‘Lightning Returns’ is a hard pill to swallow

Jon Mercer thejonmercer@gmail.com
Published on February 19, 2014
A screenshot from “Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.” — Submitted image

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
PS3

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

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.