RPG Corner: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13

Platforms: Microsoft Xbox 360 | PC | Sony PlayStation 3
RPG Corner: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13

RPG Corner is a monthly series covering a recent RPG I've been playing. Action, turn-based, Western, Korean, and Japanese RPG's all apply.

Final Fantasy 13 ushered in Fabula Nova Crystallis, a brand-new series mythos defined by games featuring crystals whose significance were tied to Gods and/or God-like powers.

Its announcement seemed like a fresh start for the franchise with an aesthetically beautiful world ready to be explored in future entries. Fast forward to launch, however, and Final Fantasy 13's mixed reception poked holes in Square Enix's plans. While it featured dense lore, much of it was buried in menus, making it a haphazard investment for many people when coupled with the unbalanced distribution between cinematics and player agency.

That universe quickly took a back seat to poorly written plots in its sequels, which introduced time travel, culminating in one of the most narratively messy escalations to grace video games. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 bests most Final Fantasy games in many ways, but it also suffers from shoddy writing and a startling lack of polish no other numbered entry or direct sequel to a numbered entry could get away with.

Lightning Returns' story is the biggest chink in its armor. While the first game had pacing issues with too much dialogue, an overly melodramatic romantic subplot, and terminology that required digging into menus to fully grasp, its main plot was focused enough to give players a sense of direction. Its reiterative character speeches communicated a clear goal with a strong emotional climax.

Final Fantasy 13-2 threw that out the window by introducing time travel and alternate timelines out of nowhere. Lightning Returns delves further into unsalvageable territory with a convenient time skip of about 500 years in which the world is plunged by chaos. Humans don't age and can't reproduce. In short:

  • Serah is maybe still alive after Final Fantasy 13-2 clearly explained that she died due to carrying the same power that killed Noah's Yeul???
  • Lightning has been chosen as the servant of the goddess Etro????
  • Snow turned into a villain?
  • Vanille lives under house arrest, acting as a saint to a cult-like church?
  • Hope has the same memories and emotional maturity as his adult iteration, but he's stuck in his body from the first game?????
  • The entire world has a maximum time limit of two weeks before it faces extinction?

Lightning Returns does interesting things with Lightning's character. She's exhibited stoicism in the past to the point that she's been accused of having no personality. This trait is given more context here, though it's the renewed focus on side quests that provides more insight into Lightning's psyche. She doesn't overtly express emotions because her omnipotent powers have drained her humanity, but she does show a level of complexity absent from the first two games.

As the world's savior, Lightning travels around the four remaining "continents" solving people's problems. Each main quest and side quest rewards souls upon completion. These souls are offered to the Yggdrasil tree at the end of each day, extending the world's life if enough souls have been saved. Lightning Returns operates under a dynamic day/night cycle with some npc's, quests, monsters, and items only available at certain times of day.

Lightning Returns' time sensitive nature guarantees most players will feel the urge to complete side quests even if the time allotted at the adventure's start should be enough to complete the main story without too much micromanagement. It's through these side quests that Lightning's character is expanded upon. Whereas Lightning reacted practically the same way to most situations in the first game, she's more human here despite canonically losing her human soul in exchange for Etro's power.

She'll show compassion and even give eccentric characters pep talks when they need them, but she'll also question npc's she doesn't trust or agree with. She never comes across as a morally righteous piece of cardboard. Rather, she's a person that inserts her opinion into conversation when she feels strongly about something. The wide range of personalities Lightning interacts allows for more human moments to poke through her emotionless exterior.

Although Lightning Returns fleshes out its heroine's personality, the rest of the story is a barely comprehensible mishmash of vague connections to the past two games. There's an illogical thread between the previous games' events and the supporting cast's role in the plot

The story fails to offer a satisfying through-line across the trilogy, but the open-ended game design and expanded combat and customization follow a logical gameplay evolution. The paradigm-switching active time battle system introduced in Final Fantasy 13 reaches its role playing peak in Lightning Returns.

In borrowing elements from Final Fantasy 10-2's dress sphere/garment grid system and combining it with a more active iteration of the active time battle system, Lightning Returns offers a refreshing level of fine-tuning that would make any rpg fan swoon for days. With the removal of traditional leveling, restrictive healing opportunities, and introduction of a one-person party, save for two instances with guest party members, Lightning Returns stands as one of the franchise's most difficult installments with a skill ceiling only encroached upon by Final Fantasy 12's gambit system.

