It’s been a long journey since Final Fantasy XIII began. All these years later, here we are, the last game in the Lightning saga. What was a great game to look forward to for me, actually ended up disappointing in many ways. I highly enjoyed both Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2, so why was it I didn’t enjoy Lightning Returns as much? Well…
The series started off strong with a good story with a great mythology to back it up. While FFXIII-2 didn’t follow that mythology as much – and some of the story did get questionable at points – that didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the game. Lightning Returns, however, pretty much throws all of that at the window, and heck, at some points feels to be laughing in the face of it. That said, the story is pretty much non-existent and what does try to exist is just a huge mess.
In Lightning Returns you have your choice of where you would like to go first – of course, that is, after you get out of the small (very confined) introduction in Luxerion. It almost feels like because they made it so you could decide where to go – an idea that was sort of present in XIII-2, but there you still had a basic “set” path to go down – they didn’t know where to go to try and make a story make sense. You could go and do all this work in say the Wildlands, but as soon as you go over to Yusnaan or something, that doesn’t matter at all. The lack of a basic “connection” to say, “oh hey, you did this here, trigger this here” gets a bit odd.
While playing I often times found myself just sitting there going “whatever” or browsing stuff on a computer instead of trying to pay attention. When I did try to pay attention, I forgot half of what went on 5 minutes later from it being so forgettable. Maybe that goes back to my previous point of there just not being a connection between them. Heck, even the “overall” story that happens as you go through the various days (and return to the Ark each day) is highly forgettable.
Well, okay, there is one thing you’ll remember about the story. It’ll be “HOPE! I GOT IT! BE QUIET!” Hope never stops talking. He reminds you every 5 seconds about where you need to go or what you need to do, or when it’s nearing the end of a day he will also remind you every 5 seconds that “It’s almost time, Lightning!” I would have loved to have had a “mute Hope” button.
Moving on from the story, I may as well touch on one point of the game – the one that pretty much saved the review score you will see below – that I enjoyed: the combat system. Almost completely departing from the systems of the previous two games, Lightning Returns went for a more action-based style. Still maintaining the ATB’s we all know and love (or hate), the action-based style suits the game well. Action feels fluid (for the most part), and there are points where you’ll feel accomplished for having beat a larger enemy.
That said, though, even the combat isn’t without issues. In the previous two installments you had a clear indication of the stagger bar – a set number for each enemy with a number below it. You knew that as you increased that you were nearing stagger, but fail to keep up your chain (especially if you had maintained too many Ravager’s and didn’t use something else to bring it up for a hit or two), you’d lose it like that.
Instead in Lightning Returns you get a colored wave indicator. The closer you are to a stagger, the more the wave is going crazy and the redder it is. Ignoring the obvious issue here for anyone who might be color blind, this feels no where near as good of an indication compared to the stagger bar of the past. You could go from, “Great! I hit this enemy with several Fira’s and now it looks to almost be staggered!” due to the waves going crazy for a bit to just a few seconds later thinking, “Uh, wait a second here. Why is it back to near default?” While you can still pull it up faster from that point (as long as you can maintain the staggering methods), the indicator sure doesn’t like to tell that. On top of that, a huge portion of enemies have their own little method of getting staggered (or just getting staggered optimally). Good luck keeping track of all of them. Luckily, though, you can still do one thing from the previous installments – spam magic, at least for most enemies.
Moving on from staggering, but still staying within the combat, I want to go back to something I mentioned earlier – that feeling of joy when you beat a larger enemy. Immediately after that thought of “Oh yeah, I beat that extremely tough enemy!” you’ll be thinking “I never want to fight that thing again.” Which, of course, the game is very happy not to comply with. Even with some smaller enemies you’ll likely quickly find yourself just running from most battles – I know I did! This just ends up coming from some battles becoming extremely annoying.
While guarding with Sentinel’s worked great in the past, due to Lightning Returns more action based system – and the fact that typically once you start an animation you have to wait for it to play out – guarding became much more frustrating. I often found myself sitting there just wondering “Wait, didn’t I guard that correctly?” after you get smacked with a huge hit.
