Looking back on the hugely divisive Final Fantasy XIII, it’s easy to see why Square-Enix’s deviation from the established formula upset so many fans. Incredibly restrictive for the first half of the game, it put a lot of people off before they even got to the “good part”. It was saved by two things: the innate Final Fantasy-ness that combined far-fetched sci-fi/fantasy hokum with a deep battle system, and Lightning herself, a powerful, conflicted heroine who defied over-sexualisation and came across as strong and unyielding, not as a pair of boobs in a chainmail bikini.
The sequel re-addressed the issues with exploration and player freedom, producing a game that made up what it lost from removing Lightning as the protagonist by delivering a more traditional open-world experience. The excitement around the announcement of a third title in the series was palpable, especially when it was confirmed that Lightning would return to conclude the story she began. Sadly, it’s the rose-haired one herself who proves to be one of the biggest disappointments in Lightning Returns.
Awaking from crystal stasis around 500 years after XIII-2, Lightning has been charged by the God Bhunivelze to save the world, and she has only 13 days to do it. Aided by Hope Esteim, she travels between an otherworldly Ark and the world of Nova Crystallis, saving souls with which to feed Bhunivelze, which is the lynchpin of Lightning’s motivations.
Now a servant of God, Lightning has been stripped of emotion, which means even the ever-reliable Ali Hillis can’t do much to make the character compelling. Her toneless delivery is not only grating, but indicative of Lightning Returns’ primary – and most unforgivable – flaw: it isn’t much fun to play. The story is as confusing and convoluted as ever, reintroducing old characters in new roles that make little sense at the beginning and don’t fully pay off when you start getting answers later on. With Hope to guide her, Lightning – or “God’s Saviour” – is directed from event to event minus emotion or any real, tangible conflict, and it all feels slightly disjointed and disconnected.
You initially begin with 6 days on the clock, and everything is based around time. Actions eat it up, and most quests must be completed during certain periods. As you save souls (by completing main and side quests) you’ll earn more time – which is another problem: you’ve actually got way too much of it on your hands. The main story isn’t deep or vast enough to fill up the entire thirteen days, which is a bit of a tension killer. There’s replayability in the Hard Mode, unlocked by beating Normal, which presents more of a challenge, but ultimately requires you to go through the game again just to experience the extra features and real difficulty, which is a problem because you’re unlikely to want to play it all again. The gameplay experience does become more interesting once you move outside the walls of the first city, but Lightning Returns never really seems to cut loose and let you feel truly free.
In a departure from the norm, Lightning is the only playable character, and so battle tactics are redefined with Schemata, combinations of clothing, weapons, accessories and abilities that are predetermined by you and switched between at will during a fight (even down to colour schemes). Attacks and guards deplete the Active Time Battle (ATB) gauge, and so juggling between Schematas is essential, and how tactical and strategic you make them is down to you. It’s an excellent system, and is Lightning Returns’ primary saving grace.
The real-time combat is fluid and dynamic, and the gorgeous aesthetic makes it all bright and vibrant. If it the exploration and questing were on par with the battles, Lightning Returns would be a far more attractive prospect. Although the combat does start to become a little routine after several hours, it’s still an original direction for the franchise. That being said, while originality is to be praised, it’s the old familiar elements that exist to remind us we’re playing a Final Fantasy game that make Lightning Returns likeable despite its shortcomings. Words like Thundara and Firaga, the bright menus, the little Mickey Mouse hand cursor, the world and its themes – all remain intrinsically Final Fantasy, so even when it’s not thrilling you, Lightning Returns feels like a comfortable old dressing gown.
It’s helped by the fact that it looks lovely throughout. Occasional minor juddering notwithstanding, the graphics are beautiful and the world is consistently interesting. As always, the cutscenes are simply astounding, displaying a breathtaking ballet of light and colour that, unfortunately, makes the actual gameplay feel a bit too sedate. The voice acting is competent but held back by the uneven script, while the music is precisely as familiar as the look.
VERDICT: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a tricky one to pin down. On the one hand it’s very well-made and it shows: the visuals are great and the familiar hallmarks are all present and correct. But on the other hand, there’s something undeniably missing from the formula, an element of fun that remains absent despite the unique battle system and the returning cast.
Fans of the previous games will find a lot to like here, but it’s neither a good jumping off point nor the type of game you play just for the hell of it. It’s destined to have the same divisive impact as its forebears, and because of that Lightning Returns is hard to recommend broadly, but worthy of some praise nonetheless.
GOOD. A game that scores 7/10 is worthy of note, but unworthy of fanfare. It does many things well, but only a few of them incredibly well and, despite a handful of good qualities, fresh ideas and solid mechanics, it fails to overwhelm.
Review copy provided by publisher.