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REVIEW: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

February 11th, 2014 by Tony Garsow

LRFFXIII

I Preface
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is the third and final installment of what has become known as the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy or Lightning Saga, depending on how you choose to look at it. The original announcement of Final Fantasy XIII under the Fabula Nova Crystallis banner came nearly eight years ago, and for a large chunk of the last decade, the world of thirteenth numbered title has become the face of the series.

Lightning Returns is the XIII series’ last hurrah, and an end to a long-lasting chapter in franchise history.

II Story
To encapsulate the preface of the Lightning Returns story: five-hundred years after the events of XIII-2, Lightning is awoken from crystal stasis by Bhunivelze (referred to as God within the realm of Nova Chrysalia) to save the souls of humanity before the end of the world. The eponymous heroine is dubbed the Savior, and given divine powers to lead humanity to God’s new world. Her reward for carrying out this task: to reunite with her sister Serah, now long-dead as a result of a calamity that nearly destroyed the world at the end of the second game.

It is in Lightning Returns that the mythology behind the Fabula Nova Crystallis lore, penned by Final Fantasy series writer Kazushige Nojima in 2003, becomes the most prevalent. Each of the three games has featured the motivations of the gods at play: Lindzei and Pulse in XIII, Etro in XIII-2, and finally Bhunivelze in Lightning Returns. However, in the first two games, most of what there was to uncover about this mythology was tucked within the confines of the Datalog or hinted cryptically in odd bits of dialogue.

Fortunately what Lightning Returns manages to do is finally bring the Fabula Nova Crystallis lore into a spotlight, which helps define the gods motivations which account for many important events and character actions in the trilogy. It’s not going to get you up to speed on all the happenings of the two previous titles, but the story that is contained within is, for the most part, relatively easy to follow.

Nova Chrysalia is a world where humanity is is frozen in time. They cannot age, though they are still mortal and can perish from disease, accidental death, or murder. This was one of my favorite story concepts going into Lightning Returns, and I was happy to see that this theme was explored somewhat in the main cast and NPCs that you meet. What if everyone you knew, even children, were at least 500 years old? Would the sum of their life experiences diminish the importance you had in their life? Would it dilute your emotions to a point where you are unfeeling? If you lost everyone you loved, would you feel temptation to end your own life? It’s a rather fascinating yet horrifying concept that I’m glad got some screen time.

However, the problems in the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy’s storytelling manifest themselves in different ways in Lightning Returns. I feel, that compared to other Final Fantasy titles, XIII’s universe is one of constant and distant turmoil — in the sense that we have never been given the opportunity to fall in love with the world in which these games are built. They are just rebooted. While it’s true that XIII has been extended into a trilogy, the sense of cohesion that the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII had is absent. What is Nova Chrysalia was once Pulse and Cocoon, but the few threads of familiarity that exist are never really satisfying. It exudes the idea that each new game is trying to escape the previous one, as the cast are scooped up into a doggy bag and transported to the next point at which they are relevant.

I’m still not sure on how I feel about the game’s (and ultimately the XIII series) ending, but perhaps down the line in a Final Fantasy XIII series post-mortem, I’ll be able to articulate my thoughts better than a simple “hmm”. But, until then…

Hmm…

III Characterization
Among the largest problems with Lightning Returns storytelling is the characterization of the main character herself, particularly the evolution of her character into the third game. In XIII, Lightning was a driven soldier that was more prone to a cold shrug than any show of emotion. We got the sense the Lightning had been damaged greatly by her parents’ death (something that is strangely never touched on in this series for being such a turning point in the character’s life), and a large part of her persona was such protect her younger sibling. Eventually, through the cast’s combined hardship, her cold exterior melted away as she learned to trust and lead.

What bothers is how they chose to proceed into Lightning Returns. Lightning is now a character that hasn’t grown from her experience in XIII, nor changed due to her near-omniscient state in XIII-2. In Lightning Returns, she doesn’t evolve, she just reboots as whatever the story needs her to be. New Lightning is essentially an amalgam of her early XIII self, the powerful warrior she became in the sequel, and something out of a Saturday morning superhero cartoon.

The story tries to wean other emotions out of Lightning awkwardly, as if there’s this tug of war between the Lightning the Action Figure and Lightning the Character. Luckily there are scenes such as the Yusnaan performance and some side quests that lend her new over-the-top character some charm, but they’re usually few and far between.

