Finishing Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII [Part 2] - Who Do We All Have At Least One "Messy Game" We Love?

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Author's Note: This is part two of a three part retrospective on my experiences and thoughts pertaining to Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. If you misse dthe first part, here a link:

If you enjoyed this episode, here's a directory to the first episodes of every Final Fantasy game I have covered on this site thus far:

Part 6: The Execution-Based Gameplay Is Not My Cup Of Tea, And I Understand Why People Hate It

This game having lore dumps you select from a drop down menu certainly was a choice.
This game having lore dumps you select from a drop down menu certainly was a choice.

As the title of this blog might suggest, I have been thinking a lot about why I like Lightning Returns. Its many gameplay faults, which I will spend most of this blog highlighting, make it a dicey recommendation for all but the most die-hard Final Fantasy or JRPG fans. If you check the reviews for the game, you'll find that to be firmly the case. Something must be said about significant tentpole franchises that look pretty and have the right "name" getting more leeway by the reviews circuit in the video game press than other non-name brand titles. The surreptitious decline of review scores across the Final Fantasy XIII franchise indicates that. In hindsight, there's no logical reason for Final Fantasy XIII to review as well as it did and for each subsequent game to review significantly below it. In my mind, the Final Fantasy XIII sub-series started at a low point and then gradually elevated to marginal acceptability. However, I don't want any of what I am saying here to suggest there's a grand conspiracy at play or that the negative reviews of Lightning Returns are off base. When I encountered Kevin VanOrd's 5.0/10 assessment on GameSpot, I found it to be one of the most accurate assessments of the game ever written, even when I disagreed with the displayed numerical value.

There is a fundamental disconnect between how Lightning Returns plays and how it presents its story. This disconnect does not present itself at every corner or turn, but it's downright frustrating and a pain when it does. Despite all of its silly pageantry, Lightning Returns is an execution-based RPG. Every encounter or battle requires you to execute a plan or gimmick, or else you will spend way more time getting past simple combat-based gear checks. Regardless of how much time and attention you have put into your favorite goofy outfit for Lightning, you need to pay attention to subtle context clues constantly. For example, to counter the Earth and Wind-focused enemy types in The Wildlands, you must have dresses with opposing elemental abilities. Otherwise, you will be miserable. When discussing Lightning Returns' outfit-based combat, the gameplay has a weird disconnect between the spirit and letter of its gameplay "laws." With the game gracing you with superfluous accessory merchants at every corner, the game wants you to constantly explore your options and believe things are far more open to experimentation. On the contrary, each major set piece requires you to identify its elemental affinities and plan accordingly, and no matter what you do, if your preferred play styles or outfits do not fit that, you're out of luck.

Changing the stagger meter from a percentage bar to an oscillating sinusoidal wave was a mistake.
Changing the stagger meter from a percentage bar to an oscillating sinusoidal wave was a mistake.

Then there's the blocking mechanic. There were no less than three occasions when the game's blocking mechanic almost led to me quitting Lightning Returns entirely. There are a handful of reasons, and the first has to be the game's annoying camera. When you are up against a single enemy, it's not that big of a deal, but the minute there are two foes with magical spells or ranged attacks, everything starts to fall apart. The non-boss enemies that gave me a tough time were the large fire flans, usually in pairs or groups of three. I would typically only have issues with the first of these flans once the others would move to the camera's periphery, where I could not see them as they spammed fireballs off-camera. As VanOrd put it in their review, it's completely unacceptable to expect players to block what they cannot see. Furthermore, when the game begins providing its mid to high-tier magical abilities, the average battle screen gets filled with so many particle effects that it's impossible to track blockable enemy attacks at the peak of their window of opportunity.

This point reminds me of the other far more significant problem with Lightning Returns' blocking system: there's no visible prompt during battles to clue you into when to time your block command. Earlier in 2022, I played the bizarre Eternal Sonata, which relies as heavily on parries and timed blocks as Lightning Returns with two significant caveats. First, Eternal Sonata forces players to parry whole combos with several musically-inclined button presses. Lightning Returns only needs you to nail the timing for any enemy attack once to get a full block. HOWEVER, Eternal Sonata has the common decency of displaying a music symbol on the tops of the heads of attacking enemies, so there's at least some clue as to when you're intended to press your block button. Lightning Return has no visual clue whatsoever and instead demands players slog away on the same enemy encounters repeatedly before they notice subtle animation cues as to when they should block attacks. Also, with bosses like Caius or Bhunivelze, the spells or moves they use have individual animation cues you need to memorize rather than the characters exhibiting a common tell you can apply to everything they throw at you.

