Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Review

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

8.5 / 10

  1. “Because anime. Whatever.” -Epic.

    Anyways, yeah, I’m done. I can’t stand FF. 13 was just horrible. 13-2 claimed to be THE FF game that redeemed the franchise. It sucked. And now they’re pumping out ANOTHER one? I’m sorry. But fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, GTFO. Maybe 15 can do what 13 has utterly failed to do…

    • At least this game is crazy, crazy different. I’d recommend at least watching some streams or gameplay of it before writing it off.

      We’ll have a video review up in a bit as well.

      • Actually, thats not an “at least” thats the most this game has. Problem is…it has too many things that are “different” and none of them are refined.

        You dont get experience by fighting monsters, you get it by doing menial quests. How can anyone justify that?

        This review is horrible. Its trying to be different? every Zelda has tried to be different, but still stayed true to the FF name. Now you’re praising it for not staying true to the name?

      • I feel that this game is just being trashed in reviews because it’s popular to hate on XIII. I hated XIII…until I finished the game. The 2nd half was great! XIII-2 started out pretty good, and had a good soundtrack, but it ultimately bored me to death storywise. I quit playing it about 20 hours into the game because I hated the repetition. Now, Lightning Returns…I love it! It’s so different and yet so retro Final Fantasy in a lot of ways too. It reminds me of playing FF games back in the day where you had to face big challenges in order to succeed. LR is like Dark Souls in a bunch of ways, but mainly in how the world is structured and the difficulty you have to face; the blocking mechanic screams Souls, imo. It’s such a shame that this great game will never be played by very many people. I have high hopes for XV.

  2. I just want to play FFX-HD, everything after that game sucked IMO.

    • Finally someone who knows what the fuck they are on about. Every FF game after X I was praying for to be good but each one disappointing me more than the last. You know the company had no idea what they were doing anymore when their idea of apologizing for 13 was to bring out 13-2, which was SHIT. And if 2 playable characters wasn’t bad enough you now get ONE. Seriously what the fuck.

  3. Lightning’s stone cold stare in most of these photos @_@

  4. How much money have SE paid you for such a good review of this garbage?

  5. As someone who enjoyed 13 and 13-2, despite the gameplay being.. bad, pretty exciting to have the same characters and world i liked, with.. well, good gameplay.

  6. So, I played Final Fantasy I and have played every release since. I enjoyed XIII and XIII-2. I’m ten hours into this release, and it’s extremely unlikely I’ll buy XV when I see it at a yard sale ten years from now. The graphics in this game are disgusting for this generation of consoles, and the storyline is… barely there. Despite Hope’s constant reminders to, “hurry,” I find myself asking, “why?” I feel like I’m rushing to the final disappointing ending of the series that makes me lose all faith in a company that created some of the best games of my lifetime.

    • Same boat as u bro. Kinda. Hated 13-1. Semi-liked 13-2, but still hated it. Not gunna touch 13-3 with a yard stick. I am, however, anticipating 15.

  7. While I’ll admit, it took me a while before I could finish XIII due to the ridiculously linear nature of it, and incredibly irritating combat system, I’m actually looking forward to playing this one.

  8. I want to fandom berserk you so hard for calling the story gibberish Lawrence, but then I remember that I love this series and still dont understand most of it, so okay, I’ll allow it… Anyway 2 hours in, I already love how bonkers this game is next to the previous 2.

    • It’s the Kingdom Hearts effect. People seem to think it has a good story but nobody can tell me what it’s actually about.

      • The story is somewhat simple actually, every Final Fantasy is somewhat connected, something like parallel worlds, and all of ‘em tell the tale about how the world is ending, but it never does, Fabula Nova Crystallis is the actual end of the world, that’s why the story is lacking, it is somewhat implied that you should take everything else in consideration, so the first 13 is something of a character introduction and plot points, the second 13 tells how the world and time became fragmented, and the 3rd 13 is the end itself, something like, but in a massive scale, as Majora’s Mask.

        I’m over simplifying, but that’s the gist of it.

