[Review] Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

ライトニング リターンズ ファイナルファンタジーXIII

If you’ve been following this blog for a while now, you may remember that back in 2016, I played the original Final Fantasy XIII to completion and found it to be… a decidedly okay experience. It wasn’t a particularly memorable title and it does bleed from several wounds, but I can’t say I share the same level of disdain for it as a lot of other people. That very same year, I had the misfortune of also playing its abandoned stepchild of a sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2, which then became my least favorite Final Fantasy game of all time. Yeah. To say the series took a nosedive with this entry would be an understatement; in fact, XIII-2 soured me on the entire XIII series, and in an attempt to alleviate the pain it had so insidiously inflicted upon me, I never went on to finish the trilogy with Lightning Returns. Not the smartest move in retrospect, but allow me to elaborate. It took three goddamn years for the mental scars to heal and for me to consider returning to the XIII saga to finish what I had started. And it was totally worth it. Lightning Returns, as you might’ve guessed from the title alone, revolves around Lightning Returning (shocking, I know) and is actually a pretty good game, all things considered.

Nope, there’s not gonna be a funny ha-ha joke after that sentence, and this isn’t a setup for some kind of bait-and-switch surprise, either. I meant every single word of what I’ve just said, or rather, typed: yes, Lightning Returns is a genuinely fun game. I almost can’t believe it myself, but here we are. LR is easily the best installment in the XIII trilogy that does the only sensible thing it can as a follow-up to the complete and utter trainwreck that was XIII-2: making sure to distance itself from it as much as it can (do note how it’s not even called XIII-3), throw everything out the window and start with a clean slate, at least in terms of gameplay. And it worked. By some miracle, Square-Enix managed to create a game in the XIII series that is, get this, legitimately enjoyable without any major caveats.

Third time’s a charm, I guess.

So what’s Lightning Returns even about? Well, it’s about the end of the world and how everything’s fucked. No, really. That’s actually what the plot is about. It’s been a THOUSAND YEARS since the events of the original Final Fantasy XIII when Lightning finally awakens from the world’s longest nap, only to learn that the entire world is now on the brink of collapse because of Chaos. Oh, and that she has a mere 6 days before shit hits the fan, after which the god Bhunivelze will create a new world for man to inhabit. The surge of Chaos came with a few additional side effects as well, if the slow and gradual unraveling of the universe wasn’t bad enough: people have completely stopped aging and no new children can be born. As for Lightning herself, she now acts as an agent of Bhunivelze and goes by the title of 解放者 / Savior (literally “liberator”). Her mission is not entirely unlike that of a lone but determined firefighter hoping to rescue kittens from a burning building: she has to save as many troubled souls as possible before the end of the current world so that they can be reincarnated into the new one without a hitch. In short, things are so fucked that humanity’s only chance is to start over from scratch with new lives in a new world, which is actually pretty depressing when you think about it.

You probably have a lot of questions right now, and that’s perfectly normal. Welcome to the FFXIII trilogy, baby. But really, if you need a refresher, go check out a plot summary for the first two games. It’s what I did. Overall, I feel LR’s connections to the first game are probably stronger compared to its ties to XIII-2 (I can’t really blame them; I’d also want to forget XIII-2 ever happened) simply because the focus is once again on Lightning, although characters from both titles do show up for various cameos here and there. Nonetheless, the story on the whole is about Lightning returning after a long absence and meeting up with her old companions, while Serah, the protagonist of the second game, is largely absent due to Plot Reasons, meaning that references and callbacks to the original XIII are a touch more frequent.

