Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns

PS3, Xbox 360

Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns
The second sequel to Final Fantasy XIII. Lightning is now savior of all humanity, and works to save souls all over the world before time runs out.

Lightning Returns is a scattershot of a game. It's a Final Fantasy (arguably, certainly technically) with a time limit like Majora's Mask, with a battle system that superficially resembles Final Fantasy XIII, but is paced far more like Ninja Gaiden, and with a series of menial tasks and multi-part sidequests that would make any Skyrim or Tales game proud. It's a dress-up game with a wardrobe of four dozen-odd costumes, some of which look like red mages and some of which look like they belong in Dead or Alive. It's character customization and upgrade systems. It's a parable about free will. It's all over the place. It's a mess, but a fantastic one.

The world is ruined. A catastrophe has made mankind immortal, but at great cost. No one ever ages, but no new life is ever born. For five hundred years, humanity has existed in a slouching decline, losing their numbers due to murder, or illness, or hunger, but otherwise never changing, remaining young or old, operating the same weapon shops or inns, standing on the same street corners begging for help from passersby. The people stir restlessly, hardly cognizant of the depth of their despair, accepting their stasis as fact, accepting that things move in no direction but downward, and even then only very gradually.

But finally, after these long centuries, things are coming to an end. In thirteen days, the almighty Bhunivelze has declared, the world will be destroyed, and from the ashes he will create a new world. A world needs inhabitants, however, and here is where Lightning comes in, a woman who has gracefully managed her promotion from Cloud Strife genderswap to valkyrie keeping watch from Valhalla, and now from valkyrie to the savior of all mankind.

The look is the usual techno-magical aesthetic common to the series. Imagine Gears of War finger-to-ear conversions, where the voice on the line is not Anya Stroud, but Hope Estheim. Imagine a modestly open world; regimented playgrounds, not sandboxes, more Dragon's Dogma than Skyrim. Imagine Yakuza, where the streets of Kamurocho are replaced by a sprawling city, almost Renaissance, certainly European, but for the holographic timetables in the otherwise modern-day train station.

The whole game is one big timetable. Lightning, as savior, has scant few days before the end. Two weeks isn't a lot of time to rescue the whole world, even for someone imbued with a godlike power, but if Lightning really focuses she can save the big tickets: old friends from past games, living out their lives in the same idle malcontent as the nameless NPCs. Snow is now chief reveler in a city which celebrates the end of the world as a non-stop party, Vanille has turned towards a life of ascetic atonement, enshrined as a living saint by the last city of the truly faithful.

The clock is a constant, drawing immediate comparisons to Majora's Mask, but more accurately you'd say Valkyrie Profile, developed by the same company, at least in part, that helped create this game. A ticking clock sits next to the minimap at all times. Like the trains, the villagers, too, operate on a timetable, and they consent to be saved only when it works with their schedule. The muffin-eating, journal-reading man waits for his lost diary only in the late morning and early afternoon; the child actress who sells her tears for cash only in the early evening.

Most of their tasks are pretty menial. Be prepared to pick up lost dolls, or run around searching for girls' phone numbers. Outside of her battles against big-name characters, Lightning's job as savior mostly requires a lot of fetch-questing. That's in-line with any given JRPG's sidequests, but the context of these mundane requests (people waiting for help for decades, or even centuries) adds a leavening absurdity that makes Fedexing messages from one side of the town to the other somehow palatable. Odd world, where the drunk gave up looking for estranged fiancee decades ago without realizing all the clues to her location were a thirty minute train ride away. Then there's the man who sought his family's murderer for centuries, but never thought to look on the other side of town, a place so rife with filth, it might as well bear the sign "Murderer's Alley."

If you're feeling fanciful, you can read this as a commentary on all other JRPGs, where a friendly neighbor would rather sit in her house, waiting until the end of time for a hero to show up and help her, rather than cross the street and just buy the wheel of cheese herself. This world is just as stultified as any other fantasy game, but here idleness has a reason: the population has been playing out the same lives for hundreds of years. They're tired, they're bored, they've given up.

This is the theme, but not really the writing. The five hundred-year-old children still act like eight year-olds, for the most part, and most people don't really act like they're living in a world they all know is going to end in two weeks. Lightning Returns tries, but, like every game in the Final Fantasy XIII sub-series, it has a problem bringing to fruition in the text what is compelling about its subtext.

