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Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII review

Mediocre
AT A GLANCE
  • Fun, challenging combat system
  • Non-linear approach
  • Interesting story that explores various religious themes
  • So many boring fetch quests
  • Most of the environments feel lifeless
  • Absurd difficulty spikes

The awesome premise: I'm Lightning, God's chosen savior, sent forth to a dying world. My job is to save the souls of the doomed so they can be reborn when the planet is made anew. The not-so-awesome reality: I'm Lightning, wearing a bikini because it gives me +10 strength. My job is to help save the souls of the doomed, but in practice that means helping some kid find his lost rubber ball, which is located somewhere in a sizable city. In return, I get his soul and a marginal HP increase, which I desperately need because the boss at the end of the quest hub is kicking my ass. Repeat this for 30 hours and you have the basic gist of how Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII plays. The end result is an experience that fluctuates between somewhat enjoyable and frustratingly tedious, and it's more often the latter than the former.

Lightning Returns' primary issue is that its structure just isn't fun. It works like this: An in-game clock counts down toward the world's end; for every quest you complete, you save a soul. Gather enough souls, and you add an extra day to the clock, up to a maximum of 13. Problem is, while some of these quests are entertaining, most are mundane and outright silly in light of the dire situation Lightning faces. At first you'll be eager to save the souls of citizens in need--until you find out doing so usually means finding a trinket they conveniently dropped in a back alley full of monsters. When a little girl asks you to find her missing doll, you'll a) wonder why the world's savior would waste time on such a trivial task, and b) lose precious hours fruitlessly searching for the damn thing (which, by the way, is hidden on top of a random crate on the other end of the city). The structure of progression becomes a counterintuitive cycle: burn time completing fetch quests to get more time to burn completing fetch quests.

Ignoring these quests isn't an option, either, because completing them is the only way to increase Lightning's hit points and combat stats--a necessary step to get through the main story. There's no traditional leveling up; all you get for defeating monsters is cash and items. That's fine when you're hunting those items for quests, but I was more inclined to avoid most battles when I knew the only gains to be made were a handful of pennies and monster pelts that sell for next to nothing.

To its credit, Lightning Returns at least gives you a fairly large world to explore and a genuinely compelling main storyline. The narrative explores interesting religious themes, and its premise is surprisingly dark in a way that makes you want to care about what's going on. Your journey to see it through will lead you to each of Lightning Returns' four large quest hubs, which range from bustling cities to lush forests to sandy deserts. This is by no means a linear game; you can travel between the zones freely, and choose to tackle their main quest components in whichever order you like. The flexibility is great, especially when you get stuck on quests in one of the zones and decide to try your luck in another.

Energetic

A resource called Energy Points, or EP, is extremely useful during your journey. You can use EP to heal, temporarily freeze the ever-ticking clock, or initiate Overclock mode during battle, which allows you to unload tons of damage without using up an ATB gauge. Though EP is slowly replenished by winning fights, it's a limited resource, so you'll have to think a lot about how best to use it.

But even though the story and non-linear world are initially pleasant, each have elements that work directly against them and diminish their impact. Take the large quest hubs, for example. Spend some time exploring, and they all start to feel pretty empty save for wholly uninteresting NPCs. And the story? You'll run into a few familiar faces from the previous XIII games, but their inclusion sometimes feels more like a ham-fisted attempt at fan-service than a critical plot element. Even Lightning herself is a bit off-putting because she's indifferent toward her situation. Caring about her mission is pretty tough when she says on numerous occasions that she doesn't give a shit about it either--I'm paraphrasing here, but even when I was intrigued by the narrative, Lightning was vocally disinterested. Apathy is contagious.

This dynamic of "oh this part of the game is great...except for...ugh" also plays out in Lightning Returns' combat system. As the only playable character, Lightning has access to three different load-outs called schemas, each with its own active time battle gauge. You might have one setup for physical attacks, another for magic damage, and the third for debuffing--there's a lot of depth in customizing what each of them do, and min-maxing stats and abilities to squeeze the most out of your load-outs becomes an addictive process all its own. The flow of the game's best battles is engaging and chaotically fun; you'll burn through one ATB gauge, swap to the next schema to let the spent one recharge, actively block incoming attacks, and juggle the resources you have left to finish the fight.

But that's the ideal scenario. More likely than not, you'll find that the easier encounters are finished quickly via button mashing, while the more complicated ones--primarily boss fights--are absurdly difficult in comparison. Most battles, even ones with regular monsters, fall on one end of the spectrum or the other, and very rarely do they strike that perfect balance.