As for the plot itself, I didn’t particularly mind it too much. And it’s not as hard to follow as people make it out to be, honestly. Granted, it’s sort of just there in the background and you only occasionally remember it even exists because you spend 90% of your time dicking around with side quests; LR realizes that its main appeal lies in fleshing out its apocalyptic world through NPC side stories, and is kind enough not to take up too much of your time with the main quest so you can promptly get back to making Sakamoto Maaya say embarrassing pickup lines to scantily-clad Chocobo girls. Yes, there really is a quest like that. Anyway, you basically meet up with a character from a previous game in every region (the reason they’re still around is explained by the whole “no aging” thing) and do a quick catch-up to find out what they’ve been up to these past few hundred years and how you can help them. In one area you have to break into Snow’s fortress to beat some sense into him (a tried-and-true tradition established in the early hours of the first game), in another you help Fang retrieve some ancient artifact that she needs in order to help Vanille, and there’s even an elaborate quest that involves, I shit you not, nursing a legendary white-feathered Chocobo back to health. Snow’s story arc was probably my favorite since I’ve always enjoyed that whole brother/sister dynamic he had going on with Lightning, but the others weren’t terrible, either, and besides, none of them overstay their welcome. This game essentially serves as one big high school reunion for the XIII gang, and it manages to do that decently enough, provided you’ve played the previous games and know who these people even are. The tragedy of Lightning Returns, then, is that it’s a fun game, but you sort of have to trudge through two not-as-fun games to be able to get to it, which is probably more than what a lot of people are willing to put up with. But hey, maybe the real Fabula Nova Crystallis was the friends we made along the way.

The ending was satisfying enough; I feel like Square did the best they could with the material they had. I mean, sure, the finale couldn’t quite restrain itself and just had to include an overly corny “the power of friendship compels you” type of scene, but eh, fuck it. They’ve earned their cheese. So whatever. The main cast and the trilogy as a whole got a proper sendoff and the implication that [rot13 spoilers] rirelbar tbg ervapneangrq ba cerfrag qnl Rnegu was a nice touch. Overall, it gave me a good sense of closure. Even though, from a narrative standpoint, neither this game nor XIII-2 were really necessary, seeing how the original XIII was a self-contained story with a perfectly wrapped-up ending that didn’t need any sequels. And honestly, I kind of wish this story had ended with the first game. But like I said above, Lightning Returns did the best it could wrapping the trilogy up in a dignified way, so kudos for that.

The structure of the game is fairly unconventional, and by unconventional I mean non-linear. LR’s world consists of four main regions: two cities and two wilderness areas. There’s Luxerion, a somewhat European-looking city with a cathedral and a cemetery; Yusnaan, a bustling tourist paradise with fireworks, exquisite restaurants and arena fights; the Wildlands, a countryside area characterized by lush plains and forests; and finally, the Dead Dunes, a massive desert with more than a handful of ancient ruins that all lead to a complex underground tunnel system, in case you ever want to escape the scorching heat to go tomb raiding. Also, you can even slide down sand dunes like in Nier: Automata. That shit never stops being fun. Anyway, there’s a main objective to complete in each region, and while it’s generally advisable to start your journey with Luxerion/Yusnaan while saving the Dead Dunes/Wildlands for later, there’s nothing stopping your from hopping on a train and visiting each of these locations right from the start.

In many ways, Lightning Returns is the complete anti-thesis of Final Fantasy XIII. While the latter chained you to a series of hallways during the majority of its campaign, the former sets you loose in its sandbox and allows you to frolic around in four notably distinct (though only moderately-sized) open areas, each of which is fairly dense in content. XIII also had no real towns to explore, no meaningful side quests to complete or charming NPCs to chat up — shortcomings that Lightning Returns successfully remedies. While playing the original XIII is more like being forcefully railroaded through a visually stunning CGI movie, Lightning Returns feels like an actual video game with actual stuff to do in it. To put it bluntly, this is the game that finally fixes Final Fantasy XIII.

