Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII had a steep hill to climb almost from the beginning.
Racked by bad press and claims that Final Fantasy was officially dead on arrival, it was greeted by skeptical fans and critics alike when it was released earlier this year. Not surprisingly, it was largely panned in reviews, averaging a 66 on Metacritic amid complaints about its story and its time mechanics.
Not every critic hated Lightning Returns, though. Those willing to give it a chance noted its sharper battle system, its enjoyable world, and its greater sense of freedom—the last being a quality that was greatly missed in the first game. As it happens, two such critics write for USGamer. So with 2014 nearly in the books, Kat and Jeremy are here to revisit a troubled game that nevetherless deserves more love than it gets.
Kat Bailey, Senior Editor: I suppose I should start by saying that I was among those who initially wrote off Lightning Returns. I enjoyed the first game for all its flaws, but I didn't like the second game at all, in part because I felt like the battle system had become stale. I did my best to keep an open mind about Lightning Returns, but I would be lying if I said that I was overly excited to play it.
And then something weird happened it: I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the combat, I enjoyed the quiet fields and expansive cities, and I enjoyed mixing and matching passive stat bonuses with my favorite moves and weapons. Once I got properly into it, I found myself staying up until 2am completing quests and hunting new jobs—always a good sign for an RPG. I even enjoyed the story on some level, if only because I liked the insanity of the world ending and Lightning being a literal Christ-like savior, if only because I was never that invested in Final Fantasy XIII's arc to begin with. And yes, I'm aware that it's kind of a mess.
Beyond that, I appreciate risk-taking in game design; and with seemingly nothing to lose, Lightning Returns takes quite a lot of them. For that reason, I think it deserves more credit than its given. What about you, Jeremy? What stands out to you about Lightning Returns after these many months?
Jeremy Parish, Editor-in-Chief: The whole Final Fantasy XIII "series" has been a strange case of a developer struggling to find its voice and its way. I've already written quite a bit about that; the simple version is that with each entry in the trilogy, the technical aspects of the games have diminished while the playability and entertainment value has grown.
Lightning Returns, as I said in a preview more than a year ago, is the opposite of Final Fantasy XIII. It's open and non-linear; it's kind of ugly and unpolished; it gives players direct control over a character in combat rather than limiting you to calling out commands as a sort of tactical adviser.
Ignoring the story, which is a complete mess by any standard, Lightning Returns really feels like the sort of game hardcore RPG fanatics should have been really in to. Instead, its legacy and characters soured most people on it sight-unseen, and the game really didn't get the fair shot it deserved. In fact, Lightning Returns should have appealed most to people who look down their noses at mainstream RPGs like Final Fantasy and go on endlessly about weird, niche role-playing games like Valkyrie Profile or Resonance of Fate. You know, tri-Ace games. Which is what Lightning Returns really is.
Yeah, it's Final Fantasy, and it was produced by Square Enix... but tri-Ace did a lot of the behind-the-scenes work here, and it really shows. This is a weird-ass RPG, and it's not afraid to be very "Japanese" (for lack of a better term) when it comes to tone. That is to say, it's all over the place. One minute it's super serious, the next sentimental, the next just plain wacky. And it's packed with systems and mechanics begging to be explored and exploited — like the countdown system, which seems ominous and stressful, but which you can break over your knee if you want.
But it says "Final Fantasy XIII" on the cover, and that probably sealed its fate right there.
Kat: I'm actually curious to hear your thoughts on the combat with the benefit of hindsight. My feeling at the time was that it was a definite improvement, and my thoughts haven't changed much in the interim. The modifications to the Paradigm Shift system—in which Lightning shifts between costumes as well as combat roles—ended up coming off rather well, lending the battles a certain flow while also being rather intense, particularly during boss battles. On the other hand, I've heard others complain that its less tactical while also being a somewhat shallow action game—sort of the worst of both worlds. I'm not sure that I agree, but I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Jeremy: Final Fantasy is never going to be deep. It's too much of a mainstream, populist RPG for that. Too much complexity would be fatal — just look at the simplification they're going for in Final Fantasy XV's combat system. I dig the combat system in the game — the costume and customization systems remind me of a cross between Final Fantasy X-2 and Crisis Core, while still feeling like a distillation of FFXIII's Paradigm Shift system. It's not the most intricate RPG system I've messed with by any means, but it works.
And it's a customization paradise, allowing you to switch up Lightning's skills, stats, and appearance. Anyone who takes this game seriously is clearly missing the fact that you can make her wear a bushy mustache through the entire game if you really want. Or a tiny top hat. You can be skeevy and dress her in battle panties, or make her a heavily armored war beast.
And anyone who thinks the game is too easy has clearly never bothered to go off the beaten path and wander into areas beyond their means. If you follow the mission prompts slavishly, sure, it's going to be pretty easy most of the time. But a game like this you don't just play by the book — it's an open world, and if you're not pushing the boundaries, you're not doing it right. Honestly, the more I think back on this game, the more fondly I think of it. I don't need more Final Fantasy XIII, but I would love to see them follow up on the essence and design of this game.
Kat: People thought it was way too easy? Sheesh, I really sweated some of the boss battles, particularly the one against Caius Ballad—Final Fantasy XIII-2's former big bad. Lightning Returns doesn't really allow for grinding, either. It is definitely possible to run out of time in this game.