      • omg your so right playing the kingdom hearts hd i was thinking i thought it had an amazing story line but its actually pretty shit the game play is amazing but omg the storys so boring

  9. It’s almost as if this reviewer was given extra money to boost reviews on a terrible game…

    That would be a shame if it happened.

    But seriously though, how much scratch did you make for writing this bullsauce of a review? Was it worth sacrificing integrity for another pack of cup o’ noodles?

    • Why are people so motivated to believe that reviewers get paid for reviews?

      • Because it’s very hard for people to understand that there are individuals out there who can have different experiences with a game, and if you’re the outlier, you must be corrupted. There’s no such thing as unique perspectives—even if you spend hours writing and editing video to explain the reasons why you liked the product.

        In fact, when an outlet gives a game a lower score than everyone else, they’re being paid by the competitors!!! It’s all a conspiracy and you should be ashamed Lawrence.

      • Hold up I’m too busy cramming fat stacks of Square Enix money into my pockets

      • Lol. U guys, the reason why people are having such a hard time believing this review is authentic (not paid for) is because all FF13 games up to this point have been utter trash. It’s like hearing someone give Transformers 3 a 10/10 when the other two films were complete trash. In short, our minds are blown.

  10. I kinda like the messy story of FFXIII. On the side im playing FFVII with mods. As long as i can put my “japanese culture” glasses on when im playing, i can get with it. So what im basically saying, is that despite the american voice actors best efforts, they cannot capture the drama or humor since the cultural differences are so huge, so everything comes off as cheezy and lame. The only reason im concidering buying it now and not a year from now for 10 euros in the bargain bin, is the added support of japanese voice cast. I wish there was an earnest review of that version! Anyways, i love final fantasy either way.

    • That’s an interesting point. It’s possible the nuance of the story is lost in translation.

      • Ahh to heck with it. I bought it :) Playing the japanese version to see if im right :) Salutations and thanks from Norway ;)

      • It could be like anime. I can enjoy the subbed versions because the Japanese voices bode well with the show. But when I watch dub, things always come off as cheesy. Not sure if this applies to FF13-3, though. Only time will tell.

  11. I’ve played every single final fantasy since ff7. 12 was ok, but wen 13 came out I did not enjoy it that much. Den 13-2 came out hoping it wud b better then it’s predecessor, u didn’t even get 2 play as lightning, disappointed. Being a fan of d series, I thought 13-3 wud b better n squareenix wud have learnt their lesson but NO. I’m 2 hrs into 13-3 and just don’t like it. I have 2 c d game thru now cuz it cost me £38 smackers. So far not liking it!!!

  12. Wait… a “previously unmentioned God”?

    Sorry, but Bhunivelze (“God”) has been part of the Final Fantasy XIII mythos since day 1. Was he the focus of the other stories? No. But if you’ve never heard of him, then that’s your own fault.

    If you think the story of Lightning Returns is “near gibberish”, then you clearly don’t know what happened in the first two games.

    The FFXIII mythos goes very deep, and yes, everything in LR makes perfect sense. All they’re doing is going into more detail about Bhunivelze… Is it that hard to understand?

    And yes, I expect you to have read all the Datalogs if you want to “review” the story. Otherwise you’ve already missed half the story.

  13. Why r u guys arguing? I’m not a professional reviewer, but I played final fantasy series and I also don’t enjoy much about XII 1-2, but I enjoy playing lightning returns, that’s all it need to be a good game.

  14. I mean XIII 1,2.

  15. Yes, I’m quite convinced you’ve been paid off to give a good review for such a lackluster game.

    Does it feel good to sell yourself like a naughty little ramen-whore?

    Basically, your review can be summed up as such; “If you don’t mind the terrible writing, progression via fetch quests alone, one-dimensional characters, and utilizing anything resembling a truly “open world”, then you’re going to have some fun playing with the next Dissidia’s fight engine and Let’s Play Dressup – Lightning Edition.”

    So yes, I’m prepared to believe you’re being paid.

    • You believe whatever you want I guess.

      Some day, you’ll work really hard on something, and you’ll put it out there hoping that it will help, entertain, or inform.

      And then someone will tell you that you lack integrity and what you did was terrible. Maybe then you’ll appreciate how crappy what you’re saying is.