Then there's Lightning Returns' odd emphasis on playing dress up. In addition to tons of cosmetic adornments (like a plastic Halloween mask imitating the face of Lightning's dead sister), you'll obtain dozens of outfits during your play-through. These are actually pretty important, as they determine the base stats and abilities of your schemata. Which is to say, you have to equip different outfits every now and then--and dear God are some of those options bizarre. Here I am, the savior of the world, and I'm wearing a bikini, or an ultra short miniskirt, or a weird sexy devil costume--not because omg Lightning's hawt, but because these outfits have beneficial stat increases tied to them. It's perhaps a minor quibble that some are garish, but again this illustrates just how out of touch the game's structure is with its premise.

Lightning Returns has a lot of really fascinating ideas--its story is actually quite interesting, its combat system is often engaging and has a lot of depth, and even some of the game's sillier moments end up being oddly charming. But, while it's not a bad game, its structure is ultimately too tedious for its strengths to prevail. Fun and adventure are slowly drowned out by the necessity of grinding fetch quests under the stress of an always counting clock. It's a shame considering the game's conclusion is a fitting one for the XIII trilogy. Lightning Returns, indeed--I just wish her final farewell wasn't so dull.

More Info

Release date: Feb 11 2014 - Xbox 360, PS3 (US)
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3
Genre: Role Playing
Published by: Square Enix
Franchise: Final Fantasy
ESRB Rating:
Teen: Blood, Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol, Violence, Mild Language

Despite a decent story, a great combat system, and a large, non-linear world to explore, Lightning Returns' tedious structure makes seeing this journey through to its end a laborious grind.

This game was reviewed on PS3.

89 comments

  • n00b - February 15, 2014 2:26 p.m.

    I'm actually looking forward to playing dress up
  • t_skwerl - February 12, 2014 3:20 p.m.

    Eh, I'm not a fan of Lightning. I like her voice actress, because hey Liara, but her character is just... well, shes an a-hole. In the first game, she's an a-hole for seemingly no reasons other than to just be one. I didn't get 13-2 because I find Serah to be almost as annoying as Vanille, but I'll assume Lightning is still an a-hole. In this game she's killing people to "save their souls." Yep, a-hole.
  • Hatsubia_LordOfTheVoid - February 12, 2014 1:59 p.m.

    Still looking for that bunny outfit...
  • Clovin64 - February 12, 2014 7:37 a.m.

    That first comment about the side-quests made me laugh. "Right, you find my rubber ball, and in return you can have my soul." Makes me remember that Simpsons episode when Bart sells Millhouse a piece of paper with "Bart's Soul" written on it.
  • hintzke - February 12, 2014 5:44 a.m.

    For those that think Lightning is the most boring/worst character of the series, you have to first understand one thing. 1. This game is not made with a thought towards Western gamers. I lived in Japan for four years, and I can assure you that they LOVE their Lightning. So while some of the Western gamers may not care for the series, just remember, it wasn't made for you to begin with.
  • bree-mills - February 12, 2014 7:36 a.m.

    wow really wasn't made for the west to begin with,well who cares the FF 13 games all sucked ass,so keep your week assed Lightning character flat chested and with no ass,lol the japs can toss off to Lightning all they want.
  • hintzke - February 12, 2014 11:58 a.m.

    Oh yeah. You. Mad.
  • Moondoggie1157 - February 12, 2014 5:04 p.m.

    ...Fuck me, why is everyone so bitchy on GR nowadays? Seriously, seeing posts like this have turned me off from commenting or engaging anyone in actual conversation. What happened?
  • BladedFalcon - February 12, 2014 9:05 a.m.

    ...So if it wasn't made for us, why would we want to go easy on it to begin with? :P I mean, they released it here, but if they didn't bother to make it appealing to us or at least make it universally good, then it deserves to be bashed with our standards :P
  • hintzke - February 12, 2014 12:34 p.m.

    But I disagree entirely: - For example if the Japanese complain about CoD or BF, we just shrug and acknowledge consciously or subconsciously that the game was never designed with them in mind to begin with. - So in a way, sighing or crying over a game that never even targeted you as a demographic seems kind of silly. It would be like me going onto IMDB and trolling people about a movie I a. Never watched b. Never will watch
  • BladedFalcon - February 12, 2014 2:22 p.m.

    Except Final Fantasy games DID use to appeal everyone, not just Japanese people. You could argue the series was always done for Japanese people in mind, and yet, most of their entries became very popular EVERYWHERE, not just in Japan. Or are you going to claim that games like FFVI, FFVII and FFX were made for us? My problem with your argument is that by your logic, then we would hate most, if not all games that have been made in Japan because the vast majority of them are made for Japanese in mind, even more so back in the 80s and 90s, when Japan was at the forefront and had no reason to care about what the rest of the world thought about videogames... And yet, the grand majority of greatest games you see in most western lists are of Japanese origin... And again, if this game really was made just for Japanese people in mind, then why even bother releasing it here? If they did it, it's because they were intending it to sell to western people, and thus, submitting to their own criteria.
  • Moondoggie1157 - February 12, 2014 5:11 p.m.

