Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII review
We’re not sure there’s another title in all of gaming that has attracted quite the levels of vitriol and abuse as Final Fantasy XIII did. In a clear attempt to broaden the JRPG spectrum and make the franchise more international, Square Enix took many a liberty with structure, narrative and mechanics – with the gaming world full of people who spent their formative years with FF leads from Terra to Tidus across a string of traditional Squaresoft JRPGs, this change of direction didn’t go down so well.
Okay, so that’s this issue’s most obvious understatement – based on the backlash, you’d have thought that made house calls to every single FF fan to set fire to their mint copies of FFVII, inject their cats with bleach then piss in their beds before flying off to the next house like some kind of bastard Santa. But no, Square did none of that. Obviously. Square didn’t ruin your childhood. Square didn’t violate your memories. Square just made a videogame. Those old ones? They’re still really good, and you can still play them. XIII was just an experiment, an attempt to do something new. Love it or hate it, it certainly met that brief.
It was great to see Square respond to criticisms of the original with unexpected sequel XIII-2, but Lightning Returns takes this crazy experiment to its illogical conclusion – an action-RPG where you control just one character at the end of the world. While the game is set up to be playable without any prior knowledge of XIII or XIII-2 (and even having played both through twice, we’d still struggle to tell you what actually happened in them), it’s clearly aimed squarely at giving closure to those that enjoyed them rather than trying to convert the haters. It’s the right choice – the game box could have been filled with money and cookies and the hate squad would still have bitched about it, after all.
So here we are at the end of the world – leave everything you know about RPGs at the door because there’s an argument to be made for Lightning’s latest not even being an RPG at all. Sure, it has stats and all the usual RPG trimmings. But with no traditional experience/leveling mechanic and a combat system that feels more like a hardcore action game, this is worlds away from the wait-your-turn standard grind of more traditional JRPGs. It’s quite telling that Square has elected to fiddle with the order of the title – this isn’t XIII-3, but an action-heavy spin-off that just happens to tie up the ludicrous story of two previous RPGs. It does a fair job of that too, in so much as it offers some pretty interesting reasoning for the events of this and the previous games. Does it make sense? Does it hell, but we don’t see how it could have come much closer with what it had to tie up.
The new action slant would be a waste of time if the mechanics weren’t up to scratch and surprisingly – given that the developer is so well versed in turn-based games cleverly designed not to feel turn-based – they’re rock solid. Things start out somewhat simple, with just a couple of commands assigned to the face buttons but there’s a lot more to it than it first appears. Every attack can be ‘just framed’ by timing the attack string perfectly, but it’s an advanced technique and it’ll take some time to get the proper timing down. We spent ages just holding attack buttons down and got into bad habits that way but if you start working on your timing early on, you should have a significant advantage by the time the end-game rolls around.
With three outfits switchable on the fly akin to XIII’s Paradigm system, just picking the right skills to fill up each is an adventure in its own right. Some offer passive boosts and stat growth, others are simply powerful abilities with no other benefits and juggling both to create three good sets that work well together is quite the challenge. You can move freely in battle but with Lightning’s movement so strangely sluggish in the heat of battle, it’s far better to use abilities to position yourself – many melee attacks send her running towards the target, while some spells allow her to flip away from them, so there’s grounds to use these tactically as well as offensively. You’ll want to get some defensive options in there too, since many enemies have at least one way of hitting crazy hard and blocking or dodging with an ability is the only way to mitigate damage and conserve items.
It’s a really good battle system once you get a proper feel for the flow of it, with the ability to ‘easy mode’ your way through it just by equipping strong moves and holding down buttons but also genuine depth – the fact that there are already combo videos and technical demonstrations up on YouTube based on the Japanese version should reinforce the fact that the complexity is there if you want it. There are some neat interactions between various Garbs and weapons too, allowing for gimmick-based setups designed to turn middling outfits into great ones so even though there’s not a huge amount of strategy to the battles themselves, a hell of a lot of thought needs to go into the prep work.
This creativity isn’t limited to the battle system, either. The entire world is explorable pretty much from the off and while there’s a fairly obvious recommended order in which to tackle story missions, it’s merely a guideline – if you fancy a challenge, you can mix things up to your heart’s desire. This is made even more interesting by the passage of time, with the clock ticking away the world’s last fortnight and the world changing and reacting according to the time of day. Shops open and close at times that will prove typically inconvenient, the shopkeep always seeming to clock off just when you need them the most; NPCs go about their business and various characters only come out to play at certain times; even the stuff you’ll find and can do will change from morning to noon to night.
It goes even further as well, with each passing day changing up your options. An early quest-giver might die or leave if you go to look for them at a later date, for instance, while shops gradually improve their gear to make up for the fact that enemies get slowly tougher as the end of the world draws ever closer. Some quests are time-based and need to be completed quickly, while other can be failed outright if you don’t meet their conditions or do them wrong. The whole mechanic makes the game extremely interesting and raises the pressure immensely – Square Enix’s intention was clearly to instill a little end-of-the-world panic in the player and it works perfectly.