Don’t worry, though, while in battle… Well, okay, worry. You’ll be fighting a lot of the same enemies everywhere. That is, at least until you wipe them out. Compared to the previous two entries where at least there were palette swaps, the enemy variety is extremely small. There’s actually only a handful of “palette swap” enemies and some of those are harder to find. Of course, once you wipe them out, that’s it. The idea of making enemy species extinct is interesting, but when you start running around the Wildlands and there is literally nothing to fight? Yeah, that idea loses any “interest” it had. Which doesn’t help given the massive size of the Wildlands. Big empty plain, nothing to fight. Sure is great, huh?
As far as enemies actually unique to Lightning Returns there’s even less. Again there’s maybe only a handful of them, most of which you will also get tired of fighting – especially as some will never go extinct so you can’t even get rid of them if you wanted.
Also departing from the previous games, Lightning Returns decided to take out the whole full-heal after a battle thing. Instead you get stuck with a limited number of healing items, and while on Easy you’ll get an out-of-combat regen, you don’t get that on the higher difficulties. Having played through the two main difficulties (though it was on Normal the first time), I would often find myself low on healing items from just needing to heal so much. While besides the healing items you can go visit a restaurant and eat a meal, you can’t do that in the middle of a dungeon since well… there isn’t one there!
Overall it would’ve been nice to have perhaps maintained the system older Final Fantasy games did of you could have so many of x item in your inventory (like 99 potions), but your inventory can only hold say 30 unique items. The system within the Lightning Returns actually reminds me a lot of one my favorite games – Legend of Dragoon. That game you were limited, flat out, to 30 items in your inventory (armor and weapons were separate). The difference is that at least you often didn’t find yourself needing to heal nearly as often and there were other ways to heal in Legend of Dragoon.
Within the game you also have the ability to customize what Lightning is wearing – though for actually killing anything you’ll more than likely just finding yourself wearing the same three the entire game. While you can change the color of the outfit, that is also limited to only specific parts of it. It would have been nice if there was a “vanity” slot feature so that Lightning could wear something different on the field and in battle. I mean she already can change outfits in the blink of an eye,
why can’t she do that with a vanity outfit?
Ability customization is welcome as well. You have the ability to select what skills you have set in combat – though some outfits will come preset with certain abilities. This allows for a good variety of different setups and just general testing of what works back. You can have a total of 12 abilities set – 4 per outfit – along with whatever passive abilities the outfit will come with (or even what abilities you might find from putting certain sets of abilities on the same one). Accessories are split for how they work as well – the first accessory you see in the list will only work on that particular outfit and the second works across all three. This was a nice touch in terms of just general customization, opening the gates even further to various setups in battle.
Continuing on, the game is absolutely plagued with technical issues. Part of this seems to come from two of their desires – a huge open world and to fill these huge open worlds. In the cities themselves, NPCs are everywhere. Great! Right? Not really. There are so many NPCs out and about you start to wonder what they were thinking. Then you start to find the clones. Oh all the clones. Then because there ARE so many NPCs, there game starts choking on it and sending them walking into a wall, lamp post, or even worse – you or the NPC you are talking to in a cutscene. Also, the dogs. Far too many dogs. Oh, don’t mind me, just out in the middle of no where, or inside this ultra-secure building! Wait, why is there a dog here? The amount of NPCs – and dogs – is just overboard and could have done with some toning down.
Then there’s the huge open worlds. The huge open worlds that are completely unnecessary. There is so much pointless space in comparison to say, Gran Pulse. At least there you felt like all these areas had a purpose for existing.
Of course, to bring these two points together, you have another of the games issues – the draw distance. In these huge open areas the game doesn’t decide to load said NPCs until you are only a few feet from them, which often leads to this nice little “loading” symbol where they are supposed to be.