The Final Fantasy XIII series has never been known for great dialogue, so I expected a similar showing in Lightning Returns. Unfortunately the third game has many conversations and lines that downright descend into caricature, and I couldn’t help thinking I was playing a jokingly cynical Final Fantasy parody when Lightning spouts literal Nietzsche quotes in her final battle. Likewise with a conversation between Lightning and Hope about stockpiling Eradia that becomes an Econ 101 lesson. Other examples include Lightning rather listlessly harping on various NPCs she’s cornered.

You get the impression during scenes like this that the dialogue is trying to sound brighter and more introspective than it actually is, but the reality is quite the opposite. There are more cringe-inducing parts you may encounter yourself. It’s not all bad, but when it’s bad — it’s bad.

I don’t expect Shakespeare out of Final Fantasy, but I expect better than this.

The main voice cast of Lightning Returns generally do a good job with the terrible lines that they’re given, though quite often flat lines will creep through and stagnate their respective cut-scenes. Like my criticism of voice acting previous Final Fantasy games and my general consumption of other media where this is an issue, it’s less of a problem with individual voice actors (Ali Hillis and Troy Baker being some of the best and most prominent in video games right now) but more of lazy voice direction. It’s garnered Square Enix’s Japanese portfolio with a reputation for terrible English dubbing, mostly misplaced by unknowing fans on individual roles or actors when any good voice director should be able to use common sense to weed out the garbage takes.

That in mind, there’s really so many ways you can translate and present dialogue from the original script. Put another way: “there’s only so many ways you can polish a turd”, a quote I happily have use for from a brief Twitter conversation with Alexander O. Smith — behind one of Square Enix’s localization successes: Final Fantasy XII. If there are problems, they’ll usually going to manifest in other languages.

IV Exploration
Nova Chrysalia is divided into four regions; two of which are vast, sprawling cities and two others are large, desolate wildernesses. If you’ve played any open-world game this generation you won’t be impressed by the size or quality of assets present of the world, but for the 40-ish hour run time the size is sufficient.

Though Lightning Returns has an ever-present clock ticking away until your next rendezvous with Hope and the end of the world, you can easily explore most areas in the world through use of Chronostasis (an ability that will let you freeze time for a bit) if you feel a pang of wanderlust take you. Exploration all the nooks and crannies will net you a wealth of items, most importantly quest items that will save you precious time from backtracking.

Later on in the game, around Day 9, you’ll be able to unlock highways that connect each of the four regions in lieu of teleporting or taking the monorail. It’s a bit disheartening to see that the four regions are actually connected seamlessly, but require a lengthy jaunt down a highway to really experience that seamlessness. It may have been due to technical limitations but it would have been nice to see the regions connect more intuitively. That and it’s late in the game before you unlock the quests to travel them.

V Combat
Combat is the diamond-in-the-rough in Lightning Returns. Battles have now shifted to a very intimate action-based input system. Lightning will move around with the left analog stick and you’ll be able to input commands on the four face buttons. You will be able to actively move, guard, and evade incoming attacks — a primary mechanic that will leave you scrambling later on if you’re slow to the punch.

Those who’ve had experience with Kingdom Hearts or Dissidia: Final Fantasy will have a similar tactile experience. The game rewards expert timing on guards with full mitigation of damage as well as enhanced damage for timing your attacks precisely in succession — a button-mash deterrent if you prefer.

While there are considerably less types of monsters in Lightning Returns, each encounter feels meaningful as you’ll need to feel out and react to each move accordingly. The Stagger system returns in a slightly modified form — enemies have unique Stagger conditions that you’ll need to fulfill to deal respectable damage.

Since Lightning’s HP does not recover post-battle (aside from a slow regeneration on Easy Mode at the cost of a ticking clock), it’s important to keep on your toes even for menial encounters for long-term survival. My first two playthroughs were won on Normal Mode, and by the last few days — even with proper preparation, there are some enemies that will relentlessly wreck you if you don’t exploit their weaknesses and defend appropriately. A balanced ability and equipment loadout goes a long way to taking on enemies you know you’ll have a hard time with.