And just look at how much bullshit sometimes covers the screen! How am I supposed to know when to block in this situation?
And just look at how much bullshit sometimes covers the screen! How am I supposed to know when to block in this situation?

And when I say "subtle," I'm not joking. This problem is more an issue with the bosses than the moment-to-moment goons you come up against wandering the streets of towns, but the basic idea is still the same. Sometimes a perfect block can only occur at the first sign of an attack, and sometimes it can only happen at the mid-point of an enemy's warm-up attack animation. The game doesn't indicate when it's one case or the other; you have to find out on your own by grinding out the same enemy encounters and trying new strategies until you figure things out. This core mechanic is a perfect example of why there's such a disconnect between people who love and hate this game. In this case, you either find yourself fully immersed in approaching every encounter like a weird bespoke puzzle cube, or you end up feeling like you're banging your head on a brick wall. There are other examples of this lack of wiggle room, but Lightning Returns either strikes a fire inside your soul or crushes your spirit; there's no in-between here. When you look at the goofy nature of the story, having this almost fighting game-like mechanic seems antithetical to Lightning Returns' narrative goals. It's a bitter pill to swallow for most people who look at the rest of its rough edges and view this fundamental and problematic disconnect as the final nail in its coffin. However, trust me when I say this, the game is still worth it because of those rough edges.

Part 7: The Same Punishing Boss Design From Prior Final Fantasy XIII Games Strikes Again

But we are not done talking about the game's shortcomings as we need to get into the weeds of the game's boss design. All the issues I have with Lightning Returns' execution-based combat come to a breaking point with two or maybe three storyline bosses. To the game's defense, this bad habit is a bit of a Final Fantasy XIII tradition. Lest we not forget, the first battle against Barthandelus in Final Fantasy XIII is complete horseshit and one of the most challenging storyline-required bosses in franchise history. The final battle against Orphan isn't a slouch either, but HOT DAMN is that first fight against Barthandelus, just one of the most miserable bosses I have ever experienced. Final Fantasy XIII-2 has the final battle against Caius Ballad boil down to you fighting three versions of Bahamut that can swap in and out for each other and heal any damage you've made on them while fussing about in the background like they are Marvel vs. Capcom characters. I don't consider any of this "good" boss design by any stretch of the word or definition, but I am merely sharing these examples to highlight that if you have reached this point in the XIII sub-series, you've dealt with far worse bullshit.

Ah, yes, platforming sequences. My favorite part to any JRPG!
Ah, yes, platforming sequences. My favorite part to any JRPG!

So, let's talk about the Caius boss battle at the end of The Wildlands and why it might be one of the most fucked things modern Square-Enix has ever put into a video game. Right from the get-go, the dungeon where Caius resides is an absolute pain in the ass. We discover upon entering it that because Caius's corruption has gotten so advanced, Lightning takes damage per second while exploring it. With the game already limiting your healing options due to its item and Energy Point ability systems, this annoyance ratchets up the difficulty. For those confused about the latter, there are a handful of non-dress magical abilities that Lightning can unlock as she progresses the story or completes side quests. These abilities can include restoring her health bar, doing extra damage, or, best of all, slowing down time to allow Lightning to sneak in additional attacks that increase an enemy's stagger meter. Once I got past the game's mid-point, using EP for healing always felt like a waste, considering how slow EP would build up. More importantly, many of the late-game bosses require you to use the Overclock ability to make any notable progress in filling up their stagger meter. Caius is one such boss, but there are other quibbles with how he is designed that prevent you from popping off one or two Overclocks and calling it a day.

Before we get into that, how could I forget about the platforming sequences with Yeul? Looking back at my Final Fantasy XIII series, I made a consistent point about bemoaning the platforming sequences considering all you needed to do was mash a button when navigating a character into a hovering blue icon. They were entirely superficial and, I suspect, added to the game to create some form of variety to the linear corridor-based gameplay. Oh, how I wished for the simplicity of those platforming bits in the Temple of the Goddess! The Final Fantasy XIII engine was good at generating fancy high-fantasy assets that looked good in cinematics. It also excelled at allowing its player characters to do "flippy shit" when aiming for juggles or combos. It was never designed for fully 3D platforming bits, which shows in this game. During the starting level in the temple, the number of times I would jump and somehow misjudge the distance between platforms and end up two floors down was far too many to count. Also, while the story with Yeul is decent to interesting, needing to trigger Yeul to make platforms appear a second or third time almost made my head explode. The sad thing is there are exciting goodies and storytelling to explore here. Still, with the arbitrary timer ticking away, an insane number of random encounters, and platforming bits, I never felt comfortable engaging with either.

