March of 2010 marked the release of “Final Fantasy XIII,” a game determined to make departures from the series’ expected norms. “Final Fantasy XIII” was met with positive reception, if not overbearingly so, and critics praised its new combat system as “thrilling” and “more involved.” Nearly four years later, on the heels of a mediocre sequel, “Final Fantasy XIII-2,” can “Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns” redeem the franchise in its final hour? In short, no.
Overall Rating: 6.5/10
The game’s first major misstep is that of its convoluted and repetitious story. Lightning is “The Savior,” sent on a mission from the slumbering god, Bhunivelze to save as many souls as possible before the end of the world. Every story point, major and minor, is painfully spelled out through lengthy soliloquies.
Repetitious back-and-forth dialogue between characters is a chore to sit through, but can’t be skipped, lest any important information be missed. In a mechanic taken straight from “Majora’s Mask,” an omnipresent clock marches onward toward the world’s imminent doom. The only way to delay this cataclysm is the salvation of as many souls as possible.
“Lightning Returns” takes place 500 years after “XIII-2,” leaving gaping plot holes and even bigger questions as the game progresses. This also means many of the characters from the previous “FFXIII” entries are shoehorned in a desperate attempt to “wrap up” the “Final Fantasy XIII” story arc. Encounters with these former allies and enemies provoke more rattling off of useless recaps, as if everything any character says is so complex and deep, it bears repeating.
This is not to say “Lightning Returns” doesn’t have its own personal saviors. It is by far the most graphically impressive game in the series. Little touches like clothing and hair swaying in the breeze, or leaves lazily tumbling through the chilly air forced me to occasionally stop and admire the charming atmosphere. Each of the game’s four main hubs has its own distinct art style.
In Yusnaan, the non-stop “End of the World” party is amplified by bright lights and even brighter colors. Quite the contrast to the desolate, sand-blasted Dead Dunes; home to some of the game’s deadliest enemies.
Combat has shifted dramatically from the tactical, strategic ATB (Active Time Battle) system. During combat, one of three schematics can be equipped, each with their own garb, weapon, shield and ATB gauge.
Each piece of equipment slotted into schemata comes with its own potential benefits and drawbacks. One piece may increase the ATB gauge by 30 points overall, but will default the gauge to 50 percent at the start of battle. I was excited every time I saw a new garb or weapon in a shop-keeper’s inventory, wondering what potential stat-boosts lie in wait.
Fighting enemies has now become a matter of using the proper abilities with the right schemata. Gone are the stagger percentages, having been replaced with an oscilloscope-like collection of waves that must be agitated. Once an enemy’s stagger condition is discovered and triggered, enemies are much more vulnerable to damage. Unlike before there is no obvious time remaining in a stagger and no apparent way to keep it going.
The grind of combat is less important as all stat boosts come from the rewards of multitudinous side-quests. Fetch-and-grab quests, find this person and slay X amount of monster quests abound, each with its own potential strength, magic or HP boost.
Each side-quest completed also results in another soul saved, meaning more time on the clock before it’s goodnight Nova Chrysalia. Though the side-quests never feel like a chore, they take away the ability to choose specifically how you want to develop your character. I enjoyed spending experience on abilities in branching skill trees, and not be able to do so leaves a definite hole.
Ultimately, some charming visuals and character customization aren’t enough to save the soul of “Lightning Returns.” While I enjoyed playing, it wasn’t quite as fun as the first time around in “FFXIII.”
As a fan of the series, I was determined to give it a proper chance and, in the end, it was worth it. Become the savior yourself, and save the souls of Nova Chrysalia in “Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns.” Who will you save before the end of the world?
Overall Rating: 6.5/10