‘Lightning Returns’ is a hard pill to swallow

Jon Mercer
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Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

It’s been a long, rocky, and thoroughly befuddling road for Square Enix’s equal parts ambitious and ostentatious “Final Fantasy XIII” project.

A screenshot from “Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.” — Submitted image

Saddled with the mouthful nomme de guerre “Fabula Nova Crystallis,” the entire ordeal has been a high-selling but divisive hot mess for the RPG juggernaut.

2010’s “FFXIII” was succulent eye candy, plagued with linear design and an excruciatingly slow start that refused to stop holding gamers’ hands until nearly 30 hours had been clocked in. “FFXIII-2” in early 2012 fixed many of the pacing issues of its predecessor and served up much better dungeon layouts, but fell victim to a story was at best silly and at worst completely stupid. The rest of the planned epic subseries have either failed to escape from Japan, or have been repurposed as unrelated Final Fantasy projects.

This leaves “Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII” as the closing act of the XIII experiment. Does the curtain drop to thunderous applause, or confused dejection?

Set roughly a millennia and a half after the close of “XIII,” “Lightning Returns” has the salmon-haired siren woken from eternal rest by a powerful deity, cast as his avatar and then sent back to the land of the living 13 days before its destruction to make all the wrong things right, and save the souls of the worthy to repopulate a lush new world.

The setting is admittedly cool, with chaos having reshaped the game’s world since the end of “XIII-2,” and there are some really cool elements involving people unable to age or die. But the heavy-handed religious allegory, messianic mumbo jumbo and preachy, contradictory pseudo-philosophical floss add to an already confusing and exhibition riddled narrative to make “Lightning Returns” a hard pill to swallow.

The 13-day time limit is strictly enforced, keeping players on a tight leash to get things finished up before the apocalypse unfurls. There are five main quests to be tackled in the main story, and a large number of sidequests — enough so that finishing everything feels nearly impossible.

I’ve never been a fan of time limits in RPGs, finding it stifles exploration in favour of artificial focus in a game that is designed to last longer than 20 hours.

“Lightning Returns” is no different. Even if progress is being made at a steady click, one can’t help but feel a pit of dread opening in their stomach as each day counts down.

Combat in “Lightning Returns” tries to add a few wrinkles in the form of what the game calls “schemata.” Essentially, Lightning (ye gods, what a name) can load out three different schemata at a time, and must switch between them in battle to keep from exhausting each set’s EP (fuel). These consist of her outfit, sword, shield, a pair of accessories and a selection of four skills.

It’s a cool idea, and switching up schemata in the heat of a struggle makes strategic thinking a necessity. Problems arise, however, in how easy it is to expend EP, and how slow it is to replenish.

Everything is tied to EP, even using healing skills and items, and it only recharges upon defeating an enemy.

Tougher bosses require that they are staggered to do any real damage, and without using special abilities that consume even more EP, this is nearly impossible, and running out of EP is disastrous.  

Experience is nonexistent; rather completing quests — both main and side — instead gives Lightning a permanent boost to all of her basic stats. Getting decent upgrades for weapons is irritating as shops carry very little that isn’t hindered by negative stats, keeping the best gear to be earned via quests or found in treasure spheres. I understand that Square Enix are trying to reinvent the wheel to make JRPGs relevant again, and they want that to go down on “Final Fantasy’s” watch, but it is a poorly balanced system with more issues than a magazine rack.

From an artistic standpoint, however, “Lightning Returns” is an impressive specimen. The visuals are pretty high calibre, and the art design is tops. That’s one aspect of “Final Fantasy” that can always be counted on is high production value.

Enjoyment of “Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII” is dependent entirely on one’s dedication to the brand. Personally, I am glad to see an end to the adventures of the stoic, unlikeable, too-cool-for-school Lightning; but fans will probably enjoy the fast-paced take on fighting enough to overlook the headache-inducing story and disconnected protagonist.

For everyone else, I would suggest checking out Square Enix’s superior “Bravely Default” on the Nintendo 3DS.

Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (PS3 version reviewed)

Developer: Square Enix/Tri-Ace

Publisher: Square Enix

Release Date: February 11, 2014

Rated: T for Teen.

Jon Mercer can be reached

via thejonmercer@gmail.com.

