Hello, one and all, and welcome to another In Desperate Need of Love, the posting that showers praise on the overlooked gems of the video game world. The game I’m covering today is one that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. You see, this is the title that made me decide to buy a PS3. From the moment that I saw the trailer (and in particular, the combat system in action), I knew that I wanted to play it. So, when I bought the console, I also grabbed the game … and then didn’t have the time to finish it. Well, after slogging through multiple hours of gameplay, I finally finished it last month. And you know what? I was not disappointed. So, what is this slab of joy? Why, it’s Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns, of course.
Yes, that’s right, the game that rarely scores higher than seven out of ten outside of Steam. So, what is it that makes me think that the game deserves some love? Well, let’s start with the thing that first attracted me to it: the battle system. The fact is, as much as I enjoy the storytelling in the Final Fantasy franchise, the battles really drag for me. Turn-based combat just feels so slow and frustrating, especially when I’m faced with multiple battles in succession. Hell, there were many times when playing through the immensely good FFVII that I nearly gave up due to boredom with the battles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that I persevered, but it always felt like a fault with the game to me. This though promised real time action, and I was keeping my fingers crossed that it played as well as it looked in the trailers.
So, if you don’t know, the combat is based around Schemata. Basically, you give Lightning three different set-ups, including clothing, a weapon, a shield and actions assigned to each of the four primary buttons. As you fight, each move takes up some of your ATB for that particular set-up, and you end up switching between the three schemata relatively regularly to allow them to recharge. This is as simply as the attacks themselves though, and is done by tapping L1 or L2. As you advance, you also gain special moves such as Overlock, when you slow time and fire off attacks uninhibited by your foes, and Army Of One, where you automatically launch a mass assault that not only damages your opponent but also recharges health.
The key to the system for me is that it offered several things that I was hoping for. First, it was fast paced. The battles keep going, even if you’re too low on ATB to respond just yet, and the ability to move around the screen with the analogue stick made it easy to switch what part of the larger monsters you were aiming for. Second, it was simple to pick up. The controls really were straight-forward: The main four buttons for attached moves (which could be combo’d up with good timing), L1 and R1 to change Schemata, L2 to Overclock, and Start to launch your Recovery Item/EP Moves menu. Finally, despite being simple in nature, it was heavily customisable. Each item that you attach to the Schemata have different affects, ranging from stat changes to pre-built moves, all of which allowed you to build three very personal feeling sets of attacks. The customisation also meant that you could prepare for different big battles in an effective manner, while still leaving other options if your plans fail. In all, this system was by and far my favourite part of the game. It was exciting, fun, and pretty much everything that I wanted it to be.
Of course, having a good battle system is not enough to create enjoyment. So, how did it fare with that FF staple, storytelling? By way of full disclosure, I never played FF XIII or XIII-2, so I had no idea about the backstory for the characters or the world in which the game is set. This was not a hindrance at all in terms of understanding the story, though I do feel that there were likely some things that I would have picked up on differently if I had played them. Regardless though, the initial set-up is relatively simple: After 500 years of slumber, Lightning has been awoken by the god Bhunivelze. She is tasked with saving souls in preparation for him creating a new world in 13 days’ time, and the god is dangling her sister’s soul in front of her as a reward. As the story progresses, you meet Lightning’s old comrades, learn more about what’s actually happening, and eventually build up to a big climactic battle.
It’s all easy enough to follow, and the main storyline progresses at a natural rate as you clear each part, so I have no complaints there. There is plenty of backstory to pick up on too though and, as you interact with the various NPCs, you get to hear different tales of hope and woe that flesh out the world at large. Then, finally, comes a massive ending video that ties everything together, finishes off the big battle, and offers a satisfactory (and stunningly animated) conclusion to the game. Sure, it may not be as complex as some games within the franchise, but it’s still great fun to see play out, especially when it starts hitting the more over the top moments.
One of the major plot points is the 13-day time limit. Each day plays out over the course of 24 hours (game time, not real time), and while this can be extended through using Lightning’s time freezing Chronostasis ability, I found that this lends a real sense of urgency to the game. Chronostasis takes up EP, and so you can only use it a limited number of times per day. As a result, all the while that you’re still trying to clear the main missions needed to unlock the final day, you really become aware of time slipping away from you, often leaving you with choices to make as to what missions you’re going to concentrate on. In fact, there were times that I ended up trawling the environment for larger enemies simply so that I could recharge my EP and hit up another time freeze. While I’m sure that it was a point of contention for some, I actually thought that this added to the game. It was fun trying to manage my time and jump about to different places in the most effective manner possible. Oh, and you really do have to be careful. The world itself is suitably large, though not unwieldly in size, and there’s a lot to explore. You are given plenty of options in terms of getting around, including foot, train, chocobo and teleportation, but they each come with their own costs, such as time, Gil, and EP. So basically, choose wisely.
The main characters were suitably varied. I have read many times that Lightning is viewed as a lightweight, female version of Cloud from FFVII, but I do think that this is unfair. They do share some broodiness, sure, but I would say that they’re very different beasts, certainly in terms of how they progress throughout their tales. For me, watching Lightning pick up on what was happening in the world around her was fun, even if she did take a relatively downtrodden view of things at times. While I can understand the calls for more character development, what we got was fine, especially towards the end. Meanwhile, the other subjects of the main quests came across as both sympathetic and very likable. In particular, I found trying to help Sahz revive his son to be a touching story.
Graphically, the game blew me away when I first saw it. While it has clearly been topped now, I do think that it holds up in this regard though. For starters, the backdrops are highly detailed, with plenty of attention being given to the environment. Meanwhile, the cutscenes do a great job of working with the player, altering Lightning’s appearance based on the Schemata that you have set as your main one. The animation during the game (especially during the battles) is pretty dynamic, and very few NPCs ever appear to be doing nothing. There are always people and animals wandering around, leaving plenty of beings to interact with. Sure, they’re not always as detailed as the key cast, but you have to admire how busy they all are. Add to that some decent voice acting, especially from the main characters, and a beautiful soundtrack, and you have the makings of something wonderful from an aesthetic standpoint.
Now, I won’t say that the game is perfect. I cannot honestly think of a single game that is. If we’re being honest, some of the side quests that you pick up from the canvas of prayers leave you repeating menial tasks such as looking for multiple of the same enemy to fight. Then there’s the point that, if you clear the main quests quite quickly, your final days will likely be spent doing little more than hunting monsters to extinction (yes, that is possible for most monsters in the game). That can drag a little if you’re not careful. Thankfully though, if you’re confident in your stats and gear, you can always stay in an inn to skip some time.
These are minor issues though, and really don’t detract from what the game is. I understand that a lot of the things that I love about the game are precisely the things that others hate. It’s certainly a departure in style for the franchise, after all! To me though, it was a necessary step. Lightning Returns may never get the credit that I feel it deserves, but it should be easy to see it as a transitional title that moved the franchise towards new ideas and in-game systems. As far as I’m concerned, this is the most underrated Final Fantasy title out there. Now, if I could just stop myself from drawing comparisons between Kupo and Popeye …