Review: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (360/PS3)

Final Fantasy, Lightning Returns

This review was written for One Hit Pixel, found here.

At the Yusnaan Colosseum, the crowd roars as I face off against my final opponent. Me: dressed in a dramatically tailored purple suit, hefting a katana twice my size. Him: a 10 foot, ornately armoured dragon.

Child’s play.

I strike hard and fast. I’ve studied his kind in the bestiary, and know just what moves will knock him off kilter. I unleash a flurry of sword slashes, timing them rhythmically and with mounting force.

My foe starts winding up a counter attack, but I’m ready. In the blink of an eye, my outfit changes into an elegant bodysuit and cape that looks like it featured in a Balenciaga fashion show. My weapons switch alongside, and with expert timing I hold up a shield to parry the dragon’s swipe.

The impact is made with such force that the dragon finds himself in a sprawling heap, as I tower over him – sword poised for the final blow. I whisper to it as I plunge the sword into its neck.

“Motherfucker, I’m fabulous.”

Style tips for the Temporal Apocalypse

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is adventurous end to a generation of adventurous games. The original Final Fantasy XIII was made at a time where Square Enix felt compelled to experiment to better suit a new era of gaming. Its choices were not adored by all; but I personally found it wonderfully refreshing.

Lightning Returns is also rather refreshing, but it feels desperate to take cues from the sphere of Western RPG game design. As such, it toes the line between wildly enjoyable and a hot mess.

To skip recapping the previous games (Square Enix have already done that for you), Claire “Lightning” Farron is an agent of God, having previously been a freedom fighter and trapped in an alternate timeline.

The world she once knew has been left in a ruined temporal state where no one has aged in the last 500 years. God plans to just destroy it all and start over – but it can’t do that without souls to populate the new world.

Lightning is given only thirteen days to save as many souls as she can before the apocalypse occurs. If she does a good enough job, God will maybe, just maybe, return her dead sister back to life.

The rules of the runway, and a fight against time

Those thirteen days are the main crux of Lightning Returns‘ game flow. Taking more than just a cue from Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, all map traversal happens on an in-game clock – though unlike Majora’s Mask, time can only be paused, never rewound. Although no one has aged in 500 years, day still turns to night, and the world’s populace will move around to their own schedules.

Saving people’s souls often boils down to fetch quests of varying degrees of bald-faced obviousness. The quests are also the primary way of increasing Lightning’s stats, directly tying character growth to story progression, rather than how many enemies you’ve fought.

In the four main maps of the game, there are five key quests involving allies from past games that are the most time-sensitive, and your general movements will largely be worked around those.

Two of the areas, the world capital Luxerion and festival city Yusnaan, have the better quests and general environment design. The atmosphere of the urban areas shift as the day passes – Luxerion’s quiet positivity of the day turns into bitter and fearful brooding of the night captured by an excellent soundtrack.

Yusnaan’s key quest and general environment are my personal favourite; Lightning plots to break into the city’s castle as evening festivities kick into gear. As I ran around setting off fireworks, earning ballgowns in the Colosseum and having matches of wit against a theatre director (complete with billowing storms of rose petals), I was having the time of my life.

Although the time progression system is thematically the core of the game, the main draw for most is the combat system. Unlike the previous FFXIII games, you only ever control Lightning, going toe-to-toe with monsters alone.

At any one time Lightning has four skills available, usually including a sword attack, magic and a block. When attacking, Lightning will automatically run up to the targeted foe, but you have fine control over when and how you attack. There’s a damage bonus for rhythmically landing blows, and your guarding also benefits from precise timing.

The system works extremely well, feeling like a kind of magic-fuelled fencing rather than berserk assaults. Indeed, precise attacks and guarding is vital to staying alive, as enemies will crush you if your blocking is sloppy.

Death won’t result in a ‘Game Over’, but you’ll be forced to retreat – losing one hour on your countdown. There is an Easy mode that skips this punishment (as well as healing you outside of battle and making it easier to temporarily pause the clock), but even as someone who hates getting stuck in games, I found all those concessions sapped the drama from events.

Lightning: The One Woman Fashion Show

The previous FFXIII games had ‘Paradigms’, pre-arranged strategies for your party to switch between mid-combat. This is revised in Lightning Returns and melded with the Dressphere system from Final Fantasy X-2 to create the Garb system.

I love the Garb system.

Aside from the slickness of changing your skillset mid-combat, there’s a lot of strategy in fine-tuning sets of outfit, sword, shield and abilities into killer ensembles. I cheered every time I found a new dress or weapon. Most quests will give you an accessory to wear – Lightning will don anything from train conductor caps to aviator shades.

Of course such a wide range of clothes wouldn’t mean anything if the designs were sub-par, but with the killer duo of Toshiyuki Itahana (Character Designer for much of the Crystal Chronicles side series) and Tetsuya Nomura (who has best demonstrated his skills in The World Ends With You) that is simply not the case.

There’s a palpable understanding of both high fashion and good character design in both Lightning’s garbs, and the NPC designs. Styles and patterns that look like you could buy in a high-class boutique are melded with historic and ceremonial dress from world cultures, sprinkled with some otherworldly flairs. However, some clothing models repeat – and others are obvious fan service (your default costume is essentially ass-less leather armour) which feels out-of-place as Lightning has never been an overtly sexual character.

Sadly, the design quality does not extend to the game world. There’s definitely some craft at work, but the design direction is lacking. Beautiful architecture and city layouts are marred a miserably desaturated colour palette and some middling texture work.

Lightning Returns doesn’t seem to have the budget of other contemporary Square Enix games, but instead of hiding that with bold stylistic choices, we get a whole lot of grey. When it comes to the less urban areas of the Dead Dunes and Wildlands, it’s both grey and empty.

The Final Fantasy Style Collection

Lightning Returns is just on the cusp of being the game design and trope conglomerate I really want. Combat that requires finesse, but isn’t grinding-heavy. Populated, detailed urban environments. Bestiaries. Fashion for days. However, the Western RPG-aping open-endedness is both a personal turn-off and is nowhere near enough to rope in Skyrim players. It’s not the game old-school Final Fantasy fans want either, but the FFXIII games have never been that; those guys have Bravely Default to satisfy their endless grinding.

It’s wishful thinking, but I hope Lightning Returns ends up being the groundwork for a future The World Ends With You. This kind of environment exploration, character customisation, and episodic storytelling would be a perfect fit.