Many developers have been going darker with the tones of stories lately. It's time we stop asking definitively if this is a good or bad thing and consider the artistic value at hand.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Review: A Disjointed Conclusion
Boy, the Final Fantasy XIII saga has been a roller coaster ride for Square Enix. Despite the series being generally well-received critically, fan reaction continues to be split—even with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Sadly, I was all too aware of the criticisms leveled against the series as I slogged through the final chapter in Lightning’s motley adventure. To say Lightning Returns is bad might be a little unfair. It does some things right; it’s just that for the occasional right, it seems like there are an arsenal of wrongs.
The most obvious and controversial example is the indelible time clock. The entire concept of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is centered around the end of the world: Lightning awakens thirteen days prior, and has that much time to save as many souls as she can so that they can enjoy life in the new world that Bhunivelze (the game’s god) is going to create. Square took a literal approach to the numbered days motif and slapped a time limit on the player. You have thirteen 24-hour days (72 real-world minutes) to complete five main story quests. (It should be noted the clock does not run during cut-scenes or most battles.)
Sound daunting? I’m surprised to say it’s not. The real problem with the time clock is it adds a sense of urgency that deters the player from ever wanting to explore, especially early on when it’s difficult to gauge how long a quest will take. This was a tremendous misstep for Square since they also touted this game being entirely open-world. That means nothing when you’re rushing through it to complete quests.
And on that note, completing quests is the only way to level up. Enemy encounters provide no experience, except for in the ridiculous number of side quests that require you to slay specific enemies to collect their drop items and turn them in. These quests were tedious and prevalent, though I knew in order to be as prepared as possible for the final showdown I needed the stat boosts. I never understood why games made you do such menial things, but Lightning Returns is guiltier than all the rest.
The other flaw with the quests has to do with the story. Final Fantasy is a story-based series. It pretty much always has been, and by and large, that’s what gamers expect when they play one. Lightning Returns only features the shallowest semblance of a plot, and it is divided into five story-based quests that all see Lightning saving a character from a previous game from despair. Each quest features a different character, but it’s basically the same story rehashed. As for the side quests, which comprise the bulk of the game, each has its own little tale. Some I was impressed with, but most consisted of boring, pointless things like herding sheep or embarking on fetch quests. And the sheer amount of dialogue…my word! I rarely skip through cut-scenes, but after realizing watching one play out was literally about ten minutes of redundant verbosity, I began skimming the subtitles and mashing X.
While we’re hovering around the topic, I have to mention the perennial Hope Estheim. Of all the characters in Final Fantasy XIII, for some unholy reason Square chose Hope as Lightning’s companion, almost like Navi is to Link. He’s not physically there (most of the time), but his endless chatter had my finger twitching for the mute button on my remote. What made it so painful is that neither he nor Lightning display any emotion. In fact, Lightning’s stoicism is a constant thorn in the game’s side. Without much of a supporting cast, she alone bears the weight of keeping the player entertained, and her character is just not strong enough to do that.
The one thing Lightning Returns does right is combat. Though she fights alone, the game incorporates schemata, which enable the player to customize three customizable fighting styles for Lightning, which substitutes for having no other characters to switch to. Personally, I enjoyed the first game’s battle system more than either of its followers, but Lightning Returns still manages to satisfy with a fun, rarely frustrating system. About the only problem I have in that regard is with EP, which basically acts as magic. Early on it’s scarce, and battle is the only way to replenish it. I think I was probably 30 hours in before I ever acquired an Ether, and by that time I had more EP than I knew what to do with.
That leads me to my overall conclusion: Lightning Returns is inconsistent and disjointed. By the very structure of the gameplay it couldn’t be anything else. Instead of connecting the myriad side quests, each is its own mini-story. It’s horribly imbalanced; many foes you fight are laughably easy to defeat, while others are punishing in their difficulty. The first six days for me were a chaotic race to complete the main quests while powering Lightning up with side quests so I could complete the main quests’ bosses (one in particular is ridiculous unless you’ve completed a hefty number of side quests). The rest of the days were a casual stroll as I wasted time completing the remaining quests, until near the last day I actually rested at an inn just to fast forward time because there was nothing to do.