The best I can say about Lightning Returns is that it concludes the storyline of Final Fantasy XIII which is something that fans have been clamoring for years. Other than that, this is a mediocre entry in the series that you can definitely do without.
To a certain extent, you never know what to expect from a new Final Fantasy. After all, the series is famous for introducing new elements and characters in each entry in the series. But I don’t think anyone wants to see a Final Fantasy with technical problems, monotonous questing or weak characters. Sadly, those are but some of the issues you’ll encounter on your playthrough when you play this game. In Lightning Returns, the titular character is back for one final adventure, yet this story arc has been around for so long and there are so many problems that the game goes out with a whimper rather than a deafening bang the series is known for.
For those unfamiliar, Lightning Returns is the last entry in a trilogy, after Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2. As the name of the game suggests, this entry puts you in the shoes of the heroine known as Lightning after she awakes from a self-imposed hibernation. Anyone who played XIII-2 knows that the title was notorious for prominently showing Lightning in the game cover, trailers, posters and other promotional material, but she was nowhere to be found in the game itself and most fans were infuriated. You don’t have to worry about the protagonist not being around this time, but there are some drastic changes to the experience that weren’t present in the previous games and not all of those are for the better.
Those who have played both XIII and XIII-2 will immediately notice that the battle system has been completely revamped. Unlike the previous entries in the series, where you could control several characters during combat, Lightning Returns just lets you use a single character, but if you fear that the battles might become stale after a while, fear not because there’s a lot to take in. Lightning can rotate between a trio of Schema and each of those has its own garbs, weapons, shields, accessories, spells and attacks associated to them, making your setup personal and unique. She can perform as many abilities as the ATB gauge allows her and once that bar has been consumed, you can switch to another one. In a way, this system is quite reminiscent of that of Final Fantasy X-2 where different dresspheres changed not only the look of your characters, but also the abilities you could use. Overall, the combat is one of the best parts about the game because it achieves the unthinkable, it makes controlling a single character in a JRPG compelling while making the combat feel flexible and fast-paced. Blocking is an integral part of combat too, but unfortunately, battles are so chaotic that finding the precise moment to block and avoid damage is nigh impossible in most fights, not to mention boss fights where you can barely follow the hectic action.
There’s one last element that comes into play in terms of combat and it’s in the form of Energy Points. For some of the most challenging brawls, Lightning has access to special abilities that consume Energy Points or EPs. One of those abilities allows Lightning to move faster than her enemies to land more hits and her signature move, Army of One, lets her attack an enemy with devastating blows while she heals some of her damage. To replenish EPs, you need to win battles and the energy you get depends on the difficult settings, time and the size of your enemies.
Despite the combat receiving a complete overhaul, there are a several problems with Lightning Returns. The first of those is related to the game’s structure. See in Lightning Returns, the world as we know it is about to end, but before the apocalypse catches up to you, you need to complete as many quests as you can in order to challenge the final boss and save the universe. The game gives you a maximum of thirteen days before the world ends and you can extend the time limit by completing story missions and side quests involving emotionally distressed people. It’s worth mentioning that the quests you complete are directly tied to Lightning’s growth, so as you complete more missions, her stats improve. There’s always this sense of urgency, but in the end, this time limit means absolutely nothing and I feel like it hurts the game more than anything else. Some players will certainly enjoy the challenge, but planning your day so that you can maximize everything you do in it prevents exploration and limits your chances of seeing everything the game’s systems have to offer. Instead of taking my time to explore, I felt an uncomfortable pressure that made me rush at certain spots and ruined my enjoyment.
Also, the tone of the game’s incredibly inconsistent: it seems like some of the NPCs are completely unaware that the world’s about to end, requesting you to find them dates, locate missing pets or retrieve lost toys. At times, there’s almost a festive environment which seems woefully inappropriate for a world that’s about to end. Shouldn’t those people be living their lives at their fullest instead of being so concerned with dates or missing items? Also, you can tell just by looking at the NPCs that not a lot of effort went into making them since they’re badly designed and completely forgettable. On top of that, the main characters are poorly developed to the point that after playing the game for more than 30 hours, I feel like I know little to next to nothing about Lightning. Whenever I think about classic Final Fantasy, I can remember details about Cloud Strife, Squall Leonhart or Yuna which is more than I can say about Lightning, someone I easily spent around 100 hours with and I can’t, for the life of me, remember if she has a last name or not.
Completing quests was also underwhelming and not necessarily because some of them were boring or poorly designed, but because there’s so much repetition involved. At times, Lightning Returns resembles the structure of an MMO where you complete trivial and forgettable mission after mission. In other words, you follow a marker on a map or you access the menu to see the mission list and you complete one after the other until the day is over and then, you do it all over again.
And then there are technical issues. When the action heats up, Lightning Returns’ framerate seems to be in the single digits and while this doesn’t make the game unplayable, it makes the experience feel sloppy and amateurish. And that’s a shame because Lightning Returns’ setting are a spectacle to behold and you can’t help but gawk at certain environments. A convincing effect that wears off when everything slows down to a crawl.
The combat might be one of the best parts about the game, but I have to say that some enemies are tricky even on the lowest difficulty setting. Figuring out how to defeat some of the bosses without using resources like walkthroughs or videos is remarkably difficult because you have so many elements at your disposal and because certain battles require something specific from you. There were only a couple of instances where I had to look up what I had to do, but it’s a shame to make it to the end of the game to then face the final challenge and realize that you may be unprepared even when you completed most of the missions the game has to offer.
Lightning Returns is an uneven title. Some of the ideas the game introduces have so much potential that when you see it all goes to waste, you can’t help but to feel sorry for it. When I started playing, I was expecting to lose myself in a spectacularly designed world with memorable characters, satisfying combat and entertaining quests, but I wasn’t expecting an uninspired JRPG that hits more than it misses.