written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
Final Fantasy, an iconic series that played a major part in my entire life as a gamer, each new entry iterates on the last and has been responsible for countless memorable moments and unforgettable characters. I love this series and even despite my claim that Square-Enix is like an abusive lover, I continue to be hopeful for future games. Final Fantasy XIII was one of my most anticipated games, I waited for it... consumed every morsel of media about the game. I was excited to experience another well crafted story and fall in love with another cast of characters. I seem to be getting a bit long winded so let me cut to the chase... I was by large disappointed by Final Fantasy XIII. I enjoyed the new battle system and had such a crush on Vanille until I heard her annoying English localization voice (I'm tougher than ya thought!), but the far too linear nature of the gameplay and story made for such a color by numbers experience, I felt like my expectations were unfulfilled. Literally every single section of the game involved walking down a long hallway. The story was convoluted and when the gameplay finally opened up (and you make it down to Pulse) it's the latter half of the game and everything is almost over. Imagine if Final Fantasy VII took place ENTIRELY in Midgar and the final battle was at Kalm or the Chocobo Ranch. I played Final Fantasy XIII-2 and enjoyed it more than the previous entry, but mostly because I bought it for $10 and I genuinely enjoy the battle system. So, you may be wondering why I even bothered to play Lightning Returns at all, well... I'm a little O.C.D. about stories and I like finishing what I start.
Because of the events that occurred in FFXIII/XIII-2, chaos has run rampant in the world and time has seemingly come to a standstill. No new children can be born and the human race becomes immortal. The immortality is not without caveat, humans are still susceptible to death and illness and the chaos has made the world that much more dangerous. About five decades have passed and the world is starting to come to an end. Here is where Lightning comes in, after being frozen in crystal for almost 500 years, she is awoken by the God Bhunivelze and granted the powers of the savior. She is tasked with saving the souls of those left on Nova Chrysalia (a world created when Valhalla merged with a Gran Pulse after FFXIII-2) in preparation for a new world to be created by Bhunivelze. For Lightning's cooperation, Bhunivelze promised to bring Serah back to life.
The story is regrettably one of the key low points of the entire package, some moments feel incredibly dramatic while others are so comically out of place I wonder why they even bothered with including it (meow meow choco chow... you'll understand if you played it). While I generally like stoic characters, Lightning's monotonous speech pattern ends up as a hinderance to the delivery of the story and the player's ability to connect to the heroine. This works well when she's interacting with other keys characters in the story, but when she's on her own or talking to various other NPCs, her flat deliver leaves much to be desired.
While seeing old faces was great, since I did like the characters of the FFXIII-verse, the story fell so flat too many times to really say I was satisfied. Granted, the high points in the story were indeed very high points, but the lows felt that much more disappointing. With this being the final chapter of the Final Fantasy XIII story, it feels more like a lackluster fizzle than the grandiose climax fans of the series were hoping for.
Lightning's character model looks fantastic, whether right in the thick of battle or conversing in a cut scene, the game's engine does a good job rendering a good looking character. While it's common in games to use far less resources in tertiary characters and NPCs, I can't help but feel like the attention to detail in Lightning make the rest of the world look kind of ugly. Looking back at Final Fantasy XIII and even the sequel, the textures in the background and even on tertiary NPCs was far more polished than 90% of the world of Lightning Returns.
While not in battle, the main HUD has this super cluttered look to it, a text box that continually scrolls with random musings of NPCs are continually dictated, in case you miss super unimportant dialog and feel like wasting what little time you have. The look is very reminiscent of MMORPGs but feels slightly out if place in a single player experience. All battles occur in a separate area (much like in previous installments) and I can at least say that in battle, texture maps are greatly improved, but when comparing it to combat sequences in previous installments… the graphics in Lightning Return's battle sequences do end up looking worse. While I know graphics aren't everything, but the world of Final Fantasy XIII was so pretty, it feels like a lazy step backward when environments in a sequel released four years after the first installment look worse in comparison.
Lightning can equip various garments throughout the game that boost her attributes, These garments look outright awesome or weirdly revealing. While I can appreciate a knockout in a skimpy outfit, many of the less conservative outfits look very uncharacteristic for Lightning. This isn’t a major minus for my score and it did break up the monotony seeing her in different garb. Personally dressing her up like heroes past, for example Cloud’s Soldier 1st class outfit from Final Fantasy VII or Yuna’s gunner outfit from Final Fantasy X-2 are downloadable, was the most fun for me.
While I'm glad that some music from Final Fantasy XIII has returned, a lot of the new tracks fail to have a similar feel to it. This creates a bit of a disconnect when playing, even while running around the world the music tends to drown out much of the chatter in the city. Rather than the music being a part of the background (like background music should be) it ends up being distracting and hard to ignore at times. Good background music compliments the mood of the story, and while during cutscenes their use of music is much better executed... the distracting nature of background music in the over-world tends to detract from the experience. While I know I was super critical of Lightning's delivery, by all means this isn't a badly cast game. With returning favorites like Troy Baker as Snow and Reno Wilson as Sazh, the acting is pretty spot on, it's just that the story didn't fit well with some of the actors... but overall, good casting choices.
Here is where my review of Lightning Returns takes a more positive turn, while Final Fantasy XIII-2 retained the combat system of the previous entry, Lightning Returns has a faster paced more action oriented take on the battle system. Like in previous games, enemies are present in the open world and can be engaged or outright avoided. You can strike the enemy and gain a slight advantage in battle, or if Lightning is attacked the enemy gains an advantage. If you strike an unaware enemy you gain a large advantage, so of course sneaking up on baddies is the preferred way to battle random enemies.
Instead of switching between attack styles, Lightning can equip customizable garments called schemata, each schema has attributes and some come with abilities preloaded. Each schema is unique and understanding which abilities to use will be the key to your success. For example, if you don a schema that improves physical attacks, you wouldn’t want to load it with mostly magic based abilities… vice versa for magic based schema. At the start of the game you can equip up to three to switch between in battle. This solves the biggest worry I had with the game, what battles would be like with no other party members.
The Chrystarium is gone and, instead Lightning’s core stats are leveled with every mission she completes/soul she saves. Speaking of saving souls, as I stated earlier in the review, Lightning’s core mission is to save souls to be reborn in the new world Bhunizelve promises. While as a gamer it’s admirable to want want to save every soul, but the ticking clock gives the gamer a real world example that sometimes you can’t save everyone. If you spend too much time hunting down every little sidequest, you can miss your prime directive entirely and fail your mission. While some may like the ticking clock (I’m talking to you Majora’s Mask fans) I found it to be pretty stressful, if a day ends and I feel like I didn’t accomplish enough I feel like I wasted a whole day and the chips were stacking against me.
I didn’t hate the game but it left much to be desired. I was hoping for a truly epic end to the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy but was rather given what felt like a side story. I’m truly middle of the road here when it comes to Lightning Returns. The battle system was one of the best I’ve played in any Final Fantasy installment but the sloppy texture maps and convoluted story left me wanting a real end.
“This is how the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper” -from The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot
+ Fun battle system
+ Great voice-acting
- Inconsistent graphics
- Lackluster story
- Restrictive time limit