Over the course of the Final Fantasy XIII saga, the development team appears to have made a concerted effort to evolve the core mechanics of the popular franchise to bring them more in line with the action oriented focus of most modern RPGs. Lightning Returns is the concluding act of the subseries, and it feels like an amalgam of ideas and intentions. The RPG roots are clear to be seen, but so too is the influence of adventure titles and it makes for a unique blend. But is it any good? The simple answer to that question is yes, but that approval comes with a number of caveats.
The most immediate thing to note is that Lightning Returns is a beautiful game. From the opening cinematic, depicting Lightning’s first foray into the endless party that is the city of Yusnaan to face down her former ally Snow, this much is obvious. With a barrage of fireworks, lights and confetti at every turn, the revelry of Yusnaan is keenly felt, while this contrasts with the oppressive atmosphere of Luxerion, a much darker and more subdued place in spite of its title of ‘The City of Light’, which adheres to a Gothic design ethic. The two remaining zones — The Wildlands and The Dead Dunes — sit between these two extremes but are no less impressive in their designs, with greenery and peace on the one hand, and desert and danger on the other. With the game being primarily concerned with returning characters, their designs are largely unchanged from previous iterations, but this in no way detracts from the impression that one receives as they were all very well designed in the first instance, and the same goes for the enemies, though it would have been nice to see more diversity and freshness in this last area.
For all this, however, the technical prowess of the graphical presentation does not hold up as well as once it did. The design ethic is stunning, but it is often let down by muddy textures, recurring visual elements and stiffness in the animations, to say nothing of the general low quality of NPCs. Indeed, it can seem at times as though there has been no real iteration upon the graphical engine that was used for Final Fantasy XIII back in 2010, though that sentiment is proven a fallacy through the presence of dozens of NPCs, alongside a day/night cycle and the open world. The real changes have occurred under the hood, where most will not recognise and appreciate them, and while this does not excuse the somewhat dated look of the game, it does go a way towards explaining it.
This variance in quality carries over to the way it sounds. The performances of the main cast are of a high calibre, with Ali Hillis as Lightning being the standout by giving a real sense of gravitas to the semi-divine Lightning and what it means for her humanity, as well as capturing the range of emotions that she is required to display as the story drags on. With the exception of Vincent Martella as Hope, the remainder of the characters have a much smaller role to play, which results in there being less chance for them to show what they are capable of, but even with this comparative lack, it is easy to see that Square-Enix’s casting has been spot on. There are points at which the voice acting borders on melodramatic, but it thankfully never strays too far into that territory. Comparatively, the NPC performances often feel phoned in, robbing the dialogue of any sense of emotion that may have been imparted by the writing alone. It is a common enough fault in games of this ilk, but still deserves to be called out.
A small issue that presents itself as the game drags on is the repetitiveness of the sound effects. The crunch of Lightning’s heels on the ground as she dashes about the environment grows to be an annoyance, as do the frequent calls as you switch between the Schema during battle, not to mention those ascribed to attacks. It is an issue that arises in much shorter games, but it is compounded when stretched out over forty hours or more. Thankfully, most of the time it seems to play second fiddle to the musical arrangements. There is great diversity to be found in the soundtrack, which ranges from gentle symphonic harmonies, to folksy blues tunes to rocking beats that get the blood pumping for certain difficult battles. Most of it fails to match up to the classic, instantly recognisable arrangements from Final Fantasy’s past, such as The Dark Messenger or One-Winged Angel, but there is still high quality to be found.
And so it is with the gameplay, also. Time spent in the Overworld is an evolution of the mechanics of Final Fantasy XIII and its first sequel. The four hubs on offer are each sprawling environments that encourage players to crawl all over them, hunting out secrets and fulfilling quest requirements. The cityscapes of Yusnaan and Luxerion are more constrained than the wildernesses, but do not lack for things to do. They are just as densely packed, but arguably more engaging as the light platforming elements introduced in Lightning Returns are put to most use in general traversal there. Platforming segments are actually more demanding in The Wildlands, but these are also more directed, one-off affairs that players are less likely to revisit. Whatever the case, it must be admitted that these elements add a way to interact with the environment, but at no point does their inclusion feel truly warranted. It lacks the precision and sense of involvement that good platforming promotes and leaves the entire aspect feeling weak and unfulfilling.
This contrasts sharply with the battle system. Again an evolution of those found in the earlier two titles, you are given sole and complete control of Lightning, though other AI controlled party members do appear briefly later on. The Paradigm system of the earlier games has been retooled into the Schemata system, though it remains, in principle, fundamentally unchanged. Each Schema has its own ATB bar which recharges constantly, and faster when inactive. The system itself is incredibly fast-paced, requiring players to be fully aware of the battle situation to best adapt to it, making it all the more rewarding when overcoming stronger adversaries after battles that can last in excess of ten minutes. It has been criticised as lacking strategy, but this is simply not the case most of the time as most enemies have different strengths and weaknesses, and you must always be on your toes in preparation to guard against attacks, as failing to do so can easily result in defeat. Melding these more traditional action elements with a reworked Paradigm system makes for combat that is easily the most engaging aspect of Lightning Returns.
