When Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII was first announced, I wondered why the game had disassociated itself with its chronological title of Final Fantasy XIII-3. After playing Lightning Returns, I understand why the third and final chapter of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy was named the way it is: It bears very little resemblance to its predecessors in the series as well as the trilogy. If you’re expecting a stellar Final Fantasy title, tread carefully into the world of Lightning Returns.
Aesthetics (Story, Graphics, Sound)
The story of Lightning Returns is significantly more compacted than it’s predecessors. From the start, you’re given a straightforward goal: the world will end in thirteen days and you must save as many residents of Nova Chrysalia in that time. As the world is engulfed by Chaos, the plot of Lightning Returns takes a slightly darker tone than the previous FFXIII’s. While I am enjoying the darker tone of the plot and sub-stories, they’re offset by ridiculous plot twists and revelations that are shoehorned into the game. The story and its characters become nonsensical in an over-the-top fashion that almost makes the plot progression irrelevant. JRPG’s rest heavily upon the quality of their story and Lightning Returns just does not have that level of excellence.
In regards to the visual look of Lightning Returns, art style and costume design remain in the vein of the Final Fantasy XIII aesthetic and look nice despite being completely and laughably impractical. I know it’s incredibly influenced by an Eastern sense of fashion, but even these costumes border on being believable. Secondly, when it comes to graphics, somehow Lightning Returns looks worse than it’s predecessors. Maybe certain sacrifices had to be made to handle with framerate issues, but future iterations of a game, especially those that run on the same engine, should be improved and not worsened.
Gameplay (Combat, Systems, Mechanics)
There seems to be a pattern that the Final Fantasy XIII series follows: FFXIII had three party members, FFXIII-2 had two (I don’t count the monsters because they’re not characters), and now Lightning Returns features just one: Lightning herself. Lightning Returns features a more action-oriented battle system that requires real-time action inputs for each attack rather than just overall “Auto-attack” commands. It’s in an interesting change of pace, but some of the intent behind the new system is lost. For example, in past games, in-battle movement was automatic — a design choice that received a lot of negative criticism. Now, the player can control her movement in a battle, but there’s no point; it does very little. Each attack and reaction automatically places you next to the enemy or vice versa, making trying to dodge by movement impractical. It’s simple little annoyances like this throughout that make Lightning Returns a disappointing experience.
One aspect of Lightning Returns that makes the game enticing is the level of customization found in the schemata system ( equipping garbs, swords, shields, and abilities in a three, battle ready sets). The combinations possible and degree of player choice make the game enticing, encouraging the player to collect more and more possible parts and expand their repertoire of battle strategies. It does a lot to keep the game afloat as a JRPG and provides a more satisfying experience when fighting enemies.
What I found to be the most disconcerting and cumbersome about Lightning Returns is the game’s overall structure. The design choice of having a overall time limit on finishing the game really hurts the experience of Lightning Returns. In certain other titles and their genres, the time limit structure can be enjoyable and add to the game’s allure (e.g. Majora’s Mask). But Lightning Returns sells itself as a JRPG and this particular structure cancels two facets of RPG’s that make them enticing: exploration and grinding. It implements a rushed tone onto a game that wants to be explored, to be experienced in full at the player’s pace. But, as a result, certain bi-products of the time limit structure can be seen. One example is that battles do very little now and are basically useless besides filling up your EP gauge. An RPG is like a fantastic novel, meant to enjoyed at the reader’s pace and at the reader’s interpretation, not rushed or constricted.
In the end, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a disappointing title that falls into the same category as Final Fantasy X-2: a pandering title to the fans that is shallow. This is not to say the game is completely bad but I wouldn’t so far as to say it’s good either. It’s enjoyable to an extent, fulfilling certain RPG and Final Fantasy cravings that the game sets out to deliver. But as a stand alone title and as a video game in general, it falls extremely short off the mark.
Final Score: 7 / 10
Written and Edited by Tim Atwood
Chief Editor at The Pixel Pen Review