Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 Review

Lightning Returns reinvents much of the Final Fantasy 13 series. Is that a good thing?

RELEASE DATE: February 11, 2014PLATFORM: PS3 (Reviewed), Xbox 360DEVELOPER: Square Enix, tri-AcePUBLISHER: Square EnixCATEGORY: Action RPG

The short answer is sort of.

Square Enix was tasked with finally putting the world of Fabula Nova Crystallis to rest in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13, which is difficult when the other entries in the series have been so controversial for their unwelcomed changes to storytelling and noobish battle system (although, to play devil’s advocate I’ll argue that the original Final Fantasy 13 was tasked with bringing the franchise to a whole new audience, therefore forced to dumb down its gameplay a bit).

But while Final Fantasy 13 received an uproar from fans for its very linear gameplay and storytelling, it also introduced us to characters we learned to care about.

Spinning out a beautiful, character-driven story is this franchise’s signature attribute. Fans know that if they’re looking for epic quests across impossible worlds, love stories that will leave you in tears, and some of the most clever twists and turns ever produced in video game narration, they should look no further than Final Fantasy13 is no exception. And 13-2 did a great job of turning said story on its head to provide a very welcomed departure from the ties that bound (linear gameplay and storytelling) to deliver an even better story about the systematic destruction of Cocoon, the floating cybernetic world within a world that takes center stage in the first installment, that greatly expanded on the mythology of Fabula Nova Crystallis by using time travel as a narrative device. The second installment remains my favorite entry in the series.

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So Square Enix had to button all that up and bid farewell to the world Final Fantasy 13 set out to unravel in 2009. Not an easy task. What’s admirable in this final installment is that Square Enix was able to pump fresh ideas for gameplay, story, and world design into Lightning Returns instead of simply recycling the things they did in the first two parts. The veteran developer doesn’t take the easy way out, instead striving to wow us one final time. It’s unfortunate that some of the new ideas are what turned me off to this “epic” finale to XIII‘s sing-song.

In Lightning Returns, we once again take control of Lightning, the pink-haired chick who’s on the cover of every XIII game, brandishing intense swords (which some might declare “very Freudian). After taking a bit of a secondary role in XIII-2 (NOTE: And I’m not even going to TRY to summarize the things that have happened thus far in this extremely intricate story because just no. Chances are that, if you’re even bothering to play the third installment, you’ve played the first two games in the series. And if you haven’t played Final Fantasy 13 and 13-2, put the controller down, run to your nearest video game store, and play those first! But here’s the story so far just in case you’re too lazy…), Lightning is back to wreak havoc on the Chaos (dark energy from a pretty crappy place known as the Unseen Realms [or Mordor]) that’s spread throughout the world and threatens to engulf all of existence. But really, her goal is always to reunite with her sister Serah, who turns into crystal in the first game and dies due to a time paradox in the second. Lucky for her, Lightning’s a servant of God and makes a deal to resurrect her sister in exchange for saving some souls before the world ends in thirteen days — which seems a little counterintuitive to me, but it’s way more complicated than that.

The story is a bit of a departure from the other two games in that it feels a lot more self-contained, as if all it has in common is recurring characters from the first two games. This final adventure feels like it comes from left field, as if meant to be a retcon of the mythology presented in past installments (which is something they can do after that whole business of rewriting time in XIII-2 — space-time continuum blah blah blah). 

It’s unfortunate then that the story this time around isn’t very captivating. You’d think that being dropped into a world that’s going to end in thirteen days would offer players an epic and tear-soaked experience, but it just doesn’t. It might be the frantic tone of the story, or the fact that Lightning is basically a robot in this installment (which is explained in-game; basically, God stripped her of her humanity to make the whole saving souls before the end of the world easier on her). I like my Final Fantasy games spewing with feeling, and we just don’t get that from this portrayal of Lightning, who’s gone through so many transformations that she just doesn’t have much space to develop as a character or connect with other characters anymore. She’s all warrior of the Light, which could definitely be cool, but instead it’s like they put a pink wig on Kristen Stewart and sent on her way via Chocobo. I didn’t feel the sense of urgency this world was trying to portray or have the emotional connection with characters I’d come to love. It almost seems as if Square Enix says, “You’ve gotten to know who these characters are and what they’re all about. There’s no need to develop them any further.” I disagree.

There are some major changes to gameplay in Lightning Returns, primarily a refresh to the battle system and a timer you must play against in order to keep the world from ending prematurely (very Majora’s Mask).

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It’s a one-character based battle system (basically, you’re only going to be battling with Lightning for most of the game) that revolves around the different garb, or “Schemata” that Lightning collects and customizes throughout the adventure. Every Schemata is super customizable — you can play around with the looks, attacks, and ATB meter. Think Dressphere from Final Fantasy X-2, which is probably the biggest influence on this game. This system still uses elements of the Paradigm Shift system from the previous installments, but with much more user input. It’s what made me keep coming back when the story was putting me to sleep. My qualm with battling in the game isn’t with the battle system at all, but with the battles themselves. They’re pointless for the most part. You don’t gain XP when you win battles, which makes me wonder why I should bother going toe-to-toe with baddies if the fights don’t affect me at all. I reiterate: the awesome battle system kept me coming back.

So everything depends completing quests — XP, how much time you add to the clock, etc. Too bad much of the side quest portion of the game is the MOST annoying. Largely made up of fetch missions (my least favorite in any game), you start to feel as if Lightning has been bestowed the title of “Cosmic Courier” instead of Savior. Alas, you gotta eat your vegetables, though. Completing quests means gaining valuable XP and keeping one step ahead of the timer that’s constantly counting down in-game. Not completing enough quests means the world will end before you’re able to finish your holy mission.

While I’m generally pleased with the conclusion of the overall arc of Fabula Nova Chrystallis, I end this review a little underwhelmed, wishing I’d been captivated like I was with the first two games, a tear-soaked controller in hand due to the realization that I’d never see these characters again. Instead, I’m a little befuddled. Still, here’s to you, Lightning. Thanks for the memories.


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