Speaking of which, the clock is seen as kind of a controversial element of Lightning Returns, but it doesn't sound like you had too much trouble with it, Jeremy; and for the most, I had the same experience. I worried a bit about it early on; but once I beat a couple major quests, I found that I had plenty of breathing room. Lightning's field commands also offer her a variety of ways to move around the world and otherwise manage the clock. But with all that said, I suppose I can see why some people might have felt stressed out by the time limit. After all, a lot of RPG fans like to meander through the adventure and take their time exploring the world without feeling rushed. Lightning Returns definitely makes you feel rushed at times.
But as you said, Jeremy, it's interesting to see Lightning Returns take some risks with the form, and I ultimately found the clock to be an interesting addition. I can only imagine the amount of testing and balancing that must have gone into balancing it out. It's a credit to tri-Ace that the mechanic not only avoids breaking the game but manages to convey a definite sense of the passage of time, and thus a sense of impending doom as the clock cycles inexorably down to doomsday. Thinking about it, tri-Ace did something similar with Valkyrie Profile—another favorite of mine—in giving Lenneth Valkyrie a certain number of days to recruit party members and uncover her past before the arrival of Ragnarok.
Geez, no wonder I like this game so much. It's secretly a Valkyrie Profile sequel!
Jeremy: Yeah, Lightning Returns gives you so many ways to counter the clock that it kind of serves as a litmus test for whether or not you were paying attention to the game mechanics. If you sincerely find yourself baffled, maybe actually take the time to figure out how it all works? They give you the ability to freeze the clock — a power that costs very little of the special meter that allows you to break the game at your leisure in a variety of ways — really early on.
And in any case, the time feature isn't that big a deal even if you don't stop the clock. (I rarely did.) Play well and you get more time added on to the game. Plus, while this is an "open" world, it's nowhere near the scale of something like Skyrim or, more to the point, Final Fantasy XII. Lightning Returns really gives you a small handful of regions to explore, a couple of which are just massively huge cities, and you can easily see all there is to do in that world within the time allotted.
The game breaks down in places for sure. Some of the quests can be needlessly obscure. Early on you have to run around the city and find glyphs on the wall within a certain amount of time, and you're not really given anything in the way of guidance. It's a cheap way to create tension and pad the play time, and it's a stupid quest to place that early in the adventure. And speaking of stupid, whew, that plot…. awful. I do like the basic premise, though, the idea that the world has become suspended in this sort of entropic state where no one ages yet they can all sense the looming end of existence. It's a remarkably grim sci-fi concept that's largely squandered on a story that they shoehorned into the Final Fantasy XIII box against its will.
At least this is the end of the FFXIII series? I hope?
Kat: Yeah, I think Square Enix is eager to put Final Fantasy XIII to bed and move along (though Final Fantasy XV is actually just Versus XIII—I guess they can never escape). Lighning will be trotted out as Final Fantasy XIII's token representative for compilation games and the like, but I think it's fair to say that Final Fantasy XIII is done. And this is just a guess, but I don't expect anyone to be begging for a remake in a decade.
Per your earlier comments, Final Fantasy XIII has always suffered from some really poor world building, which has in turn hurt the plot. After all, this is the series that randomly made time travel a major elements of a sequel. Without anything to ground the world, you get this hodge-podge of ideas, which is how we end up Lightning Returns.
It's funny—we set out to defend Lightning Returns and now here we are ragging on Final Fantasy XIII. I suppose we're no more immune than anyone else. But you know, taken on its own merits, I think Lightning Returns is a worthy experiment. It's stuffed with a lot of interesting ideas and a world that's fun to explore, and its mechanics are complemented by a gameplay loop that got its hooks in me early and never really let go. If this were some random tri-Ace game and not the third Final Fantasy XIII game, I think it would be easier for people to focus on its strengths rather than zeroing in on its weaknesses.
So here's my last question: Is it worth running out and picking it up right now? Is it one of 2014's hidden gems? Or is it merely a flawed RPG that simply deserves more credit than it's gotten?
Jeremy: Can it be both? I mean, different strokes for different folks. Here is the list of people whom I think would enjoy Lightning Returns:
- People who sincerely liked Final Fantasy XIII and actually followed XIII-2 baffling plot;
- Majora's Mask fans;
- Fans of systems-intensive tri-Ace games like Valkyrie Profile and Resonance of Fate;
- Fans of Crisis Core;
- People who dig seeing AAA studios experiment with weird directions in their AAA franchises.
By no means do I think Lightning Returns is a masterpiece, but what it does strike me as… I guess I'd describe it as a relic of a bygone era, maybe the PS1 era, where you'd still see games with fairly large production budgets nevertheless characterized by a general sense of "yeah, let's throw stuff at the walls and see what sticks." Lightning Returns cribs a lot of contemporary blockbuster games like Assassin's Creed, but I never get the sense that it was meant to be the Next Big Thing. It's an exercise in recycling assets that doesn't try to be a faithful follow-up to a contentious game but rather just kind of does its own weird thing. And sometimes it's seriously weird indeed.
And that's why I have to recommend Lightning Returns. It's basically a bunch of FFXIII material being repurposed to create a defiantly B-tier RPG experience, and it works on its own offbeat terms. It's the kind of game we really don't see enough of these days, and I worry that the fact that so many people soured on it without necessarily giving it a fair shake means we won't see many more of them. Anyone who rails against the creative stagnation of AAA games should at least try Lightning Returns, especially now that you can buy it on the cheap. Who knows, you just might like it. I certainly intend to revisit it one of these days to enjoy it without the more immutable deadline of a review embargo looming over the experience.