Developer: Square Enix, tri-Ace / Publisher: Square Enix / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Teen [Blood, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol, Violence]
When game series prevail as long as Final Fantasy, you can usually explain a new game pretty quickly. That’s not the case with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. It’s so original that if you wrote the series off in the past, you may still find something here worth playing. Lightning Returns is different, not just from other Final Fantasy games, but from all RPGs. So different, in fact, that I don’t know if it’s an RPG, an adventure, or a beat ‘em up. I do know that I genuinely had fun with it… even if it’s a dress up simulator.
Let me tackle some of the obvious questions you may have up front. People historically play Final Fantasy for the story, right? So, do you need to play the other two Final Fantasy XIIIses to enjoy Lightning Returns? You totally don’t. Despite referencing events and characters in previous games, Lightning Returns’ story is near gibberish.
It’s several hundred years after the last game, and now Lightning has been tasked by a previously unmentioned God to save people’s souls before the end of the world, which is in thirteen days for some reason. The story and world of Lightning Returns is built upon a bunch of ever-shifting rules that boil down to “because God said so.” There’s very little reason to it and even the characters seem know that. Oh, and the God has a pointlessly complicated name that has no clever meaning. “Bhunivelze.” Yeah.
Lightning Returns is best thought of as a crazy dream, which mitigates your attachment the characters or the story. Hell, the game itself tells you there’s not going to be an explanation for most of the plot. It’s like a slightly grittier Sailor Moon. Lightning is bestowed power and can save the world by helping people with their life problems… and her powers involve swapping fantastic outfits (more on that later). If you’re cool just rolling with a story no matter where it goes, it won’t bother you too much. If you need real, relatable human drama though, you will not find it here.
The nuts and bolts of the gameplay are just as bizarre as its story. You have a time limit to save the world, which you spend running around performing main story quests or shorter side quests you get from the world’s NPCs. The game is completely open-ended — you can choose which areas to go to and the quest lines to work on whenever you want. If you tire of a particular area, skip to another, just be mindful of the time you use up in transit. That open-ness extends to the quests themselves. While the main quests usually supply a specific quest marker, side quests are wide open. Often you have no idea where to find the bear pelts, lost book, magical stones, or whatever trinkets people want you to find for them. You just have to forage around until you find your own leads. Rather than the linear, combat-heavy structure of most Final Fantasies, Lightning Returns feels a lot closer to 2012’s Dragon’s Dogma or even the cult classic Shenmue. I know, I wasn’t expecting that either.
The game gets even more oddball the further down you dig into its mechanics. For instance, fighting monsters doesn’t net you experience or levels like you expect from a Final Fantasy game. Instead, your stats are boosted by completing quests, which also earns you more in-game time. You see, when you liberate people from their suffering, a sparkly ball flies into you that you then feed to a giant, floating flower. When it blooms, you get another day. Because anime. Whatever.
Combat itself is interesting and can be extremely complicated, depending how deep you want to dig into it. There are slight similarities to the paradigm system used in Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, but it’s a different beast this time around. In combat, you rotate through three “schemata,” which are really just outfits that you can deck out with different abilities. It’s a fascinating combination of playing dress-up with crazy clothes while trying to min-max all the stats for a particular purpose. You have to weigh the interchange of HP, strength, magic, and attack speed to get a complimentary set of abilities that can efficiently kill whatever enemies you fight. There’s also a gear slot for adornments like hats, glasses, and earrings that’s just for playing dress-up. This game is weird.
It gets tough too. The stagger mechanic from previous Final Fantasy XIII games makes a return. If you’re unfamiliar, some of the game’s harder monsters require that you attack with certain abilities at precise moments to “stagger” them, which drastically lowers their stats for a brief amount of time. The game’s harder boss fights require precision timing more akin to something like Devil May Cry. You have to block at the last second to nullify damage and rotate through schemata quickly to bring out the right attack at just the right time. It’s extremely challenging and extremely fun.
But here’s the huge kicker. If you don’t want to knuckle down for those intense fights, you don’t have to. Though you run into some tough bosses in the main quest, the really tough ones are usually objectives of side quests. If you don’t feel like banging your head against a boss for hours, memorizing its attack rotations and customizing schemata just to win that one fight, you don’t have to. In fact, your time may be better spent doing other quests. It’s a numbers game, as Lightning herself says at the game’s beginning.
That’s the real success of Lightning Returns. Not only can you choose how to play, but no matter what you decide to do, there’s multiple ways to do it. If you want just want to explore and talk to people, there are quests that reward that kind of play. If you want to get stronger to beat a particular boss, you can explore other quests to boost stats, fight monsters to get gil to buy better equipment, farm abilities to meld them together and increase their stats, the list goes on and on. Lighting Returns lets you play your own way at every second, which is astounding given how original all its game mechanics are and how snugly they lock together.
Just exploring the game world is enjoyable, and you get to see Lightning do her sassy hair flip in several unique locations. There’s a satisfying amount of variety in the game’s areas but the production values in the world can dip to PS2 quality at times. Flat textures and basic geometry construct the game’s areas. This is Lightning Returns’ biggest drawback, aside from its inscrutable mess of a story. This is especially confusing since the areas in Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 were so brilliantly realized. The lacking visuals ding the fun of exploration a little, but if you can handle some occasional plain-ness, it shouldn’t bother you too much.
And, just like all open-world RPGs, it features its share of gameplay quirks. NPCs wander into conversations, third-person cameras get stuck behind walls and trees in cutscenes, and most commonly you have no idea where to go. That last bit is mostly down to taste, though. If you don’t mind a directionless game experience, you’ll feel right at home here. Getting straight lost is a more objective issue. The game’s areas are oddly shaped and askew, meaning that it’s easy to lose your bearings when using the zoomed-in minimap to show you the way. I ended up diving in and out of the game’s map constantly. It loads quickly so it’s a minor annoyance, but a map overlay similar to Diablo would have helped tons here. Oh, and the clock is permanently in military time, so keep that in mind if subtracting 12 from a number is a challenge for you.
It’s worth mentioning that Lightning Returns is also quirky in a good way, mostly relating back to Lightning herself. She’s always been dispassionate, and asking her to solve people’s bullshit side quest problems often results in amusing dialogue that comes very close to self-mockery of RPG tropes. For example, after hearing a needless info-dump from a quest giver, Lightning bluntly responds with “Well, that was a lot more information than I needed to know.” The quests themselves often have interesting (or at least atypical) stories backing them up. One of the stranger ones involves a girl that just HAS to know where you get your clothes, and tasks you with finding her some pretty jewelry to wear. Lightning Returns even includes cute little throwbacks to Final Fantasy culture, like the crowd at the coliseum all chanting the classic victory fanfare when you win a fight.
That’s ultimately what I find fascinating about Lightning Returns. It’s the third game in the thirteenth of a series dating back to 1987, yet it’s also one of the most successfully inventive games I’ve ever played. It puts you in control of everything, which is a total inverse of Final Fantasy’s traditional position. Granted, the pointless melodrama of its story won’t appeal to everyone, and the game’s dated production values prevent it from being a real gem of an open-world RPG. That said, if you’ve been playing RPGs for a while, and especially if you’ve a history with the Final Fantasy franchise, Lightning Returns’ innovation makes it absolutely worth your time.
+ Successful, open-world structure
- Melodramatic story, lacking production
+ Fun, original gameplay mechanics