At any given point in battle, players have access to three skill sets, each with four abilities mapped to the face buttons, granting a total of twelve abilities. Those are determined entirely by the player, as they have freedom to choose which Garbs are assigned and which abilities are mapped to them. Each outfit has its own statistics and latent abilities that can impact the direction of the battle, from permanently increasing the attack strength of Lightning, to automatically buffing at the fulfilment of certain conditions. Many of these costumes come pre-loaded with one or two abilities that cannot be altered, but there is still considerable freedom in the way that players can set up their attacks and defenses. The system allows almost boundless opportunity for customisation, though it must be admitted that it is very easy to settle into a particular set of loadouts, only adjusting in preparation for battles against particular opponents.
Those abilities are attained by defeating enemies, rather than purchasing them, which results in a degree of randomness and a need to be aware, early on, of what you have at your disposal. It quickly comes to pass, however, that the inventory of attacks grows to be nigh unmanageable. To keep numbers down you can sell them, but it is often a better option to synthesise them. Synthesising requires two abilities of the same name and type, and consumes one to boost the strength of the other. These strengths are capped until you can level them up with the use of Malistones, which are also only obtained by defeating enemies. While initially intriguing, the randomness of this system becomes utterly frustrating and it makes one wonder at the decision to completely remove experience points, which is doubly annoying when it comes to the character development of Lightning. Rather than any traditional system, this is tied instrinsically to the completion of missions, each of which offers a preset boost, which often seem entirely random. More than anything it feels like a stripping away of control which can leave one feeling supremely unsatisfied.
Presiding over every action that you take in the game is the much maligned Doomsday Clock, which is constantly counting down to the end of the world. Most gamers, especially RPG players, will have been faced with this situation countless times but rarely has the presentiment of it been captured quite so effectively. The game begins with seven days on the clock, which is extended to a maximum of thirteen by completing missions, which allows you to gain an amount of an unseen material called Eradia, which is then exchanged for extra days. It is not nearly as restrictive as many feared as it only really applies when running about the world and even then it can be temporarily halted with the Chronostasis ability. In battles, cinematics, conversations and micromanagement, that counter stops. It means that, far from the thirteen hours that many felt prior to release was the upper limit of play time, you can easily spend forty hours or more on a single playthrough. Nevertheless, with certain side missions locked to certain times of day and others with a time limit, it does sometimes have result in you being unable to fulfil your obligations. It isn’t necessarily a good idea, but nor is it a bad one. It simply is.
But it is a concept that ties in with the narrative aspirations of Lightning Returns. The titular character is reawakened from her crystal slumber by the god Bhunivelze with thirteen days remaining for her to save as many souls as she can that they may be reborn in a new world. Five hundred years have passed since the ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2 when Chaos swept across the binary worlds of Cocoon and Gran Pulse and what remains of those worlds is no called Nova Chrysalia. The effects of that event stretch beyond this, however, as humans have ceased to age and no child has been born in all that time. With death only possible through illness or injury, people have become resigned to their fate. Some go about their lives as they always have in Luxerion, while others choose to party their lives away in Yusnaan and still others go in search of adventure in the remaining wildernesses.
It is a brilliant premise, but is never fully realised because of the way that Lightning stands apart from it all. Insight into the way that this longevity has affected the people is provided by Lightning’s interactions with the returning characters, including Snow and Hope, but it is brief and unfulfilling. Lightning has slept through the years; she cannot easily understand what they have gone through, and she is now a semi-divine figure whose only role is to save the souls of the populace. This retooling of character results in an interesting exploration of her humanity in the face of Messianic prophecy and principle — which is touched on in the narrative, but never explored as fully as it could have been. Lightning Returns also refers back to the theme of destiny and the rejection of that which is preordained, which was an undercurrent of Final Fantasy XIII, and it plays out quite well here. The presence of such would make for an interesting discussion, but this is not the right time for it.
The narrative of Lightning Returns is complex, telling a new story while employing a form of retroactive continuity to finally explain elements of the earlier games that were initially confusing. It does a much better job of explaining the events and mythology of this world in game, without requiring players to refer to the Datalog frequently to fill themselves in on some of the more bizarre occurrences and this is a very good thing. But it must be noted that the game relies strongly on internal continuity and a suspension of disbelief, as attempting to review the story with real-world logic is ill-advised. In spite of this, it manages to be engaging, surprising and, at times, emotionally powerful. Character emotions and motivations aren’t as well realised as they have been in other games that seek to tell a more personal story, and the stiffness of Lightning, though explained later, seems like a real detriment to the narrative early on. In summation, the story is not as good as it could have been with more development, but it is far from the nonsensical mess that some reviewers have proclaimed it as.
And so it is that almost every positive point to be found in Lightning Returns has a negative to balance it out. It is, by turns, brilliant, bizarre, invigorating and frustrating, yet it is never truly off-putting and this gives it a unique charm. It is a beautiful mess that does not represent the Final Fantasy series, RPGs or anything other than its own attempts to fix the issues of its predecessors. It blends traditional ethics with the immediacy and awareness demanded by modern RPGs like The Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect, without ever attempting to truly emulate them. Lightning Returns is a triumph of iteration and experimentation, but with the cracks that are visible in certain aspects of its design, that is not enough to place it in the upper echelons of gaming’s achievements.