Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Import Review

At its core Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is an intriguingly designed RPG weighed down by a bloated and often nonsensical story that feels bare even after fifty hours of game time. Despite best intentions much of what the game does ends up feeling generally half-baked, and while combat and customization are the best that this title has to offer, Lightning Returns ultimately ends up an experiment that is likely best not revisited in the future.

While I found Final Fantasy XIII-2 to be a pleasant surprise – a smart evolution of the gameplay formula of the original game – Lightning Returns finds itself sadly failing to repeat that feat.

Set 500 years after its predecessors, Lightning Returns sees – surprise – titular heroine Lightning back in the saddle as the game’s sole protagonist. After awakening from stasis as a crystal she’s tasked by the all-powerful god Bhunivelze to be “The World’s Savior” by guiding the souls of humanity to a new world – as the one they currently inhabit is set to come to an end in 13 days. Spurred on by the desire to save the life of her sister Serah again, Lightning agrees and over the course of the game comes to encounter many of the allies she once fought alongside in fanservice-driven scenes. It’s not all clear-cut, though – some former allies end up enemies and the reverse. Times have changed.

With the English-language release some time away, I’ll steer clear of spoilers and simply say that I found the plotting of Lightning Returns to be far from cohesive or satisfying. The game is mostly a slow burn – not a problem in and of itself – but the stodgy pacing makes the cracks in a story that appears fractured when scrutinized even more obvious.

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Lightning Returns has a structure that is actually something of a breath of fresh air – rather than lengthy story preamble, the game throws you right into the prelude of the apocalypse with exposition duties handed to FF13's Hope, now Lightning’s closest ally. You’re in control incredibly quickly – but then the game lurches back towards the worst of FF13, Hope spouting all-too-lengthy exposition as you plod your way through tutorials that hold your hand too firmly instead of teach. 

The datalog that carried the lion's share of the original game's lore returns, though a lot of the information overflow I experienced actually came from lengthy, stilted conversations that play out in the game's safe zone, a place where the player need not worry about the passage of time, a key concept of the game.

When you’re not progressing through the game’s episodic main story – comprised of five total arcs divided into several smaller quests each – LR encourages you to do a bit of exploring through the now wide open spaces available in each area. The game takes place in a world called Novus Partus – a world that takes you from the deserts, forests and two different concepts of a city. The bulk of the game is played across each of these four regions with leveling tied not to battles, but through the completion of quests. For those that complained about FF13 being a pipeline, Square has answered your criticisms definitively – LR is for all intents and purposes an open-world game.

Backtracking is a full-blown necessity and fetch-and-carry quests across the world are fairly common. Visiting parts of each area unlocks teleport points, so fast-travel makes completing quests a bit more bearable – though it’s a shame to say that for the most part the game’s side missions are largely forgettable – they’re not outstanding in any way, positive or negative.

By far the most positive aspect of Lightning Returns stems from its battle system – a fact that has largely remained consistent across all three FF13 titles, each having an interesting, bold and constantly evolving take on FF’s Active Time Battle roots. ATB is in full effect here as well, but with a twist that involves the use of real time features in conjunction with regenerating stamina bars.

Dubbed the Style-Change Active Time Battle (SATB) system, players are put in control of Lightning and Lightning alone and can guide her attacks and guard abilities through the use of real time button presses similar to an action game including somewhat limited movement within the battle field. Others join you in battle on occasion, but remain entirely NPC-controlled.

Lightning must gather souls to extend the world's lifespan.

In place of the Paradigm Shift system from FF13 and FF13-2, Lightning Returns makes use of a collection of costumes the titular heroine can wear known as Styles. Each Style can be fashioned with up to four different abilities mapped to each of the controller’s face buttons and comes complete with its own ATB gauge.

Using an action will deplete a certain amount of your total ATB with each button press and by pressing R1 or L1 Lightning can shift to another of your three equipped Styles, giving the one you were previously using a change to recharge.

Stacking up the right abilities on the right Styles means that ideally the action can keep going constantly provided you stay away from spamming high-cost ATB abilities. Ensuring you constantly have abilities at your disposal to use is a key part of the timing-based strategy that drives the game.

Lightning also has a new ability separate from the normal ATB spread called Overclock. By using Glory Points (GP) gathered from defeating enemies players can slow down time for a brief moment while they deal out a bit more damage to a tough enemy. GP can also account for Curaga, Quake, Lightning’s Scene Drive attack and other special abilities.

Customization is without doubt the biggest key to ensuring you have a good time with the game. In addition to an assortment of weapons and shields Lightning can collect new abilities by defeating monsters and further upgrade them through the game’s simplistic but satisfying synthesis system. You’re essentially given endless freedom – in if you create a Style catered more toward magic or toward strength, for instance – although it is generally recommended to strike a balance between various abilities in order to effectively take out enemies.