In this messed-up world where no new life can be introduced, there are a finite amount of monsters left to stand in Lightning’s way and this leads to another brilliant new mechanic – extinction. Hunt enough critters and their numbers will dwindle, encounters with them becoming increasingly rare until you’re confronted with the Last One. You might think that the last remaining creature from a species would be a bedraggled, depressed mess but you’d be wrong – by apparently absorbing the life energy of all of their fallen brothers and sisters, the grow ridiculously tough and glow purple for some reason. Wipe out this Omega creature and that’s it for the entire species, meaning you can wave goodbye to their rare drops but they’ll never get in your way again. You can hunt these guys down later in the game in order to score their best loot if you like, but they’ll be far more difficult if you do. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but you’ll be wiping species off the planet right up until the last day of the world anyway – just do your best and hope that’s enough.
There’s a whiff of Dead Rising about how Square Enix handles New Game+ here and given that pretty much nobody seemed to understand the logic behind it then, it’s unlikely to get much more love in a game that it’s apparently cool to hate. Fail in your mission and you’re whisked back to the start of the game, your gear and stats intact but the plot reset. While it might seem like a chore, the boosts offered by even a horrible failure of a world-saving attempt are immediately apparent and armed with increased stats, better gear and (hopefully) better knowledge of the game, missions and mechanics, subsequent runs are likely to go a whole lot better. As in Dead Rising, expect much complaining about how it makes you do so much of the game again, but that’s sort of the point – you learn, you grow and then you try to save the world one more time.
There’s a DmC comparison to be made here as well, since we imagine many criticisms that will inevitably be leveled at Lightning Returns will stem from the title – just as Ninja Theory’s action game would probably have got a lot more love if it hadn’t been called Devil May Cry, the inventive mechanics and great combat on display here would go down way better if the game weren’t tied to both the biggest name in RPG gaming and the vilified XIII. As a game taken on its own merits, it’s really quite good and while it’s not going to put toys back into prams or erase any of the wall of text hateblogs out there, it’s strong enough on a gameplay level to warrant recommendation to anyone who isn’t actively seeking out new ways to express their hatred for FFXIII.
The target audience for this is an odd topic, actually. While many of the twists, turns, revelations and features are nods to things that happened in XIII and XIII-2 (as well as other Final Fantasy games, in rare cases), there’s also a surprising amount of exposition about past events which will likely just bore anyone who saw it all play out for themselves. We get that it’s a hard balance to strike but even so, there have to be better ways to do it than just have Hope ramble on about things that you either know already or have no interest in, since the trivial details the annoying little brat seems so fond on remembering out loud have little bearing on what plays out here.
Somewhat surprisingly, the shift to an open world hasn’t had too much of a negative impact on the visuals. Each area is about the size of XIII’s Gran Pulse, with all kinds of nooks and crannies to explore and while a lot of the world’s smaller details might look a bit ropey (including a dog that seems to have snuck in from a PS2 game), characters and main areas are typically beautiful. Production values in general are as insanely high as usual, the solid voice cast from the previous games (and Vanille) reprising their roles over what must be the most expansive and eclectic soundtracks we’ve heard in a game in years. Some is reused from the previous games but most is new, and a particular favourite is the lounge jazz chocobo theme, which we like to think is a middle finger salute to those that complained about the heavy metal chocobo tune in XIII-2. Is this better, guys? IS THIS BETTER? Well played, Square.
On closer inspection, there’s an element of that mentality that permeates the entirety of Lightning Returns. Thought XIII was too radical a departure from previous games? NOW IT’S AN ACTION GAME LOL. Didn’t like the characters? LET’S BRING EVERYONE BACK AND HAVE THEM ALL TALK LOTS ROFL. Even the novel structure comes across as a direct and blunt rebuttal of all those ‘playable corridor’ jokes that XIII was the butt of, laying out multiple huge areas to explore freely but with the wicked twist of a surprisingly harsh time limit. Square seems to have realised that those of us who actually enjoyed XIII and its sequel want to see more of both this world and the level of innovation on display across the two games, and that’s exactly what Lightning Returns delivers.
There are many reasons to dislike Lightning Returns. To hate it, even. Its heritage, its characters, its time limit, its structure, its story… it’s unlikely that many people who play it will end up enjoying all of them. But the important thing is that we look at and appraise what’s actually there and who it’s aimed at rather than what we’d like the game to be. Square’s goal was simply to cap off this much-hated chapter of Final Fantasy history with another interesting sideways look at what an RPG can and should be – exactly the approach that caused this chapter to attract so much bile in the first place. A bold move but again, it’s the right one and as the third part of a trilogy, it’d be somewhat stupid to begrudge Square its decision to make something primarily for the fans. In any case, you need look no further than the Kingdom Hearts series to see that Square does fan service pretty well.
And as a game for XIII’s downtrodden fans, Lightning Returns is excellent. It fleshes out the interesting world, gives each of the cast a little more screen time without singling any out as more or less important (well, except Lightning) and brings an extremely stupid story to an extremely stupid conclusion in style. And the haters? They’re gonna hate, clearly. That’s kind of their thing. But this isn’t a game for them. No, it’s a reward for those bold enough to be of the apparently controversial opinion that Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t awful. And a fine reward it is too, so long as you don’t go into it expecting a traditional Final Fantasy experience. And hey, if you don’t like it, no worries – the angry mob is always hiring.