Review: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

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Man, oh man, ever since Final Fantasy XIII’s international release in 2010, the FF fandom has been divided. Those who enjoy the Final Fantasy XIII series, and those who don’t. I am in the former of the two groups, which is definitely the minority. I feel that FF13 and 13-2 were unfairly treated, just because 13 was really linear, for the most part. They are both good games in their own right, and I wish more people would understand that. Over the years of defending the XIII series on message boards and in arguments with my friends, I have found myself really emotionally invested to the series. So here it is, the final installment to the XIII saga I’ve been waiting for since that gut wrenching cliff hanger in XIII-2. Here is my review for Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.

FF Story
The first thing I should mention about the story that should be obvious by now is that this is the final part of the XIII trilogy. If you’re looking to jump into the Final Fantasy XIII saga, I have to highly recommend that you play Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, watch all the cutscenes or at the very least watch this short recap that Square-Enix pushed out last week.

The reason I say this, is because Lightning Returns is very unfriendly to new players to the franchise in terms of story. You could roughly piece together what has happened in the previous two games, but you don’t get all the information you need until pretty late in the game; until then, you’re left in the dark.

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If you are like myself, you have gone through the previous two games and have an emotional investment to the story. So you shouldn’t have any trouble understanding what’s going on with the exception of the beginning of the game. It starts similar to Final Fantasy XIII-2 in a sense that it just throws you into the situation without an explanation to start with. The jist of the story is that Lightning has awoken from her crystal stasis to a world that is on the brink of destruction. She is appointed as savior by god, and it’s her job to save as many souls as possible before the world ends. The core cast of the previous two games return in one way or another, in a world filled with despair and devoid of hope what happens when the unbreakable are broken?

These story settings and themes certainly allows us to see a new side of the characters we haven’t really seen before in the series, and sets up for some really touching moments in typical Final Fantasy style. Themes of love, hope, and light make their strong return and if you have played enough Final Fantasy games you should know what to expect. Some love it and some don’t; I’m in the former of those two. Lightning Returns is much easier to follow than the convoluted stories of the previous two games, that being said, the story of this installment is for the people that stuck with the XIII saga until now.

FF Presentation
I’m in two minds when it comes to the presentation for Lightning returns, as usual, Square-Enix shows off their CG muscles with some breath-taking cutscenes. The OST is a mix of styles of the music in XIII and XIII-2, so at some points, you have some beautifully orchestrated symphonies and in others, Metal and Hard Rock. Music is subjective, so if you enjoy it or not is completely up to you. A mixed soundtrack is a good way to accentuate both differing styles though, so it works in my mind.

When it comes to Voice Acting, I have a tough time judging it. The main cast returns to reprise their roles, and they are what you expect, unfortunately, there weren’t any stand out moments of excellence, but there were no terrible lines either; unless you count some of the sidequests that are really campy and awkward. There are some standout visual issues in game though, the frame rate is something I would hardly call “stable”, Which is a huge problem for me, seeing as one of my pet peeves is an unstable frame rate.

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While the environments are diverse, the nature of some of these environments means that the frame drops a lot, like the bustling city of Yussnan is certainly lively, but my frames are dead in the water. Aiming to do a lot of AOE Damage? A quick Runiga followed by a Blizzara will certainly tank that frame rate. The point is, this game buckles under the load it’s given a lot.

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Behind the frame problems though, there is some beautiful animation, character design and environments that won’t leave you without something to look at. I also love that the gear you give Lightning shows up on in-game cut-scenes now. It’s a give and take situation that somewhat ends up breaking even in my mind. Man, frame rate issues really rub me the wrong way.

FF gameplay
The Final Fantasy XIII saga feels like an encapsulation of an idea, implementation, refinement and now evolution. Lightning Returns is mechanically dense, so expect things to get heavy really quick. The biggest change in my opinion, is probably the battle system. I feel that the comparison a lot of people are going to make, is that it is a cross between X-2 and XIII which is unfairly dismissing it. Lightning Returns takes the combat system from XIII(-2) and kicks it up a notch. You still have the basics of the paradigm shift system, which is that you can change what you are mid battle.

What you are in battle, is up to you. Commandos, Ravagers, Sentinels, Synergists, Saboteurs and Medics are a thing of the past. Let me explain, instead of being tied to class archetypes, you have three Schema (Equipment loadouts) you can switch between while in battle, these three Schemas can be customized to your whim. They consist of a garb, weapon, shield, accessories, and four attacks or spells you can assign to the Facebuttons; there is a lot of room to make your playstyle work.

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Want a fast attacking damage dealer? It’s possible. Want a high defense saboteur (debuffer)? You can do that too. A huge part of how your classes play is in the garb, of which there are many in Lightning Returns, and all of them have their  own specialties. The battles themselves feel akin to an ARPG, with each Schema having it’s own ATB with many segments. depending on how your Schemas work , most of the time you will be attacking, evading or blocking. You never really stop moving, it’s a lot of fun and exhilarating. The stagger system also returns from the previous two games, in the form of a wavelength that appears with the enemies’ health bar. It’s not as clear and concise as the bar in previous two games, so it can be a little irritating at times, but once you learn each of enemies stagger conditions, that situation resolves itself pretty quickly.

Outside of battles and Schema customization is a giant numbers game. It’s all about time management. Your goal is to survive the maximum amount of days, and finish all the main quests given to you in each area within those days. Think of it as Majora’s Mask without the time travel. Unfortunately, the world can end prematurely, so on top of finishing those main quests, you need to extend the remaining time left by saving souls, which you mostly do by completing side-quests. If you collect enough souls by the end of the day, time will extend, which makes Side-quests more or less, mandatory. Whichever ones you do however, Is completely up to you. The harder the sidequest, the bigger soul you get.

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Consider it this way, should you do a lot of simple side quests? Or risk a lot of time by doing a complicated one? Time management is the core of this game. From doors that only open at certain times, to the fact that there is no dying, when you fall in battle and have no reviving option, your only alternative left is to escape which costs you an hour in game time. Unlike the terrible time I had in Dead Rising 1, the time management in Lightning Returns is oddly enjoyable.

Lightning Returns follows the trend of it’s predecessors and doesn’t have your typical leveling system; matter of fact, there is no leveling at all. Stat improvements come in the form of quest rewards. Of course, you also improve with better gear, with the aforementioned Schemas, but for the most part though, they are only available via vendors or story progression. Grinding is pretty optional in Lightning Returns. The only annoying thing I really discovered while roaming around the world of Lightning Returns, is that sometimes the game asked for some precise platforming, which it isn’t really built for, luckily these moments are few and far between.