Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Review: Not a bad Final Fantasy Valkyrie Profile

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Title: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
Price: $59.99
System(s): PS3, Xbox 360
Release Date: February 12, 2014
Publisher (Developer): Square Enix (Square Enix)
ESRB Rating: “Teen” for Blood, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol, and Violence

When Square Enix provided a copy of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, I was cautiously optimistic. I’d heard a wealth of good things from the Japanese blogs I frequent, and Final Fantasy XIII-2 went a long ways toward restoring my faith in next-gen Final Fantasy games, but I was still skeptical. Final Fantasy XIII did a lot of damage to the brand, and I almost thought more of Final Fantasy XIII-2 as a spiritual successor to Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross.

While Lightning Returns doesn’t exactly convince me that the Final Fantasy XIII storyline and trilogy was a fantastic idea, or that Final Fantasy isn’t “doomed,” it at least provided an entertaining experience that assured me the Valkyrie Profile series hasn’t been forgotten.

lightning returns

The saviors must save the souls.

The Final Fantasy XIII trilogy is long and winding. It’s quite difficult to explain, and most of the details aren’t really crucial for Lightning Returns so it’s best not to try. All someone really needs to know is that Lightning is a hero. She helped save a world, fought against Chaos, and has been sleeping for centuries.

When Lightning Returns begins, she’s finally been awakened by the god Bhunivelze. The world is about two weeks away from ending, and he has called upon her as the savior. Aided by Hope, her ally who has been mysteriously returned to childhood, she must visit what remains of the world’s cities and save the souls of the people who live there. Each one reclaimed will have a chance to enjoy a new life in the world Bhunivelze will create after this one ends. In return, Bhunivelze will ensure Lightning’s sister, Serah, will be restored to life in the new world. However, some people have lost hope, and past allies may not be who they once were, meaning preparing for the end may not be a simple process.

So basically, Lightning is now a valkyrie, ferrying souls of the soon-to-be fallen to a new world.

lightning returns

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII: Valkyrie Profile

As you may have noticed, I’ve already referenced Square Enix’s Valkyrie Profile series twice in this review. That’s because all of the hallmarks of Lightning Returns remind me more of installments in that series, than of Final Fantasy. This isn’t a bad thing, mind you. It’s encouraging and works well within the structure of the game. It’s just an important thing to point out because Lightning Returns doesn’t play much like a Final Fantasy game. It’s really more like an installment of Valkyrie Profile, minus that series’ mythos.

It begins with the basic premise. Lightning must save souls before the world ends. This involves performing quests to aid people, obtaining their souls (as well as other rewards) for her efforts. This must be accomplished in a certain amount of time. When Lightning Returns begins, there are only 5 days before Ragnarok – sorry, Bhunivelze makes a new world as this one ends. Accomplishing quests allows Yggdrasil, the world tree, to grow, granting a reprieve, with 13, perhaps even 14 if you manage a perfect playthrough, days to save everyone. Time passes when Lightning is on what remains of Pulse, but halts every day at 6am when she returns to the Ark to report in to Hope.

While the timed premise works well, I must say that it is also the most stressful element of Lightning Returns. This very review is delayed a day because I had to restart once and replay a few days because I couldn’t continue knowing how much time I’d wasted figuring out where certain quests were and what should be done when and at what time. While some may find the pressure motivating, I found it stifling. I was enjoying myself only on the second runthroughs of each day, when I had my tablet filled with notes on how to maximize my time. If you obsess over minutae or have a compulsive desire to get everything done right the first time, Lightning Returns will test you.

But back to the Valkyrie Profile comparisons. The Lightning Returns battle system as well is remarkably similar. It’s a active, yet turn-based affair. When players create a Schemata (fashion ensemble) for Lightning, they assign four attacks, spells, or abilities to the X, O, triangle, and square buttons. Similarly, Valkyrie Profile had each face button assigned to one character. During a fight, there’s a gradually refilling gauge above Lightning’s health bar. That gauge decreases in increments when the face button actions are carried out. Which means constantly shifting between the three equipped Schemata to deal out as much hurt as possible with as few pauses in action as you can manage. Unfortunately, this means that most battles can boil down to a series of button mashing or, if you feel especially lazy, holding down the button for the action you wish to use until that Schema’s energy is depleted, swapping, and repeating. Staggering is still key for defeating most enemies, which means using the attack they’re weakest to until they are momentarily left defenseless, but once you know what works, it boils down to button mashing or holding again.

The Schema class system is perhaps the only thing reminiscent of the Final Fantasy series in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII and, I must admit, I enjoyed creating and collecting them more than I’d thought. I can’t even imagine how many Schemata possibilities are available. Each Schema consists of a garb, which changes Lightning’s appearance and may have certain stats, bonuses, and abilities tied to it, a sword, a shield, up to two accessories, and an adornment. Various attacks, spells, and skills are also assigned to the action buttons at this point. Three Schema can be equipped at a time, but others can be held in reserve in the main menu. Different shops in different areas have different garbs, weapons, and shields available, not to mention weapons, shields, spells, and abilities can be forged to make them more powerful. It may sound complicated, but it’s simpler than it sounds and collecting these ensembles is quite addictive.

Basically, Lightning Returns isn’t the Final Fantasy game you expect it to be. On the plus side, it is rather gorgeous. Everything is absolutely beautiful, and accompanied by wonderful voice acting and a fantastic soundtrack. Square Enix, at the very least, knows how to make a beautiful game.

lightning returns

As good as a Final Fantasy XIII game is going to get.

I suppose you could consider Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII something of a triumph for Square Enix. It repairs everything that was wrong in the first two games. While the Final Fantasy XIII saga as a whole is still a convoluted mess, what happens in Lightning Returns at least makes sense. It also offers a fairly open world to explore, with players getting the opportunity to take on a number of main and side quests. And, while the battle system does tend to resort to button mashing, the Schemata system is an interesting way of introducing a class system to the game.

That said, it’s more of a Valkyrie Profile spin-off than a Final Fantasy game, abandoning many features of the series it’s supposed to be part of, and the constant ticking down of the clock may frustrate some gamers. I suppose it all comes down to Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII being a good game, but not necessarily being a good “Final Fantasy” game.

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