Defeat in battle will force you to escape, and you will lose one hour of your thirteen days. The punishment for slacking off in battle is quite harsh, so when you see enemies pop up in the field, you’ll be sorry for biting off more than you can chew. The most rewarding part of combat is being able to react to whatever the enemy throws at you, and the game does a good job at reinforcing good strategy and preparation. There are no super attacks you can reliably cheese on harder encounters save for Overclock, but that costs precious EP that you may be squirreling away for another purpose.

VI World
There are four-and-a-half-ish main chapters you will need to complete over the course of Lightning Returns, each dealing with a notable character from the XIII series. Once you descend from the Ark and complete and opening segment involving a murder in Luxerion, you’ll be let loose to tackle anything in the order that you want. In my first playthrough I stuck around Luxerion to complete Noel’s chapter, then made for Yusnaan to do Snow’s chapter, followed by Fang’s chapter in Dead Dunes, then Sazh and eventually Caius in the Wildlands.

In my second playthrough I was able to complete them in an entirely different order without penalty, choosing to go for Caius first, then Snow, Noel, Sazh, and finally Fang. The freedom to pursue each chapter as I saw fit was an interesting development for the XIII series, and felt quite natural within the developing narrative.

Doing things a different way doesn’t just lend itself to how you tackle the main story missions. While pursuing the Children of Etro to investigate a murder, I was able to proceed in several different ways. In my first attempt, I attacked members of the Children and defeated them in combat instead of tailing them. This led to me having to explore the city to find four digits of a code to gain entry to the graveyard where the Children gather for their rites. In my second, I tailed them and overhear use the code themselves. There are other instances in the game where you can proceed in different ways, and unless you are actively trying, your playthroughs won’t be exactly the same.

Aside from the main quests you’ll tackle are sidequests from various NPCs scattered about Nova Chrysalia and the Canvas of Prayers through the always-annoying Chocolina. Sidequests will be your main ticket to a lot of the goings on in each zone and will give you more insight into the lives of people living at the end of the world. Well, some of them anyway. While some quests have their own small storylines, others are glorified fetch quests. The Canvas of Prayers is exclusively a turn-in type questing system, so you won’t really be interacting with anyone other than the always-annoying Chocolina. (Did I just repeat myself there?)

The cities in Nova Chrysalia are densely populated and you’ll often see NPC behavior change throughout the day. You may not have immediate inclinations to plop down and people-watch, especially with the ticking clock, but as you’re proceeding from place to place you’ll often hear bits of banter or see different people commuting from home to work and vice versa.

You’ll often run into identical NPCs here and there, but a decent variety keeps things from becoming obnoxious. During cutscenes in which you’ll be talking to a character, others will often mill about in the background. Talking to a chocobo girl in Luxerion, a Niblet spawned nearby as I initiated the conversation, sending a herd of NPCs stampeding towards Lightning, carrying off the chocobo girl off-screen while the conversation still transpired normally. A bit more polish on the AI pathing for these NPCs probably would have saved her life.

It’s a minor foible in the grand scheme of things, like finding dogs in places where dogs probably shouldn’t be. It doesn’t happen too often — at least it’s funny when it does. There’s also an odd design choice to put Adornments on many NPCs you interact with (usually as a sign that you can obtain it for yourself) but they often look terribly misplaced.

VII Customization
Equipment and abilities plays a vital role in making sure you’re stacked against the enemy you’re about to face. Many garb (outfits) you collect will come with an ability attached along with passive stats that are often useful when reformulating a strategy against a difficult monster or boss. Experimentation is key, and finding a good combination to work with can result in a much better performance in battle.

You’ll collect abilities in combat that can be synthesized at Sorcery Shops to create stronger versions, with rare forms bestowing passive abilities on the Savior. Oddly enough, a feature that allows you to upgrade your Weapons and Shields is available in the game, but only in Hard Mode — which requires you to complete the game once. While the system isn’t particularly robust aside from pumping materials of varying value into the specific stats on your gear, it’s a bit baffling why this feature isn’t available on other difficulty modes. Abilities cannot also reach their full growth potential unless you play on Hard Mode.

