Review: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII – Lightning Strikes Thrice

Unlike a lot of people, I’ve actually enjoyed the Final Fantasy XIII series. I acknowledge that the first game had several problems but those issues didn’t prevent me from enjoying the overall experience. The follow up game, Final Fantasy XIII-2, addressed a lot of the concerns that folks had and it delivered a more robust RPG experience. I wasn’t expecting another game to be released for this series so you can imagine my surprise when I heard that a third game, called Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, was being worked on.

The idea was a bit strange at first–a second sequel to a main Final Fantasy game–but since I had good memories of the previous games, I looked forward to it. Final Fantasy XIII-2 was radically different from XIII and I expected that Lightning Returns would be equally as different from its predecessor. I wasn’t wrong. Lightning Returns takes the basic mechanics of the XIII series and remolds them into something new and fresh. This game also delivers a satisfying and meaningful end to the saga which began in 2010.

Though it is part of the XIII saga, Lightning Returns is the most unique entry in the series given how much has been changed and overhauled. This is by far the most expansive and the most customizable of the XIII games. Players are allowed to do missions in almost any order that they’d like and can tailor Lightning’s appearance and fighting style to what suits them best. This degree of freedom makes it so that everyone will have a unique experience when playing this game.

Lightning Returns - Event 03

Final Fantasy XIII-2 ended with a cliffhanger and Lightning Returns tells the story of the aftermath to the events of that finale. The world of Nova Chrysalia is being consumed by an entropic force known as Chaos which has been slowly destroying it for the last 500 years. People have stopped aging but they can and do die. With only a few days remaining until the end, the god Bhunivelse decides to create a new world. He needs souls to populate this land and he chooses a savior to gather as many as possible to bring to the new world. That savior is of course, Lightning.

This is the conclusion to the XIII saga so a story about the world ending is thematically fitting. Given the nature of what is happening to Nova Chrysalia, the tone of the story has a heavy air of finality to it. There are some lighter moments here and there but they are few and far between. As with the past games, the voice acting and performances help to give the often times melodramatic plot depth and credibility. All of the main characters from past games return and each has a significant role to play. This story also comes back full circle, and like the first game in the series, is ultimately a tale about people defying fates forced upon them by cruel and unjust gods.

One of my favorite things about the XIII series has been the way that you engage in battles. The Paradigm system let each of the characters take on several roles (healer, tank, or warrior for example) and switch between them on the fly. This gave combat a real sense of urgency and allowed the player to better react to an enemy’s ever changing battle tactics. This system worked for the three characters in your party but since Lightning is the only character you can control in this game, the system had to be altered somewhat.

Lightning Returns - Menu 13

The new Schemata system allows Lightning to take on the six basic roles but she can only switch between three at a time. You can think of Lightning as a one woman army as she is essentially three characters in one. To change her abilities and attributes, Lightning has to play a bit of dress up. Different garments let her use different attacks, magic and abilities. You can switch between Schemata at the touch of a button and you can do so as many times as you want. Actions can be assigned to buttons and each action eats up a bit of the Active Time Battle bar which you have to let replenish after you’ve used up all the ATB points.

I have to admit that having only Lightning as a playable character took a bit of getting used to. Once I did however, I found the new Schemata system to be just as varied as the Paradigm system. Given all of the different abilities and accessories that Lightning can put on each Schemata, I had a lot of options when I needed to change things up with certain enemies. By the end of the game, I felt very powerful and capable of defeating whatever foes stood before me.

This game is easily the most challenging of the series. Even on easy, this game is tough and you’ll need not just the right Schemata/accessory/equipment combinations, but also a bit of good old fashioned reflexes. The best way to deal the most damage is to stagger your foes by either bombarding them with specific types of attacks (magic or physical) or by countering their attacks. Guarding against attacks at just the right time will stagger some enemies so you’ll need to precisely time your blocks.

You will die several times during certain sections and you’ll need to reconfigure your equipment, alter your strategy, and try again. The trial and error aspect can be frustrating sometimes but also rewarding when you find the right combination that lands you a victory.