How do you know when to guard against something that ends up taking 90% of your screen? How is that in any way fair to the player?
How do you know when to guard against something that ends up taking 90% of your screen? How is that in any way fair to the player?

But the cherry on top has to be the Caius battle at the end, which is widely considered one of the game's "breaking points." If you check out GameFAQs when the game first came out, people complaining about this particular battle will be the first thing you notice, and there are a handful of reasons for that. First, Caius starts the fight by popping off Megaflare or Flare, depending on his stance, which, by the way, he has two stances, one being Commando and the other being Ravager. I NEVER developed any consistency about blocking Caius's Flare spells because his animations and windows of opportunity are so subtle and unforgivingly narrow; the best I could hope for was a partial block. With Megaflare, I was never clear if the golden window to block it was at the start of the spell, during its midpoint, right when the camera jumps to Lightning, or moments from when the spell hits her. Lacking any visible context clues or prompts, I felt my best bet was to stomach the nominal damage from a partial block and see if I could get lucky or kill Caius before he popped the spell off again. The game gives none of the tools to be successful in your first five to six outings and requires you to analyze frames as if you are playing a fighting game. That would be fine if the game were consistent about that being its gameplay mantra. Instead, this granularity is only expressed during this battle and the game's final boss, which makes them serious impediments. For the lion's share of the game, especially when you involve yourself with the game's side quests, you can slop through and almost pay no mind to this mechanic. As a result, it's not like the game is building a sense of fluency leading up to this battle or the concluding boss.

And considering how much the game values this blocking mechanic in these handfuls of scenarios, you'd think it would have the decency of you being able to use it on the fly more efficiently. Instead, blocking and guarding must be equipped to one of four possible ability slots on any given dress. This design decision is incredibly frustrating as the game progresses. The late and higher-tier garb almost always have one or two abilities locked onto them, which means you might only have one dress with a usable guard. Needing to swap to that dress might throw off your timing, which it almost always did for me when aiming for "perfect guards" against bosses like Caius or Bhunivelze. The other more aggravating issue stems from how wildly different the three types of guards are from one another. The ranges between perfect, partial, and no guard are incredibly punishing. The guard-focused bosses will even have forms or stages where getting a perfect guard is the only way to stagger them (i.e., Bhunivelze). For Caius, depending on the ability, a partial block would deal around one-third to half of Lightning's health bar, and missing a block entirely would be grounds for a restart.

And before anyone gets in my mentions that I don't know how to play this game. I got max stars on Caius.
And before anyone gets in my mentions that I don't know how to play this game. I got max stars on Caius.

Tangent: Making Min-Maxed Character Builds Becomes A Requirement

After ranting about a boss battle for five paragraphs, I briefly want to review how I got through it. The first thing I realized with the Caius battle was the occasional need to punch out of dungeons and call it a day. As I reviewed in the previous blog, the levels in Lightning Returns can be played out of order even if a "correct" order best fits the story's progression and difficulty curve. With Caius being the only boss in the game without an evolution or alternate phase, you can put him off until the game's final days so long as he goes down for the count before the last day triggers. The more important lesson I learned is the game's massive unexpressed value in min-maxing. A hyper-specialized magic outfit, followed by a tank-focused and a DPS-focused one, saved my playthrough. For the most brutal encounters, I would traditionally swap in my tank, which had the best shield and four guard abilities. That way, even if I did not perfectly block whatever bullshit was on the screen, I would have enough passive buffs to block about 70 to 90% of all damage. This leads me to a significant fact about the game: even the slightest bit of min-maxing in Lightning Returns results in ungodly busted-ass results.

One item suddenly giving me a 75% resistance against physical damage? Yeah, making tanks in this game is really easy.
One item suddenly giving me a 75% resistance against physical damage? Yeah, making tanks in this game is really easy.

Lightning Returns does not scale well. This fact is not up for dispute even among its most ardent defenders. After I had crested the hump that was Caius, I had virtually no issues until I got to the final boss and dungeon at the end of the game. There was a slightly nasty confrontation with an Earth Eater during the last story phases of The Wildlands. Still, beyond that, almost every battle evaporated in seconds when I began to hyper-optimize my character classes. The elemental weakness system cannot properly consider some late-game magical abilities that fill the screen with massive AOE damaging spells. Also, the passive skills that some of the more elite garbs bestow are busted and can even stack already ridiculous percentages in your favor. As I said in the above example, I don't know if I was supposed to be able to ward away 90% of Bhunivelze's elemental magic without lifting a single finger, but at the same time, I'm not judging. Lightning Returns doesn't play fair with its most challenging gameplay tasks. I forgot to mention it earlier, but Caius has an ability called "Eye of Bahamut," which does massive damage and inflicts Deprotect, Deshell, Imperil, and Slow. As a wise man once said, "There's no such thing as cheating in single-player games."