To begin with, White Mages don't have healing spells. The healing restrictions encourage more careful ATB meter management and exploitation of the stagger system. Whereas Final Fantasy 13 and 13-2 refilled your health after every encounter, those hit points carry over from battle to battle here. Lightning begins the adventure with a limit of four restorative items with the cap increasing as main quests are completed.

Outside of healing potions, Lightning can buy food at shops to fill up health on the spot, rest at inns, or expend EP to use Curaga in or out of battle. It may seem like there's plenty of options, but the game is balanced enough to make you feel like you're always conserving healing resources. Resting at inns is always an option, though with the time limit, they must be used sparingly. Gil doesn't really start to stack up until around the third main quest, either.

The amount of EP dropped from enemies early on is also so insignificant that using Curaga feels like a last resort at least until halfway through the main story. By that point, specific mobs reward enough EP to keep you filled, but you'll also have access to so many EP-consuming skills by then that careful Curaga usage must still be considered along with other useful skills like Chronostasis, which stops the game clock for a period of time.

Lightning gains EP from fallen enemies instead of experience points. This change has an even more dramatic effect on the game's difficulty than the restrictive healing. Completing quests is the only way to increase Lightning's health, magic, and attack with the max ATB bar only increasing after finishing a main quest.

Because of this, players that don't finish most side quests as they appear are at an inherent disadvantage; One that's only circumvented through min-maxing schemata, this game's take on classes. Each outfit has basic stats applied to it, with many containing passive bonuses and inherent skills locked to that garb. Lightning Returns' schemata system allows for plenty of experimentation. Unlike most rpg's, you won't find a piece of equipment that can only be used by a certain outfit. Accessories, weapons, shields, and even skills to an extent can be mixed and matched to suit your dream build.

Only four skills are equippable to each schemata, assigned to one of the four face buttons. Early game outfits have no skills, allowing any skill to be assigned, though later outfits will have one or two skills that can't be swapped out. Want a high damage-output garb to debuff enemies? Go for it. Want a high health "tank" that evades instead of guards? Have at it. Or maybe you want to cover multiple bases, equipping the tank with both evade and heavy guard, leaving only two spots for damage dealing, buffing, or debuffing skills.

How about equipping a magic-focused garb with a weapon that increases its attack, making it a viable fallback against enemies weak to physical damage? You might even equip upgraded skills with bonuses that further illuminate that garb's inherent strengths or compensate for its weaknesses.

The schemata system's unprecedented flexibility makes it one of the genre's most engaging customization/party management systems. Because experience points are a limited commodity, normal role playing exploits can't be used to power past difficult encounters. Exploiting enemy weaknesses at every opportunity is a necessity.

Lightning Returns is already engaging because of its difficulty and malleable class system, but it's the more active combat that ties it all together. It looks similar at a glance, but it feels completely different in the player's hand. Rather than setting a series of skills to a queue before activating them, the new system is treated more like a traditional action rpg. Pressing the attack skill, for example, performs a single physical attack.

Combos are activated by holding the button down. Defensive skills like evading and guarding require precise timing like a typical action game. Activating guard just before an attack hits can stagger some enemies as an example. Multiple skills can also be chained together by switching schemata on the fly with the left and right shoulder buttons, culminating in a seemingly endless flurry of attacks.

As a result, rather than planning and setting skills to a queue, Lightning Returns demands the player's attention at all times. The more fast-paced combat steals the show. It's no longer a matter of proper strategy, but also execution and split-second critical thinking.

With each skill consuming ATB, micromanagement between your three schematas' ATB meters becomes just as essential as every other element to combat.

The visual downgrade from the last two games is astonishing

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 is a monumental achievement in many ways. Its open-ended design, which allows any of the five main quests to be active at any one time, is a refreshing change of pace from the trilogy's restrictive beginnings. The new combat system is the most perfect marriage between turn-based and real-time I've ever witnessed, but it's also the ugliest game to bare the Final Fantasy 13 name. Seriously. Just google "Final Fantasy 13 low poly dog" and shudder in horror.

In truth, Lightning Returns' lower budget probably wasn't helped by the engine pushing last gen systems in ways the previous games didn't. Not only does Lightning Returns feature the largest, most non-linear environments, but the dynamic time of day system likely further pushed limited hardware resources. Nothing can save the mess the Final Fantasy 13 lore has become, though. With better writing and higher production values or more powerful hardware, Lightning Returns could have gone down as a classic.

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