Everything in Lighting Returns is tailored around speed. Battles whizz by in a blur of costume changes and fancy particle effects. An apocalypse countdown hurries you through every conversation, quest, and potion purchase. And judging by the listless world in which Lightning Returns takes place, it seems as though its developers were under a fair bit of time pressure themselves.
You can see it in the flat textures - what should have been a lush, sun-dappled forest in one of the game's four main hub areas looks instead like a cardboard cut-out. You can see it in the sloppy dialogue, the hoards of NPCs whom you can't talk to, and in a narrative so goofy it's a wonder it doesn't start wagging its tail.
"So I've got to save people's souls and offer Erradia to Yggdrasil to delay the end of the world?" Lighting asks Hope, for the umpteenth time.
"Yes," Hope replies.
"You've got to save people's souls and offer Erradia to Yggdrasil to delay the end of the world. But you've only got 13 days."
No one knows why there's a 13-day time limit. No one knows why Hope is a boy again. Maybe Square Enix accidentally deleted his Y chromosomes from Final Fantasy XIII-2, which would explain why they've trundled out his exact character model from the original Final Fantasy XIII. No one knows why Snow is in it. Again. If you know someone who likes Snow, please get in touch.
It all screams lazy. Square Enix's stated goal was to give players more freedom (you're given four sizeable hubs to quest through in any order you choose) and to encourage multiple play-throughs (the in-game time limit means it's physically impossible to complete every side-quest the first time). Their real goal, however, becomes obvious: how much more money can we wring from these art assets we still have?
It's not all bad news. If you hated the monster-riddled linearity of the original FFXIII, then the open nature of this sequel is a welcome change. Luxerion is a winding mass of urban squalor and gothic spires whereas Yusnaan is a glitzy, playboy sprawl. They're both dense cities and scratch those JRPG itches; the need to rummage through shops, grill locals for optional back story, and peer into every nook and cranny for secrets.
"There's no time to enjoy the game, to dig into the story and unravel the lore."
Alternatively, nature lovers have got the Wildlands and the Dead Dunes, the former a swathe of airy green with that aforementioned forest that doesn't look quite as nice as it should, and the latter a chunk of yawning desert scrub. While occasionally pretty, these two amount to little more than apologetic RPG box tickers (although Square Enix did forget 'volcano' and 'ice level').
They're giant ovals of openness, as opposed to cut scene-filled story gutters, but they're also sparse and lifeless. Monsters appear, you kill them, and then continue running through scenery. If only gameplay satisfaction was intrinsically linked to an increase in square kilometres.
All four hubs are sadly constrained by that ridiculous countdown, however. There's no time to enjoy the game, to dig into the story and unravel the lore. Every in-game day at 6am sharp you're sucked back into Hope's sterile exposition centre (he calls it The Ark) wherein Lightning releases her Erradia (glowing currency obtained through completing quests and saving souls) and extends the dreaded countdown.
It doesn't make anything exciting, just stressful. You'll find yourself holding down R2, sprinting past the world, just so you can get to a specific point in the map before a specific amount of time elapses. You can't take a breath. Lighting can freeze time for a limited period, but that does little to alleviate the sense that Square is rushing you through the game - maybe so you don't have time to notice the dead hollow under Lighting Return's spritzy fašade.
Thankfully time stands still when it comes to scrapping with monsters, and it's the battle system that stops Lightning Returns from hurtling towards catastrophe. AI controlled companions have been shorn away, leaving the focus squarely on Lightning, and it's a responsibility her flashy brand of swordsmanship handles with tactile ease. Initially it feels overly simplistic - all you do is hold down one of the face buttons to spam the corresponding move until your opponent keels over.
But then you'll obtain more schematas (nifty costumes each imbued with unique abilities) and that signature Final Fantasy depth slowly begins to unfold. Customising your schematas with spells pertinent to the monsters you'll face in any given area becomes a game in itself - you'll need to pick and choose a selection of elemental spells, physical attacks and debuffs, then combine them correctly to take advantage of your opponents' weaknesses.
'Staggering' is still the key, but doing so requires you to swap between schemata mid-battle as you probe away at your enemy's defence while ensuring you don't get knobbled yourself. Considering you can only take three schemata into battle with you at any one time, equipping yourself with the right set-up really can save you a ton of grief.
It's a stylish system too, Lightning flowing through her move-set with aggression and grace, plus the fact you can move her freely about the battlefield opens up more tactical possibilities. You can, for example, prevent an enemy from casting magic by getting in close and hacking it to bits, or pull away and blitz them with ranged spells.
Battling is the only time you begin to feel like you're playing a Final Fantasy game
Battling is the only time you begin to feel like you're playing a Final Fantasy game, however. That, and when the obligatory chocobos and moogles appear (the latter seemingly voiced by a circus of helium-sucking mice).
The series used to be about tackling ice-cool villains with a band of colourful heroes, about a sweeping adventure that took in an entire world, about airships, death, magic, love, and playing on way past bedtime. Nowadays it's more about pandering to an action audience that doesn't care anyway, and Lightning Returns does little to change that.
It's a rushed, lazy adventure relying on existing assets, and a prime example of why the series' reputation has sunk so far. If that seems harsh, it's only because we know what Square Enix's development team has proven to be truly capable of. What still lingers in memory is so, so much more than this.
Hopefully this is the last we see of Lighting and her characterless universe. It's time to put this generation of Final Fantasy in the past.
- Attractive pre-rendered cinematics
- Engaging, strategically deep battle system
- Bland, recycled environments
- Poorly conceived in-game countdown