Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Review

If as Final Fantasy XIII was announced in 2006 you predicted where Final Fantasy would be 8 years later, It'd be cool if you could come and pick some lottery numbers for me. I'd half-expected a sequel to the game, but the circumstances surrounding Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII are unique. Versus is now FF15, Agito ended up on PSP - both dropped the FF13 titling - and we got two direct sequels to the adventures of Lightning instead. Whoa.

It's a confused old situation, which feels appropriate - after a great many hours with Lightning Returns, it feels like a confused game, something also argued in Erren's Import Review.

In a sense Lightning Returns seems to embody something of the problem that has been facing the Final Fantasy franchise for a few years now - a lack of direction. Square Enix doesn't seem entirely sure what to do - even FF14, their greatest recent FF success, found its feet by resetting to the MMO default. Lightning Returns, meanwhile, seems to have been formed at least in part by latching on to a few key concepts: fan love for Lightning as a character and the idea of a more action-driven FF title, undoubtedly inspired by the rise of Western action-style RPGs like Elder Scrolls and the tumble of the traditional JRPG turn-based fare.

The original FF13's rapid-moving Paradigm Shift system was inspired by the latter, too, but the situation for the JRPG now is perhaps more dire than it was when FF13 began production in 2006. The solution that Lightning Returns poses doesn't sound all that good on paper, but actually ends up being incredibly satisfying in action.

Lightning battles alone this time around.

A separation between Field & Battle still exists, but once in battle Lightning is now able to move about the battlefield freely, though always remains locked on to and facing at least one enemy. She can attack at will with a press of one of the face buttons, and at a first glance the game undoubtedly resembles an action game.

Some of the trappings of the battle mechanics of FF13 and 13-2 have been cleverly retooled, though, and now serve to layer a level of the restraint a command-based RPG forces on top of the action. 

The catch is exactly what you might expect it'd be for an FF game: each attack you execute depletes an ATB meter, and when it's empty Lightning can't attack any more until it recharges. Simple. 

However, it'd be no fun if you then had to sit and wait for a meter to recharge, and so this issue is fixed with a little nod to FFs 3, 5 and 10-2, with Lightning switching between what are essentially traditional FF 'jobs' in the form of various costumes, most of them fairly woefully scantily-clad. Each outfit has its own ATB meter, so by switching between the three on the fly - reminiscent of Paradigm Shift - you can keep a constant flow of attack up.

Early encounters in the game actually prove to be fairly thrilling. HP is reset after each battle, and early on, with a less-tooled-up Lightning, even basic encounters are actually difficult. This quickly falls away in the face of a powered-up heroine, and in the back half of the game everything but boss-battles are a cakewalk. The difficulty curve could've used some work.

When battles are difficult, there's a level of depth and a reliance on twitch reactions not often seen in a FF title. Switching to a costume with a guard ability and getting your block up in time can be a life-saver, and that's refreshingly different for FF. 

By the time you add a suite of costumes with different abilities as well as the option to adjust and customize different costumes to your tastes, there's a level of depth that is incredibly satisfying, even if later in the game you're simply making things even easier on yourself. 

One thing I'll note I'm not a fan of is a change Lightning Returns shares with - of all games - Mass Effect 2. Individual encounters no longer provide experience - instead, Lightning earns EXP for turning in quests. I can't help but think this a mistake, as it makes already meaningless, easy encounters even more so.

Outside of its impressive battle system, Lightning Returns has bold ideas but struggles to deliver. With its time-limit threatened open world there's a glimmer of something bigger here, but after a while it becomes clear that this is a team clearly not used to making games with such an open focus nor such action-like speed. 

The world of LR is beautifully-designed, but is sometimes let down by graphical performance.

There's some traversal stuff out in the world of Nova Crysallia, and it's there that the inexperience is most obvious, from clunky-feeling movement control to a truly naff-looking 'sliding' animation that is deployed when Lightning slides down sand dunes.

The Majora's Mask sounding Time Limit system is great in theory, and in parts of Lightning Returns really begins to shine - but it soon transpires that it isn't harsh enough and doesn't have enough consequence. There's none of the sense of panic or dead Zelda's time-limit masterpiece had, nor is there the same sense of freedom.

Sure enough, there's a counter on-screen, but I quickly learned to ignore it - time was, it seemed, on my side. I polished off the main quest with over half of my time remaining, and was then left to dabble in side-quests.

And boy, those side quests! Or, indeed, missions in general. There's good ideas, but they're then repeated and reused so frequently it becomes something of a joke, and they're of course, the worst RPG tropes. Fetch this, kill that, etcetera. The time limit concept could've afforded some really clever quest design, but it sadly has little impact on the structure of quests.

Similarly ambitious is the story, though even after reaching its close I'm not entirely sure what it was trying to accomplish. I was a fan of FF13's ensemble cast back in 2010, even though it lacked a strong antagonist, but many of those characters have now been twisted into caricatures of their former selves. 

Snow, who was previously a pain in the arse, but a likeable one, is utterly unrecognisable to me now, and Hope has turned into a borderline robotic exposition-spewing machine. Ali Hillis evidently tries hard as stoic ice-queen Lightning - a character whose performance has always been eclipsed for me by her turn as Mass Effect's Liara - but some of the lines she has to spout are some of the most cringe-worthy I've heard in some time. 

The story seems so wrapped up in itself it rarely takes a chance to breathe, and despite claims by Square Enix that anybody can play this game, I can't see anybody who hasn't already a ton of experience with FF13 understanding what on Earth is going on here. A great deal of stock is put into fanservice and trusting that people will be excited by seeing familiar faces once again. I've completed both predecessors twice, and I still struggled. It's just a mess.

One thing Lightning Returns has going for it is typical of the FF series - beautiful art. The world of Nova Crysallia is a gorgeously designed one, and there's some lovely motifs going on with the use of clocks and other time-like imagery to signify the impending end of the world.

Character customization is one of LR's big wins.

Even this comes with a caveat, though - this is by far and away the cheapest-looking title of the FF13 trilogy, with dodgy textures, low-poly geometry and a frame rate that creaks and strains beneath the weight of what it's trying to show at the smallest sign of trouble and sometimes seemingly for no reason at all. It's a great shame.

I can think of a few words to sum up Lightning Returns. Ambitious; it's certainly that. Flawed; that too. Rushed? I think probably. Clever - in some brilliant ways, it absolutely is. That's the biggest disappointment of all.

The concepts served up in Lightning Returns' battle mechanics are interesting, unique, and could well be a greater path for the FF series in general. The time limit could've been a unique twist that changed the game completely - but in truth, neither are given the room they need to breathe. 

These ideas are suffocated and held from greatness by repetitive side quests, an off-kilter difficulty curve, a reprehensible story, uneven visuals and other problems, all of which I think are merely symptomatic of a terribly confused identity. 

The good that's there, though? It is good, absolutely and undeniably. The excitement I felt when battles really came down to the wire and challenged me? That's fun that eclipsed anything I experienced in 13-2. The depth of the customization surrounding outfits and costumes? Satisfying, especially after the simplistic character growth in the last two games. The open world in general? It's deeply flawed and a little bit broken, but this also feels like the widest-open FF ever made - a step in the an exciting new direction.  

It truly is a shame that there's so much sub-par stuff surrounding all that potential. This isn't a swing and a miss - the bat hits the ball - but it's certainly no home run either.