Part 8: Despite These Complaints, I Can't Help But Keep Falling In Love With The Story And Characters

I want to take a step back and return to The Wildlands for this section. Beyond the shitty battle against Caius, it is by far the best part of Lightning Returns. Here, the goofy and earnest heart of the game and its tone shine the brightest, and it is here where you can appreciate its light-hearted sensibilities the best. The level starts with Lightning needing to find an isolated farming village and learning about the legendary "Angel of Valhalla," which Lightning finds is a Chocobo and heavily injured in a far-off part of the level. Spending upwards of ten to twenty minutes nurturing a near-dead animal might not sound like the most riveting content in the world, especially when it involves a bunch of fetch quests and aimless wandering in desolate plains. However, it worked for me for a handful of reasons; the first is that the game does a more than decent job of scaffolding the main quest with several side quests that end up being highlights in Lightning Returns. Sure, most of these quest givers and NPCs are the same auto-generated Unreal Engine NPCs you have seen countless times prior. Nonetheless, now that they have personalities, it's hard not to feel something as they brim with twee energy or convey heartfelt tragedies.

The two to three times when this game recalls l'Cie and Cie'th are a mistake and they should have retconned them like Midi-chlorians.
The two to three times when this game recalls l'Cie and Cie'th are a mistake and they should have retconned them like Midi-chlorians.

The Wildlands has a lot going for it that it rarely gets credit for from Lightning Returns' detractors. The level feels like a complete ecosystem with natural changes and transitions in climates and scenery. It's also one of the few levels that use the day-night cycle to its advantage, with the area the Moogles occupy only accessible at night. Sure, the other locals in the game have locked away segments you can only enter during specific times of day, but these unlockables continue what you have already seen in that environment. For example, in Luxerion, you can only enter the slums where Noel lives at night. Still, the bungalows and favelas you find are similar in appearance enough to the elite cafes and apartment complexes you have seen earlier. With the Moogle Village, there's a genuine sense of discovering something special, and that continues with the city of the apocalyptic cultists near Caius or the deadlands, where you can find Sazh. I would best describe all of this worldbuilding as "cute" and broadly referential, especially in the case of the Moogle Village, but, again, the lighter aspects of Lightning Returns work far better than they have any right to, and that's worth mentioning.

As I have said before, the subplot in Lightning Returns is Lightning slowly lowering her guard and learning to appreciate the world and people surrounding her. That subplot takes center stage in The Wildlands, and as a result, she and her voice actor shine through. With the Moogle Village, the game strikes a good enough balance between referential humor and humanizing Lightning. Maybe you don't remember Mog from Final Fantasy XIII-2, but I sure do, and seeing the ultimate payoff be that Lightning genuinely appreciates Mog and doesn't want to see them in any harm is heartwarming. That's doubly so when you help a grieving woman find her lost dog, play matchmaker at a farm, support a random chef in the making of revered but forgotten recipes, and craft a potion to cure a woman of a terminal illness. I'm not going to look any of you in the eyes and say any of these questlines punch at the weight class of series titans like Final Fantasy VI, VII, IX, or X. Nonetheless, you can tell the game's heart is in the right place, and I cannot fault it for trying.

When shit gets good in this game, it gets REALLY GOOD!
When shit gets good in this game, it gets REALLY GOOD!

However, the best example of this game knowing its priorities better than the games that preceded it has to be the side quest involving a young woman at the starting farm and helping her reunite her family. I have yet to find out who designed or wrote this storyline or side quest, but they deserve a medal. This game was made in less than two years, and its team of designers had to work with a highly problematic in-house game engine. But goddamnit, the people who worked on this game tried. When you first visit the farm, the veterinarian that initially helps you with the Angel of Valhalla directs you to a female farmer down on her luck. You find she never has time to grow the luxurious vegetables her father once did and asks that you seek out fertilizer in a nearby forest. As you explore a few dung sites, you learn that her father is possibly dead and penned a note to inform her of this tragedy. When you deliver this note, the storyline hibernates a bit until you can bring the Angel of Valhalla to full health and enter the plains that Sazh occupies. In a research facility across from Sazh's downed spacecraft, you'll find an old gentleman ready to dismiss the female farmer as a failure until you bring fruits and vegetables from their farm to prove the opposite. You learn the older man is her grandfather and that he has caught wind his son, the woman's father, faked his death. And do you want to know what you do when you catch the father red-handed? You host a family reunion at a comically large dinner table in the same dopey-ass research facility. The game doesn't even know to disable its NPCs to not walk into the scene as the cutscene plays or to stop the blacksmith from making the same loud metal clanging sound in the background. It's the dumbest shit, but I loved every minute of it. You can feel the game's cheapness, but that adds to its charm.