Not all battles are created equally, however. Similar to FF13's Stagger or Break system Lightning Returns makes use of a new “Knockdown” ability that triggers once an enemy is exploited enough through their weakness. Each enemy has their own strengths and weaknesses so constructing Styles cleverly can really be taken advantage of in this regard.

The game’s key gameplay pillar outside of battle comes in the form of the “Doomsday Clock,” a device most easily compared to the crash of the moon in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, or how players have a set amount of time before the military arrives in a Dead Rising game.

As previously mentioned, there’s 13 days until the end of the world, and a real clock counts down in-game to that time. The team behind Lightning Returns has to be commended – this is an incredibly brave and interesting decision for a Japanese RPG, a genre where players typically plod their way through at vastly varying paces.

Guest members join the batte on occasion.

When the game starts you’ll actually only have 6 of your 13 days left, but through progression of the main quest and completion of side quests Lighting essentially earns more time, extending the world’s death clock to the full 13 days. Players are afforded some mild manipulation over time, too – GP can be used to freeze the clock for a short time, and time does not progress while in menus, cutscenes, shops and so on.

How long you actually have will vary based on this, but I found it evened out at around 3 real world hours to one day in Lightning’s world.

While a novel and brave idea, the doomsday clock system isn’t without its drawbacks. A living world is built around the time mechanic, with many NPCs having actions tied to specific times of the day – and that can be frustrating when you need to talk to a particular person for a vital step in a side quest and they’re not around.

A common complaint about Dead Rising and Majora’s Mask rings true here also, then – for some the time management is just too much, and what can be exciting on paper can quickly become frustrating as your carefully-considered plans for the in-game day end up in tatters due to a drawn-out dungeon.

With all that said, if seeing the heart of Lightning’s journey is your priority you should finish with plenty of time to spare. In the back half of my play-through I’d finished the main quest and simply mooched my way through Chocolina’s Canvas of Prayers market board to find side quests to kill in-game time with. There is a time skip option, but using it felt a waste – so I continued to plod through mostly unremarkable side quests until I reached the final days of the game.

One complaint that can’t be leveled against the FF13 series is one of the artistic design of its world. It has always had strong vision and beautiful visuals, and LR is no exception – but beautiful concepts don’t come to life here as brilliantly as they did in FF13 or even the less-impressive FF13-2. Bluntly, it feels like a cheap game, even compared to its direct predecessor which also reused a large number of FF13 assets. The world here might be new, but the quality of textures and geometry seems to vary massively – it’s best described as uneven.

There’s the feeling here that the studio’s infamously difficult Crystal Tools engine can barely handle the sprawling size of LR’s world – the frame rate squirming and struggling to maintain a solid 30 in larger areas, while much of the living world AI fails to fully immerse, transparent and obvious in their daily actions.

Most glaring of all is the game’s rogue’s gallery in battle – a sea of texture-swapped versions of the same monster with different names, with very few enemies actually being all-new for LR. This bizarrely extends to NPCs, too, with even some members of FF13's cast still seemingly wearing the same gear 500 years on.

Art direction is one of the game's strongest points.

These decisions are doubly strange when one sees how lovingly realized Lightning’s slew of costumes are – I would have gladly taken a few less outfits for Lighting for improvement in these areas. The visual presentation is all the more a shame because Lightning Returns features a lovely soundtrack and has some great artistic direction behind it – the execution on the in-game world just lets that down.

Fans expecting closure to loose ends left over from the previous two titles will get them here, though I can’t say I left satisfied with the conclusions I was given. The climax in particular tosses massive, world-changing events around in seconds with little exposition. To say I was disappointed in the narrative would be to put it mildly, and I’m somebody who fully expected to find some frustration in the climax of the story going in. Sometimes tempered expectations can gift pleasant surprises, but Lightning Returns is not that kind of game.

Thus we reach the conclusion to this review and to my time with the FF13 series. After playing Lightning Returns to the completion of its story and most of its side content it’s unfortunate to report that I found it to be a worse entry than both its predecessors. Gameplay systems remain its strongest area by a long way, but insubstantial, forgettable side quests and disappointing story conclusions mean even a decently-featured New Game+ option isn’t enticing enough to make me want to give it another go. I consider that damning – you’re looking at somebody who has a Platinum Trophy in the flawed-but-fun FF13-2.

There’s that gameplay, though. It’s a solidly redeeming feature – enough to make me say that if you’re a fan of FF13, Final Fantasy or JRPGs in general this might be a game to pick up – but not right away. Shave something else off your backlog and wait for a price drop. Those not already invested in the concepts behind the game in one way or another may well want to give it a miss entirely, as that battle system isn’t enough to drag the game back to the realm of absolute recommendation.

Lightning Returns isn’t awful – It’s just not particularly good either. Firmly the worst in the FF13 sub-series, it is a disappointing missed opportunity.