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Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
Graphics: 5.6
Gameplay: 6.2
Sound: 6
Control: 5.5
Replay Value: 5.9
Rating: 5.8

It’s heartbreaking to see a Final Fantasy game with a Metascore of about 67. It really is. I take no pleasure in seeing a legendary franchise continue its depressing fall from grace. Square Enix has opted to ditch the legions of fans acquired during the first quarter-century of Final Fantasy greatness, an ill-advised sacrifice for the sake of new fans. The approach defies all logic, as I’ve said many times. But the real crime here? Oh, it has nothing to do with watered-down RPG elements, but everything to do with the following fact:

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII just isn’t a very good game.

Perhaps it’s most disheartening to see a full-fledged entry (not a spin-off, mind you) that’s missing the earmarks of a masterful FF installment. One of those trademark traits has always been the graphical presentation, which, historically, often sets a new high watermark for visuals. Unfortunately, despite some beautifully designed and choreographed CGI, Lightning Returns disappoints in the gameplay department. Muddy, fuzzy textures, too many drab environments, and a general design concept that falls well shy of franchise – and fan – expectations. Well, at least the animations and character designs are slick.

The stirring soundtrack could save the audio, if it weren’t for layer upon layer of generic sound effects and a merely average voice cast. As other high-profile productions in this industry continue to excel in the area of acting, Final Fantasy has been left behind. This cast is competent but lacks the professional polish we’ve enjoyed in so many Western titles; in brief, to compare the performances in Lightning Returns to titles like The Last Of Us, Beyond: Two Souls and Grand Theft Auto V is borderline laughable. The score is good, if not great, but the rest of the sound is subpar.

Lightning is back and this time, she has a score to settle. Well, she has a vague score to settle with some, and an even vaguer score to settle with the powers that be. Things get all the more complicated because she is one of the “powers that be.” As a goddess of the realm – of sorts – she has 13 days to save the world from complete eradication. Some people have simply accepted the inevitability of this catastrophe and have opted for either apathy or irrational celebration. Lightning doesn’t believe humanity is beyond saving, however, so her quest begins with the dedication of a protector and savior.

It’s a stirring storyline, to be sure. It might even be captivating if the plot had any semblance of cohesiveness or, in some comical cases, coherence. It doesn’t help that the characters in this trilogy were never well defined to begin with, and now they’ve tossed them into this giant, incomprehensible melting pot filled with loose ends and inconsistencies. What a freakin’ mess. And you know, I would even accept convoluted if the characters were at least likeable or interesting but sadly, that’s not the case. Lightning isn’t sympathetic or believable, and the rest of the cast suffers from standard Japanese clichés that serve no purpose.

Once you’ve stopped trying to make heads or tails of the disjointed story, you can focus on the gameplay. At the very least, it does require some of your attention, and you can get involved in the deeper aspects of combat. Lightning is all by herself (although guests will join her from time to time), and she’s quite the diverse heroine. She can change costumes to switch classes in the midst of battle, which reminds one of the Dress Spheres in Final Fantasy X-2. Frustratingly, the combat mechanic in an 11-year-old game is more intricate and rewarding than what we find in Lightning Returns.

Lightning does have access to multiple outfits, and you can switch at any time with a quick press of the R1 or L1 button. When playing as each Schemata, be it Black Mage, Savior, or Dragoon, there’s a certain amount of AP you can spend before you run out. When your AP drains, just switch to another Schemata and repeat the process. There are four abilities, one mapped to each of the face buttons of the controller, and that’s all you can use in battle. Having only four usable skills for each Schemata is utterly ridiculous; even straight-up action games put more abilities at your fingertips. Yes, switching classes gives you access to more skills, but it doesn’t amount to much.

The problem is that because they’ve watered down and supposedly “streamlined” the experience, you’re left with the unthinkable in Final Fantasy: Button mashing. You don’t have to jam away at buttons and in fact, it’s probably a bad idea when facing tough foes. However, this doesn’t change the fact that you can finish most battles in the game simply by pressing random face buttons until your AP runs out, switching Schemata, and repeating the process. Enemies do have strengths and weaknesses but really, you rarely even have to look at the commands you’ve selected. This mechanic is stripped down and, let’s just say it, dumbed down.

The only good news is that if you want to dive into the nuts and bolts off the battlefield, you can. This is the only aspect of the game that feels like role-playing. The Schematas are fully customizable and thankfully, Lightning has multiple slots for various pieces of equipment. You can spend a lot of time tinkering with each Schemata, and it’s a recommended practice if you plan to tackle some optional adversaries. It can be lots of fun to determine the absolute best “loadout” for your favorite Schematas, even if it doesn’t always drastically impact your combat potential. In short, micromanagers like me can become absorbed.

Doesn’t last long, though. Too many facets of the gameplay seem unnecessarily tacked on, such as Lightning’s ability to jump and interact with certain parts of the environment. We just don’t need it at all. Movement is stiff and unresponsive; it’s painfully obvious that these developers have no experience with making action-based games. The bottom line is this— you can make it more action-y if you want. I consider it a sacrilegious move but that’s personal. If you wanted to implement more action for the sake of the “twitch” crowd, you at least had to make it worthwhile. That’s not what happened here.

As for that combat system, there is depth to be found if you search for it. But you’ve got to stick around long enough to find it and even when you do, it’s a mere shadow of the depth we’ve seen in the past. I liked the brighter, more open areas, but my feelings toward the battles and the story never changed much. Then there’s the 13-day limit, which is another entirely unnecessary element that only serves as an annoying reminder. It’s not as restrictive or in-your-face as you might think, and there are ways to extend that limit, but to have any time limit of any kind in what’s supposed to be a role-playing game (albeit action/role-playing) is completely absurd.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII has its moments. There are some really good scenes, a few of the tougher battles are mildly interesting, and you can find plenty of micromanagement and complexity in the preparation for battle. Setting up your Schematas can be lots of fun, for example. However, the story is just a bunch of barely understandable gibberish, the characters feel tired and overdone, and the “streamlining” of the combat is only the equivalent of dumbing-down. Nothing more. If you’re a hardcore franchise fan, you might have to play it simply because you’ve played every FF title ever made. Well, I’ve completed ever FF since IV and I will not be finishing Lightning Returns.

What’s that tell you?

The Good: Some gorgeous CGI. A pretty good score with glimpses of past brilliance. Schematas are a great concept. 13-day time limit isn’t as bad as it sounds.

The Bad: Disappointing in-game graphics. Mediocre voice performances. Action elements, like jumping, serve no purpose. Combat is definitely watered down. Story has potential, but ends up being nonsensical.

The Ugly: “So sad…I’m done with Final Fantasy for now.”

2/12/2014   Ben Dutka