- Developer – Square Enix
- Publisher – Square Enix
- Platforms – PlayStation 3 (tested), Xbox 360
- Release date – Out now
- Price - £39.99
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
What has happened to Final Fantasy? 10 was hash-job, so was 11, 12 and the original 13. But now it's on the up. The team at Square has not only gutted and rebuilt the online-only 14, to great success, but, in Lightning Returns, has released a solid, smart sequel to Final Fantasy 13.
After 27 years, there's still life in this franchise.
Lightning Returns dispenses with a lot of Final Fantasy's clutter. There's no party system – you play as Lightning, exclusively – and combat is streamlined into a half turn-based, half hack-and-slash kind of set-up, where you hammer buttons to perform attacks but also have to wait for resources like magic and stamina to recharge.
Customising Lightning is simple as well. You can equip her with different swords, shields and clothing, all of which have specific abilities attached, and select three attacks to map to the controller's face buttons.
It gets more complex later on, allowing you to customise the strength of magic spells and certain moves, but the foundation is simplistic. The result is that you spend less time navigating menus and more time in-game, doing quests.
Not all the missions are brilliant. A lot of them are typical RPG fetch quests - "collect eight pieces of leather", that sort of thing.
Others are surprisingly heartfelt.
Given the art style of Lightning Returns, you'd expect to be backflipping around, killing big monsters. And although that stuff is here, a lot of the tasks are pleasantly mundane. One sub-mission sees you helping an old farmer to herd up his sheep. Another has you escorting a man to work who's afraid of being mugged, the best part being, muggers never appear.
It's small moments like these that give Lightning Returns a hint of depth, intelligence, that a lot of Final Fantasy games lack. Despite her appearances in the original 13 and its first sequel, here, Lightning herself feels like a credible character. She has more to do than just killing monsters. That's important.
The narrative as a whole actually is more nuanced than typical FF fare. The premise is that, in seven days, the world will end. Lightning is dispatched on a mission from God to round up as many people as she can and ferry them to the new world that he is building.
The neat part is that there's actually a clock, in the right hand of the screen at all times, showing how many days, hours and minutes you have left until the apocalypse. It firstly establishes the enormous stakes behind what you're doing and secondly constrains your actions.
There simply isn't time to do every sub-mission, help every person. You're often forced into moral quandaries – should I be spending time helping this one person find medicine for her dad when I could be saving three others?
Race against the clock
Lightning Returns isn't a baggy, loose RPG where you're able to go everywhere and see everything. It's a race against the clock. Quests, travelling from city to city and using the "flee" ability to escape battles all use up valuable time. Every decision counts.
Sadly, Square doesn't quite have the confidence to see this idea through. You're told that, although the world is going to end, by doing good deeds you can extend it's lifespan, up to a maximum of 13 days. It doesn't quite break the framework but it certainly weakens it.
You're still on time limit, but it becomes less pressing, less intense, when you're able to extend it. It's like, if in Speed, the bus went below 50 miles an hour and the bomber said "I'll give you another chance, just don't go below 40." It makes it less fun.
Clear concise story-telling
It also means that the narrative ends up sprawling, way out of control. Final Fantasy has never been known for clear, concise storytelling and Lightning Returns is no different. The high-concept, ticking clock set-up is quickly lost in disparate sub-plots, expositional dialogue and MacGuffins. A shame. It could have been much tighter.
Visually it's impressive. The environments aren't detailed as such, but the world is consistent. It's designed similarly to Arkham Asylum, where clarity and simplicity of navigation take precedence over verisimilitude. That's not to say there aren't some supreme artistic flourishes. The Ark, a celestial plane Lightning returns to each day to rest, is particularly beautiful; white and minimalist in the way you'd expect heaven to look.
Character and monster designs are also great - eccentric, bizarre, colourful. Though the quests you undertake are often rehashed, the world of Lightning Returns offsets a sense of monotony.
Lightning Returns is a surprising return to form. It far surpasses the other direct Final Fantasy tie-ins (Dirge of Cerberus, X-2, XIII-2) all of which have been lacklustre in one way or another. Honestly, this seemed like it would be more of the same, another franchise cash-in, quickly turned around. But Lightning Returns is something new. Though it inherits the visual flair of its predecessors, it has bold narrative ideas and game re-shaping mechanics. In this and the re-launched version of 14, Final Fantasy may have finally found its groove again.
Gameplay: 8/10 – Stripped down without feeling automated or bare. Customisation and combat are simple but still substantive.
Graphics: 9/10 – Eccentric, striking, imaginative – Lightning Returns is good-looking game.
Sound: 6/10 – The voice acting isn't altogether convincing and the cities feature almost no ambient noise which makes them feel dead. The music, though, particularly in battles, is superb.
Writing: 6/10 – The main sticking point. Lightning Returns has an interesting premise that, sadly, it doesn't see through. Without that constraint, the story and characterisation gets lost.
Replay value: 7/10 – It's certainly a long game and since the ticking clock prevents you from trying everything, you might want to go back and do things differently.
Overall: 8/10 – A surprising, return to form. A fresh take on a franchise that's almost 30 years old. There's life in Final Fantasy yet.
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