Square Enix’s business strategy with the Final Fantasy XIII franchise has been consistently surprising – the first game, as a core entry to the flagship JRPG series, felt like a huge departure from everything the series was, alienating some fans but proving that Square Enix was willing to take risks and attempt innovation in a stagnating genre. Then Final Fantasy XIII-2 came along, very much the sequel that nobody asked for, attempting to right all the wrongs of its predecessor. This worked to an extent – XIII-2 took players out of the boxed structure imposed in XIII proper and that freedom provided a gameplay experience infinitely more satisfying than the original.
It’s a shame, then, that Lightning Returns seems to suffer from a myopic confusion – it’s a game that struggles with its identity, fighting to wrangle a place between XIII and XIII-2 as far as gameplay is concerned, and ultimately projecting itself as a garbled narrative mess. Square Enix reportedly spent $65 million on getting the Crystal Engine in working order, and its insistence on using the engine for every Final Fantasy XIII release has resulted in a game that looks mid-generational, at best. This close to the end of the PS3’s and Xbox 360’s lifespans, and after having the title soak up so much budget, there really is no excuse for any game to be so plagued by texture pop-in and jagged edges.
Any hardcore Final Fantasy fan wants two central things when they boot up their newest purchase – a decent, emotionally driven story and an engaging, complicated battle system. At least Lightning Returns offers the latter, because we’re confident in saying that this is – by far – the worst Final Fantasy narrative we’ve had the displeasure of being subjected to (at least X-2 made sense).
The over-arching theme sees the eponymous Lightning unfrozen from crystal stasis 500 years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2 by an All-God figure, Bhunivelze. Conveniently left out of much of the lore until now, Bhunivelze is an overseer of sorts to the Gods that have systematically been bumped off in the XIII series so far. Using Lightning’s sister Serah as a bartering chip to coerce Light into becoming the ‘saviour’ of his world, Bhunivelze tasks the pink-haired protagonist with purging the souls of the dead – this forms the central crux of your explorations throughout the open world.
The structures of XIII and XIII-2 were criticised for different reasons; XIII felt like it held your hand too firmly along the horizontal X-axis until right at the end of the game (where your freedom was still only limited to a less impressive version of X’s Calm Lands). XIII-2 took you up the Y-axis – requiring you to venture back and forth through different areas of time to achieve your goal. Lightning Returns, then, travels the Z-axis – an uncertain and diagonal route through an open world that, while lacking in personality, is flush with gorgeous level design. Lightning Returns’ place in overall Final Fantasy trope-dom may be questionable, but as far as its world goes… it just screams FF at you.
These environments form the basis for fetch quest missions that serve to send you out across the sprawling over-world. While the missions themselves are often uninspiring, we can’t help but respect the way they utilise the environment: the back and forth through the games’ various regions keeps the pacing fresh – you’re never in one place long enough for it to stagnate.
Levelling isn’t achieved via battling, but rather by completing these myriad quests (which tend to require battling anyway; harvesting items from your dispatched opponents). What the game lacks in any sort of consistent narrative cohesion, it makes up for in gameplay structure: the whole world is going to end in 6 days, and by opting to complete quests, Lightning can absorb souls and extend the world’s lifespan up to 13 (doing so allows you to tie up all the loose ends on the planet, seemingly). This is an interesting gameplay conceit, and it gives the whole game an edge of tension – running from battles, losing a fight or just wandering aimlessly will cost you time, real time, and that will have a negative impact on your ending.
We’re pretty certain that, on the Medium difficulty (Hard is locked until you complete the game once), you can’t actually complete the game, per se, on your first run through. In fact, most of the game proper is locked out for you until you choose to start a New Game+ – do this from running out of days, and all your items, upgrades, gil and quest progression will import, start again after beating the final boss and you have the Hard difficulty option. This forced take on a New Game+ is an interesting mechanical conceit – because areas you may not have already unlocked are open to you from the beginning of the game, you can come across NPCs or get given quests that would otherwise be unavailable to you.
While this does imbue the game with a longevity and lifespan that you wouldn’t necessarily get in other, more story-based RPGs, it limits the game to a hardcore following – the devoted RPG players of the world. This is quite an inaccessible game to those interested in a more casual experience, but a truly refreshing experience for the niche-hunting RPG fans. A typical playthrough will take you 30 hours; to unlock the bonus Hard Mode dungeon, finish off the final boss, complete 100+ guests and make it to the optional super-boss that lies in wait at the end of the secret dungeon, you’ll easily have to accumulate 60+ hours of total play time.
Most of that time will be spent in the customisation mode, too. This is not a bad thing at all – it’s in these menus that the game is most reminiscent of old-school RPGs; racking your brain to equip abilities and items that proffer the best stats is as engaging as it is rewarding. Kitting out Lightning in her myriad costumes, playing with different ability typesets, equipping various swords and shields… it gives the game a toybox feel that, oddly enough, suits the world and tone of Lightning Returns all too well. We spent a decent amount of hours making our preferred classes (Black Mage, Red Mage, Dragoon) as reminiscent as possible of their classic-FF roots.
These cosmetic changes apply in a very functional way in battle, too – each equipped ability corresponds to a face button, with some classes (or Garbs, as the game likes to call them) coming with locked abilities. Striking the right balance between stat boosts that the abilities offer and practical battle use is one of the most compelling aspects of Lightning Returns – something we really weren’t expecting. The way the game dictates battle dynamics for some encounters (Staggering makes a return here, and your option to ‘Overclock’ Lightning helps speed this process up) is inspired – if we cared a little more about the story driving these battles, they would have been some of the most atmospheric and tense of any recent Final Fantasy release. As it stands, with the added tension of the world’s timer hanging over your head, certain story-related battles do feel pretty tense, and you’ll end up clenching your toes and gripping your pad hard when your health starts to drop.
Graphically, the game operates on two polar opposites – the CG is jaw-dropping, reminiscent of the Agni’s Philosophy tech demo released for the Crystal Engine’s Luminous upgrade. Alas, in-game there is some horrific texture pop-in, frame-rate slowdown (unforgivable in battles when you want to see the screen busy with magic and monsters) and most textures are appalling up close. NPCs are bland and characterless, for the most part, and their bumbling around the various locales would be funny if it wasn’t so embarrassing.
Lightning Returns has some genuinely great ideas as far as modern RPGs are concerned, and despite being let down by a shoddy story and some graphical issues, it remains a shining example of how dynamic battle systems and thoughtful character customisation can save an otherwise trite, lifeless game. If you’re after an RPG that tests the waters of something new, then Lightning Returns is for you. If you’re after an engaging, thoughtful story, you’re better off looking elsewhere.