Saturday, March 1, 2014

Game Review - Lightning Returns: FFXIII (Xbox 360, 2014)

Lightning Returns is weird.  Like the previous entries in the Final Fantasy XIII saga, the game is gorgeous, but the bizarre plot and a couple frustrating design choices make it the weakest entry in the trilogy.  Here's what you can expect:

The game's plot opens 13 days before the end of the world, with series protagonist Lightning on a mission from God to save as many souls as possible so He can populate the next world with them.

Yeah, that's what Lightning Returns is about.

The storyline represents a weird deviation from the previous games, and as the plot progresses, other features pop up that seem to change all the rules of the FFXIII universe.  As a fan of the first two installments of the trilogy, this unexpected turn was a little offensive to my sensibilities.  If you can manage to get past the initial shock and its lingering effects (or if you haven't played the other FFXIII games), the storyline is actually pretty nifty, including a number of little tendrils that connect back to the previous games in complex ways.  It took me well over 20 hours to get over the initial bad taste of the unusual plot, but by the end, I was inspired to replay the earlier games to get a clearer view of how it all fits together.

One of the outstanding features of the storyline is the way it is integrated into the gameplay.  Unlike most RPGs, Lightning Returns abandons the traditional leveling system, instead giving the player character stat boosts for completing quests - perfectly in line with her goal of saving souls.  The plot is also highly nonlinear; while there are a handful of important "key" quests (that is, VIP souls to save), they aren't presented in any particular order.  You are instead free to explore the world and redeem souls as you see fit.  The only restriction on your adventuring is that you must complete the key quests before the end of the last day, otherwise you'll miss the important end-game sequences that are dependent on saving a few specific souls.

All-in-all, these gameplay features enhance the story's presentation, as it actually seems like a coherent narrative.  Furthermore, random side quests are given more significant weight - rather than wasting time when you should be saving the world as is the case in many RPGs, the game's side quests are presented as an important piece of the overarching storyline.  It all makes the story more engrossing.

Supporting what turns out to be a rather interesting plot is a decent combat system.  Lightning goes this one alone, so the paradigm system that was in place during the previous games doesn't quite work here.  Instead, Lightning can have up to three active "styles," which serve the same role as paradigms.  One of the more insteresting aspects of this combat system is that each style is tied to a particular outfit, so changing styles on the fly means that Lightning's appearance will change as well.  These styles come with some prepackaged skills and abilities, but they also leave room for customization, which is certainly a welcome addition to the FFXIII gameplay.  This setup also means that players play a much more active role during combat, micro-managing Lightning's attacks instead of the tactical approach featured in paradigm shifts.

Combat is therefore a more dynamic affair in Lightning Returns, which also has some drawbacks; the biggest is the game's difficulty.  When your success in battles is sensitive to your available skills and styles, it is possible to get yourself into a position where you simply cannot defeat a particular boss.  The game's nonlinearity is nice in those moments, as you can shift your focus to a different quest line and come back when you're stronger and have more options, but monsters get more powerful as you get closer to armageddon, so you may not always be better suited for a fight when you come back to it later.  I found myself struggling quite a bit with a few of the battles throughout the game, and I was barely able to scrape by even after completing a dozen other quests.  It was a frustrating situation, perhaps largely because it was so different from what I expected.

The worst part of all that struggling?  It's possible to reach the final boss and just not have the gear, the stats, or the skills necessary to finish him off. At that point, there's no way to run off and complete more quests or get stronger stuff, so you're effectively screwed after investing 30+ hours.  In a nice gesture to help players mitigate this scenario, you have the option to start a New Game+ (keeping almost everything you'd collected up to that point) before the door that leads to the final showdown, but it's incredibly frustrating to need to run through the entire game again just to be able to see the story's conclusion.  That happened to me while playing on the "Normal" difficulty setting (there is an "Easy" setting which is a lot more forgiving), and I can see it being a huge turn off for a lot of players.

Speaking of the final showdown, it's worth noting that I think the game's closing cinematics provide the epic conclusion that the FFXIII trilogy deserves, even if they run on a bit too long.

Like the rest of the FFXIII games, Lightning Returns is absolutely stunning.  In-game graphics are solid, cinematics are striking, and there are a few places with really impressive vistas to show off the game's beautiful world.  The soundtrack is also incredible, featuring emotional tracks from the other games alongside new ones that add a rich depth to Lightning's universe.  It's an audiovisual treat to be sure.

Overall, there is a lot of content in Lightning Returns worth exploring.  There are four big areas with plenty of sidequests to complete and a number of other cool features (like the ability to hunt particular monsters to extinction) that I won't discuss in an effort to keep this review relatively brief.  It's unfortunately brought down by radical departures from the previous games and an occasionally brutal difficulty curve (at least for the "Normal" difficulty setting), but it's a decent way to finish the FFXIII series and a worthy excursion in its own right if you're willing to put in the time (which, to be fair, can be substantial).

My Rating: 7/10 - good.

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