances help to highlight how the characters have been changed through their experiences.

Upon completion, you have the option to tackle Hard mode and partake in a New Game+. There's also an optional dungeon, which unlocks towards the end of the game if you have collected enough Eradia. Here, you will tackle every Omega variant, one after another. To note, Omega enemies are spawned when they are the last of their kind left in the game, so they act as a toughened up version and some of them are really tough. With the number of quests available and the optional dungeon, it might seem like there's a lot of content to get through, but it's quite deceptive. It's a shame there wasn't more to do.

Final Thoughts

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII may well be seen by many as a further departure from the "traditional" Final Fantasy experience, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It promotes a very different style of gameplay, which has plenty of positives, but while many of the risks paid off for Square Enix, it does feel as though the developers took too many. The questing system leaves a lot to be desired in some ways, but it also helps to flesh out the story marvellously. The whole time mechanic also works well in some ways, but not others. It leaves you feeling that Lightning Returns could have ended up being something greater, but that it's still a solid experience despite its flaws. It has something to offer everyone, just be prepared for a game that is not going to take it easy on you in any way, shape or form.

Battle system is very engaging.
Once you warm up to the mechanics, the game works rather well.
The OST has some nice touches.
The questing system leaves a lot to be desired.
Graphics look a little bit dated.
Lacking in end game content.
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