‘Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13′ Review

Published 1 year ago by

Lightning Returns Review

When Square Enix first debuted Final Fantasy XIII, the title was met with a tremendous amount of resistance. For as much as the game added new and engaging elements to combat, it dropped the ball nearly everywhere else. And then, when Square Enix sought to do better with Final Fantasy XIII-2, they once again made a game with engaging combat but lackluster everything else.

After XIII-2, few could have predicted Square Enix would once again revisit the Final Fantasy XIII universe, especially given both game’s middling sales and reviews. Yet, here we are: looking at Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is unprecedented — the first third sequel in the history of the Final Fantasy franchise. It represents one last chance for Square Enix to prove these characters and this world viable, and to show that they still have a handle on what makes the Final Fantasy franchise as a whole appealing. Unfortunately, in that endeavor they have failed.

To put it bluntly, Lightning Returns suffers from identity crisis. While it is most certainly a Final Fantasy game — all the requisite moogles and chocobos are accounted for — it is unsure what type of game it wants to be. As a result, the title comes across as an awkward hodgepodge of borrowed mechanics and ideas that never coalesce into something engaging, let alone worth recommending.

Lightning Returns Review - Story

From a story standpoint, Lightning Returns is pure nonsense, and not in the good Final Fantasy way. In this third adventure, Lightning has assumed a role as God’s errand girl, completing quests in order to put off the ominous end of the world. There’s nothing Lightning can do to offset the end completely, but she can tack on a few extra days by helping souls find peace and offering those souls to the giant tree Yggdrasil. The time mechanic manifests itself in a literal ticking clock in the corner of the screen. Lightning begins each day at 6am and she has 24 sped-up hours in which to complete as many quests as possible, or at least some objectives within the quests. Sure, those quests will still be waiting for her the next day, but most of the quests are time specific, or even miss-able, based on the hour.

While the addition of time constraints adds a nice urgency, the side quests in Lightning Returns, which make up the bulk of the game, are nothing more than glorified fetch quests. There are some opportunities for combat thrown in here and there, but many of them boil down to either hearing a character’s story and finding an item, or just talking to several people spread out across an area. Players have the freedom to complete the quests in any order, and in any of the game’s four open world areas, but while that might seem engaging, it boils down to a lot of “walk to this person, then walk to the next person” with little action. That MMO-like approach to side quests might have worked, but when the writing is as poor as it is here and the quests are tedious, time-based affairs, they become a huge nuisance.

Side quests are unfortunately an unavoidable nuisance, though, as they are integral to “leveling up” in Lightning Returns. By completing quests, Lightning earns various boosts to her stats, like strength, HP, or magic, and only completing them in large numbers renders appreciable results. In one sense, Square Enix has done a great thing by eliminating the familiar grind from the Final Fantasy equation, but, on the flip side, they have turned tedious fetch quests into its own form of grinding, which may be an even greater sin. The choice also undermines the importance of enemy encounters, which now are only good for earning new abilities.

Lightning Returns Review - Combat

Then come the game’s main quests, which, while a lot more substantial than the side stuff, are equally as unfulfilling. As the central pillar of Lightning Return‘s story, the main quests are surprisingly threadbare and can be completed in only a few hours, leaving a lot of time for the boring side quests. The good news is the main quests feature every character from Final Fantasy 13‘s prior cast (from Sazh to Noel Kreiss), and utilize them in some intriguing ways. But overall, the story and the actual completing of the main quest is a major disappointment, and it feels like an afterthought.

Where Lightning Returns gets it (mostly) right, however, is in its combat. Like every other iteration in the FF 13 brand, Lightning Returns sets out to carve its own path with RPG combat, this time favoring a more active style. Players are given three schemas to work with, each of which can be customized with a different weapon, shield, two accessories, and four abilities. Like in past games, every ability has an associated ATB cost, which deplete from the ATB gauge, but rather than exhaust their gauge and wait, players can switch between their three schema to keep the attacks, debuffs, and magic flowing while the other two gauges replenish. Lightning Returns even takes things a step further by adding a guard ability, which, when triggered at the right moment, can nullify any enemy attack. As a result, combat becomes an intense but delicate balance of attack, retreat, and guard that, when perfected, becomes a lot of fun.

