Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII review

  • 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.


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.


  • Talvari - February 10, 2014 12:01 p.m.

    Wish this was a global EU/NA release like 13 was :| Gotta wait an extra 3 days in ye olde EU. Interested to see how the reviews turn out for this as there's been so much hype and promising footage for this game. Here's hoping they haven;t messed up the finale :|
  • TheGreyWizard - February 10, 2014 12:50 p.m.

    Yeah, good luck with that.
  • Moondoggie1157 - February 10, 2014 12:17 p.m.

    I really enjoyed the demo, and I think I may have an idea of how the story is going to unfold. I could also be completely off, regardless, can't wait to pick this up!
  • g1rldraco7 - February 10, 2014 12:31 p.m.

    I need to finish the demo before I pick my cope of the game tomorrow.
  • BladedFalcon - February 10, 2014 12:37 p.m.

    Are these kinds of heads up for reviews going to become a trend now? What is this site? IGN? :P
  • Redeater - February 10, 2014 1:18 p.m.

    If they start forcing me to watch a video instead of allowing me to read something in 1/50 the time I'm out of here!
  • Redeater - February 10, 2014 1:17 p.m.

    OXM "Thanks to its engaging combat and spectacle, Lightning Returns manages to distract somewhat from its overarching design issues" 7/10 This is the 3rd FF13 and there are still design problems?? I gave FF13-2 a chance and it remains the ony FF I haven't completed. The fact that they based it around the worst character doesn't convince me that this game will be any better. (God forbid they give Sazh a game. Unfortunately, Sazh isn't Asian, white....or a questionable mix of the two so I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up). Well, I'll just stick to enjoying the best FF since 10. Bravely Default.
  • Cyberninja - February 10, 2014 4:05 p.m.

    I have my LE in the mail already so I don't need a review, the only question is when am I going to play it? Bravely Default is already a time sink(Spend 8 hours playing it somehow and it ended up being 2 am nights in a row without me noticing...)
  • BladedFalcon - February 10, 2014 6:16 p.m.

    Heh, yeah, it's pretty addicting! Also dude, don't forget to send some moves once in a while! :P Its free and it can be pretty handy, and I don't think yours has been updated in a while :P
  • winner2 - February 10, 2014 6:51 p.m.

    This sounds to me like "Alright boys and girls, we're almost there. ONE MORE PUSH, AND FF13 IS AS GOOD AS DONE! Everyone be ready to lock and load tomorrow morning, and we'll all make it to the other side in one piece! OO-RAH!" And I'm picturing all of GR in Dawn of War 40k space marine armor rallying around Ryan at the helm as he gives this magnificent speech with those harley davidson glasses fused into his helmet. Or maybe that's my hopeless romantic/romanticism showing.
  • Clovin64 - February 11, 2014 12:59 a.m.

    I've already completed the Japanese Import, so I'm not in a hurry to pick up the English one on release. I've got new semester textbooks to buy this month, and Castlevania so I'll probably wait for a price drop before getting LR.
  • rainn'sgaydar - February 11, 2014 6:33 a.m.

    What a shame. Not that it's surprising, but still a shame. Am I wrong for allowing this to serious dampen my expectations for FFXV?
  • TheGreyWizard - February 11, 2014 6:38 a.m.

    See? What did I tell you?
  • Darkhawk - February 11, 2014 6:40 a.m.

    So, how long before we finally get a female lead whose clothes/armour isn't skin-tight? ESPECIALLY ARMOUR. Who the hell wears form-fitting chest armour?!
  • Letter11 - February 11, 2014 7:42 a.m.

    Sigh, I was pretty much expecting this. The FFXIII series as a whole has had it share of problems but somehow in spite of it all, my inner fanboy who squeees at anything with "FF" in the title allowed me to extract fun from them. So, im getting this anyway, don't judge me. I'll be glad though, to put the XII games to rest. Damn, I hope FFXV can live up to the hype. I really just need to get Bravely Default like Cyberninja and BladedFalcon. Anyway thanks for the review, Ryan.
  • shawksta - February 11, 2014 8:22 a.m.

    Usually I scoff at difficulty complaints but seeing as this is Ryan and not say Cooper or Henry, I can believe it.
  • GR_LucasSullivan - February 11, 2014 9:19 a.m.

  • shawksta - February 11, 2014 10:57 a.m.

    You too Lucas, i trust both you and Ryan to not be defeated by difficulty so easily and start blaming the game unless it truly is the game's fault. Especially in platformers.
  • rainn'sgaydar - February 11, 2014 11:16 a.m.

    I'm confident you just made Lucas's day
  • BladedFalcon - February 11, 2014 1:31 p.m.

    He's speaking the truth though. Both Cooper and Henry are wimps when it comes to games, whereas Ryan and Lucas, even when they might have trouble with a game, don't quit or at least put the blame on the game right away.

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