Just look at this dude's glasses! WHO MADE THIS CHARACTER MODEL AND THOUGHT IT WAS PASSABLE?!
Just look at this dude's glasses! WHO MADE THIS CHARACTER MODEL AND THOUGHT IT WAS PASSABLE?!

On a more serious note, the storyline involving Caius and Yeul is genuinely a narrative highlight. In the prior locations, you assist Noel, Snow, and Fang in opening their hearts to Lightning and, in return, gain a part of their soul to fend off the end of the world. When Caius reveals he has no soul and even if he did, he doesn't regret a damn thing he's done to Lightning; the story magnificently inverts your expectations. All this time, the game hints at Caius needing to redeem himself to free Yeul from her cycle of death and rebirth. To watch him say, "Yeah, that's not happening because this world sucks, and I support burning everything down to the ground," was a shock and a breath of fresh air. Likewise, finding out there's no way to save Yeul and that the gods from before have damned her to a lifetime of suffering and death is one of the few dramatic moments the game handles with tact. There are other heavier storylines the game does an admirable job of managing (i.e., Vanille's backstory). Still, this one stands out as one the game puts on center stage and adequately justifies being there.

Part 9: Seriously, The Side Quests And Characters Are The Best/Worst Part

Caius might be my personal character highlight in the game, but that doesn't mean Noel, Snow, and Fang are bad by comparison. As I reviewed in the first episode, Noel being a bitter anime shit boy, who starts a death cult to try and end the world, is the type of anime horseshit I can get behind. As a slight demerit, while Snow, Fang, and Caius each feel like they factor into Lightning's journey as it reaches its fantastic conclusion, Noel feels a bit out of place. As he serves Final Fantasy XIII-2's storyline involving Serah, and she's barely present outside of a few flashbacks, his return on the final day of the story feels abrupt and awkward. My guy started a death cult that would have made Jim Jones proud. Why isn't he using his disciples to fight against the evil church that has clearly brainwashed Vanille? Speaking of which, with the corrupt church that is pro-Bhunivelze blowing up the universe and killing everyone being such a focal point of the ending, I'm surprised they aren't more of a factor in the story or the non-Luxerion environments. Their sudden turn would have felt more earned if they had been a recurring antagonistic force hindering Lightning's efforts wherever she went.

I maintain the lore with Yeul and Caius is one or two steps away from reaching Golden Age Final Fantasy storytelling.
I maintain the lore with Yeul and Caius is one or two steps away from reaching Golden Age Final Fantasy storytelling.

However, things are not all bad regarding the characterization of the primary cast. Snow, by comparison, feels much more "natural" in the world of Lightning Returns. Finding out Snow has resigned to fate and gained control of the city of Yusnaan and placed it in an endless cycle of partying and excess fits the game's premise that everyone has been immortal for hundreds of years. You end up encountering a handful of NPCs that have given up hope of caring about the people around them due to the pleasures of Yusnaan no longer cutting it. Likewise, Yusnaan is one of the smallest environments in the game, which means it is far easier to navigate. Of the four dominant story locals, Yusnaan was the first where I achieved everything I wanted there in a single playthrough. Similarly, thanks to the smaller environment, the game, and its designers feel more comfortable putting on a show when you are there. For example, you discover that the gate leading to Snow's mansion is locked, and Lightning will need to break in by interacting with the city's black market. However, things climaxing in a cinematic battle against a giant dragon at the start sets it apart as the more action-oriented environment.

The main quest involving using fireworks to break into Snow's villa made me smile more than any other part of the game. You first meet up with a stagehand who is down a performer for his show's finale, and when Lightning offers to fill the role, you end up completing a series of whacky hijinks to use fireworks to cause a massive statue to crash into Snow's home. This mission includes completing a handful of temporary side quests in which you can pick up fireworks and collect a new dress that makes Lightning look like a pop star. The final performance is a cheeseball and cornball fest, but it's a goofy moment that perfectly fits the game's tone. Lightning's stilted line delivery work because her character is meant to be non-plussed by the idea of being a stage actor. Imagine the opening drama that plays during Final Fantasy IX, and add in an ungodly amount of snark and sarcasm, and you'll get something close enough to this cutscene. More critical to my enjoyment are the handful of NPCs, including the stage director, who reveal they know what Lightning's ultimate goal is and are happy to help. The stage director has a touching moment when he notices the enormous amount of fireworks put into his float and correctly surmises what will happen when they get lit up, but he goes ahead with Lightning's plan. That's because he earnestly wants to break Snow out of his depressed state. Likewise, when you navigate up to the door leading to your battle with Snow, Lightning will encounter a soldier that offers to sell healing and restorative items to her at a massive discount because, as they say, "I want my old, happy boss back." That's not a lot, but again, it's "cute," and the game takes the time to use NPCs to create a wholeness to its worlds, which is not something you could say about OG Final Fantasy XIII.

