Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy is one of those roleplaying game franchises that tends to polarize supposed “fans” with each new mainline release, and such was the case with the release of Final Fantasy XIII during the previous console generation, hailed to be part of the Fabula Nova Crystallis subseries of the storied pantheon, similar to how Final Fantasy XII and the Tactics subgames are part of the Ivalice Alliance. FF13 would see a direct sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2, plus another successor to form a trilogy of narratively-interconnected titles, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, which is largely on par with its predecessors, both a good and a bad thing.

As with the previous FF13 games, Lightning Returns features a different take on visible encounters, with foes occasionally popping up in the middle of the various areas, and if the player doesn’t wish to fight them, they can simply run away. Attacking an enemy from behind will result in the depletion of a fourth of its life, attacking it from the front results in its loss of ten percent, and any other form of contact results in Lightning fighting the antagonist at its maximum health. If the player isn’t up to facing the adversary, they can pause the battle and retreat at no cost.

If players do, however, choose to fight the party of one or more foes, they can have Lightning use a command assigned to one of the PlayStation 3’s four face buttons, which one can set up in the game interface, innate skills dependent upon one of three dresses the heroine can equip while participating in battle. Commands include the standard attack, guarding, and various magic spells, with players further able to use one of six equippable consumables when they pause the battle. All commands consume a certain part of Lightning’s active time gauge, although fortunately, if players run out, they can use the L1 and R1 buttons to switch to another dress, with AT recovering slowly.

As with Final Fantasy XIII-2, Lightning Returns takes hints from the original FF13 with the ability to stagger enemies, in which case they become significantly weaker and unable to attack for a period, with exploitation of their weaknesses increasing the likelihood of staggering them. Luckily, the player will most likely have enough capacity to equip skills on Lightning’s combat dresses to account for all possibilities when facing antagonists. Should the player happen to lose all health, they can retreat from battle at no cost, with items used during the failed battle mercifully recovered.

If Lightning is victorious, however, the player gains some money, maybe an item, and a certain amount of EP, which the player can use outside battle to full restore the health of each of her dresses and eventually teleport to certain locations in each of the major areas. Distinguishing Lightning Returns from most other RPGs is that her stats increase through the completion of story and side quests instead of combat itself, and unfortunately, direction in many of the additional errands is often vague, but if certain story battles give players trouble, and they can’t seem to progress on extra missions in the current region, they can simply seek experience elsewhere.

The battle system works decently for the most part, although the lack of stat development through standard battles will definitely be off-putting to certain players. Even so, Lightning Returns implements the idea of a limited timeframe with which to finish the main quest somewhat better than other titles that have the same idea, such as The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and should the player run out of time before completing all missions necessary to finish the main plotline, they can start from the beginning with a New Game+ with stats retained, with subsequent playthroughs consequentially becoming somewhat less taxing.

Lightning Returns generally interfaces well with the player, with an easy menu system and tasks such as shopping for items and equipment, the teleport function allowing for easier conveyance among visited landmarks within each of the major areas (and the EP required to use it doesn’t take too long to recover through battles), the main storyline having mostly clear direction, and the player able to save their game in most places outside combat. Granted, the game makes it difficult to view total playtime, and direction for the non-story quests could have definitely been better, but interaction overall is one of the better aspects of the trilogy’s conclusion.

The weak point of Lightning Returns is undoubtedly its narrative, with the time it occurs after XIII-2 somewhat being unclear, possibly centuries, which creates chronological confusion, and while there is decent backstory and mythology accessible in the game’s interface, the chief storyline somewhat feels disjoined and unnatural, with Lightning, as God’s savior, having to perform menial tasks to advance what little central plotline there is, multiple playthroughs further necessary to get the most out of the story aspect. The translation, however, is solid for the most part aside from the occasional inconsistency regarding the capitalization of “God,”, although even so, don’t expect a great plot from this game.

The music is enjoyable for the most part, although there are issues with how it plays throughout the game, in many cases not at all, with ambient noise accompanying Lightning’s many strolls throughout the game’s environs. The voicework is good as with its predecessors, so the conclusion’s aural aspect definitely isn’t a total writeoff.

Another weakness of Lightning Returns is its visual style, which seems somewhat downgraded from its predecessors, with choppy animation and blurry, pixilated texturing in many environments, although the character models look good.

Finally, running out the game’s internal clock can occur in less than half a day’s worth of playing time, with subsequent playthroughs adding decent replay value.

In conclusion, Lightning Returns is an enjoyable conclusion to its Final Fantasy subseries that hits many of the right notes with regards to aspects such as its battle system, localization, some of its soundtrack, and especially its replay value, although it does leave plentiful room for improvement regarding the lack of experience from standard battles, the vagueness of the objectives of many of the sidequests, the lacking manner in which the music presents itself, and the flawed visual style. Those who enjoyed its precursors will likely enjoy this conclusion, but it’s by no means a superb game.

The Good:
+Solid battle system.
+Strong localization.
+Some good music.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Stats only increase through quests, some objectives being unclear.
-Weak storytelling.
-Many parts without music.
-Subpar visuals.

The Bottom Line:
Ends the Final Fantasy XIII subseries on a decent note.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 3
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 4/10
Localization: 9/10
Music/Sound: 6/10
Graphics: 5/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: Less than 12 hours per playthrough

Overall: 7/10

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