Geographic location: Japan

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Recent comments

  • Drew
    April 15, 2014 - 13:56

    Where to start.... first of all Im a huge fan of final fantasy, specially i love Lightning... second i think, the story was cool.... finally a closure to the history... But in the other hand I HATE but i really Hate running like a crazy doing the side quest, cause the clock. When u running out of ep and u are in a city is a pain, there's a few monsters to replenish the EP. I visualize Lightning as an apocalyptic preacher... running like a crazy woman telling IM GONNA SAVE U ALL.... if there were no blessed clock all will be better. I hope, never see a clock again on a final fantasy, PLEASE square, don't do this again... Please Etro, don't let us see this caos again!!

  • Errr.....
    April 09, 2014 - 12:49

    This article makes me wonder if played the same game. Im truly sorry, but it reeks of upset butthurt. Complaining about the timelimit seems faily week when you can complete all mainquests, ~60sidequests and exterminate almost all species of monsters before day4 is over. And then you still have 9(10) days to run around doing the very few sidequests that wont start until later days. Oddly enough, the time system and focus on quests makes it feel like an offline, single player mmorpg :\ Running out of EP is never an issue. If you actually use strategy in battles, pretty much any non-story-boss can be defeated without spending EP or taking any damage at all, if you know how to guard properly. Staggering is *not* impossible or even hard. I did believe that the religous aspects of the story went abit overboard, but to critisise this is kinda like saying that Deus Ex sucks because you dont like conspiracy theories. As for character design, lightnings disconnectedness is a storytheme wich is explained.

  • Louis
    March 09, 2014 - 08:33

    I hate the time limit... Game feels like I am have to rush and can't really explore everything. I've only started the game but so far the timer is annoying the crap outta me. I wanna take my time to look at the world and maybe hunt down some hidden treasure. At this rate I may highly regret my purchase and would have prefered a Dynasty Warriors game.

  • Jon Mercer
    February 24, 2014 - 09:41

    I can't thank you guys enough for taking the time to comment on this article; even if we have differing opinions on the game. Truthfully, this is why I stopped using a numerical scale in my reviews, as it is challenging to break down a full length video game into just 800 words, let alone a score from 1 to 5. I've been writing these reviews since early 2006, and this is the second time I've had this kind of response. I apologize if I missed out on some information about the game, or if my own opinion on it didn't match up with your own. I've been a Final Fantasy fan for a long time, having cut my teeth on FF II (or IV, depending on your fan level) for the SNES when I was a child. I'm sure not everyone shares my zeal for FF XII on PS2. But again, if you are a fan of the series, and can find enough about Lightning Returns to justify your time and money, please, fill your boots. And send me your thoughts every week, I love getting emails and comments from you guys. - Jon

  • Garry
    February 24, 2014 - 02:35

    This review contains a lot of very bad information which is at best misleading , at worst completely wrong 1 game has 14 days time 2 items have nothing to do with EP and can be bought from any grocer in city 3 no strict time regime time can be stopped all together using Chronostasis 'EPskill' 4 EP is replaced easily by killing monsters i finished all main quests and side quest with 5 days to go as for bosses being impossible maybe you should check out u tube for some tips

  • james quick
    February 23, 2014 - 15:24

    This game is sweet. I dont care about square enix and how bad they are at making games. This is the best final fantasy since 12. Its as good as 7.

  • Light Yagami
    February 21, 2014 - 19:36

    You write too many big words to make yourself sound smart.Try to be less bias next time.Thank You.Dont bother responding I dont speak with amatuer's.

    • Mike
      February 22, 2014 - 13:55

      I didn't find him pontificating or sesquipedalian. I think he used his word-choice just fine and had a lot of great points. Simply because you're attached to the brand and will garble up anything they throw out, slop or food, doesn't mean someone else's opinion is bad. The fact that you will not even give a counter opinion or reasons why his points aren't substantial shows how amateurish you are. Take the blind fanboyism elsewhere. Leave the talking to the big kids.

    • anonymous
      February 22, 2014 - 22:30

      If you wanna take a stab at some one try not screaming don't hit me after, and this claim to professional superiority is all but a testiment to your own juvenilism... Adults dont engage in pissing contests. Which is probably the reason this author never responded to you. Like mike said people are entitiled to their oppinon.

    • qwertz
      March 04, 2014 - 16:24

      I think lightning returns was good but it was short lived and had too many religious concepts and was very creepy . Also some schemata was inappropriate and that little kid should not make an opinion a fact.Listen to Mike kid. If you can't listen just know you are talking to a 40 year old adult right now...

    • qwertz
      March 04, 2014 - 16:25

      I think lightning returns was good but it was short lived and had too many religious concepts and was very creepy . Also some schemata was inappropriate and that little kid should not make an opinion a fact.Listen to Mike kid. If you can't listen just know you are talking to a 40 year old adult right now...