This scene honestly needs to be seen to be believed. It goes for about ten minutes, and it's a great example of Square's excesses leading to hilarious results.
This scene honestly needs to be seen to be believed. It goes for about ten minutes, and it's a great example of Square's excesses leading to hilarious results.

The battle with Snow is either one of the easiest in the game or the hardest. Snow is the boss that takes the most significant amount of advantage from the boss evolution system, wherein bosses transform and get increasingly more challenging and more corrupted as you get closer to the end of the game. While Noel and Grendel only have one alternate form, Snow has two, and Snow++ is widely considered miles harder than Caius. I did not know about this mechanic when playing the game blind, and the game only communicates this point AFTER you start a battle against an advanced boss form. As a result, I had to go toe-to-toe against Snow+ and didn't understand why he was hitting far harder than what I was reading in guides about how to beat him. The good news is that Snow's weakness, fire, is communicated to the player, and the garb you get from the performance, Midnight Mauve, is one of the best mid to late-game magic-focused dresses in the entire game. In terms of his characterization, your mileage may vary. We are now three games deep, and to see his character reset to where it was at the start of Final Fantasy XIII, might not be your cup of tea. Watching him moan and complain a third time about Serah being dead and not wanting to live without her initially got on my nerves. However, all is forgiven when Lightning Returns repeats the best part of the first game by having Lightning punch Snow in the face until he stops being a sorry sack of shit. It worked the first time, and it 100% works here.

Oh.... I need to talk about this quest. There are a lot of optional quests that will likely stick with me until the day I die. This is one such quest.
Oh.... I need to talk about this quest. There are a lot of optional quests that will likely stick with me until the day I die. This is one such quest.

But Snow's fun soft reboot isn't what I want to talk about the most when it comes to Yusnaan. I want to talk to you about my favorite side quest in the entire game and one of my favorite Final Fantasy optional questlines ever. I want to talk about the "Family Food" side quest. Things start innocently enough in that you run into a chef named Seedy selling food with a reputation for being unappetizing. The chef challenges Lightning to give one of their dishes a shot, and she discovers that looks can be deceiving and compliments the cook's flavors but states he needs to work on his presentation and requires some positive advertising. The chef discloses that both of those things were what his son was good at, but since he left, he's been having difficulty making up for their absence. He then directs Lightning to find a legendary food critic who is named, and I shit you not, "Gordon Gourmet." You track this food critic to a fancy cafe, and Gordon advises that Lightning find three ingredients so the chef can replicate their former signature dish. When you do and return a sample to Gordon Gourmet, you find out Gordon is Seedy's long-lost son. You reunite the two, and for the rest of the game, Gordon is seen championing his father's food and directing people to "Head to Seedy's!" He does this while jumping up and down while comically clapping his hands. They also give you their souls to feel to Yggdrasil as thanks. It's a cheesy affair, but it's the most adorable shit I have seen in a proper Final Fantasy game. If that's not enough to crack even the slightest smile on your face, then I do not know what will.

Tangent: Play This Game On Easy. No, Seriously, Do It!

I also want to clarify something before we transition to my final point on this blog. If you interact with other Lightning Returns defenders, you might find them discussing how they beat the game multiple times and on its hardest difficulty settings. While I enjoy this game, I tolerate its mechanics to get to its silly story moments. I cannot in a thousand years imagine a scenario where I play the game a second or third time on a harder difficulty setting. If you are going to get into my mentions about how the guard/blocking finally clicked with you on your second or third playthrough, I will wish you the best and say I have no intentions of replaying the game. I appreciate it in all of its messy glory, and that's it. I'm not in the mood, especially now, of replaying something that can, at times, make me mad when I'm not 100% on board with what it wants me to do.

The downstream impact of the Omega System is that it results in the late game being desolate and populated by annoyingly hard to beat bullshit.
The downstream impact of the Omega System is that it results in the late game being desolate and populated by annoyingly hard to beat bullshit.