Lightning Returns - Battle 67

Unlike the other games in the series or even other RPGs, there is no traditional “leveling up” in this game. The only ways to become more powerful are by changing your Schemata, weapons and accessories and by synthesizing magic to create more powerful versions of spells. Completing the main missions of the game will give you the biggest boost in power and the many side quests also help to bolster your strength. On your first playthrough, the game doesn’t exactly let you become overpowered. On New Game Plus you’ll be given the option to upgrade your Schemata, equipment and accessories which will make you very powerful.

Speaking of sidequests, there are a ton in this game. Lightning is tasked with saving as many souls as she can and with a gigantic world like this, there is no real shortage of people who need the Savior’s help. What I liked about the side missions is that each was a little story in and of itself and didn’t feel like filler content since they were all fully voice acted. I liked how interesting and unique the side characters were. Each new sidequest was another opportunity to better get to know the people that I was attempting to save from oblivion.

The side missions that did feel a bit like fluff where the ones that could be found on bulletin boards. These just require you to deliver certain items which you gain from beating monsters or which are found in treasure spheres. Like I said before, these missions help to make you stronger. While each individual mission only gives you small amounts of experience, these points eventually add up and become a big help down the line.

Lightning Returns -Environment 20

Although much of Nova Chrysalia has been consumed by Chaos, there is still a lot of it left to explore; this is by far the biggest FFXIII game of the bunch. Every locale is vast and diverse, each with its own distinct feel and ambiance. With that said, I was surprised by how unimpressed I was with the way that many of the environments looked. The visuals were definitely not up to the high standards set by the previous games in the series. A lot of the textures were noticeably pixellated and muddy.

Things tended to look better at night and there were a few select areas of the game which looked phenomenal. However, the overall presentation wasn’t what I was expecting considering how amazing the last two games in the series looked. This didn’t affect my enjoyment of Lightning Returns, but the less than stellar visuals were definitely noticeable.

As someone who has played and enjoyed the other two games in the series, it took me some time to get into Lightning Returns. I tried to come into the game fresh but expectations born from playing the previous two games still came up. The fact that I could only play as one character was the biggest mental hurdle I had to overcome since I’m used to having a party of three.

The time management aspect was also a bit annoying. I felt compelled to rush through things for fear of the clock counting down to the final hour without me having finished the main story. Once I got a handle on the Schemata system and saw that I wasn’t exactly bound by a strict time limit (there are many ways to stop the clock), I really got into this game.

The Final Fantasy XIII series has received a lot of bad press from journalists and negative reactions from fans of the Final Fantasy franchise but I like it for what it is and what it tried to do. The series may have had a rocky beginning but I feel that each game improved upon the original formula and gave gamers something new and fresh to enjoy and experience. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a great way to end the saga and is a game that says that the Final Fantasy franchise is still an important and vibrant one.

Join the Discussion

  • ragingmerifes

    Well thank you for not taking 5 points out of its score just because you didn’t understand the nonsensical plot. It’s good to see some journalist that is brave enough to actually review the game instead of going by the common “Final Fantasy is dead, it’s now a dress-up game” theme. Thank you for not dissing a good game just for its name and the fact that it is different from the others.
    I have yet to buy it, but goddamn, after actually reading this review, I feel more than compelled to. A good combat and a proper conclusion to a saga I’ve been enjoying is more than enough to keep me for hours playing.
    Really tired of those people who judge this game as just a part of a trilogy and not a damn game. It is this stupid “x franchise is dead” mindset that is killing gaming.

    • Tony Polanco

      Comments like this justify what I am doing. I ALWAYS try to be fair with games I review. That’s the way it’s SUPPOSED to be done, right?

      Thanks for reading, man! You made my day and you let me see that I did my job right. Thumbs up!

      • Redinferno124

        Great Job Tony. I may check this out later……..if I finish my school work. DAMN YOU COLLEGE!!!!!

    • Terramax

      You’re having a go at reviewers for pointing out that a game’s plot is flawed, to the point of unenjoyable, even to the most hardcore of FF fans, it’s characters annoying, the game overall too linear for its own good, and the battle system i.e. the main gameplay nothing more than a frustrating exercise in trial-and-error?

      I can’t speak for the 2 sequels, but the first game deserved the deriding it received. In fact, it probably didn’t receive enough. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed parts of the first game, but a reviewer’s job is to point out the flaws in a game and inform potential buyers so they may make the decision whether it’s worth buying or not, some thing which many reviewers at the time did more than adequately with the first instalment.

