It’s been a bumpy road for Square-Enix over the recent past. Some great Western releases gained from the acquisition of developer Eidos (such as Tomb Raider and Sleeping Dogs) have kept the company current and more than afloat, however when it comes to the franchises that we have come to know and love Square for, it is safe to say hard times have been fallen upon. Chief among these is Square’s long running JRPG series, Final Fantasy which seems to have fallen harder from grace than most and subsequently found itself on the frontlines when it comes to franchise criticism. This especially seems the case with regards to the Final Fantasy XIII IP, which despite serving as a more than competent set of RPG’s, seems to highlight where square have gone wrong with hardcore fans.
Despite this however, 2009’s Final Fantasy XIII still remains the highest selling entry in the franchise thus far, cementing sequel potential and turning it into a franchise all by itself. This strange mix of mass popularity and fan criticism has left square in a strange place and many were left wondering what approach would be taken with the sequels. 2011’s Final Fantasy XIII-2 was praised for remedying many of the issues of its predecessor, however gripes with the battle system, pacing and weak character presence were all unfortunately still present.
Lighting Returns: Final Fantasy XIII sets itself as not only the final part in protagonist Lightning’s saga, but also as a new take on the game’s structure and systems. However with so many disappointed fans in its wake and reduced sales with each new entry, will it be enough to save this franchise within a franchise? Unfortunately I fear the answer may still be no for many.
Picking up some 500 years after the climax of XIII-2, Lightning Returns places us solely in the shoes of Lightning herself as she wakes from a not-so-endless sleep. It seems that the end of the world is nigh and the god of all creation (Bhunivelze) seeks our protagonist’s help to save the souls of those left for the creation of a new existence that will come after what’s left of the world’s end in seven days time. As to Lightning’s motivations for helping, any who have finished the previous entries will no doubt already know, however if not then it may be worth playing through them first if story is the main draw here.
Right from the offset it is clear that the objective here is to shake things up. Unlike the linear design of earlier entries, Lightning Returns prides itself on player freedom. After a short opening “tutorial” section, players are given more freedom than the Final Fantasy series has offered for some time (or perhaps ever), as they are left to fend for themselves and plan their time accordingly.
Of course time is the name of the game here. In a mechanic reminiscent of the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, days pass as you play and time is not your friend as you wait for the world’s inevitable destruction. However much like Major’s Mask, the ability to manipulate time to help you with this is an early addition to Lightning’s arsenal. True, players can’t “re-set” the cycle like they can in the famous Zelda entry, but time can be frozen for small periods allowing much to be achieved in one single in-game day.
What this boils the game down to for the most part is a collections of NPC given missions spread across a wide set of areas and days with the odd story quest thrown in at particular times. The problem with this is that most tasks given are fetch quests or “kill this many monsters” errand,s regardless of if they are pushing the narrative forward or not. True, the story itself despatches with much of the unnecessary padding seen in the likes of XIII-2 and does provide closure of sorts to the saga but it is unfortunate that the manner in which it is told is more than a little lacklustre.
Unfortunately this does not end with the story missions either. Most side quests are also under developed and samey with generic character models devoid of personality and half-baked dialogue as explanation. When saving someone from an eternity of lifeless oblivion involves finding a lost teddy or farming some copper, you have to wonder what kind of world you may be saving.
However the motivation for completing such countless errands stretches further than just narrative justification. In a system unlike most entries in the genre, the only way to gain experience and level-up here is by completing side quests. No experience is given for vanquishing enemies or killing bosses in Lightning Returns, meaning your motivations for increasing character stats becomes tied in with only completing the next quest.
Destroying enemies does however give Lightning the opportunity to use certain useful abilities (such as the aforementioned time stopping ability), meaning it does carry with it a different type of usefulness. In turn this means that the run of play consists mainly of killing enemies, stopping time, completing side quests and then repeating this cycle again, and again.
Despite sounding grim, all is not lost here as this does lead to a large amount of time spent with undoubtedly Lightning Returns’ best elements, the combat and levelling systems. Although still being more than a world away from the quality of the systems seen in the franchise’s past, Lightning Returns does well in abandoning the ‘Paradigm’ system seen in the previous entries, instead opting for a much more action orientated mechanic.
Players can construct a variety of different ‘styles’ via equipping certain items of clothing and augmentation techniques. Three of these can be switched between, in any single battle, and all can only be used for a certain time before the player is made to switch. Whilst using these different ‘styles’, each technique is mapped to a button and occurs in real-time when initiated. These elements coupled with the ability to control Lightning’s movement abandons any hope of turn-based elements returning, but it nevertheless places itself wholeheartedly in a more action-focused frame of mind, with some incredibly fun results. True, those who don’t take the time to master the system may struggle (especially on some of the games optional bosses!), however those who put in the effort will be rewarded with an incredibly deep and enjoyable system.
I am also sad to report that Lightning Returns also feels like a bit of a step backwards in the aesthetics department. The increased movement freedom and gigantic arena sizes has unfortunately meant that textures and NPC density has suffered in certain areas. Strangely, this is at odds with the great design and concept work that not only shows itself present here but has clearly gone into the entire XIII saga. This in turn means you are left with moments of greatness marred by hardware limitations, lazy design and mixed levels of execution.
All in all, Lightning Returns brings to a close the quintessential representation of the hardcore fan’s problem with the changes in the long running Final Fantasy franchise, and Square-Enix as a whole. Neither this nor the other entries in the series are truly bad games, but they could be deemed as such when compared to the linage of not only the franchise, but also the company that made them. To Square’s credit each new entry has tried to fix at least some of the problems seen in the entry that came before, but too much time spent trying to appeal to the masses and not enough time listening to the hardcore fan base has hurt Square’s flagship IP. What’s left is a mix of great combat, bold ideas and generic, uninteresting gameplay elements that culminates in a slightly above average JRPG.