I have some advice for anyone with a similar mindset of wanting to see a bunch of silly anime nonsense in a palatable timeframe. Play this game on easy. Please do yourself a favor and play this game on its lowest difficulty setting. By doing this, you take those brutal boss battles I groused about earlier and lower them to be just a few pegs above the random encounters. If you pushed me on this issue, I would argue the easy setting should be the default difficulty setting for the game. Considering the story's aims are goofy sci-fi fluff, there's no justification for it punching you in the gut until you start vomiting blood and doing things "its way." With grinding not available as an easy "get out of jail" card, playing the game on easy is the best way to guarantee you see everything this game has to offer, including its ending. Playing the game on easy doesn't prevent you from interacting with the job-specific mechanics that some of its fans point to as its best parts. Instead, they feel much more satisfying when you don't have to worry about banging your head on two to three gameplay-based brick walls. Likewise, Lightning Returns, being one of those games where you are locked into the difficulty setting you picked at the start of the game, is incredibly raw.

Part 10: The Art Of The "Right" Bad/Messy Game

Every single one of you has at least one "messy" or "problematic" game that is near and dear to your heart, and what I or any other person says about the game doesn't matter. This is not a phenomenon endemic to video games. All art and entertainment mediums can allow their audiences this splendor, and some like to use the term "guilty pleasure" when referring to these works. I don't feel even an ounce of guilt regarding my love for Lightning Returns. I still would not recommend it for those that cannot tolerate rough edges in their video games, but it's a game that exudes the mantra of being "more than the sum of its parts."It's an incredibly dumb video game. Some aspects of its gameplay made me want to pull my hair out. However, the times when it works are a marvel, and I don't regret putting over forty hours into playing it. You don't need to dedicate such a ridiculous amount of time if you decide to give it a whirl, but to those who want an emotionally raw JRPG experience from modern Square-Enix, this game is for you.

There will come a time when I talk about Lumina, but that time is still not now.
There will come a time when I talk about Lumina, but that time is still not now.

Playing Lightning Returns feels like a slog in parts. You still have to deal with the same fiddly and shitty menus that made the previous two Final Fantasy XIII games an absolute chore. On top of that, there are a ton of sub-mechanics that feel like red herrings. I ended up sinking a stupid amount of time into the crafting system and had almost nothing to show for it. After spending an entire section praising The Wildlands, I feel it is only appropriate to discuss the parts of that level that drove me up the wall. Of the game's different fast travel systems, using the Chocobo is by far the worst, and the level's sprawling design leads to countless minutes and hours of you running around in circles, wondering where you need to go. When you start to run into the issue of exterminating creatures and enemy types from any given environment, if you successfully clear out the Omega versions of enemies, then the game's world starts to feel even more empty, and it is far worse with The Wildlands. Worse, with the easy enemies dead, you are often left with the most brutal random encounters most people avoid until they tackle New Game+.

However, right when I was about to dismiss the level outright, it would give me something charming to push all those negative sentiments to the wayside. I mentioned earlier that Lightning doesn't end up redeeming Caius, but what she accomplishes at The Wildlands instead is even better. As she exits the temple with a heavy sense of defeat, her Chocobo companion arrives and reveals they are none other than their old Eidolon, Odin. After suspecting he was dead for centuries, we find out Odin has been a Chocobo waiting for Lightning to cross paths with him for hundreds of years. One of the most fundamental plot points and mechanics from the first game boils down to being a mount in this game. This series stopped giving a shit about narrative continuity ages ago, but to see this be how the game reconnects Lightning to Odin is downright bizarre and hilarious. Maybe this plot point pisses you off because you enjoyed the mythology and worldbuilding of Final Fantasy XIII. In that case, please continue to do what I advised you at the start of my Final Fantasy XIII-2 retrospective: pretend XIII exists in a vacuum and they never made any sequels. However, let the rest of us, including Square-Enix and tri-Ace, have some fun.

And we haven't even talked about the BIGGER Chocobo-based plot twist in this game!
And we haven't even talked about the BIGGER Chocobo-based plot twist in this game!

I will save the Dead Dunes and Sazh's storyline for the final episode, but both are absolute delights. There's an optional questline involving Bhakti the robot from the previous two games. When you encounter Bhakti, you find them distressed that their friends are trapped in a tomb in the Dead Dunes. Unfortunately, while Lightning can open the vault, she finds that the robot's companions are long dead. What ensues next is Lightning needing to teach Bhakti the concept of life, death, and soul theory. The game presents this character scene as a meditative moment, but it was fucking funny as fuck to me. In part, I found it endlessly amusing that Lightning Returns found a way to do what it took NieR: Automata to do in forty hours in about ten minutes. Finally, with this being the blog about The Wildlands, I would be remiss not to remind you about "the dog." You may not know what I am talking about when I utter the words "the dog" in the context of Lightning Returns. However, those of you that have played the game know precisely what the fuck I am talking about here. For those still confused, here you go, and I dare you not to laugh while looking at this picture.