I believe it’s about time we addressed the elephant in the room: the dreaded time limit mechanic. As mentioned above, the world of LR is on the brink of destruction, with only a few days left before it completely ceases to exist. And that’s not just a fancy, symbolic thing, either: when the game says the clock is ticking, it really is ticking. Like, for real. And if you run out of days before accomplishing your main goals, it’s game over, man. Lightning Returns, in short, is the Majora’s Mask of Final Fantasies. It features a day/night cycle and time constantly passes while you go about doing your business in various parts of the world; if a quest giver tells you to come back the next day, you need to go back the next day, and if there’s a time-related requirement involved with a certain task, it helps to be punctual. Similarly, most NPCs will only appear at certain times of the day, a few vendors will close up shop for the night, and there are even a handful of areas that can only be accessed if you go there at a specific time. For some people, this may seem more than a little intimidating, but the fact of the matter is that LR’s whole time limit mechanic sounds a lot scarier than it actually is in practice.

First off, the game initially tells you that the world will end in 6 days, but this can be extended to a whopping 14 days by completing quests. You also have access to an ability called Chronostasis that allows you to temporarily freeze the clock by spending Glory Points (GP)*, a resource you can gradually replenish by defeating enemies. A single use of Chronostasis costs 1 GP, and while the majority of trash mobs only reward you with minuscule amounts like 0.1 and such, some of the more powerful monsters found in the game can even barf out two full points of GP after you slay them. Secondly, you actually have more time than you think. Really. With Chronostasis, it becomes possible to significantly extend the duration of every single day, allowing you to get more things done before the timer runs out. To put things into perspective, and to give you some peace of mind, I suppose, do consider this: I completed all five main quests and the majority of side quests (50-something out of a total of 66) in the game by Day 8. “But what if the timer runs out before you’ve completed everything?” you may ask. Are you doomed to start all over from the beginning? Well, yes and no. Sure, failing to complete all the main missions in time means having to roll back to Day 1 (with all quests resetting), but, and this is a pretty significant but… you get to keep all your shit. Yup. Even if you mess up, you can immediately start over with a New Game+ and retain all your stats, items, gear, money and so on. So while the doomsday clock aspect may be overwhelming at first, just remember that Lightning Returns was probably designed with the player’s potential failure in mind; you basically get stronger even if you lose, and there’s literally no way to irreparably screw yourself over due to the game’s extremely lenient NG+ feature.

*Note: Glory Points (GP) are called Energy Points (EP) in the English version

Having said all that, the mere existence of a ticking clock can be a little stressful at first, because even if your brain realizes that it’s probably not as big of a deal as people make it out to be (and it’s not), it’s still gonna be constantly there in the back of your mind — and the upper right corner of your screen. Honestly, my main complaint about the time mechanic is that without a constant reliance on Chronostasis, each day goes by a bit too fast. An in-game hour flies past in only a couple real-world minutes, and in a lot of cases this doesn’t allow you to really stop and smell the roses, since you constantly have to be on the move lest risk missing important time windows. Similarly, the aforementioned Chronostasis only lasts for a few minutes, so when you do use it, especially in the early parts of the game, it’s vital that you make the most of those few minutes so as not to waste your GP. As previously explained, certain NPCs and areas only open up at certain times of the day, so you do occasionally have to plan ahead and make a schedule for yourself; I myself would often look at the clock and go “oh shit I gotta be back in Luxerion by midnight, better hurry!” before dashing off like a flustered schoolgirl with a piece of toast in her mouth. The time limit also becomes a minor, though nonetheless frustrating, inconvenience whenever you’re trying to listen to Hope, your Guy In The Chair for this game, who often supplies you with useful information, tidbits of lore, or his own personal comments about a quest (which usually leads to some amusing banter between him and Lightning). You know, stuff you’d generally want to pay attention to. Except you can’t always do that, because every time you enter a battle (which is pretty often, due to the game’s aggressively high encounter rates), the dialogue won’t continue exactly where it left off pre-fight. This was driving me insane in dungeons. Sure, you could also just stand in one place and listen to him talk, but then you’d be wasting precious in-game minutes. Or worse, your Chronostasis. There are times when this game knows absolutely no chill whatsoever.

