Watching Square Enix attempt to amend the 13th numbered entry in the Final Fantasy series is a bit like watching a mediocre singer audition for Australian Idol – they try so hard you almost convince yourself they can fluke their way through, but deep down you know they don’t stand a chance. Besides, Stan Walker…so hot right now. Sure, Lightning Returns (LR) might be the strongest entry in the 13 series, though you’d be hard pressed to claim it’s not a jumbled mess.
Fortunately the game does have some redeeming features, at the forefront of which is its rejigged battle system. No matter which way you spin it, the spectator sport of Final Fantasy XIII-1 & 2’s paradigm system was a monster failing. Lacking both the pleasing aesthetics of real time combat, and the strategic complexity of turn based battles, it chose to prioritize flow and flair. Lightning Returns puts control back in the player’s hands. Want to cast your fire attack? That requires a button press. Want to swing your sword? Another button press. Need to guard from an impending enemy attack? Button press. As rudimentary as all that sounds, it’s such a drastic improvement over what came before that it needs to be addressed.
Speaking of a-dressing things, Lightning loves to play dress-ups. Each costume she wears grants different benefits to her starting stats, so playing to a costume’s strengths is essential to maximizing Lightning’s abilities. The ‘Velvet Bouncer’ outfit, for example, offers multiple buffs to Lightning’s strength, and a blitz attack that increases the time her enemies remain in weak states (called ‘stagger’ states). Fitting such attire out with magical attacks, then, is pointless. Instead you’ll want her attacks to focus on physical hits, with one of four ability slots dedicated to a guard option. It’s an effective class system, allowing you to experiment with multiple builds (wizard, brawler, support etc) without ever forcing you to focus on just one.
Unfortunately that’s not to say the combat is fantastic by any measure, just that it’s better than what came before. Ys: Memories of Celceta, Dragons Dogma, even the grind-heavy Ni no Kuni, all featured battle systems strong enough to stand on their own two feet, while Lightning Returns buckles under the hefty weight.
Why does it carry such a hefty burden? Because the story, in every possible way, is terrible. For a start, Lightning is about as one-dimensional a protagonist as they come:
She’s not funny (in fact she never tries to be funny).
She shows no discernible flicker of human emotion.
No matter how dire the situation is, her voice acting is always delivered in that same, monotonous tone.
She exists to further the plot, rather than the plot existing to further her character development.
Still, weak characters can be compensated by a strong plot with great pacing, right? Sure, but LR features neither. The rather simple story (save the world and its people *yawn*) is tied up in an unnecessarily complex web of datalog entries you’ll fall asleep from reading. Meanwhile, exposition is unashamedly shoved down the players throat, while the mandatory plot twists have as much bang as a used party popper. Throw in pacing offset by repetitive fetch quests and FF’s trademark grinding, and you’re left with zero motive to see this hackneyed tale through till its end.
It’s a damn shame too, because I really wanted to like Lightning Returns. For all its blundering faults there is wisps of enjoyment to be had with 100+ hours of content, throwbacks to the franchise’s long history, and an open world design that beggars hardcore fanatics reason to explore.
Now please return to your previous form Final Fantasy, hopefully XIII was just a case of bad luck.
- Reviewed On