LIGHTNING RETURNS: FINAL FANTASY XIII (2014) – SQUARE ENIX
From the outset, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a very difficult game to analyse – after all, how can one generate an opinion on a game that for all intents and purposes shouldn’t exist in the first place? If you had said when Final Fantasy XIII originally came out that it would get a trilogy, most people would have laughed. But then Final Fantasy XIII-2 came out of nowhere, and whilst it was a marked improvement over the first game, the ending of the story almost guaranteed another installment. And the sad thing is that while LR:FFXIII is the final act of a story that few people wanted to be told, it still suffers the same setbacks that have affected its predecessors.
First and chief among all the problems is that the story is focused entirely around Lightning this time round; a character which hasn’t exactly endeared herself to the large majority of FF fans. Woken from crystal stasis, Lightning is entrusted by a god called Bhunivelze to save as many souls as she can from the world of Cocoon, which for several complicated reasons has only thirteen days left before it gets destroyed in favour of a new world. Elevated almost to the position of a god herself, Lightning is aided by the returning Hope (who for whatever reason is reverted to his younger self from XIII) who provides narration and hints from The Ark, a place where time doesn’t flow and where Lightning must return at the end of each day to return the souls she has saved. Whilst on Cocoon, Lightning also runs into allies and enemies from the previous two games who form the basis of the six main story threads that must be completed if the game is to be seen through to the end.
While those who were actually invested in the plotlines of XIII & XIII-2 will be happy to know that most of the loose ends are tied up by the end of the game (and in fairness the stronger story elements of XIII-2 are prioritized and much more enjoyable to complete), the narrative of LR:FFXIII is still pretty ludicrous. Considering that the end of the world is close at hand, most of the residents of Cocoon seem relatively happy to plod along with their mediocre lives, entrusting demigod Lightning with tasks including the collection of flowers, finding cats and helping a small boy tune his tuba. Interactions with the main characters are fleeting, and once the six main plot points have been resolved, then running around doing menial tasks until the end of the game comes into view can be draining. And then there is the ending, which is suitably stupid – after Bhunivelze inevitably tricks Lightning, a final battle between the two in space results in Lightning using a sword the size of the universe, powered by friendship, to slay the God of all creation. She and her other allies then zoom to the new world, which is revealed to be Earth, and the game ends with an immortal Lightning stepping off a train in modern day France. I KID YOU NOT.
So if you aren’t going to pick up the game for the story, then what exactly is it that LR:FFXIII can offer? In keeping with the tradition of the trilogy, the gameplay is almost completely different yet again. As previously mentioned, Lightning is on her own for the entirety of the game, which finally ditches a linear approach for a more open world feel that XIII-2 was on the verge of achieving. After completing the first mission, Lightning is free to explore the four sprawling areas of Nova Chrsyallis (depressing religious city, happy party city, wild plains/forest and hot sandy desert) in whichever order the player chooses. Each day in game takes roughly 70 minutes of real time to tick through, with certain missions and events only unlocking on certain days or at particular times. In order to stem the flow of time, Lightning can take a train between each region, and can activate an ability called Chronostasis, which briefly freezes the clock and allows you to manipulate time. Using Chronostasis consumes CP however, and therefore cannot be used indefinitely. In order to have enough CP, Lightning also needs to fight monsters which appear in the field.
The battling system is actually quite intuitive in LR:FFXIII, as for the first time in the trilogy you cannot get away with auto-battling. Fights take place in real time, with the player having to enter various commands to deal damage or block; each command takes up a chunk of your ATB gauge, which will empty out and then slowly refill over time. Button mashing is not the way to go here, as the learning curve is actually pretty brutal for a start – Lightning fights pretty much every battle solo and has no access to healing spells, and so has to rely on that most powerful of things to stay ahead of the game – fashion. There are multiple outfits available which can be bought or earned as rewards that provide subtle boosts and perks when Lightning is fighting, and she can switch between three preset costumes at any time during battle with a quick flick of the LB/RB buttons. Not only does this allow you to essentially change class on the fly (the best aspect of Paradigm Shifts from the previous two games), but while a costume is in reserve its ATB gauge will fill up quicker, so there is an element of tactics to consider: perhaps fire off some quick spells as a Ravager, before switching to a tank with Steelguard to block some damage and then moving back again to a full gauge of spells for example.
Along with the fact that you actually have to put some effort into scraps now, there are other aspects of the battling system that I quite like. In keeping with the end-of-the-world scenario, repeatedly beating on one species of monster will eventually force it to become extinct and disappear entirely – but not before a super-powered ‘Last One’ version of the monster appears which will drop unique loot. In what I believe is a first for the series as well, you can also fight bosses as many times as you like using a simulation mode on the Ark. I guess the costume modification (which was heavily marketed before launch to appeal perhaps to cosplay fans) is quite fun as well when you delve into it, with a large variety of options and cosmetic additions including Chocobo plushies, moustaches and frying pans available to make each loadout special; some unique costumes come with special victory animations and music as well. Disappointingly however, once you acquire a few essential fight commands you can get by with the most basic of setups, and the two costumes which are available to anyone with saves from the previous two games are severely overpowered. It’s also sad to observe that the upgrading of shields and weapons, which would make the early game at least a lot more forgiving, are locked away until the player enters New Game +; clearly the game shares a habit from its predecessor of keeping its best assets hidden until it is too late.
I’m afraid LR:FFXIII doesn’t win too many marks with its visual qualities either. While the CGI movies maintain the splendid quality that we have come to almost expect from Square Enix, the game itself at times feels like the product of very lazy design – old character models are recycled and the frame rate lags horribly whenever Lightning enters a place infused with Chaos. The camera also seems to be fighting itself sometimes while in battle, both trying to close up to focus on the action and maintain a view of the whole battlefield with conflicting results. The new game environments, including the party loving Yusnaan and the wide sweeping plains of the Wildlands are pretty enough to look at, but in truth there is little advancement made on the graphics of XIII-2.
Fans of the XIII saga will be able to take some solace in the knowledge that music is one of the stronger aspects of the game – pretty much every tune that has featured in the previous two games (both of which rank surprisingly high in my personal choice of FF soundtracks) makes an appearance somewhere in LR:FFXIII which creates quite the expansive aural experience. Each new area that Lightning stumbles into usually prompts a change in tune, and each area has a different piece of music depending on what time of day it is as well; even this leads to problems however because due to the nature of the game which has you zooming around making every second count, you’ll catch maybe 20 seconds of a song before its gets cut to a new one. All of this pales into comparison however with possibly the game’s biggest frustration – Hope’s consistent narration on absolutely everything. He never shuts up, and when it’s time to get back to the Ark at the end of each day, it gets even more unbearable.
When I finished Lightning Returns, it was with a sigh of relief and a casual quip of ‘thank god that’s all over with’ rather than with a smile on my face – and I think that reflection typifies both the game and the XIII saga as a whole. There are elements that I really want to enjoy (the music and the general design strike a chord with me), but consistently the games have not helped themselves; be it either through sheer tedium or a severe lack of ambition: qualities with oddly enough typify the heroine who has dragged the process out over so many years, Lightning herself. With A Realm Reborn and XIV looking to put the brand back into the upper echelons of gaming hierarchy, I hope that Square Enix realize that Lightning doesn’t need to strike another time.