I’ll be completely honest: I pretty much spent the first two or three hours of this game being perpetually annoyed, so if that’s your initial reaction to the time/quest mechanics, don’t worry about it too much. Keep playing and things will hopefully fall into place after a while. Once I’d gotten used to managing my time and not letting the somewhat unconventional design choices get to me, I noticed something weird: I was starting to enjoy myself.

So we’ve established that Lightning has now been upgraded to JRPG Jesus Christ, but how does the whole “save the souls of mankind” thing translate into gameplay? Very easily. With side quests. Saving souls means ridding people of whatever lingering troubles they might still have at the twilight of the current world, which basically means doing their side quests and guiding them to a hopefully cathartic resolution that finally lets them move on or find peace. This is pretty much where the real meat of the game lies, and it’s how Lightning Returns handles much of its world-building. While the game does have a separate category for generic notice board quests that mimic the rather MMO-esque “please collect 10 rusty nails for my rusty nail collection” type of quest design, these can be safely ignored, and besides, you’ll likely complete a decent portion of them by simply playing the game. What I’m talking about are the proper side quests offered by various NPCs scattered across the four regions, and you sort of just have to discover them for yourself. There are NPCs you’ll run into during the day, others will only be out and about at night, and some quests only become accessible after another one had been completed, so it’s worth revisiting old locations from time to time.

For your first playthrough, I would strongly advise fighting off the urge to immediately fire up a quest guide with the intention of following it to a tee. Now, obviously I’m not your dad so I’m not gonna tell you what to do, but I get the feeling that looking stuff up in a walkthrough every two minutes would be a sure-fire way to overwhelm yourself and potentially ruin the majority of the experience. It’s okay to take a peek now and then (especially if you’re just trying to clean up leftover tasks before the final dungeon), but one of the things I enjoyed about LR is how organic quest acquisition felt and how I’d often end up just randomly stumbling upon quests during my travels. Similarly, certain quests give you intentionally vague-ish directions and there are no Skyrim-esque quest markers for every single thing, meaning you often have to look around and find stuff on your own. There’s a certain fun to be had in that, especially if you hate it when games hold your hand too much. There are a few optional outfits that can only be acquired via quests, though, so if the fashion/dressup aspect of the game is as important to you as it was to me, then you might want to consult a guide for those, at least. Hell, one of my personal favorite outfits in the game, the Blue Mage, is exclusively available from a rather elaborate and easily missable side quest, so… you know. I totally understand wanting to look things up now and then.

Regardless of how you go about doing it, completing side quests is quite essential for Lightning’s growth, as quest rewards are given not just in the form of money and items, but permanent stat bonuses as well. In fact, this is the only way to become more powerful in the game, aside from acquiring better gear, of course. Lightning Returns features no levels and no experience points, which means you can’t grind the traditional way; if you want to increase Lightning’s base strength, magic, and maximum HP, you have to complete quests. It’s how the game incentivizes exploring its varied repertoire of side content and actually makes quests feel worthwhile: after all, it’s hard not to see the long-term benefits of a permanent power boost that even carries over to subsequent New Game+ playthroughs.

Now, the good news is that a decent chunk of the side quests encountered throughout the game tell a story of their own, and while they do vary in terms of quality and length, what impressed me the most is how a good number of them all contributed to recurring themes such as death, mortality, or nurturing hope for the future even in the face of despair. A lot of these quests actually end on surprising, touching, or even tragic notes; if you stop and think about them for a moment, it really begins to sink in just how bleak this world is and how much suffering its inhabitants have endured. There’s a markedly bittersweet tone to almost every facet of the game, and some quests even end up dealing with surprisingly heavy topics, such as the existence of people who stopped aging when they were children and thus retained their child bodies but are, in fact, hundreds of years old. At one point, I recall hearing a throwaway line from a random NPC who mentioned how surviving in the wilderness is especially trying for those perpetually trapped in child bodies, seeing how they’re physically weaker and cannot properly fend off monsters — remember, aging may no longer be a thing, but people can still very much die as a result of illnesses, accidents or straight-up murder. Another quest NPC contemplates the question of why people could retain their sanity after having lived for literal centuries, and whether or not this is because they had lost something fundamental that makes them human. This is a phenomenon clearly seen and felt in-game as well, by the way, as most people seem to treat their pseudo-immortality like it was the most normal thing in the world, referring to events that had occurred centuries before with casual indifference. I honestly just loved how almost every tiny morsel of NPC banter added something meaningful and interesting to the lore. Even the loading screen text is worth reading because they contain Lightning’s own inner musings regarding the various side quests/NPCs of the game. Having said that, LR sadly doesn’t quite go as in-depth with its exploration of these themes and issues as I would’ve liked, which is a colossal shame, but its attempts still help lend a pleasantly distinct atmosphere to the game.

