Reviewing a “Final Fantasy” game takes a different critical approach than other titles. One needs to be keenly aware that this is not “just a franchise” for a large number of people; it is an obsession, a way of life, a world that people adore and simply know better than I do. I have played a large number of “FF” games in my time as a video game critic (and in the years before that) but I could NEVER pretend to be an expert on this world. There are people who have crafted their very lifestyles from blogs to fan fiction to fashion around “Final Fantasy.” And so my approach to “Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII,” now available for the PS3 and Xbox 360, may be different than theirs. Mine is that of a more casual fan, someone who has played a number of “FF” games (and more games than most people overall) but doesn’t get all the references nor how each character and theme fits into the fabric of the entire series. I admire people who do; those who are completely committed to their favorite gaming universe and can find something to like in even the most lackluster installment.
Because, the fact is, as someone who has played a dozen “FF” games to various levels of completion, this is a lackluster installment. Weighed down by fetch missions and too often hampered by dull gameplay and boring environments, it’s a game that seems likely to only appeal to members of the hardcore fan base, whom I could never convince otherwise and wouldn’t bother to try. However, if you’re like me—a casual fan or lower—there are better ways to spend your gaming dollar this season.
“Lightning Returns” is a direct sequel to “Final Fantasy XIII-2” and concludes the storyline set up by “Final Fantasy XIII,” taking place 500 years after the end of the last game as this world is coming to an end. The beloved Lightning wakes from a centuries-long hibernation with only 13 days left in his people’s existence. He is tasked with collecting the souls of his people in this dying world, tying to buy them more time and enlightenment before the world’s end. To do so, he’ll traverse an open world that is largely free navigable, although you’ll quickly learn when you have entered an area of enemies for which you don’t have the strength, skills, or weapons to survive. The clock is always ticking, forcing Lightning to collect more Eradia to try and extend gameplay and complete certain missions within a specific timeframe.
A “Final Fantasy” game with a clock? It’s an interesting idea in that role-playing games often subsist on the concept of exploration. Gamers who love to grind (to raise their hero’s abilities or arsenal) or just explore will be startled by the idea that time is a commodity in the world of “Lightning Returns.” I’m sure the developers thought that this storytelling structure would give the game an urgency that’s often lacking from giant RPGs but it’s intrusive, defeating what so often works about “FF” games. I like taking my time in a fully-designed world when I enter an RPG. I loved exploring “Ni no Kuni” and “Tales of Xillia.” Don’t get me wrong; there’s time to explore in “Lightning Returns” but the ticking clock takes away from the enjoyment of it.
As do the mission structures. One of the first major missions require Lightning to find a series of numbers that have been painted on walls in Luxerion, the first major location that you’re dropped into. Running around town, looking for numbers, and picking up more fetch quest side missions along the way, my stomach dropped. A great character in Lightning, a fascinating world, an interesting narrative – and I’m playing seek and find? And it gets worse when you realize that one of the numbers is behind a door that doesn’t open for several virtual hours. You always feel under the thumb of the writers/developers of “Lightning Returns,” which creates a lack of authorship that’s unacceptable in today’s modern gaming world. We’re also just WELL past the point where it’s OK for a majority of quests to be variations on “go there, find this, and bring it back to me.”
What about the combat? Square-Enix has billed it as a real-time, action-oriented battle system instead of the turn-based action of previous “FF” games. When you face an enemy, you can string together attacks, evasive maneuvers, spells, etc., using both a meter that drains and shifting between Schemata—different sets of weapons, armor, skills, etc. It creates a hectic, cluttered battle experience that is depressingly close to button-mashing given the finesse of previous “FF” games when it came to battle. Strategy is implied but most battles will be won by switching quickly between Schemata and pushing attack as many times as possible (with a well-timed Guard to counter, of course).
Visually, “Lightning Returns” is a disappointment as well. Some of the more nature-based environemnts have a mesmerizing quality but cities and NPCs look like mid-‘00s graphic development. Some “Final Fantasy” games of recent years have achieved a beautiful visual palette but I found much of “Lightning Returns” ugly, the enemies rarely interestingly designed, and even the cut scenes visually lackluster. Audio is stronger, especially the lyrical score, a hallmark of the series.
There as hope that “Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII” would be one of the last great games of the PS3 generation, a fitting final note for the series before moving on to PS4 games in the future. Sadly, it feels not like a closing act to the PS3 “FF” experience but a game stuck in many outdated approaches to game design. “Final Fantasy” fans, both those far more intense than me and those new to the series, are ready to move on while “Lightning Returns” is stuck in the past and the clock is ticking.
Disclaimer: The publisher provided a copy of this game for review.