Lightning’s many Garbs can also be color-customized to your own satisfaction, through a feature that will allow you to select different parts of a garment and individually dye them. Not every part on every outfit is dye-able, and I often found myself just sticking with the default color on many. There are some outfits which I thought looked rather misplaced in Lightning’s wardrobe; someone overdid it in the fan service department for sure. For those who’ve been looking forward to customizing the designs for themselves, it will be an interesting distraction nonetheless.

Adornments from XIII-2 are back as collectibles Lightning can wear. A lot of them are silly, but it’s another tangential form of customization that you may get a modicum of amusement out of.

VIII Time Management
The concept of a ticking clock counting down the end of the world isn’t anything new to video games, but for a series like Final Fantasy it presents an interesting approach to designing a RPG. This was one of the features that had piqued my interest the most when it was originally unveiled and it’s a feature that will heavily inform most of the decisions that you make in Lightning Returns. The goal of the team was to make players think about how they will spend their final days, and for all intents and purposes: it succeeds.

In your first trip to the Ark, you learn that you in fact have six days left before the end of the world. However, if Lightning can collect enough Eradia through saving the souls of humanity, she can offer it to Yggdrassil. Collect enough and you’ll be able to give the world another day at a time — a maximum of thirteen days. A fourteenth day is also possible, but more on that later.

Time management will be one of the more contentious decisions on the gameplay front. You cannot rewind time at all, but only delay it temporarily through use of Chronostasis — an ability that lets you stop the clock for a short bit by consuming some of your Energy Points. EP can be regenerated in battle, and each enemy will drop a set amount. You can gain larger amounts of EP by taking on stronger monsters or taking out Chaos Infusions that will routinely pop up and seemingly random points on the map.

There are many events in the game you must begin before a set time each day. An example of this is when you return to Yusnaan and are proceeding through the main quest. In order to sneak back into the palace you’ll need to join a tour group that convenes at 6:00 PM every night. If you show up late you will miss the excursion and will be forced to wait until the next day to participate. In a world where your time is precious, it can be frustrating to miss an event’s deadline by mere minutes.

In situations like these, which will definitely happen if you’re like me and start off on a blind playthrough, the best course of action is to move on to something else to make use of the time you have left for the day. Completing a main chapter will usually give you enough Eradia to extend the life of the world an extra day, and in the two playthroughs I finished, I was usually done with everything I absolutely had to do with plenty of time to spare in the end.

While the clock will help inform the decisions that you make on a regular basis, you don’t have to let it run your life. I’d recommend playing through the game blind on the first try just to get the hang of how time flows in the world. As someone who prides themselves as a completionist in many Final Fantasy games, it felt like I was betraying my true nature, but I felt that my overall experience with the Doomsday Clock was better off for it. On my second playthrough I used the help of a guide to unlock more sidequests and other content I missed the first time around.

It may seem like the clock may add little to the game other than to be an annoying reminder to continue the main story chapters, but taking an active part in planning your day is rewarding in its own sense — making the most out of the time you’re given.

IX Ecosystem
Getting into the thick of Lightning Returns you come to realize how important spending your time and resources are. The ecosystem of the game is built around the Doomsday clock and the consumption of Energy Points. By being successful in combat, you’ll gain more EP to do with as you will – whether it be exploring a previously unknown region or trying to get an edge against a tough monster you’re trying to fell.

Additional gameplay systems like the Last Ones, monsters who represent the last of their speices which you can drive to extinction, are an interesting twist to the seemingly endless slog of monsters that RPGs can sometimes throw at you. Defeating a species and obtaining a Last One’s loot is a pretty basic endeavor, but satistfying nonetheless.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of Lightning Returns’s systems working in conjunction is that you can increasingly become independent of the clock and diminish its capacity to propel you forward towards the end of the world. While it not be as readily apparent on your first playthrough, the game allows enough wiggle room to complete the scenario to a point where you can comfortably progress to the closing chapter.

X Soundtrack
The Final Fantasy XIII series has always had excellent music, and Lightning Returns continues in a tradition of wonderfully varied songs from three composers: Masashi Hamauzu, Naoshi Mizuta, and Mitsuto Suzuki. While I think the Lightning Returns doesn’t quite reach XIII-2s, it is nonetheless a wonderful effort.

I’d argue that the music in Lightning Returns does a better job of creating atmosphere than much of the visuals. The lively themes of Yusnaan’s nightly celebration, and the lonely ephemeral saxophones that cry out in Luxerion’s night. Different music will play at different times of day in each of the four major regions, and each fits the scenery and mood like a glove.

