Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 review: at world's end

Lightning Returns fights its fatalism too late

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3
Publisher Square Enix
Developer Square Enix Product Development Division 1
Release Date 2013

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 carries the bleary-eyed, tired self-awareness that comes with age.

I don't blame it, either. The first Final Fantasy 13 began development 10 long years ago, releasing in 2010 to a lukewarm reception. But rather than moving on to new characters in an unrelated world as usually happens with Final Fantasy games, Square Enix decided to keep revisiting the characters of Final Fantasy 13 in two subsequent releases.

The third and final game in that series, Lightning Returns finds those characters begging to be given up. It's the series' current existential crisis writ large; the characters are exhausted, and they want to rest, but Square Enix isn't ready to let go. For as much as Square has gone all in on the Final Fantasy 13 branch of the series, this conclusion is little more than a slow limp toward a long overdue finish line.

As Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 kicks off, the world is coming to an end. While the destruction of the planet is a threat in many RPGs, here it is an inevitable reality; it will happen, regardless of what you do in the limited time that remains. Final Fantasy 13 protagonist Lightning has been awakened and recruited by the one remaining god of this world to take on a sacred mission: She must scour the few remaining sources of life on the planet, gathering the souls of surviving humans so that they might be transported to a new world.

The Final Fantasy 13 games have always been deeply invested in metaphysical nonsense — even more so than previous games in the series — but Lightning Returns takes that obsession to an extreme. In its best moments, Lightning's sometimes-boring stoicism is played for humor, setting her up as the straight man in a world full of goofy characters.

But as it builds toward its climax, the game spends more and more time going into depth on a lot of meaningless fantasy science — the make-up of souls, how gods function, the logistics behind how and why the world is ending. These would have been fine as factoids buried in an in-game encyclopedia; as a centerpiece of the game's plot, they're laughable and distracting from the weird and much more interesting populace.

Lightning Returns takes the series' obsession with metaphysical nonsense to an extreme

Even when the focus is on those colorful characters, Lightning Returns wastes its best material by building it around boring fetch quests. Whether you're dealing with a little girl who's lost her doll or a man struggling to come to terms with the death of his family, the solution almost always comes down to running to a different point on the map to talk to someone else or pick up an item, and then running back to the person who started the quest. Very few quests break out of this mold.

My general frustration with boring sidequests was aggravated by the sheer size of the zones. There are only four areas, but they're large and often uninteresting to bound back and forth across. And even though you're on the clock as the end of the world approaches, Lightning Returns tightly limits the amount of fast traveling possible.

Instead of the reliable, instant teleportation to previously-visited locales available in many RPGs, here I was often stuck running between train stations across multiple zones to get to my destination. It wasted my time in real life and also ate up a healthy chunk of my limited in-game timer.

Fashion sense

With Lightning Returns' combat system built around swapping clothes, I was concerned that Square Enix would over-sexualize one of their strongest (and most sensibly-dressed) female characters. For the most part, this isn't the case. The majority of outfits in Lightning Returns look like something the no-nonsense hero would want to wear into battle.

However, there are a few options — especially some of the more powerful, late-game prizes — that are more focused on fan service by way of showing skin. This handful of outfits is pretty gross, and they seem out-of-character — especially since Lightning will wear them in cutscenes as well — but the game's open-ended spell system at least makes it easy to avoid using them.

Don't think you can avoid doing these sidequests either. Lightning Returns eschews the traditional RPG leveling structure to emphasize Lightning's role as a savior. Rather than growing in power by defeating monsters and gaining experiences points, she receives stat boosts for each quest you complete. Having no traditional means to sit around and slowly gain levels makes sense in the context of the end of the world. I just wish it wasn't replaced by an equally boring and less dependable grind.

Though regular enemies never gave me much of a problem, the stat boosts were necessary for surviving the game's brutal boss fights. Both previous Final Fantasy 13 games had a fast-paced, challenging combat system, but Lightning Returns focuses even more heavily on action and giving players direct control over the title character. In battle you control Lightning alone, swapping her between different outfits that have their own stat boosts and powers.

This system was fun to dig into at first, but it ends up a lot less consistent in its level of challenge than previous games. There's no smooth curve for the difficulty, no ramp-up from super-easy enemies to tougher dungeon-dwellers to painful bosses. It's all or nothing. Either battles were so simple that I could look away from the screen while holding down a button, or they were so challenging that I had to have the pixel-perfect precision to block every attack.

The systems Square has in place here have some amount of depth and flexibility. There's room to greatly modify your spells and — eventually — to turn Lightning into an unstoppable powerhouse. But where I found myself eager to dig for that hidden depth in Final Fantasy 13 and 13-2, Lightning Returns couldn't pull me in enough.

There's no smooth curve for difficulty — Lightning Returns is all or nothing

Wrap Up:

Lightning Returns fights its fatalism too late

At one point in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13, a character from the previous games is talking about their past adventures and their seeming futility as the end of the world looms over them. "It didn't mean a thing," she says. "It's done and gone." The game eventually attempts to fight that fatalism, but it was too late for me. I've had some good times with the Final Fantasy 13 games and a lot of bad memories, with Lightning Returns mostly falling into the latter. But now it's done and gone. And it didn't mean a thing.

Lightning Returns was reviewed using a non-final PS3 copy as well as a retail Xbox 360 version provided by Square-Enix. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here

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