These technical issues continue into the enemies. In the previous games – especially XIII-2 – if you had an enemy on top of you, you were going to get into a battle. There were many, many times in this game where I’d find myself just standing almost on top of the enemy and they’d just sit there. Yeah, they’d seen me. So why wasn’t I being shoved into combat? Then as soon as you’d go to actually hit them to initiate combat they’d decide “Oh, hi there!” and take away the fact you’d gone to hit them first. Enemies also have extremely odd hit boxes on the field. There was many occasions where an enemy would spawn right in front of me and I’d just run right through it’s arm as if it wasn’t there.
Finally, also falling under the technical issues spot, is the jumping. Making a return from FFXIII-2 the jumping mechanic was “improved.” But oh, don’t worry, it’s just as awful. The “platforming” in the game is absolutely terrible and it’s far too easy to fall. They also decided to include a pointless pole sliding mechanic. The game has no penalty for falling from huge heights so there’s pretty much no point in sliding down the poles versus just jumping down.
There are, of course, side quests you can do. These side quests end up pretty much being MMO-like in nature of just “go find this item and bring it here.” The Canvas of Prayer quests – think the Hunt board in Final Fantasy XII but massively dumbed down – emphasize this even more. Those are literally fetch quests of just finding items to hand in. After awhile I found myself just not wanting to do anymore because they were just more of the same. If I want my MMO experience I’ll play a MMO. These quests also come at a price – time. NPCs for quests are often only available at certain times of day, so if you miss them you have to wait until the next day to finish or progress the quest.
Say goodbye to the stat gain system of the previous two games – in Lightning Returns your stat gains are tied to quests and the Canvas of Prayers. This turns up a big issue though – instead of being able to choose where you want to put your stats, the game decides for you. Any customization (outside of how many quests you do or don’t do) is gone and your Lightning is set into a pre-determined path of growth. This is quite disappointing after how much you were able to customize before – especially in XIII-2.
The time mechanic, the biggest element of Lightning Returns, actually starts to feel more like a hindrance. Right, sure you can try and “manage” it, but sorry this is an RPG. RPGs, to me, are more meant for exploring and enjoying the world. They put all this work into the huge open worlds that, while empty, it still would’ve been nice to just get lost in for hours at a time trying to find every little thing. The time management also tends to lead into you just wanting to rush, rush, rush and then turning up several days short of being able to finish. Of course you might be thinking, oh you could just explore in that time! By that point you are typically just ready to be done with the game to see how it ends.
Then, of course, due to the time system, post-game doesn’t even exist in it’s true form. Post-game is now “new game+” – while they don’t call it that, that’s what it is. Of course, as you imagine, it now requires you to replay the story to get to do anything free… Oh and yes, you start to feel that exact same drag as soon as you’ve finished the main story arcs before the end.
Speaking of new game+ – there’s features that are actually locked to it. You cannot upgrade any weapons, shields, or accessories until new game+. This is an extremely irritating mechanic as it is just forcing replays for anyone who wants to experience the whole game. Even if they weren’t available the whole time, you should have at least had the option to do it late in your first playthrough. Even then, it doesn’t even seem like you can fully upgrade them unless you are playing on Hard – another thing that requires having cleared the game at least.
Thankfully, in all this, the music stays as great as ever. Unfortunately though, they tend to reuse tracks from the previous two games far more than seems necessary. This even gets to the point where the music starts to actually feel out of place for what is going on. The new tracks in the game though are amazing and definitely fit the mood.
To wrap this all up, the game, while it had great promise, falls short from a huge plague of technical issues and a non-existent story. As mentioned before, the combat system is the biggest thing that saved this game, alongside the music and customization options. In the end, the game hardly feels worthy of being called a Final Fantasy g
ame and, quite honestly tried to be far too ambitious. It is truly disappointing that this is one of the last Final Fantasy titles that we will see on PS3 and XBox 360.
Now go back and read where the score came from.
I would like to thank Square Enix for providing me with a copy of the game for review.
You can purchase Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII for PS3 and XBox 360 now.