Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Review
The brightest lights cast the darkest shadows
Who among us dared to imagine that after playing the miserable corridor that was the first Final Fantasy XIII, we’d be lining up for a third game in the series a few years later. The sequel, XIII-2, eased up on the linearity, but was still a mess on the battlefield. It’s baffling to think that of all the great Final Fantasy games in years gone by, the almost universally slated XIII series is now a trilogy.
But throughout my time spent playing the previous two games, there remained a streak of perseverance. The ongoing story of sacrifice, family and loss always deserved a better game to be a part of. The cast have always been one of my favourites in a JRPG too, despite being a bit on the broody side a times.
Lightning has been the star of the show, with the wry hints of emotion on her face usually telling us more than the dialogue ever could. So I’m delighted to see her return to a leading role after her brief cameos in XIII-2.
Essentially, time has frozen for the last 500 years while Lightning slept in crystal form. She awakes to find herself sent on a mission by God to save as many souls as possible before the end of the world in a few days time. Because time has frozen, nobody has aged in the last 500 years, allowing for the appearance of many familiar faces. Some of their personalities have changed though, as they might if they’ve spent half a century grieving.
The world ending is nothing new in games, but here the threat is made all the more foreboding by imposing an actual time limit for the player. Lightning begins with just a few days, but can extend this up to thirteen days by completing missions and saving souls who will be reborn on the new world that God is creating on the side.
An ever-present clock on-screen clock constantly ticks away and much faster than seems reasonable. Essentially, a minute on the clock is about a second a half. Every day at 6am, you’re whisked away to the heavens for a vague debrief before being sent back down again for another day of work.
Just how serious is this time limit? You can fail. You can play the game for 25 hours, run out of time before getting to the desired goal and it’s game over. The promise of being able to start again, but with all your gear intact doesn’t sound like much comfort for having to run through it all again. Faster.
Before you collapse into panic, I’ll try to siphon away some of the pressure. Time spent in battle, cutscenes or in the customisation menus pauses the doomsday clock, so you can take your time there. There’s even a limited ability where you can pause the clock, but only for a minute or so at once. With careful planning though, you can really stretch that clock out. For example, I ended my second day on about seven hours of play and by the end of day three, I’d been playing the game for 13 hours.
Extra time is earned by rescuing souls via completing main story quests or looking out for NPCs handing out side quests. The theory is that the sadder their tale or more dire their need the more points you’ll be awarded to extend the time you have to finish the game. A star rating indicates difficulty or a potential long quest, so you’ll have to priorities some missions over others. You can’t save everyone.
The wheels come off this mechanic when you realise you’re never given a decent indication of how much time you’re earning back, either at the completion of a quest or at the end of a day. This sadly means it’s hard to not end up playing the game in a complete panic. And the fact that some doors or missions only unlock at certain time of day make it feel utterly demented. It’s like simultaneously moving to three cities you’ve never been to before and getting a job as a taxi driver.
It’s all the more frustrating because the game does so many things right. There are multiple expansive maps to explore; packed with side quests for the first time in the XIII series and you’re barred from enjoying them at your leisure. Exploring is potentially a massive waste of time; you can lose an (in-game) hour just running across a field only to find there’s nothing at the other side. But you need to hit a nice balance of side-quests as they’re one of the only ways to upgrade your stats. Trust me, if there was ever a game to have multiple saves for, it’s this one.
Combat has undergone the biggest shift and, for the most part, it’s a massive improvement for the XIII series. A traditional party setup has been replaced with the schemata system which sees Lightning equipping three outfits (or schema), each with unique skills and weaponry. You swap between them instantly on the battlefield with a tap of the shoulder buttons and each has their own ATB gauge powering attacks and spells assigned to the controller’s face buttons. So you can look forward to mixing things up with melee strikes, spell casting, debuffs and so on - all the skills you’d want from a Final Fantasy game. You can also attempt a real-time guard for a defensive boost.
The combat almost flows in real time in some fights, but gauges run out quickly with the fancier moves, so you will have to be careful so you’re not left dawdling waiting for them to recharge. Another reason for not wanting to lose momentum in a fight is the blasted Stagger system. Yes, the most awful thing to happen to RPGs is back. You hammer away at some opponents for ages to ‘stagger’ them, opening them up for serious damage, or in a boss’s case, the only decent damage you can do. It’s always been an awful system and it prolongs the boss fights beyond the limits of your patience, more so if you don’t go in with the rights skills equipped, not that you can have any way of knowing which you need on your first attempt.
It’s a real shame that Staggering is still in, because the depth available in the Schema system is huge. Weapons, shields and most assignable skills/spells can be assigned to any new Schema dress you buy or find on your travels and there are dozens of them.
With just as much for us to enjoy as there is to bemoan, Lightning herself sums up her own game when early on she says, “The brightest lights cast the darkest shadows.” Ultimately, I spent more time wanting to enjoy this game than I actually did. The time limit imposed like a gun to your head ruins what in many ways is the best Final Fantasy game of the generation –perhaps one of my biggest backhanded compliments ever. You get the feeling that the idea is somewhat half-baked, like the studio were keen to move onto new projects. This could also explain the poor lip-syncing and bland character models for all but the main cast. The environmental visuals in-game are shockingly poor too when compared to the last two games. When I finally got to the Wildlands, it looked like a PS2 game.
After all the time I’ve invested in the series though, I was keen to see the game through and I have to admit, there’s a lot to enjoy in the story, with Lightning herself playing a great role split between the stoic face of ‘the saviour’ and a big sister riddled by guilt. Square Enix have to do better on the new consoles though.