Combat is similar to previous games, but with an amplified pace. The Stagger system is back, and works largely the same: rapid combinations of attacks stun enemies and make them vulnerable to big damage. Final Fantasy XIII had specific roles to denote a character's job in battle: Commando to maintain the Stagger bar, Ravager to increase it, etc. The effects of these roles still exist here, but the roles themselves aren't so rigidly defined. Instead, Lightning has three customizable action palettes, determined by what costumes she has equipped, and she can switch between them as needed during a fight. All outfits have one or two locked-in abilities, and one or two passive stats, that determine whether they're best suited to attacking, spellcasting, or debuffing. Beyond that, accessories, weapons, and shields provide ancillary customization and specific benefits, such as a necklace that quickly recharges standby outfits at the cost of drastically reduced magic defense, or a sword that converts standard attack skills into considerably more powerful "Hunter" abilities when an enemy is debuffed with poison or physical-reducing ailments.

Enemies have specific stagger conditions. Most often these are elemental weaknesses, but many enemies will stagger in response to something less obvious: when Lightning blocks their attacks with perfect timing, or when she hits them from behind, or when she pummels them while they're charging a massive spell. In this way, Lightning Returns resembles a character action game like Bayonetta or Ninja Gaiden. Some battles are all-out sprays of Fire and Blizzard against swarms of weak enemies, but most are fights intersperse brief hits of exhilaration between long seconds of patience. Many are complex maneuvers of waiting to repel an attack with perfect timing, then unleashing a quick magic spell to complete the Stagger, then hitting the enemy an all-out climax of high-damage, multi-hit attacks while the enemy is defenseless, and taking double or triple damage. Boss battles are five or ten minute engagements, whose constant push and pull border on exhausting, whose razor-thin margins on damage and recovery will sometimes leave you flexing out your aching fingers as the result screen appears, so tightly were you gripping the controller during the actual fight.

Combat is difficult, especially in the beginning. Every enemy is a puzzle and before you realize that, you'll sink a lot of time spamming enemies with attacks that feel very powerful, but seem to be completely ineffective. Playing this like an RPG -- playing it like Final Fantasy XIII, even -- means spending a lot of time post-battle skirting new monsters spawns as you run to the closest restaurant to spend the few gil you gained on a meal to restore your health. At first the resource cycle is exacting. Constantly bereft of cash and low on health, there's an essential thrill in figuring out an enemy's weak spots, how to best convert a lethal foe into a neutered one. The danger slacks off after a few hours and the purse strings loosen a bit, but in the beginning every battle feels like it could be your last. Lightning has access to few healing magics, potions are expensive, and inns are a no-go because using them advances the clock, and anything that advances the clock is wasted time.

And time always feels like a factor, although you may learn it's not a particularly limiting one. Thirteen days is long enough to see everything Lightning Returns has to offer with time to spare, since Lightning almost immediately gains access Chronostasis, an ability that lets her freeze time. Chronostasis costs EP (better described as "Limit Break"), which can only be restored through fighting battles or by using exceptionally rare Ethers, but it's not a very expensive ability. Some fights restore twice the cost of a single Chronostasis. Often these are fights against difficult enemies, so the EP feels better spent on eking out a win, but puzzle-solving skills and quick fingers lead to effective victories more often than just spamming limit breaks. After a few days, many of the random battles will become routine, and Lightning will have ways to near-infinitely freeze the clock. Chronostasis feels like an necessary ability, but a poorly balanced one. When there is a quest turn-in it that's absolutely required at 11:30, and you're halfway across the map at 11:15, Chronostasis is a godsend. When you're using it at the end of every random battle as a matter of course, it feels like it should've been astronomically more expensive.

There is no leveling. Combat rewards no experience. Instead, Lightning increases her stats by fulfilling tasks. Every job, no matter how humble, offers an increase of hit points, strength, or magic; some of the really important ones give her greater capacity for healing items or limit breaks; and, in keeping with the game's obsession with clothes and customization, and even the most trifling request gives Lightning some aesthetic trinket: aviator sunglasses, or a pink knapsack, or a hair ribbon, or a tattoo. Many of them are ridiculous -- Groucho Marx-style glasses, dunce caps -- and the game revels in this. Or, anyway, it doesn't seem to mind a bit of silliness; it certainly lets you walk into a very grave cutscene while wearing a pair of cat ears.

Outfits follow a similarly irreverent tack. Over the course of the game Lightning gains access to the better part of fifty costumes. Many are blatant fan-service, as should almost be expected, given the developer's bizarrely specific comments on increasing Lightning's breast size. There are your Halloween-costume devil horns and tiny little bikinis, things that really only count as clothing in the most nominal way. But, almost shockingly, "scandalous" isn't the only wardrobe option. On offer are all sorts of things besides skimpy bikinis: trenchcoats, crushed-velvet suits, full plate, and another sort of fan-service. Lightning has access to not just the skimpy takes on Black and White Mage gear, but attire directly inspired by Cecil's Dark Knight, or Locke's Thief. With these referential costumes come powerful skills that convert regular abilities into iconic Final Fantasy moves, such as a Dragoon's Jump attack.

