Review by DarkSymbiote

"Not a "savior", but not a total failure either"

The XIII sub-series has mostly been met with disdain from Final Fantasy fans. XIII is described as a hallway simulator and XIII-2 a poor man's Chrono Trigger. Lightning and her allies just can't seem to catch a break. The strangely titled Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII brings back our (actually Motomu Toriyama's) heroine as the lead, the sole lead with the supposed promise of redemption. With apparent attention paying to gamers' complaint we get a revised battle system, large, open areas, proper towns and a complete story. So is the third time's the charm or is Lightning striking twice in the same place a bad omen?

Story

The legends had told of her coming. Banisher of darkness, bringer of light, redeemer of souls.

The plot picks up 500 years after XIII-2's abysmal epilogue. Etro is gone and Bhunivelze, the new prominent deity, wakes Lightning and bestows upon her the title of "Savior". Wait, don't roll your eyes just yet. Time has stopped but the world has only thirteen days remain till the applied phlebotinum, Chaos, engulfs it. Basically, Chaos is the thing that does whatever the writers need it to do with little explanation behind it. Moving on, Lightning has to quickly save all the souls she can so they can be reborn in Bhunivelze's new paradise. Lightning is doing this because her master is keeping Serah hostage. She is helping out the entire world out from eternal torment because she needs to save her sister who she lacks any decent sibling relationship with. Again.

All prominent characters from the past two games make a re-appearance and they're generally worse than before. They're unappealing as ever. 500 years have passed but they seem to keep their annoying personalities for some reason. And the one's who have changed, change back right after a scuffle. Lightning in particular is very poorly thought out protagonist with the personality of paper. She jumped from some military woman to the hero of the planet with minimal development. She feels the need to recap almost everything exposed to her as if the audience lacks any sort of attention. We are also expected to feel she is some awesome being but her motives and actions don't warrant such a reaction. The dialogue is long-winded with empty philosophical garbage the protagonist spews every now and then. You may find yourself skipping several long cutscenes because of this. They lack any real emotion. Lightning Returns also continues XIII series tradition by crushing you with its own jargon. They're not even new and creative words. Square Enix simply flipped through a thesaurus and added in the "cool" ones.

The themes of the first game totally changed in the second and those themes are completely gone now. If you've played many JRPGs, or even older Final Fantasies then you can already guess who the final boss is. Lightning's drive is absurd and her ascension is hilarious but not in a positive way. When all is said and done, she is a tamer version of God of War's Kratos without all the emotion and reasons. In truth, the game seems to have been written by some Nietzsche fanboy and the epilogue cements this. Now you may roll your eyes.

Design and Gameplay

If you're playing around in the middle of this Chaos... I'm guessing you're not human.

The primary game changer to the game is the time limit imposed on you. You have a handful of days at the start and you only get 24 hours a day before reporting to the Ark each day. In real-time each minute lasts around 2 to 3 seconds. It's not a lot. You can extend the total number of days (and you'll be required to) by offering Eradia to Yggdrasil. Yes, the tree of life. Saving souls a.k.a. completing quests will grant extra days. You must finish all main quests in hopes of actually finishing the game, multiple side quests as well. A sub-division of the side quests is the Canvas of Prayers which is basically the equivalent of MMO quest design: Go there, kill that, collect those. Lightning's attributes are improved upon completing a quest and the more difficult ones award you with more. One nice improvement over other RPGs is the variety in side quest design. They could have been better had it not been for extended periods of useless dialogue.

Getting back to the time limit; it's atrocious. Lightning Returns is the paradigm for poor time limit implementation. You'll find yourself running everywhere. Hope constantly calls you up to remind you of the mundane and sometimes Lightning may have some exposition in store. But who has time for that?! You need to run across rooftops to reunite father and son. Why bother taking in the new, well crafted scenery when you'd much rather spend those precious seconds just getting to the train station quickly? Now, granted there is the Chronostasis ability that allows you to temporarily freeze time but you need to fight bigger enemies every now and then to regain your EP points (more on that later). Whereas Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2's pacing was slow and prodding and went up and down respectively, Lightning Returns' is too fast. But then you'll be nearing your final days and realise you have little to do and might as well just sleep away at an inn. It's an odd mechanic to test out when you know fans are annoyed with you already.

