The Final Fantasy XIII sub-series has had something of an odd history. When FF13 released in 2010, it was well received - if not critically acclaimed - though many series fans (myself included) were unhappy with how much it deviated from the norms of the franchise. The story was interesting, but filled with uninspired, flat characters, and linear level design made exploring the world a chore.
The combat system was interesting if you invested yourself in figuring out its nuances, but it failed miserably at enticing players to explore its full potential. For many, fights were even more of a slog than the corridor-like maps.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 sought to remedy some of these flaws, and for the most part it succeeded. The first game’s protagonist, Lightning, took a back seat to her infinitely more interesting and likeable sister, Serah. Maps were much more open and interesting, and the inclusion of a Pokemon-like monster collection and training element took the seeds of greatness from the previous game’s battle system and made them more accessible and exciting.
The trade off to all this was that the story went out the window entirely; FF13-2’s plot was a convoluted, nonsensical mess, and I’d be surprised if even the writers understood what was going on.
Enter Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, the conclusion to the FF13 trilogy. Rather than going back to the series’ roots, like many fans had been hoping, Lightning Returns goes even further into uncharted territory, mixing in elements from just about every RPG subgenre. The influence of roguelikes, sandbox games, action games, and MMORPGs is clear. Sounds like a good thing? You may want to hold onto that thought…
As the title suggests, Lightning Returns brings back Lightning as the player character. Following the events of FF13-2, which - spoiler alert - had resulted in people being unable to age and the world being infused with the mysterious Chaos energy, Lightning had sealed herself away in a crystal. Now, with 13 days left before the world is entirely consumed by Chaos, Lightning has been awoken by the god Bhunivelze, and tasked with saving the souls of as many people as possible before the apocalypse.
If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. While far from the confusion of FF13-2, Lightning Returns’ narrative is bizarre and, for the most part, uninteresting. There is almost no significant plot development until the end, and this is a game that will last you anywhere from 20 to 40 hours. Had the characters been deeper and better written, the outlandish story might have been saved, but as it stands, there is little incentive to not skip cutscenes beyond visual spectacle.
When you’re not watching cinematics, you’ll be doing the usual RPG stuff - fighting fantastical monsters, exploring, aiding locals, buying increasingly powerful weapons, and saving the world. What separates Lightning Returns from its predecessors, and the genre in general, is a time limit on your game.
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