The soundtrack, as usual, is really good. It unashamedly recycles some of the best tracks from the previous two entries (such as Knight of the Goddess, Blinded by Light, Saber’s Edge and more) while also contributing plenty of excellent songs of its own. There is, of course, Crimson Blitz, which brings back the all-too-familiar (but nonetheless insanely catchy) tunes of the original game’s battle theme. Lightning’s new theme song, A Distant Glimmer, is wonderfully melancholic and fits the mood of the game perfectly. Savior of Souls, one of my personal favorites, delivers one hell of a musical surprise by starting out as a forgettable 6/10 before suddenly turning into a rock solid 10/10 violingasm around the 1 minute 10 second mark. And if you’re in the mood for something chill and jazzy, try taking a walk in Luxerion after dark and you’ll hear the amazing Midnight Eternal, one of the best town themes in the game. Anyway, I think I’ve made my point. The music is great.

LR’s combat system is, in a word, tight. It builds upon the fundamentals of the first game and tweaks it in all the good ways, taking care not to completely butcher it like XIII-2 did while also preserving the core DNA that made the original so fun to play. Additionally, Lightning is the only character you’ll be able to control throughout the entirety of the game, both in and out of battle; an AI-controlled guest character will join you temporarily in the desert area and another one in the Wildlands, but other than that, you’ll be completely on your own. Instead of selecting actions like Attack or Magic from a traditional battle menu, Lightning Returns lets you assign specific spells and attacks directly to the four face buttons. So if you press and hold the corresponding button, Lightning will immediately swing her sword, raise her shield or cast a spell. Defeating tougher foes hinges heavily upon exploiting their weaknesses and triggering a Knockout (Stagger) phase to unlock a short window of time where said foes can be dealt extra damage. You can also perform certain actions with perfect timing for improved effect, such as pressing the block button a split-second before the enemy’s attack is about to hit, resulting in a Perfect Guard. This all leads to a fun, albeit more action-oriented battle system that fans of traditional menus might find too fast, perhaps even a little overwhelming at first, but it’s nothing you can’t get used to over time. And once it all clicks in your head, it becomes really satisfying to pull off long combos or Perfect Guard the shit out of a monster’s incoming attack.

Difficulty-wise, LR is once again reminiscent of the first game. Exploiting elemental weaknesses, whittling down enemy defenses to trigger Knockdowns and using a variety of debuffs should come as second nature to anyone who wants to successfully tackle the game’s tougher boss fights, because boy are they gonna tear you a new one if you go in unprepared. This is a game where, in many cases, you can’t just brute force your way to victory, and will instead have to prepare specific builds to overcome some of the more powerful foes the game throws at you. The number of healing items Lightning can carry at any given time is also limited: if I remember correctly, you start out with six slots and can unlock additional ones by completing certain quests. What’s more, your HP doesn’t automatically replenish after battles (it only does that on the easiest difficulty setting), and you’ll instead have to either use up one of your precious potions, or better yet, find a nearby restaurant and pay for a quick meal to get instantly healed without wasting an item. Obviously, the latter is the more desired option; as a general rule of thumb, healing items should be saved for places where food stalls aren’t readily available, like dungeons or wilderness areas. You can also consume GP to cast healing/revival magic on yourself, but seeing how GP is one of the most important resources in the game, this should only be used as a last resort. Personally, I enjoyed the slightly more “hardcore”, almost Dark Souls-like approach to resources (Potions = Estus Flasks), as it motivated me to play better and make sure I don’t needlessly waste the limited amount of healing items I had on me. Still, things aren’t as bad as they seem: even if you do get killed off in battle and have no means of reviving yourself, instead of getting Game Over’d, the game will let you automatically escape, though not before giving you a quick slap on the wrist in the form of a 1-hour time penalty.

