"Just as real lightning fades after it strikes, so too has Lightning's saga grown increasingly unimpressive as it persists in existing. "
Lightning is, by definition, a brilliant flash that leaves as quickly as it arrives. So it's ironic, perhaps, that the Final Fantasy XIII heroine of the same name has instead done the opposite; lingering throughout an entire console generation. The first game in her trilogy was an audiovisual spectacle, but faced heavy criticism for its linearity and poorly-explained plot. Its sequel attempted to tip the scales by featuring a greater emphasis on player choice, but the plot continued to veer off the rails thanks to an over-reliance on time travel and "paradoxes." Both games were deeply flawed, but still enjoyable, and I truthfully consider myself a big fan of the series. Now, four years after the release of Final Fantasy XIII, Lightning appears before us one final time in a last-ditch effort to prove her worth and provide closure to one of the most convoluted RPG stories in recent memory. (And yes, before you ask, I have
read the datalogs and done plenty of research. I'm not saying the story is nonsensical, but it is
presented poorly.) After completing the game in about twenty-five hours, my final reaction to Lightning Returns is not one of anger or disappointment, but merely ambivalence. Just as real lightning fades after it strikes, so too has Lightning's saga grown increasingly unimpressive as it persists in existing.
An oversimplified version of the Final Fantasy XIII series plot goes something like this: Lightning and five others were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Branded and enslaved by a godlike being called a Fal'cie, the six unlikely allies fought against their assigned task of destroying the human utopia, Cocoon. Just when it seemed she had successfully resisted her unjust fate, Lightning was dragged into another realm, Valhalla, and tasked by the goddess Etro with fighting a neverending war against a malevolent force called Chaos. Unable to escape, Lightning sent her sister, Serah, on a journey to fix the distortions in time created by an outpouring of the aforementioned Chaos. Serah was ultimately unable to prevent the Chaos from flooding into the world and consuming everything. In that interminable darkness, Lightning is awakened by the voice of yet another "God," and instructed to save the souls of humanity (including her sister) before the remaining world meets its imminent, inevitable demise. This is the launching point for Lightning Returns.
Even with such a streamlined synopsis, it's plain that the narrative of Final Fantasy XIII has descended further and further into a rabbit hole of obliqueness and inaccessibility. Rampant use of neologisms and unbelievable writing plague the series throughout, and at this point, all but the staunchest fans will have to employ a considerable suspension of disbelief to accept the proceedings in Lightning Returns. The unifying theme is one of humans struggling to break free of the shackles placed upon them by gods, but much of this background is lost in optional "datalogs," Ultimania books, and intermedial novels, most of which have never left Japan.
I mention all of this because it bears repeating that while the actual events in Lightning Returns are not especially difficult to follow, I often found myself sitting back afterwards and thinking, "Wait, that was kind of ridiculous and illogical." It doesn't help that Lightning's personality seems to have regressed back to how she was at the onset of Final Fantasy XIII — a plot point that appears to be leading somewhere interesting, but ultimately fails to provide a meaningful payoff. At the very least, most of the supporting cast members each have enough time in the spotlight for their individual arcs to end satisfactorily. An important exception to the ennui is the game's ending, which I found to be remarkably satisfying and leagues above the trite storytelling present in my twenty-four previous hours of playtime. I'm interested in seeing how other fans react to the ending; I can see it being divisive, but there is no doubt that it delivers a definitive resolution to the trilogy.
Lightning Returns is a near-inversion of Final Fantasy XIII in terms of gameplay structure. Endless corridors and protracted tutorials have been replaced by huge areas and open-ended progression. The world of Nova Chrysalia is divided into four main areas, complete with towns and shops (a detail that I feel silly for having to specify, but there it is). The bulk of the game's story is told over five "Main Quests," which can be completed in any order, although their scaling difficulty makes linear progression a more appealing option. The remaining content is comprised entirely of side quests. Quests are the solitary source of character growth, aside from equipment, as each successful quest provides Lightning with permanent stat boosts. These errands are further divided into two categories: meatier Side Quests, which are embedded with short stories, and the Canvas of Prayers, which essentially amounts to fetching specific items and turning them in for rewards. It's nice to have both types available, but there is nothing inherently compelling about fetch quests, so I rarely set out to complete them unless I already had the requisite items sitting around. The main issue is that because the story skirts around revealing anything of vital importance until the very end of the game, these activities feel like little more than a way to bide time (ironic, considering the thematic material at play).
The crowning feature of Lightning Returns, as well as the main reason I kept coming back for more, is its battle system. The real-time ATB system from XIII and XIII-2 has reached the apex of its evolution, emerging as an action-heavy combat paradigm (double meaning totally intended) that requires quick reflexes for blocking, dodging, and unleashing effective attacks. Lightning can instantaneously switch between three different "schemata" — fully-customizable equipment and ability sets — at any time, and balancing the cooldowns of her various skills is key to surviving encounters. Precise blocking is rewarded with extreme damage mitigation, so even the toughest encounters can be overcome with sheer skill if the player is tenacious enough. It's a strategic system that provides immediate tactile feedback, making combat addictive and consistently fun. Lightning Returns can also be unexpectedly difficult at times, and unlike its predecessors, defeat comes with harsher penalties, so preparation is essential. Don't forget those potions!
It's clear that Square Enix put a lot of money and effort into creating Crystal Tools, and a pessimistic person might say that Lightning Returns is a desperate attempt to squeeze one last game out of the aging graphical engine. I wouldn't go quite that far, but it's true that Lightning Returns is the least-impressive game in the trilogy from a visual standpoint. Major characters still look sharp, but minor NPCs are downright ugly and have simplistic, repetitive animations. There's a particularly cartoonish dog NPC that looks like his jaw is unhinged, and it cracks me up every time I see it because of how bad it looks. Environments are considerably less inspired than in previous games, often featuring flat textures and crude modeling. I also noticed the same hallways appearing throughout Nova Chrysalia with only a palette swap keeping them from being identical. The framerate is unsteady as well, especially in large areas like the Wildlands or when there are several layers of effects happening at once, but at least battles are rarely affected. On the plus side, the game's opening and ending cinematics are breathtakingly gorgeous. Square Enix still hasn't lost its touch for creating amazing CG movies. I only wish they weren't so incongruent with everything in between.
As is frequently the case when I get stupidly excited about a high-profile game, I voraciously consume its soundtrack as soon as it becomes available; Lightning Returns was no exception
. I thoroughly enjoyed this soundtrack, but I found its actual usage in the game to be strange. There is so much music crammed into Lightning Returns (including a large number of reused tracks from previous games) that I could not predict when or where I would hear most songs. Battle themes seemed to cycle at random, and although I'm sure their appearance is tied to the in-game clock and a number of other factors, I was a bit sad to hear favorites like "Savior of Souls" and "Army of One" only a few times throughout the entire game. However, there are some other musical touches that delighted me: treasure spheres that crank out the first few measures of "The Promise," classic sound effects, and wandering musicians playing arranged tracks like "Battle on the Big Bridge" are but a few of these amusing nods to series history.
Lightning Returns is a game that tries so hard to reinvent itself that it loses some of what made its forebearers special. For every step the game takes forward in an effort to innovate, it takes two back by failing on another (usually technical) level. Its narrative fumbles about excessively and is so far removed from the previous two games that it hardly feels like an entry in the same trilogy. I'm glad to have a conclusive finale to Final Fantasy XIII, but at what cost? I don't regret seeing this series through to the end, but where XIII-2 left me desperately wanting more, Lightning Returns has convinced me that sometimes it's better to let sleeping l'Cie lie.