      • Lawrence, the truth will set u free. Just admit u were paid off, unicorns are real, North Korea is a nice play to visit, and Taco Bell food doesn’t taste like sh*t… All these things must be true, surely.

  16. Shame on people who don’t like FF XIII saga and bitch around cuz you don’t like it. I guess all the people bitching are the same people bitching SE to make a remake of FF VII. I did really like FF XIII saga and will buy it, they put an effort on it with gameplay and plot, cuz the saga has story behind once you understand it, which is kinda hard for newbs so you have to look it up on the internet to catch it. I praise your review cuz it stands on the metratic review and has a good and impartial opinión. The ONLY thing I do not like it at all, is the Price for the skins, 4 bucks each one, that’s a lot for a single skin. Overall it’s a great game worth for true gamers who REALLY like this industry and play everything.

    • 1. Gamers “b*tch” because SE was making 13 games, when they could have been focusing on games we want, like Kingdom Hearts 3, or FF 15.
      2. No one liked the 13 Saga, no one. If you do, it just means u spent 60 bucks or so on each sequel, suffered with the plots/gameplay, and then chose to imagine it was all worth it.
      3. TRUE gamers are playing anything BUT ff13-3 right now. Even Japanese gamers don’t like it. Sad, but true.

  17. Popular opinions are not necessarily right – Lawrence I´m with you. The game is great and thats said as a journalist myself. It has a great learning curve, complex system and nice open gameplay. After a few hours I was really astounded by the amount risk build in Lightning Returns.

    But everybody can has his or her own opinion. I know a lot of people who hate FF13 and 13-2 – to admit, in the first days I was one of them. But no, taking into account the average gaming experience, they are above this – it´s just a expectation-thing. I also don´t get the personal quotes. Is it because you don´t like the games or you don´t accept people, which like them? Both cases I think speak for their own …

  18. The only thing I disagree with is that after getting the platinum in FFXIII and XIII-2 I follow the find and am loving it. I give game 9/10 there are definitely some moments where the art direction was laughable (a particular dog lol) but otherwise this might end up one of favorite all-time games. To the haters -Not everyone has the same tastes as you get over yourselves.

  19. What I want from a final fantasy game is a great story with memorable characters and a plot that builds and swells, keeping me intrigued throughout the entire playthrough. turn-based gameplay, unique and challenging enemies and bosses, highly coveted gear and weapons, and gorgeous visuals with awesome, lush environments. And mini-games the way many previous FF games had. Innovation can be a great thing or a terribly bad thing for some developers and clearly SE has not had great success or direction at all in that field lately. Honestly, so many mixed reviews do not inspire me to buy this game at all. But I may just have to. Because it IS a major Final Fantasy installment. This review gives me an inclination, but I may just wait for the price to hit 20 bucks because nothing burns more than the cold and unforgiving realization that I burned 60 bucks away on a game that barely deserves your time.

    • I feel the same, somewhat. When I buy a game, I expect a great story. That’s also the reason, believe it or not, that I buy some Call of Duty games. MAKAROV!!!! Ehem, anyway, if Lightning Returns lacks in this department, I’m not interested. Story is 90% the experience in my book. The rest is gameplay.

  20. Was I the only one who thoroughly enjoyed this review?
    The game isn’t perfect, but it definitely has it’s moments. For anyone complaining that XIII had a linear story line – this is the exact opposite, most of the time I can’t decide whether to grind for Omegas/Last Ones or finish up the last quests or begin to take the Canvas of Prayers seriously. There’s a whole lot of stuff to do and you get to chose exactly when you want to do it. Even the time limites are flexible because you can choose to stop time.

    I disagree that the story is gibberish (although it is a mess), but it has a weird connection to the two previous games and the overall story does make more sense having played those two.

    For the first time in quite some time I found that SE actually took a risk with some of the new functions in this game and most of the time, they get away with it pretty well.

    If people have decided up front that they don’t want to give this a chance, why do you even bother comment on it? You have no right to criticize it if you haven’t given it a chance. If you don’t like it, fair enough, it is different from most FF games and I completely understand that it won’t meet a lot of people’s expectations.

