You know, it’s kind of funny that the ill-received Final Fantasy XIII would end up being the best game of its own bizarre sub-series.
And with that incredibly leading statement out of the way, allow me to clarify- Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, while still not a great game, is by no means a terrible one. In fact, it’s a solid- if slightly inconsistent- open-world RPG with a fun character progression system and deep, engrossing combat mechanics. Unfortunately for Lightning Returns, it is also meant to serve as the concluding chapter to what has been dubbed the ‘Lightning Saga’, consisting of the original FFXIII and its bizarre sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2. The gameplay and setting of Lightning Returns are far removed from either of the earlier games, and like XIII-2 would have been better served as a stand-alone title with a completely new cast of characters.
The eponymous heroine of Final Fantasy XIII, Lightning, has ‘returned’ as a Moses-like figure tasked with saving human souls from an impending apocalypse. By guiding these souls from the dying world and into the next, the god Bhunivelze will resurrect her sister Serah. As the conclusion to a trilogy, Lightning Returns falls flat on its face- there are a number of returning characters who subsequently ignore their previously established arcs and behave like totally different people for the thinnest of justifications, further underlining the idea that this plot could have been better served as a stand-alone project. As an expansion of XIII’s surprisingly well-thought out lore and setting, Lightning Returns also fails because the world of Nova Crystalia may as well have nothing to do with Cocoon or Pulse from the previous games. Rather than feeling like I was reunited with a beloved cast, I felt like I was watching a terrible fan-made film, and the self-seriousness and melodrama of the dialogue and narrative don’t help matters much.
So Lightning Returns is a poor narrative experience, but as a game? To paraphrase my earlier impressions, “is a’ight.” The game eschews the Crystarium level-up grid and Command Synergy Battle System (Paradigm Shifting) from XIII and XIII-2 in favor of a brand-new set of mechanics that seem to draw inspiration from both Final Fantasy XIII and an earlier infamous Final Fantasy sequel, X-2. Lightning’s primary method of character progression lies in the Schemata system, which is essentially a more-customizable version of X-2’s Dresspheres that function similar to Paradigms in combat. Lightning can essentially switch between three classes in battle, indicated by equipped Schemata, each with their own equipped gear and combat abilities. The combat is easily the highlight of Lightning Returns, and it’s these mechanics that keep the experience from sinking completely.
The real problem with the game’s design lies with its structure and overall pacing. The four zones in Lightning Returns are quite large and open and emphasize optional quests, in stark contrast to the heavily story-focused XIII. Time flows continuously in Lightning Returns, with an in-game timer reminiscent of Majora’s Mask that represents how much time the world has left until doomsday. Theoretically, this puts pressure on the player to avoid a potential failure state, balancing whether to focus their efforts on the main story missions or to pursue a sidequest (which are the only way to gain permanent stat bonuses and rewards- Lightning doesn’t level up or gain experience from combat). In practice, however, this isn’t the case. Since the player doesn’t level up from combat, there is rarely any incentive to engage in combat unless one is hunting for materials or gil. I’d imagine that this is why the developers introduced Eradia, a semi-renewable resource that is replenished by winning battles. Eradia can be spent on a number of functions, but the most useful is Chronostasis, which only costs a single Eradia Point and stops the clock for a few minutes. Since several enemies give multiple EP upon defeat, it’s all too easy to abuse Chronostasis in order to buy extra time for oneself, completely defeating the purpose of the doomsday clock. When I finished all of the main story quests, I still had six days left until the final boss, not counting the additional day and optional dungeon that opens up if a certain number of quests are completed. It just feels like this aspect of the game wasn’t playtested or planned out before its implementation, and the main quest loses any sense of urgency as a result, even on the default difficulty which imposes some additional restrictions on the player (health doesn’t regenerate and escaping from battles costs an hour of time).
Presentation-wise, Lightning Returns is serviceable, although a noticeable step down from the original game, which was visually stunning. The Crystal Tools engine has shown it’s numerous flaws in the past, and the number of nagging technical problems present in Lightning Returns, while they don’t egregiously hamper the experience, are too numerous to be ignored. Character models have taken a noticeable hit, even compared to the visually stunted XIII-2, there are some ugly textures, and slowdown present in busy areas. It doesn’t help that the art direction is relatively drab this time around, which is disappointing considering how vibrant XIII was. The music consists of a mix of returning tracks from XIII and XIII-2 and original music, and the score is probably the best part of the presentation, although none of the new tracks stood out to me in particular. Considering that technically impressive games have become a mark of pride for Square Enix, the poor presentation of Lightning Returns may be an even worse offense than its soporific narrative.
I don’t think I’m the only one breathing a sigh of relief now that the Lightning Saga has reached its apparent conclusion and Final Fantasy as a series can move on at last. While it is certainly playable and occasionally enjoyable, Lightning Returns is the worst of a series that followed a downward trajectory, a conclusion to a sequel that nobody wanted or asked for. I enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII for what it was, but I have no desire to revisit either of these so-called sequels.