    I am officially renaming you JadedFalcon... But really, I've been noticing it in a lot of articles lately, people are just so bloody angry. When I pick on someone, or get mad, I do it jokingly, but hell, I've been blown away by the intensity of these comment boards as of late. I first noticed it with that Malakie dude a while back, and since then i've noticed it more. Even with the usual PC elitists who have always been a bane (not really, see how thats a joke), the conversations rarely turn into personal insults and name calling. That comment from bree-mills was kinda shitty too... Man, things used to fun. This isn't directed towards you Blad...I mean Jaded :P It's a general statement.
  • Redeater - February 13, 2014 12:28 a.m.

    I chalk it up to that fact that sarcasm and such doesn't translate well into text on the internet. I make come across as an angry fuck-ass on the internet but I rarely get upset in real life.
  • BladedFalcon - February 13, 2014 8:25 a.m.

    Eh, I don't really think it has changed that much, maybe you've just noticed it more lately and have allowed to get to you :P Same with me, pretty sure I've always been intense when I get into an argument ever since I joined 3 years ago. I'm also certain I've never resorted to name calling UNLESS the original poster was begging for it by being a douchebag, and when this happens, my name calling is always done in a trolling manner, not because I'm actually mad ;) Also, if it bothers you too much that some comments are overly serious or mean spirited, you could always turn it around by replying and making fun of those people, or pointing out how ridiculous it is to have that kind of attitude XD At worst, you'll piss them off and get either fun idiotic responses from them or make them leave, (in which case, good ridance) at best, you can make them react and they MIGHT not be such assholes in the future, win-win if you ask me :P
  • Moondoggie1157 - February 13, 2014 2:11 p.m.

    Bladed and Redeater, niether of you have ever been real asshole from what I've read, you've always been cool. I dunno, I guess I come I here to forget about real life :P also, I don't handle stress well... Ah I'm cracking!
  • Redeater - February 12, 2014 1:04 p.m.

    Neat theory! Meanwhile, I have played/supported/loved FF since the NES days. If Square hands me the latest FF and it features one of the most unlikable protagonists in the series......I think I deserve the right to say "This is shit" and "My money is just going to go towards other JRPGS unless you get your act together". Also, if you seriously think that SE only cares about what Japan thinks, I have a bridge to sell you.....
  • hintzke - February 12, 2014 2:38 p.m.

    @Red It is a neat "theory", thanks! @Bladed It is indeed made with the just the Japanese in mind. - Look no further than FF VII Advent Children, it doesn't get more mopey-anime-spaceships!! than that. I bring that movie up because the game and all its characters play as if from that movie. So it is pretty apparent that this is the direction of all their games going forward for the foreseeable future, Lightning or not. - However, there is obviously a Western appeal for the games, hence their selling it to the Western market. This however is not the same as developing a game for western audiences, but is instead more of a port.
  • BladedFalcon - February 13, 2014 8:17 a.m.

    "So it is pretty apparent that this is the direction of all their games going forward for the foreseeable future, Lightning or not. " Um... *points at Bravely Default* Also developed by square, and very Japanese in a lot of ways from the gameplay, characters and story, however the characters aren't all mopey, the only sidequests there are are directly woven into the main plot, and it takes the very well know turn based formula of RPGs but makes it FUN and fully customizable in how you want it to play. Most importantly, it's a genuinely GOOD game that has been praised and well received across the board both with Japanese and Western audiences. Seems to me Bravely Default has nothing in common with the direction you claim all of Square products are going. And yes, I know that game came out in Japan for over a year now, but it's still recent enough to put a dent on your assertions.
  • hintzke - February 13, 2014 11:15 a.m.

    You got me. - I generalized and failed to clarify that I was more specifically focused on Final Fantasy games. - I'll even broaden it into Kingdom Hearts as well. But you are right, not all of their properties are going that way. My fault for not saying so specifically. Allow me to restate it as edited ""So it is pretty apparent that this is the direction of all their Final Fantasy (And more than likely Kingdom Hearts) games going forward for the foreseeable future, Lightning or not." P.S.S For future arguments, the existence of one item that contradicts a previously established pattern, is not in and of itself a clear indicator of a continued break in a previously established pattern.
  • BladedFalcon - February 13, 2014 11:31 a.m.

    Well, we don't know that FFXV is going that way for sure. It COULD be, because unfortunately Tetsuya Nomura is at the helm, but one can hope. But yeah, I otherwise agree that Squeenix is taking KH and FF in similar directions that are depressingly idiotic and nonsensical. And if it's true that this is the kind of think Japan enjoys, more than the previous kind of quality FF USED to have in it's writing and game design, then that's all the more depressing.

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