Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIIIPlatform: Playstation 3 (reviewed), Xbox 360 Developed by Square Enix Published by Square Enix Directed by Motomu Toriyama Produced by Yoshinori Kitase Starring: Ali Hillis, Vincent Martella, Jessica DiCicco
Final Fantasy XIII is a fairly divisive part of the Final Fantasy series, mostly for doing things differently and Lightning Returns is certainly a game that does things differently.
The story follows Lightning as she awakens from her crystal sleep, blackmailed by the god Bhunivelze into becoming the saviour of a dying world. Her task, whether she chooses to accept it or not, is to guide the souls of the living to a new world created by Bhunivelze, a paradise. The world is going to end in 13 days and with the help of series main stay Hope, also roped in by the god, Lightning sets foot in the city of Yusnaan on Nova Chrysalia to confront its patron, another familiar face.
The story outside of this opening/tutorial sequence is actually very free form. You can complete the 5 main quests in any order you see fit, spanning the two cities of Luxerion and Yusnaan to the vast, open Wildlands and Dead Dunes. Each of the 5 main quests focus on one of the main characters of the previous two games and honestly, you need a working knowledge of the past two games in order to feel welcome. The opening tutorial outwardly speaks about both Hope and Snow as if you’ve known them for a long time and does the same with the other main characters you meet throughout the game, which isn’t a problem for me but for some could really ruin the experience. Having met the required knowledge to start the game however what you will find is a nostalgic, fun and sometimes emotional ride through the end of XIII’s ever growing cast.
Unfortunately not all the characters are handled with the level of detail expected in telling their last stories. One character in particular’s main mission consists of a fetch quest made up of 5 fetch quests and barely any interaction or conversation, a complete after thought and a lack of effort show Square just didn’t have any idea how to carry on this character. A lot of the character’s motivations are very similar to previous games too, Lightning and Snow want to save Serah, Noel and Caius want to save Yeul, Fang wants to save Vanille and Sazh wants to save his son, it’s very much a disappointment to see the cast develop so much in the past two games and then regress so much for the sake of giving Lightning something to do.
It’s a shame because there actually is a hell of a lot to do in Lightning Returns. Covering 4 areas are absolutely loads of random NPCs each with their own unique design and voice who need your help and who better to ask than the saviour? Most of these quests pan out in a fairly normal side quest manner, some are fetch quests and others are defeating monsters while some are simply to talk to a group of people. There’s very little fault to be found in the base gameplay, it’s all very well polished and balanced. The defeating monsters quests are all tied to items in your inventory so as long as you don’t go selling all your items you never have to worry if you’ve previously extinct an entire species before entering the quest.
Yes you can extinct species. The story goes that once the chaos bled forth unto the world, everyone stopped aging and the birth process was stopped, this means that no new monsters will be born. If you go out of your way you can hunt almost every species in the game to extinction, leaving a “last one” that will make a slightly tougher version of the enemy in question, a sort of sub-boss fight.
The combat system is incredibly nuanced and very different for the Final Fantasy franchise. Lightning is mostly alone in combat this time, though she can change freely between different schemas which alter your ability set ups and costumes. Strangely you can use the left stick to actually move her around the battlefield, very very very slowly, seriously she shuffles around, fortunately you don’t have to move to have Lightning move, as you attack she will move in and out of her own free will. Magic attacks tend to move Light far away from the enemy in order to avoid damage while physical attacks throw Lightning into the middle of the combat. There are however a few attack moves that don’t affect how she moves and if you use them Lightning will just spin around, dancing and not hitting anything, which is a waste of your precious time.
In Lightning Returns, time is a commodity and a tool and is very precious indeed. In combat the active time battle meter returns, each of your schemas has its own ATB meter that will charge up when it is not in use or you are not attacking. Time exists outside of combat though, the 13 days remaining are permanently counting down in the main world, this is no cause for concern really as while there is the added pressure of a Dead Rising-esque countdown clock the effect is more of a continued urgency as opposed to a restriction, that’s not to say that time does not restrict you however. Lots of areas are timed to open at specific times during the day, certain sections of the cities are locked to only open at night and side quests too are day and night orientated, some may say this is bad, I would say it’s integral to creating a living, breathing world and that is exactly what Lightning Returns has.
The city of Luxerion, while not entirely huge, is a perfect example of how to create a city that feels alive. The hustle and bustle of the sacred city is incredible, not once do the people feel like they aren’t doing something. Every non playable character wanders the world, seemingly with their own goals and intents, they all feel alive. All of the NPCs, quest based or not, seem to have different voice actors and most have different designs, a lot of random characters on the field are in mid conversation, sometimes with themselves, sometimes with other NPCs and a lot of them tend to comment on the sign of the times or interacting with Lightning based on what outfit you traverse the field in. All of this happens wherever you are in the world but it’s certainly more noticeable in the big cities.
What’s more noticeable is that the Crystal Engine certainly isn’t created for this kind of game. In Final Fantasy XIII and even XIII-2 the environments were beautifully crafted, smooth and detailed, Lightning Returns’ open world is slightly too big and busy for the Crystal Engine to manage sometimes. Sprinting through Luxerion is a great feeling but oftentimes the screen gets too busy and the framerate drops drastically and the same happens elsewhere in the world too, even in the fairly empty by comparison Wildlands. Lightning and friends character models are just as stunning as ever, though most of the random characters loitering around don’t seem to have had the pleasure of having quite as detailed clothing or faces and there are even times when I’ve seen some poorly rendered textures on walls in the background. It’s unfortunate that such a pretty set of games has been diminished by strain on the engine but nothing but the framerate is particularly game breaking and when it counts the framerate has never stopped me performing a perfect block or evading an enemy I simply didn’t have time for.
The soundtrack is one of my favourite parts of the series of XIII games and Lightning Returns still delivers. A lot of the more iconic older tracks from the previous games have been re-used and even re-orchestrated into new genres or styles completely while the new tracks are just as diverse as ever. There are not a lot of string segments here though, the glorious orchestration of the last games have been replaced by more choral grandstanding and the more electronic heavy tracks have been strengthened being far more drum and bass heavy than before. Song wise though, there’s nothing more delightful than to hear re-workings of previous tracks being sung by buskers on the street, hey there are even some one man band outfits playing very old school Final Fantasy pieces working the streets of Yusnaan and that kind of homage to its past is a real treat to hear.
The voice acting is still top notch in Lightning Returns as Ali Hillis manages to deliver an incredibly dry and humorous lead and the cast of the last games return to voice the major characters they were, still at such a great quality. The script needs work in places, the main story gets really convoluted in its wording, especially that of the words God and hope. That said the side quest dialogue is perfectly bizarre, there’s one scene where Lightning is talking to a cat about how weird it is to be talking to a cat and there are plenty of times where Lightning throws slight comedic digs at quest givers. Outside of all of the fun, there is one warning, Hope talks a lot, definitely too much. If you are one of the many people who hate Hope, you may want to buy a stress ball for this game.
All in all Lightning Returns is a fond, if flawed farewell to the Final Fantasy of the last generation and an addictive look at what makes games like Majora’s Mask and Dead Rising so interesting. It’s incredibly hard to recommend this game to someone who isn’t already a fan of the series and of XIII in particular seeing as so much of the plot revolves around knowing and enjoying the past but the combat system is truly fun and there’s a ridiculous amount of customisation, if you’re looking for an action RPG that you can spend a lot of time in and enjoy XIII’s world and characters, this game is for you.