Best gameplay out of the series, but everything else is poorly done
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, (shortened to LR) is the last game in the beleaguered Final Fantasy XIII trilogy. The first game was an utter mess of hallways and handholdy tutorials. The sequel was a massive upgrade from the first game that took fan feedback to heart but had a nonsensical time travelling plot that goes nowhere. LR in the meanwhile is a completely different beast, sporting a new battle system, a time mechanic and only one playable character. Fans hoping for a great final act to the trilogy will be severely disappointed. LR delivers a story so out of left field that the ending left me scratching my head on what exactly happened. Fortunately if you can completely ignore the story and dull characters, you can enjoy some of the finest gameplay yet in the entire Final Fantasy franchise.
The best part of LR is the gameplay. The auto-battle system in the previous games is completely scrapped in favor of an action game. In LR, you only play and control the protagonist Lightning. Each face button represents a command which drains the stamina or active time bar (ATB). Once out of stamina, Lightning can change wardrobes or garbs which have their own separate commands and ATBs. While Lightning is wearing the active garb, the other two inactive garbs recover ATB. The key to combat is to use commands while cycling from garb to garb to setup some insane hit combos. The combat is snappy, precise and has a high skill ceiling. Part of the combat is knowing which garb commands to use to stagger the enemy and which garbs to use when defending. Players who perfectly time guard and attack commands can block all damage or deal bonus damage respectfully. Defeating the strongest bosses in the game requires an intense focus and mastery of combat almost equivalent to playing a Souls game.
The garb system is interesting but ultimately not worthwhile. Each garb the Lightning collects can have special commands and attributes thus enticing the player to collect every garb possible. While it sounds great on paper, Lightning can only equip 3 garbs at a time and some of the best garbs are automatically earned by playing through the main storyline or purchased in stores. Most of the garbs in the optional quests and DLC are worse than the garbs you get normally so there is never a chance to wear them unless you want to see Lightning fight in those outfits.
Some of the garbs that Lightning wears are skimpy and revealing. They make zero sense as combat attire and are purely fan service. One specific garb makes Lightning do a sexy pose in the victory screen: Lightning bends down revealing her cleavage and smiles at the player. Also players can choose to add adornments for Lightning such as having her wear a hat, don a mustache or brand a tattoo. This isn’t the first time Square Enix let players “doll up” a female protagonist, they did the same thing for Yuna with the dress spheres in FFX-2. I’m not against these sexy garbs, but I feel like it’s a sleazy way of getting people to play the game.
The time system in LR is controversial because the game ends in 7 in-game days. Each gameday lasts exactly 1 real-time hour. After the 7 days have passed, Lightning must face the final boss or can choose to rewind back to the beginning and keeping most of the garbs and stats gained in her journey similar to a rogue-like. However I don’t think LR is meant to be a rogue-like. Completing main story quests extends the game by a day, up to a maximum of 13 days. Time freezes while in menus or in battles. There is also an ability that Lightning can use to freeze time temporarily. With proper time management, I believe most players can complete every single main and side quest and have days to spare. But this is coming from someone who loves optimization and speed running, so your mileage may vary.
The production value of LR is arguably worse than the other two games. With the exception of Lightning, her garments and some main characters, LR recycles assets from the other two games. Character designs are the same. There is no new memorable music tracks. FMVs recycle scenes from the prior games. There are no new monster designs. Lip syncing is poorly done (which was a similar issue in FFXIII-2). Two of the main areas the Wild Lands and the Dead Dunes are boring open sandboxes. The only bright spot is that the PC port is great, with zero bugs/crashes and offers multiple graphical/display options.
I’ve been avoiding it for most of this review, but it is finally time to talk about the story.
Remember the L’Cie and Fal’Cie from FFXIII? How about all the time paradoxes in FFXIII-2? Well forget about all that because now the FFXIII world is about to end in 7 days because of the Chaos. God has tasked Lightning to save the souls of the remaining humans and bring them into a new world that God will create. Square Enix has gone straight biblical and created their most ridiculous story yet. The story explains everything nonsensical plot point with either the Chaos or God. Why is Hope back and in his younger self? Why is this character back when they were killed/sacrificed in the previous games? Why does Lightning have to take the train to travel from area to area when Hope can warp her out from anywhere?
It also doesn’t help that Lightning and Hope are the least likeable characters in the trilogy. Lightning never really displayed any emotion in either of the past two games, but now it becomes exaggerated because she is the only character you play. Hope in the meantime serves as the oracle to Lightning and constantly comments on things that you should pay attention to. This isn’t Bastion-level of narration however, Hope’s comments will drive you crazy and you will eventually be relieved when he finally shuts up. Lumina the antagonist, is the only likeable character in LR. Her appearances add energy to the scenes and actually makes the plot somewhat palatable. She is basically the Joker to Lightning’s Batman. But even Lumina could not buoy this sinking ship of a story.
The gameplay is the only reason to play LR. Square Enix made the right step with FFXIII-2 only to bungle most of its’ gains with LR. Instead of refining on what made FFXIII-2 great, Square Enix decided to make an action game and completely abandon most of the plot in the previous games. While the action of this game is probably the best in the Final Fantasy series as a whole, everything else about LR feels hastily put together. The story is nonsensical. The characters are not likeable. The dialog is half-baked. Ultimately if you are onboard with the gameplay, I recommend seeing LR to the end, otherwise avoid this game at all costs and just look up the ending if you’re curious about the conclusion to this trilogy.