      It doesn’t matter whether a reviewer likes a game or not. It’s their job (assuming they’re being paid) to guide buyers as to whether they will like it or not. If a reviewer is only interested in nothing more than expressing their own opinions in games, they should quit professional reviewing and relegate themselves to gaming forums like the rest of us.

    • Ohki Kaze

      couldnt have said it better

    • Neckbear

      Final Fantasy is dead, long live Bravely Default.

      • Tony Polanco

        I don’t agree about FF being dead but I do agree about Bravely Default. Tis Awesome!

      • SuperJamaican

        Blasphemous heathen!

    • madbads

      isnt every ff game its own beast? i think thats pretty cool about it

      • SuperJamaican

        I’m here for the summonings….nothing more….nothing less.

  • Daniel Jake Magnus

    Great review , I really would’ve LOVED to play this on PC 😐 no Consoles Found

  • Temjin001

    Thanks for the review Tony. I felt the combat showed a lot of potential from the demo. It’s good to see yourself and many are accrediting it for that. And it’s too bad the detractors who hold a lopsided grudge against S-E and the FF series can’t accept the direction the creators have for their talents. FF games really do offer something unique and worthwhile in the game space these days even with some flaws.

  • Great review, this summarizes everything I thought of the game myself. You went into a lot of detail and took the time to describe the important parts of this game unlike other reviewers.

  • Kamille

    considering the weabooness of this site I was expecting a 9 at the very least. I mean, you guys have been defending this game with fangs and claws ever since it was unveiled. XD

    • Remnant

      I was expecting the same. I will most definitely buy this game… when is $20. FFX-2 should of had a proper ending. Instead we get this mess of a plot for an excuse to shove Lightning’s breast implants down our throat. Every company needs money, so I get that. Now that FFXIV is printing it, I hope they tone down sequels of main series. How about releasing Dragon Quest on smartphones? I’d buy them all. No more cash shops(DLC) on fully priced games! sigh

    • .. have we?

    • Masoud House

      As far as this game goes, I’ve written on it a few times myself, and no one has been biased yet. In my E3 Preview I even mentioned that I haven’t been a fan of the series, but that this game interested me (but could still be flawed). We’ve actually been very divided on this series: some of us really love it, some of us have been very vocal about it (especially in our ShockCasts).

    • Tony Polanco

      I had to look up what “weaboo” meant. I done learnt something today!

      Also I disagree with that opinion but to each his own.

  • Marquis Regalia

    I’m playing the game right now. So far the only thing I find irritating is navigating the areas. Since you’re a little time constrained I have to constantly look at the map from the menu screen to either plot a point or get my bearings because the first city has a LOT of twisty corners and alleys. But once I get used to it I don’t think that will be a problem. The story so far is a little ._.’ but I didn’t get the game for the story (kept my expectations low from the confusion I got from 13-2) But over all solid, really solid gameplay. Challenging in itself unlike the previous 2 though I kinda want “more” maybe a summon system or other what-nots so far so good 🙂 very solid game.

  • Ryumoau

    This game seems like a rental at best for me. Considering the overwhelming mediocre reviews its been gettting all over the net and the experience i had with the demo. I’m also not a huge fan of the time limit which just goes against the nature of jrpgs, which are suppose to encourage exploration.

  • PrinceHeir

    awesome review!

  • ShadowDivz

    How dare you review a game based on it’s own merits?
    Where do you get off not blindly stating the francise is dead?

    I’m sure by now you’ve realized i’m joking and have enjoyed reading this article. I thought the series was okay and didn’t deserve all the hate it was receiving.

    Stay humble dual shockers,
    Dictated but not read,
    ~ Shadowdivz.

  • Jecht_Sin

    I’m playing the game right now, and given the awful Metacritic reviews I was expecting it to be utter crap. Instead it’s fantastic! I’ve got addicted to it. Time management can be a pain, but on easy it just gets a little annoying. Just spam Chronostasis and the time gets stuck. The combat may take some time to master and it’s a bit too fast. But fun nonetheless. In the way the story develops it actually reminds me of Kingdom Hearts.

    Any FF fan should definitively not miss this!