A face only a mother could love.
A face only a mother could love.

Am I laughing at Lightning Returns more than I am laughing with Lightning Returns? Sure, but what difference does it make as long as I am laughing in the first place? With that, I will bid you farewell, and next time I will make an effort to get to the end of the game. And let me warn you right now; I think the ending of this game is a goddamn work of art.

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sparky_buzzsaw

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That's not a dog, that's a hairy walrus.

Also, I will go down in flames for loving Suikoden IV, even if I haven't played it in twenty years and I know that it's garbage.

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personz

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That dog will haunt my dreams for years to come.

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borgmaster

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I played Lightning Returns less than a year ago, and I have completely forgotten/repressed everything to do with the dog. I'm probably better off for doing so.

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ElectricViking

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DOG

I still need to roll credits on this game. The last boss is a bastard and also I am not good at games. Something something cheating. Something something easy mode.

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judaspete

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I have never played through a Final Fantasy game, but for some reason the XIII trilogy is the one I'm most inclined to try. No interest in the series high points like VI, VII, or X. Can't explain it. Maybe because it is divisive, and I'm an obnoxious contrarian.

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Manburger

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#6  Edited By Manburger

THE DOG is indeed the thing I was most familiar with from the Lightning Saga. Simultaneously a spirit animal and sleep paralysis demon. We love low poly animals in this house!

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#7 ZombiePie  Staff

Work was an absolute slog immediately after I published this blog and now that I have some free time, I thought it was only apt to respond to all of the kind and supportive comments you all published. Apologies for the belated nature of this.

THE DOG is indeed the thing I was most familiar with from the Lightning Saga. Simultaneously a spirit animal and sleep paralysis demon. We love low poly animals in this house!

With FF14 getting rid of hill salads and low poly grapes, this dog is all we have. We must protect this dog with every fiber of our being.

I have never played through a Final Fantasy game, but for some reason the XIII trilogy is the one I'm most inclined to try. No interest in the series high points like VI, VII, or X. Can't explain it. Maybe because it is divisive, and I'm an obnoxious contrarian.

If you are going to play the Lightning Saga, I'm going to pull some advice from @jeffrud. Start with 13-2 only because there are a handful of characters and storylines that end up playing a huge factor in Lightning Returns. Also, 13-2's bubbly tone and setting is a far better segue into the world of the Lightning Saga than the original game.

If and when you feel up for playing OG FF13, treat it as a prequel to the games that ended up salvaging the series.

@jeffrud said:

DOG

I still need to roll credits on this game. The last boss is a bastard and also I am not good at games. Something something cheating. Something something easy mode.

As I have said time and time again, the 13 games have this awful tradition of featuring some dogshit final bosses. The final form of Orphan in FF13 does that bullshit where it inflicts you with poison, before hitting you with a laser beam that drops you to 1 HP; thus giving you a very narrow window to prevent a "Game Over." 13-2 plops you into that nest of Bahamuts where they can tag in and out of the playing field, a maneuver you cannot take advantage of, and heal themselves as if they part of a tag team in a fighting game.

Then, we have the final boss of this game, which I hope to discuss in the near future.

I played Lightning Returns less than a year ago, and I have completely forgotten/repressed everything to do with the dog. I'm probably better off for doing so.

I'm genuinely impressed you were able to repress the dog in the first place. That and the game's ending are things that will likely live rent-free in my mind for the rest of my life.

That's not a dog, that's a hairy walrus.

Also, I will go down in flames for loving Suikoden IV, even if I haven't played it in twenty years and I know that it's garbage.

I recall watching @arbitrarywater playing Suikoden IV, and my impressions were not that it was outright bad, but simply incredibly slow. In the move to 3D, that game sure does not have the ability to process all of its shit.

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@zombiepie: Yeah, that's a fair assessment. I think the game's biggest issue is the teeth-grinding random encounter rate, but I hold to it that the characters for the series have rarely been stronger (save Suikoden II and if someone were to argue V I could see that, even if I don't agree), and that the last fourth or so of that game is a banger. Collecting all 108 stars and getting the best ending is well worth it.

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theonewhoplays

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Lightning Returns might not be the best game in the trilogy but it's my favorite by far. Its only real issue is the confusing and quite terrible beginning.