This week, two and a half years after it was released, I finally completed the final entry in the Final Fantasy XIII saga. Lightning Returned into my heart and gave me more than a satisfying conclusion to the giant cliffhanger we were left on in XIII-2. Outside of the ending, though, I can’t really say I really loved this game experience.
(What a tease this commercial is. She doesn’t have her OG XIII outfit in this game)
Lightning Returns picks up 500 years after XIII-2 where Lightning went into an eternal crystal slumber. Lightning is woken up by the God of Light previously mentioned but never seen, Bhunivelze.He charges Lightning with collecting the souls of everyone left alive on Pulse within 13 days before the world ends – and that’s where my problems with LR begin. The plot and writing are pretty bare-bones and so is the world you inhabit. In order to collect souls you need to “make people happy” which equates to doing fetch quests. Tons, and tons and tons of fetch quests. If forced to add all of them up I’d guessimate there were Infinite Fetch Quests. You talk to bland NPCs, in one of the game’s FOUR locations, or you talk to a woman in a sexy chocobo costume and read quests off a literal quest board, and you fulfill the requirements to collect a soul and gain stats. Outside of four or five major quests that involve characters from previous games and give large portions of plot that move events forward to Lightning figuring out her true powers and who the real enemy is, all the other quests give a few sentences of lore about the world. The bit of data the NPC gives that details the apocalypse or the people left is usually repeated somewhere in the datalog or by Hope, making it even more worthless. Most of what they had to say was so interesting I spammed X to move on to next quest.
That may seem harsh but the game itself conditioned me to rush through certain parts. The 13 day time limit Bhunivelze gave Light? It’s a real-time limit! Each ‘day’ in the game lasts one hour in real time. You are given a skill, Chronostasis, that stops time for a few minutes but that skill has limited uses. When not stopped, time will progress during dialog, when you run around so painfully slowly on the map and when you travel via train between the 4 locations in the game. I always felt rushed and pressured to be as precise with my time as possible. It’s not like the world was so beautiful I wanted to wander around and look at it but I still didn’t like being pressured by an every growing checklist of quests or constant annoying reminders from Hope on how much time I had left.
The pacing problems of the game don’t just stop with the time management and slow running. By the last few days enemies are so powerful that I, having done almost all the fetch quests in the game, had a seriously tough time fighting them. by the Final Day every enemy has all their stats multiplied by up to 300%. Upon my first death I found the root of the issue. In place of the enemy mob on the map was a floating crystal hourglass which, upon inspection, told me if the enemies of the area were too hard I could give up my quest and start a New Game+ right there. I’d carry over my stats, equipment and abilities but would need to do over every fetch quests I had already completed. The fetch quests would you the stat bonuses AGAIN so the grind was as endless as the quests!
What a terrifying idea! Redoing my 28ish hours of gameplay just to beat the last dungeon? Instead of balancing the enemies in some respectable way or giving Lightning some way to power up her skills that isn’t based on random drops the devs really thought “just do it all over” was a better idea? No thanks. You also get the option to start NG+ if you don’t complete those Big Story Missions in each of the four areas before the end of the world – but the game never tells you to go out and explore those areas first. I was trying to complete ALL the quests in the first town when suddenly I ran into mobs that one hit KO’d me and I was told by an IRL friend to travel to a new town.
Finally for the positive things about the game. By now if you follow video game news even a little bit you’ve seen the trailers, read the articles about her stint as a REAL LIFE model or at the very least you’ve seen THAT DRESS, so you know the major mechanic that drives gameplay in Lightning Returns is Playing Dress Up! Aside from the fact that I avoided most dresspheres that had Light only in a pair of panties and a bra, this was legitimately one of the best parts of the game. I think most fans of modern RPGs really enjoy customization of how their character looks and this game gives it to you. You can change the color of individual pieces of an outfit, and you can add accessories to make your own look. I wish you could equip more than one accessory, like a hat AND glasses. Alas :(. There are dozens of dresspheres in the game and each has between zero and 2 abilities innately equipped. Defensive ones might have Mediguard or Steelguard, another might have Fira and Thundara and so on, with many combinations and color swaps. Later they start coming with abilities that passively boost something, like adding Quick Stagger or giving her +10% HP.
Those buffs help you in the other good part of the game: Murdering All the Things. LR places Lightning in the spotlight like never before. Your party has been reduced from three main members in the first game, to 2 + a pet to Lightning alone (for the most part). Instead of switching between 6 paradigms with multiple roles set in them (Tri-Disaster with 3 magic using attackers, Combat Clinic with attacking and healing) you switch between only 3 dressheres and each of those only have 4 skills that are mapped to the face buttons. I felt it really reduced the amount of strategy you could achieve in previous games but the addition of a blended action RPG feel (free movement and evasion skills) felt good. One light nitpick here is you don’t gain skills from leveling up but from new dresspheres and enemy drops. Because of that I didn’t have and debuffing skills for long time. None of the enemies I fought dropped them until I had already fought several major bosses that I really could’ve used them for.
In the end, the original FFXIII is still my favorite out of the series but it was so very satisfying to take it to the conclusion. The MMO-like progression with the ton of trivial fetch quests were not engaging, the limited time rushes you to an under leveled conclusion because the game wants you to do a NG+ as early as possible. The dresspheres are a treat and the battles are fun (until the end of game when they are a chore). The CGI scenes are definitely where the money went and they spent ALOT; They’re gorgeous. Most importantly Hope Estheim, the best character in any Final Fantasy, really lives up to the meaning of his name. If you haven’t played it yet, go play dress up.