Another core mechanic of the game is the clothing system. Think of it as the job system of games like Bravely Default/Second or earlier FFs: you can change Lightning into a variety of different outfits (often corresponding to classic FF jobs like Dark Knight, White Mage, etc.) that will then lend her abilities exclusive to that outfit. You can pick out three outfits as your main trio — these are the ones you’ll be able to use in battle, so it’s generally recommended to choose three outfits that, when used together, have good synergy and possess a diverse enough skill set to be useful in a variety of situations. As you can only equip a total of four abilities to a single outfit, you’ll have to constantly switch between your three primary outfits mid-battle (with the L1/R1 buttons) to make use of your full arsenal of twelve skills. You might find twelve skills to be a touch too limiting, but that’s exactly the point. You can’t just equip every elemental spell and every debuff under the sun; you instead have to plan out specific builds for each situation at hand, and work with the relatively small pool of abilities you have at your disposal. Using skills depletes your ATB gauge, which refills significantly faster when you’ve switched away to another outfit, meaning combat relies upon juggling your three outfit setups with careful timing in order to maintain a constant string of combos. After a while, muscle memory sort of takes over and you’ll be pulling off well-practiced routines along the lines of “triangle, circle, R1, circle, R1, X, repeat” without even having to think about it.

Also worth noting is that spells like Fire, Thundara, etc. or even a simple Attack command now function as individual “items” dropped from defeated enemies, and you can carry multiple copies of each. The reason for this change ties into the new crafting system: by accumulating several copies of the same skill, you can then combine them via crafting to increase their effectiveness. Obviously, combining two skills means that one of them is sacrificed during the crafting process, hence why you may occasionally want to defeat more enemies for more skill drops if you want to keep upgrading a specific spell. Thankfully, you’ll fight enough enemies over the course of the game that you’ll probably never have to go out of your way to grind. You also can’t farm monsters forever, as killing a certain number of a given species will cause that species to go completely extinct for the remainder of the current playthrough. Honestly, while this may sound annoying on paper, it never became an issue for me, and due to the sheer frequency of battles, I usually had more than enough copies of most spells and abilities to be able to upgrade them without too much of a hassle. If anything, the extinction mechanic was a welcome addition because the fairly high encounter rate gets pretty annoying in certain areas where you’d literally have monsters up your ass every 4-5 seconds.

All in all, Lightning Returns is the first game in the XIII saga that feels like a relatively complete package. Although its main plot won’t drastically sway anyone’s existing opinion on the trilogy’s narrative aspects, it delivers enough interesting world-building and NPC mini-stories to make it a worthwhile journey for those who had stuck with the series for this long. Add to all that the fun, fast-paced and surprisingly tactical combat, the sublime soundtrack and the highly customizable outfit system, and you’ve got yourself a game I can finally recommend to other people without half a dozen asterisks attached.

4 thoughts on “[Review] Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

  1. Hey my comment isn’t directly connected to Lightning Returns, but I haven’t seen you active on the internet (I.e. your blog or twitter) since last year and just hope that you are okay. I liked reading your blog and tweets.

  2. Yeah, Lightning Returns is a surprisingly good game. Feels like it managed to take all of XIII’s previous elements and turn it into a genuinely interesting and unique game. On the other hand, it sure took quite a while for them to figure things out, lol.

    It’s a shame, but Lightning Returns is a game I think I would like more if it’s an original IP and have no tie-ins with XIII.

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