Lightning returns! Did she need to?
Just so you’re aware, there will be some spoilers for XIII and XIII-2, but none for Lightning Returns.
In Final Fantasy XIII, Lightning and company worked to save the world of Cocoon from the influence of the Fal’Cie. In XIII-2, Noel and Serah worked together to correct the fractured timeline and save Lightning. 500 years after the end of XIII-2 – which is a weird way to put it when you spent that whole game time-travelling – Lightning is awoken by the god Bhunivelze and chosen as a messianic savior in preparation for the end of the world, all in a bargain to save her sister Serah. Are you beginning to see the problem here?
The story became such a convoluted mess as the trilogy progressed, resulting in an insufferable nightmare for Lightning Returns. The story and characters are by far the weakest part of the game.
First off, the entire setup for the story feels like a self-parody. In the aftermath of Etro’s “death,” humans no longer age, and the world begins to die. Lightning is brought back to help Bhunivelze prepare to bring the souls of the departed to a new world that he’s creating, and the only reason that she agrees to do so is that Bhunivelze offered to bring Serah back to life. Lightning works as a Messianic savior, comes across those she had fought with in the past, and through a bunch of really contrived events the story sort of advances.
Besides the characters, there is hardly any thread between the games. The events of XIII are marginally relevant, instead coming up through the characters’ reminiscence more than actual plot events, and the only part of XIII-2 that really matters is the very ending. And the end of Lightning Returns is overwhelmingly corny. Defeating the final boss feels rewarding, but everything after that is hardly worth paying attention to.
Besides the frequent “Remember the good old days” crap, the characters spend a lot of time spouting exposition. This was a problem with the first two games, but Hope’s role in the story is simply for this purpose. Along with that, the voice actors sound so bored with the roles, especially Lightning and Hope, who act and sound like brick walls the majority of the time.
And then, new character Lumina, who is Serah’s doppelganger, serves the stupidest purpose in the grand scheme of the game, and then is never even explained. She comes out of nowhere, interferes with Lightning’s goal, and by the end is absolutely irrelevant to everything.
Moving past the story and characters, there are some problematic gameplay elements as well. One of my biggest grievances with the game is the time limit. Can you easily beat the game within the time limit? Sure, I finished all of the main story events within the first six days (out of thirteen), but it really kills any motivation to explore when you have a ticking clock bearing down on you at all times. A day/night cycle with certain events happening within certain timeframes is a cool addition, but a time limit is merely aggravating.
There is one way around the time limit, which is an ability called chronostasis. This allows you to stop the passage of time, and it costs two EP, which are accumulated by fighting enemies. Of course, this and the teleport ability are pretty much the only reasons to fight typical enemies throughout the game, since there’s no experience or leveling system. Instead, Lightning will receive some fixed boost to specific stats after completing missions. This makes fighting the average enemy more of a hassle than it’s worth.
One of the good things about the game is that there’s plenty to do. Besides the main story missions for each area, there are plenty of sidequests, a lot of which depend on the time of day or actual day of the game for specific events. A lot of these are really goofy though, such as one of the first missions, which involves tailing a group of people. A group of really twitchy people who can’t walk straight. And with another, if you fail it by giving a girl the wrong item, Lightning comments “I took an innocent child, and broke her.”
The battle system works off the same idea as the Paradigm Shift from XIII/XIII-2, but with a single character and greater manual control. As a whole I really like it, but I still have some issues with it.
The battle system is based around Schemata and garbs – basically, you give Lightning three outfits, each with a set of four abilities that you choose. Each garb has its own passive abilities, and each Schemata has its own ATB gauge which is depleted as you use your skills. In practice, you’ll tend to set up each Schemata with different types of abilities, so you might have one for pure physical damage and guarding, one for elemental magic, and another for buffing and debuffing. It’s a bit like the Paradigm system, but with more customization to it and greater manual control for the player.
What I liked about the Paradigm Shift system from XIII was having a group of three characters working together, with each one playing a necessary role. So you could have a commando dealing out heavy damage, a ravager bumping up the stagger meter, and a medic keeping everyone’s health topped off, or you could switch everyone around to some other combination of the six classes. XIII-2 used the same general idea, except with the third party slot taken up by some monster and Noel and Serah being permanent members.
Being unable to individually change character’s paradigms was one of my main gripes with the system in XIII and XIII-2 – you’re allowed six setups that you can swap your entire party between in battle, but you can’t individually change one character’s class whenever you want – but having the opportunity to do something similar at the cost of losing a full party is a disappointment. Manual control of attacks and guarding is cool and all, but you don’t have very many options. You have up to twelve choices for a move, whereas each individual class in XIII and XIII-2 would have more options available – different attack levels, elemental vs non-elemental, buffs, debuffs, different guard options, different healing options, etc.
Along with this, battles feel like they progress much slower. While the action is very high-paced, very few of the battles are actually quick, instead taking a very long time to take out chunks of the enemy’s health.
XIII was obnoxiously linear with way too many tutorials worked into the first 20 hours of the game (not to mention that the Xbox 360 version was on three discs), but enjoyable enough as a whole.
XIII-2 had better main characters, a slightly modified battle system, and a world more open to exploration, but a far more convoluted story that retconned the end of XIII and had a stupid “To Be Continued” ending.
Lightning Returns is just the proof that this should have never been more than a single game.
+ Lots of customization options
+ Good action-RPG battle system
± The battle system has both good and bad changes
± No leveling system
− Awful story
− Lightning as a messianic savior
− Time limit
− The characters are brick walls 95% of the time
− Weapon upgrades only in endgame and NG+
Play time – About 25 hours
Price – About 20 USD for a new copy
Recommendation – If you’re invested in the story of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy and want to see how it finally ends, play the game. Otherwise, it’s probably not worth your time.