However, the battle system is best in the XIII saga. You still have ATB in place and sadly the stagger mechanic is still in place and remains your primary goal for the most part. That said the biggest game changer is the new Schemata system. You equip three garbs on Lightning, most of which are original and attractive as a fan fiction writer's ideas. Each garb has its own ATB meter as well as its strengths and weaknesses. Picking the right setup is paramount to victory, so much so that a simply change in ability can turn the hardest fight in the game into a cakewalk. Fighting is almost entirely in real-time now with Lightning being able to fluidly chain physical attacks with magic as well as guard... for the most part. The biggest problem with the battle system is the visuals. There's is just too many things on screen at once what with numbers popping up hear and there, ability indicators, special effects for every thing you do and that horrid camera. You are allowed to zoom out but the game feels the need to take away the view away from Lightning and show an up close shot of the boss' mug. You need to be preparing at this point, a simple text box would have sufficed. Hitting the appropriate button at the exact time entails a bonus but good luck getting that with Lightning's unrhythmic movement and you being blinded by a monster's intestinal gas. Finally, there are the EP abilities. EP is restored by fighting enemies and said abilities can be used in battle. Most of them are worthless since you'll most likely be saving up for Overclock since there is simply never enough EP. Using potions have been simplified and no longer requires an ATB segment. They are more limited this time though. All in all, the revised battle system feels like it belongs in a better game. It is, without question, the saving grace of the game.

The game is divided in to four distinct sections. Two of them being open world, one of which is made amateurishly and mostly there for the sake of it. Luxerion may just be one of the the best towns put int an RPG. It's amazing to see how the XIII series went from being criticised from having no towns to having such a beautifully crafted Cathedral capital. You have more freedom this time with the ability to jump slightly more elegantly. It's sad that the artists are so obsessed with making everyone look over-exotic. A top cook dresses like some filthy playboy, farmers wear flamboyant glasses and facial hair never seems right. They seem to have been just placed on men's faces, not grown on them. No one looks like they belong.

Visulas

Wow! Would you just look at it? The Chaos is going to swallow everyone up!

Most sequels consecutively improve in graphical quality but the XIII saga does the exact opposite. Everyone and everything looks inferior compared to prior titles. Water looks like pixelated mud and some walls belong on the PlayStation One. Lighting effects are basic. The game doesn't look bad by any means but obvious downgrades are noticeable especially for a late 2013 game. Also, this game probably has the worst looking dog of the seventh gaming generation.

Audio

I've got the music for you. Now play me the song

Music is another strong point for the game. Soothing melodies pervade Luxerion, the Dunes and the Wildlands and Yusnaan has its own version of the "party town" theme. Fighting music always seems to get you pumped up just right. The only drawback are the majority of the lyrical songs. There are far too many of them and they're composed with vigour of a five year old songwriter. One particular song consists solely of the "la la la la la".

Voice acting is good for the most part but Lightning is just awful. Ali Hillis' husky, no emotive speak is totally dry. There is a plot point about her lacking emotions but even so these kinds of things have been done better, in the first XIII game nonetheless.

Sound design is excellent. You'll hear varying footsteps depending on the clothing worn . Now, for a modern game, sound mixing is decent. There are no music or sound effects adjustments to be found but it's generally fine. But every so often Hope's chatter will play on the exact same channel as the town announcer. Good luck understanding who's saying what without subtitles.

Pros:

- Improved battle system
- Diverse environments
- Impressive musical score

Cons:

- Incompetently implemented time limit mechanic
- Abysmal plot and characters
- Outdated visuals

Final verdict

Is this another one of the director's wacky ideas? All right, I'm game. I've bowed to his whims this long, no reason to quit now!

Lightning's journey has finally come to an end. Whether you like her or not, Lightning Returns is best game gameplay wise despite limiting time mechanic. The story is impressively bad and its take on the subject may tick you off but the game is recommended to be played through at some point in time; if only to enjoy some of the positive aspects like the combat. It's definitely not a full price worthy game however.

Rating: 6.8


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 03/10/14, Updated 03/13/14

Game Release: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (EU, 02/14/14)


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