The theme, throughout, seems to be "indulgence." This much should be obvious from the opening cutscene, where Lightning-as-savior teleports into the middle of Yusnaan, a city immersed in perpetual fête, and engages in an all-out brawl in the middle of a dance floor. Gratification and gratuitousness permeate everything. Given that it's descended from a game that had you walk in a straight line for twenty hours, given that it's a game about the end of the world on a specific time limit, it's remarkable how laissez-faire Lightning Returns is about its player's actions. Stat boosts between outfits are never so great that you can't wear whatever you want. Breadcrumb questing is never so defined that you can't wander off into a forest and pluck mushrooms, if you don't currently feel like saving the world. If you want to wear a cartoon chocobo hat into the final battle, the game has no intention of stopping you.

Lightning Returns, which we could also call Final Fantasy XIII-3, presumes a prior knowledge on the part of its player; a strange decision for a twenty five-year-old series that's eschewed continuity at almost every turn. Judging by the game's presentation, you're supposed to know who Snow is, who Hope is, what a l'Cie is, what's Pulse, what's Cocoon. Made-up proper nouns are a Japanese RPG's bread and butter, and few games exemplify this better than Final Fantasy XIII-3 and its antecedents, each one requiring an out-and-out encyclopedia for a player to make even rudimentary sense of a plot littered with not only l'Cie, but also Fal'Cie, and also Cie'ths, on top of that.

But the trick here, as opposed to Final Fantasy XIII-proper, is that it doesn't actually matter. The benefit of this game, set hundreds of years after its predecessors, is the world has changed so much that the old terms hardly bear mentioning, and the new ones are easy enough to grasp, even through Final Fantasy XIII's quintessential inability to provide any context for anything. You can play this without having played Final Fantasy XIII. It might be better that way, to enter without any preconceived notions built by a game that took thirty-some hours to get good, and, even then, "good" was a relative term.

What we have here bears so little in common with its predecessors that it might as well be an entirely different series. The characters, certainly, barely act like the characters you remember. But then, the characters you remember were never particularly memorable. Dropping the pretense of stoic seriousness transmutes some of the sub-series's most insufferable elements into something marginally more tolerable, especially as it regards its main character. Lightning always maintained a sort of unexciting, sourpuss persona. Her remarkably flat-affect dialogue felt pointless coming out of the mouth of an otherwise-normal soldier, but seems the perfect fit for a dispassionate instrument of God, whose primary reason for saving souls is to forward her own agenda. Which is not to say the story is particularly good, or the writing particularly clever, but at least it's trying for something more than rote recital of the usual script.

This is a game that feels like it's taking a risk. It's weird. It's disjointed. It's barely at all like a Final Fantasy. None of its parts hang together as well as they should. The story never pays off the promise of its premise. The fetch quests can be engaging -- the pressure of the in-game clock harries you even during the littlest quest, and some of the biggest scavenger hunts really make you pan your camera around and drink in every bit of the environment -- but they're still fetch quests. The combat is stellar. When it works, it really works. Sometimes, when you're switching between outfits every other second, and squeezing out last-moment blocks against high-damage attacks, you might even forget you're playing something that's, technically, an RPG. But this game's greatest inheritance from its predecessors is a lackadaisical attitude towards explaining its complicated systems. When you don't know what you're doing wrong it feels like the game is punishing you for mistakes you didn't realize were crimes.

Better a messy game with heart than an efficient one without soul. Better a game that has a sense of humor about itself than another grumbling cover shooter, or another over-earnest fantasy yarn. This is one great, big jumble of systems and aesthetics. It's two or three games worth of combat mechanics and paperdoll dress-up. It's an over ambitious plot shoehorned into a continuity that probably should've ended two games ago.

Lightning Returns stumbles over itself, but only because it is so excited to show you the next thing. It will make you angry, sometimes, but its rapid pace and infectious ebullience do well in warding off long-term frustration. The game is so excited by its very existence that we can't help but thrill along with it. It loves its character, it loves its world, and it loves itself. Its positivity is so relentless, and so sincere, that it's hard not to be taken in by it, even just a little, even when it's being completely stupid. Every time we notice something Lightning Returns does wrong, we're immediately reminded of all the things it does right.

Overall : A-
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : B-
Gameplay : A
Presentation : B

+ Combat and systems with a lot of depth, many costumes and options for customization
Systems don't mesh as much as you'd like, lackluster execution of interesting plot premise

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