Game: Lightning Returns
Platform: Xbox, PS3
Publisher/Developer: Square Enix
Describe This Game in Three Words: It's the End
Plot: For 500 years Lightning has slept, but now she's been called on by the god Bhunivelze to return to Nova Chrysalia and free the souls of the world before the goddess of death, Etro, rolls the whole thing up into a big ball of Chaos. In return, Bhunivelze will attempt to revive Lightning's long-dead sister Serah.
Up, Up: To be honest going in I should say that Final Fantasy XIII is among my least favorite in the regular series. I've never really gotten behind Lightning as a protagonist since to me she always lacked more likeable qualities that made broodier heroes like Cecil Harvey easier to get behind. Add in what I still say is a needlessly difficult leveling system and an overly-linear story and the world of Nova Chrysalia has just never been my cup of tea.
Lightning's final go round feels very unlike a conventional RPG, and I think that plays well to her strengths as a characters. She's far less abrasive on her own. Though I was warned that the battle system was difficult to use I actually found it a lot of fun. Your ability to customize different fighting styles (Called schemata) through your equipment and by synthesizing abilities to level them up (Some of which are dropped by enemies) is leaps and bounds over her first battle system. True, it does mean that you're endlessly fiddling with putting together new combinations whenever you find loot, but that's a small price to pay.
It's also one of the first Final Fantasy titles I can remember in many years where gil wasn't impossible to come by. In general, I love the realism of enemies dropping teeth and bones and stuff over cash, but too many titles use that so much that picking up enough money to experiment and upgrade with becomes maddening. Especially games that are so keen on giving you important one of a kind items and not telling you that's what they are. By contrast, Lightning gets to kick ass and spend the spoils like old school.
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Down, Down: It's easy to see how Xenoblade Chronicles changed the console RPG forever, and Lightning Returns borrows very heavily from some of it's most important aspects. Side quests helping people are not only common, but essential to advancing the story (You basically earn karma to extend the final day of the world through these quests). Unfortunately, Lightning Returns has the breadth and the scope of the Xenoblade, but it's severely lacking things that made that system easy to follow in a giant setting. Indicators of interest or objectives in the mini-map for instance.
Right off the bat you find yourself looking for glowing numbers on the walls of an enormous city, and your helper Hope busts in every few minutes reminding you that you need to look for them without the slightest hint where they might be like this generation's Navi. There just seems to be a lack of forethought in a lot of the puzzles. The ideas are good, but a more guiding hand would help.
Isn't that too linear? I would normally say yes. Screw helpers and let me walk around doing quests and such as I please until I feel like finding your stupid numbers, say I. Unfortunately, it's just not much of an option. You're on a strict time limit to complete quests, and even resting at an inn drains that limit. You are automatically beamed back to your home base at 6 a.m. game time. And you only have seven days to save the world if you don't expand the time by completing quests... which is hard to do when you're strapped for time finding things like hidden numbers.
The time limit is supposed to give you a sense of urgency, but in Lightning Returns it just feels cruel. Especially when you add the fact that many doors and things are time-sensitive when they open.
Left, Right, Left, Right: Ever since so many RPGs lost the traditional turn-menu system I feel like they've been looking for the perfect way to give you options while keeping the battle flow going. Here is somewhere Lightning Returns excels. The shoulder buttons control may different important functions, and each of the three active schemata are fully customizable in which abilities are assigned the four buttons.
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Healing is mostly a matter done in the pause menu, which makes sense when you think about it. If you're getting beaten down, you probably need a moment to catch your breath. About the only thing I didn't really care for was maneuvering the camera while taking on multiple targets. Those sorts of battles can get nasty fast while you're trying to swap schemata, guard against one monster, and attack another. You get better with practice, though.
B, A: I have the same problem with Lightning that I had with Kratos in his last adventure. I understand that her sister's death was traumatizing for her, but that motivation has worn rather thin over the course of three games. Now, the emotion that I can most pin on Lightning is indifference. She just doesn't seem to care about anything else, and it makes interacting in the world quite awkward.
Start?: If you've come this far in Lightning's tale you're going to want to see it end, and it really is a massively impressive game that takes chances on the formulas. That said, I honestly felt more like I was playing Devil May Cry: RPG sometimes rather than a Final Fantasy. I liked it, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I wasn't enjoying Bravely Default more.