The saga is complete, and what a saga it was. The polarizing Final Fantasy XIII trilogy reaches its conclusion in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII; one of the latest and boldest entries in the Japanese role-playing game genre. The games have garnered a fanbase and praise from critics over the years, but also a tidal wave of harsh criticisms from many members of the video game community.
This time around, it’s more than evident that the developers at Square-Enix have taken all the public feedback into consideration, but maybe not in the way that some expected. They gathered the familiar elements, old and new, tossed it into a melting pot with an insane and fantastical narrative and loads of conditioner (how else do the characters get their hair like that?), and came out with Lightning Returns. It’s a great thing that the developers didn’t completely submit and turn the title into what everyone was expecting; an old-school traditional RPG. Instead, they have created something wholly unique to the franchise that, while far from perfect, evolves and creates a new standard for the JRPG genre.
Lightning’s saga first began with Final Fantasy XIII back in 2009 (2010 in North America). She and the series have since evolved dramatically, for the better. A series that once relied heavily on its narrative, leaving the gameplay to be a series of hallways with a good combat system, has since become a huge adventure with a continent to explore and a superb combat system.
While I still enjoyed the first two FFXIII games, I can admit that the story has always been pretty hard to follow. Fortunately, Lightning Returns doesn’t abandon the mythology that the first two games created, but finally shapes it into something that feels real. Finally, the circumstances give weight to how you play the game and the narrative. Similarly, the cast of characters that were once hard to sympathize with now feel real as well. What used to feel like a confusing soap opera is now a confusing soap opera that makes sense and carries some emotional poignancy. I will say, there are a couple of moments that are still just as befuddling as before, but this game takes full liberty of the word “fantasy,” and grabs the concept by the reins, creating a magical world with very real issues underneath it all. Just remember to suspend your disbelief.
Many of the game’s best moments have to do with the impending end of the world. This scenario allows for a slew of very interesting moments with a ton of NPCs that need Lightning’s help for their own closure before certain death. These moments are masked with sidequests that make up a good portion of the game. At the beginning, Lightning’s guide and former ally Hope Estheim makes it very clear that you will not be able to save everyone’s soul before the end of the world. The clock is constantly ticking down to Armageddon in Lightning Returns; however, this actually does not detract from exploration and experiencing the stories within the game.
There’s a nice variety of side quests that you will encounter; mostly fetch quests, but like Hope and the game tells you at the beginning, it isn’t recommended that you actually go out in search of many items and people to fulfill people’s wishes. Why? Because the game will have you traveling the continent all over, so all you’ll have to do is just go about on your way, picking up everything or doing everything you need to, paying attention to the lists of tasks that have been given to you and collecting or interacting with people along the way. If a character isn’t where you’d expect at a certain time of the day, there are a ton of other things to do in the game in the meantime. Basically, don’t sweat it. You’ll save them eventually, even if it’s by accident.
The clock and nature of these sidequests streamlines the gameplay considerably, and it makes Lightning’s adventure feel that much more natural. To further prevent the feel of a bunch of tacked on side quests, as I mentioned, each person in need has their own story to be told. You may find some more compelling than others, but some of them are tiny exercises in great storytelling that help flesh out the world in a very unique way. In that sense, Lightning Returns nearly revolutionizes the way NPC and environment interaction is carried out in a JRPG. I imagine that this is precisely what the developers meant when they said the game would be “world-driven”. As well, it should be noted that the doomsday clock can be extended, and I actually wound up completing the game in 60 hours so you’ll have plenty of time to save tons of people, complete the main quest (save your friends), and explore the whole continent if you’d like. It’s the best way to get the most out of Lightning Returns, since there isn’t much reason to replay the game unless you waste time, end up unprepared for the end of the world, and fail miserably.
As for that combat… oh boy. I love this combat system; it may be favorite one to date. Explaining it is difficult though, since there’s nothing else quite like it. Most Final Fantasy games feature a party system with around four characters with specific abilities and strategies to carry out. This time, however, Lightning is the whole party. Lightning can changes jobs at a whim, and so does her outfit, which has the specific attributes that dictate her specific strengths when donning that garb. Rather than selecting an action and waiting for its execution, the player is given full control of Lightning’s actions. Battles then consist of knowing exactly when to guard or attack and how. To this extent, the most difficult battles require precise control and concentration, akin to Dark Souls; one wrong move, and you’re in trouble.
The difficulty has been amped up significantly in Lightning Returns. Health no longer rejuvenates outside of battle (at least not in Normal mode), but can only be restored through certain in-battle commands (nothing easy like Cure) or from the host of vendors that sell food or potions. The stakes are high, and the battles are tense. I made the mistake of running into a region covered in Chaos at the beginning of the game and getting my ass thoroughly handed to me on a silver platter. Proper preparation is key. In turn, victory against the most brutal enemies becomes one of the most satisfying moments I have felt in gaming to date, and honestly drives the whole game to greatness.
Success in Lightning Returns is also reliant not only on skill, but on customization. The customization in this game is so damn deep, it’s filthy (in a good way). You can definitely tell that the designers had a blast creating the tons of outfits for Lightning; there’s something for everyone. Also, the length to which you can customize Lightning’s commands is intense. You’ll find, by the end of the game, that you have created a Lightning that is entirely unique and your own that fights like no one else’s. It feels personal, gratifying, and downright badass when you’ve conquered a plethora of difficult trials and enemies with an arsenal, strategies, and tactics that you have created from the ground up. There’s a pretty hefty learning curve, but the splendid payout for your efforts makes it well worth it.
Unfortunately, while the core game feels polished and well-thought out, the game suffers from technical drawbacks. The framerate will occasionally drop when exploring the continent, which tells me the developers probably ran out of time after refining the gameplay and had to ignore some of the cosmetics. While the three lands are all designed very nicely, and are vastly different from each other in atmosphere, the textures can sometimes seem very rough. Similarly, the NPCs don’t look all that great either, but just good enough. On the other hand, monsters and main character models still look fantastic. Pivotal areas in the plot are also completely refined and gorgeous, keeping the right atmosphere in central locations, like the conclusion of the game.
When the graphics falter, you can expect that Square-Enix will go all out and bring the goods in the game’s soundtrack, and it has been brought. Different songs play at different times of the day in different areas, and many of them are stellar, exemplifying the game’s atmosphere with many melodies that feel traditional, experimental, and nostalgic for fans of the series.
As a whole, there’s nothing really quite like Lightning Returns. The core gameplay shines through a streamlined action-JRPG formula that could likely enlist RPG fans who just couldn’t get into the first two games. The changes are dramatic, and it’s nearly all for the best. The storytelling is still a bit messy, but actually makes sense, finally. Its interesting mythology that has been present through the games has finally been implemented in the explicit narrative, not just the in-game database, bringing the plot, legends, and characters to life at last. Of course, knowledge of the game’s previous events and characters is what will give you the best experience with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, but is not necessary.
There’s a certain closure and finality to the series that feels very satisfying all throughout, whether because of the numerous subplots all under the umbrella of Armageddon or the superb and tense combat system. A number of technical problems can be pretty off-putting here and there, but it doesn’t detract from the entire journey. If it had only been more refined, this title truly could have been a class act. With its ups and downs, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is still an undeniably fun entry in the series, and by far the best in the trilogy. It’s about time.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is available for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. If you want to quickly play catch-up before embarking on the last adventure, you can check out the first two games’ cutscenes compiled in movie format here and here.