The only downside to the implementation of the Lightning Returns soundtrack in-game is that much of the XIII-2 soundtrack is also rehashed for use in this game. I like to associate music in Final Fantasy games with specific places and events, and so hearing New Bodhum’s theme ask me “do you remember the sound of the ocean waves” in a small village in the middle of the landlocked Wildlands, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed a new piece wasn’t there to replace it.

I applaud the decision on forgoing a licensed song in favor of an ending theme by the Final Fantasy XIII composers. It felt right and fitting. Good call.

XI Presentation
The graphical fidelity of Lightning Returns is the least impressive to date. Many areas of the world have poor textures and visible seams that stick out quite noticeably — reminiscent of a game that released early this last generation or perhaps even later on the PlayStation 2. Character models for the main cast have taken a more subtle dip in quality, including a reduction of polygons and more dithering on various parts. NPCs have it considerably worse.

Other facets of the game diminish the impact of how much of a downgrade the graphics are by providing a sense of atmosphere, but not by much. It’s clear that the quality of Lightning Returns’s graphics isn’t up to Square Enix’s standards for Final Fantasy, and I have to question whether this was a technical limitation due to what they were trying to accomplish or if the game just simply wasn’t finished in the oven.

I have to question some of the design choices such as the Last Ones appearing as being purely magenta-colored including the equipment they dropped. When I first saw them I thought that the textures didn’t load in properly. The world beyond the four explorable zones is also massively underdetailed. Luxerion is probably the biggest example of the game not representing the concept art well in the final product.

Square Enix Visual Works pre-rendered cutscenes used for the opening and ending, however, continue to impress.

XII Replayability
Lightning Returns is by far the most replayable of the three Final Fantasy XIII games. After completing the main scenario you will be given the option to start New Game Plus. You may then choose to challenge Hard Mode, which includes stronger enemies and bosses, but will let you customize Lightning’s abilities and equipment to a greater potential.

By completing a certain number of sidequests and requests through the Canvas of Prayers, Lightning can unlock an extra day before the last — here she’ll be transported to a special dungeon where only Last Ones appear. You’ll need to prepare pretty thoroughly to challenge this dungeon, and I recommend you tackle this on a New Game Plus when you have a better sense of time management and where many quests can be completed.

Aside from Hard Mode, the potential to tackle the scenario chapters in a different order may prove to be lucrative as well as picking up rewards from quests you missed on the first go around. In New Game Plus, Lightning’s inventory (aside from Key Items), equipment, abilities, and stats carry over.

You can also start New Game Plus before completing the game itself. If you fall against the final boss of the game, you will have the chance to activate the Crystal of Atonement, which will act as a New Game Plus — rewinding the days all the way back to one where you can start the journey over again.

XIII Conclusion
In conclusion, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII closes out the series as the weakest of the three titles, but forfeits interesting gameplay mechanics, good replayability, enjoyable combat, worthwhile customization, and a great soundtrack. Notable aspects that bring down the overall score are the story with regard to the heroine Lightning and her characterization, terrible dialogue throughout, and dated visuals on nearly all fronts. The aspect of time management which governs many of the in-game systems can be overwhelming and frustrating to manage at first but fun to master. Judged as a sum of its parts, Lightning Returns is an above average game that took me about 40 hours to complete on Normal difficulty.

Score: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Disclosure: A PlayStation 3 copy of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII was provided to Final Fantasy Network by Square Enix in advance for review.

Here’s what our friends at other Final Fantasy fansites had to say – click to read more:

Nova Crystallis (Import Review) 5/10
Final Fantasy & More 2.5/5
The Final Fantasy 4/5

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  • Daniel Masterson

    I am very excited to play this game. I enjoyed the XIII games very much and I am curious to see how this will wrap things up. Then I can move onto FF X HD and then look forward to FF XV!

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  • ajmrowland

    Same. Although my poor time management skills might get in the way.

  • Nettacki

    Thanks for providing this review. It certainly made me more informed of the game’s strengths and weaknesses than most reviews of this game. Therefore, I’ve decided to simply get the game when it goes to the bargain bin, like the other two games in the trilogy are.

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