  21. Ok, if you get questioned from being paid off, don’t respond. Your insulted? guess what, fans may have a point.

    You’ve highlighted only one feature in the game while everything else was downplayed.

  22. I actually just bought it today, specifically why i looked up a review before playing it, eh, at least it’ll be better then the elder scrolls online beta, that was so incredibly boring.

  23. I won’t berate or your review like half the people here did, but I will admit I’m not terribly attracted to this final installment of the thirteen saga. I never managed to finish 13-1, try as I might. I couldn’t even reach the half-way point for 13-2 because I found the dialogue to be so horribly corny and … “un-human”, if that makes any sense. Like, to the point where I wonder if the people writing this stuff ever went outside and managed to hold a conversation for more than 5 minutes with someone who’s not infatuated with video games or other such geekery.

    Normal people, which is what Lightning and co. are supposed to be, do not spill out their every thought as they come. They also don’t share their innermost feelings every other minute of the day.

    I find it just lacks realism. These people are acting “human”, they’re acting like fictional characters. Which may have been fine two decades ago back when videogaming was still in its infantile stages, but I think SE could pump out something vastly more believable than this. I feel the recipe is getting stale in terms of both plot and characters.

    Now you may wonder “well then, mister Demanding, what do you expect characters to feel like? How do you expect the story to unfold?”

    If I had to find examples of characters and/or stories I enjoyed, Bioshock Infinite comes to mind. The 2009 (2008?) remake of Prince of Persia, that one with Elika, comes to mind. Hell, even the Tales series is more immersive for me than this. I just feel there’s no life, neither in the game nor in the characters. They go on and on trying to look alive without ever actually feeling alive to me.

    And that’s probably what I’m most disappointed about with the FF series. I want to love it, I really, but I find I just can’t immerse myself into it any more, and that makes me sad.

    In my mind, Final Fantasy ended with X. Even then, Tidus was barely tolerable. Yuna compensated for the unbearable idiocy Tidus would display as soon as his stupid mouth would open.

  24. Lawrence you have been paid off just so that you can have a nice, decent check going into your bank account and dont give a damn if the game really is good or not for the better of the readers, real, true gamers but for the better of yourself. Shame on you!

  25. Lightning Returns is ALOT different from any other FF game, i’m really enjoying it, it goes back to the roots, it has a job system (through different outfits) it takes timing and ALOT of tactic to win battles, Yes you don’t gain exp through battle but from all the stuff that you collect you will eventually gain exp, the world is pretty big, a lot of freedom, and a ton of quests that will offer you a challenge.

    Much like FF XIII and XIII-2 it forces you to improve you battle tactics (if you were playing the side quests which actually force you to perfect your timing in paradigm shifts and all).

    I’m really happy with the direction of Square-Enix and their games look at Bravely Default YES they are good at making RPG’s but FF is actually the only franchise that keeps attempting too improve their games, may that be battle system or storylines they never stick with the old.

    I’m really impressed by how Square-Enix can change their ENTIRE set-up and start from scratch, to some people it feels like a fail, but to a lot of people it’s a win and a sometimes it’s refreshing to NOT constantly bash that OK button and not even having to look at the screen.
    If you preferred FF games like that go back to the basic’s, rinse and repeat.

    Lightning Returns really demands you pay attention since even easy enemies can cut your HP down a lot when not paying attention (but blocking and evading can solve all that) …. and to those who have a problem with the FF 13-trilogy storyline let me remind you FF has ALWAYS been about defying gods on some level (or some crazy guy who now thinks he’s a god..)… it really isn’t that different… you either fight Garland’s and Kefka’s or you fight Barthandelus’s and Bhunivelze’s.

  26. Hey, I just wanted to thank you for your very detailed review, I read others that felt so biased that I couldn’t trust them. Meanwhile you pointed out the good and the bad in a way that helped me weigh the value of this game.

    I can’t believe people would be so rude as to say that you were paid to write this review because you spoke well of it in some regards, instead of following their trend of hate.

    Haters gonna hate, I guess. Anyway thanks for the review.

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