Even then, while Lightning Returns calls to mind the more active RPG combat of Kingdom Hearts (caught your attention?), its difficulty curve leaves a lot to be desired. Even the most basic battles in Lightning Returns are punishing, and that’s on the normal difficulty. Then, when the player challenges one of the game’s 10 or so bosses, things ramp up so significantly that players will feel underpowered at nearly every turn. Sure, it’s possible to survive any encounter, especially with a carefully concocted regime of attacks and guards, but only the most patient gamers will consider Lightning Returns‘ battles “fun.” Take it from me: drop the difficulty down to easy, and you’ll be a lot less frustrated while still being challenged. The combat is the only truly enjoyable part of the game, but only under the right circumstances.

Lightning Returns Review - Schemas

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a fundamental misstep on the road to returning the brand to its former glory. A game where every good idea is undermined by poor execution, and every bad idea is integral to completing the game. The story is wholly forgettable, the side quests are a slog, enemies are recycled from past games, and the main quest feels like an afterthought. Even the visuals, which used to be a major selling point for the franchise, lack the same level of fidelity we’ve come to expect. And the only enjoyable thing about the game, the active RPG combat, is slighted by a ridiculously uneven difficulty curve.

Fans of the series thus far will likely find something tangible to hold onto in Lightning Returns, but they will be doing so against their better judgment. This is not a game built for fans; it’s a series of shots in the dark that Square Enix hoped might render better results than past efforts. They had three chances to get it right, and all three failed in their own way. As a fan of the Final Fantasy series, and even, in some respects, the Final Fantasy 13 games, it’s a shame this chapter ends on such a sour note.

Are you excited to play Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII? Let us know in the comments below.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is out now for PS3 and Xbox 360.

Follow Anthony on Twitter @ANTaormina

Our Rating:

2.5 out of 5

TAGS: Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy 13, Final Fantasy 13-3, PS3, Square Enix, Xbox 360


  • cidgrad01

    Longtime FF series fan here. I loathed every bit of FF13 and do not agree that the combat was good. It was dull and essentially played itself. FF13-2 was, shockingly, a lot better except for the combat & music. Story & dialogue were much more interesting, the world was very open instead of linear, and Noel & Serah outshone the combined cast of the previous game as characters.

    Sorry to hear FF13-3 is so bad. I was holding out hope that Squeenix had learned its lesson and was going to knock this one out of the park. I held off on pre-ordering because 13 was so bad and am now glad I did. I’ll probably pick this one up from the bargain bin a few months down the road.

    If any other FF fans are looking for a fix, though: get Bravely Default. Wonderful game.

    • Jeery

      Big FF fan as well. For me, what killed FF was voice acting. I don’t know why, but reading dialogue is so much better than hearing the awful voice acting that usually comes with JRPGs. It can really destroy the storytelling for me.

      Another problem I have, the action-oriented battle system. I wish they scrapped the nonsense and went back to menu based systems. FFVII with meteria or FFIX with skills attached to equipment were both great. Even FFVIII was fun. That together with limit breaks and summons were a ton of fun.

      I wish Bravely Default was on PS Vita.

      • cidgrad01

        I thought voice acting was odd at first, too, but FFX is my absolute favorite of the entire series and it grew on me as I went along. Yeah, even Tidus getting a bit shrill at times. Some characters, like Auron, were spot on. I think it’s more the vapid storytelling & failed attempts at new gameplay that has sunk this series lately.

      • Aaron

        Hold on a minute, the first FF game to have voice acting was X, that was an awesome game and the voice acting was not bad, just not perfect. For reference I have never played a full RPG with “perfect” voice acting the entire way through. Besides Star Ocean: Til The End of Time (#3). Had some really bad voice acting at points but it still didn’t ruin the game or even the story.

    • http://www.the-voices.net Shane

      Same, the combat was boring.

      In early stages it pretty much played itself, at later you had to be more attentive, but it still wasn’t good.

      Then the story wasn’t all that good, and some of the characters were just absolute rubbish.

      I skipped XIII-2 and will skip part 3 also. I really hope that if they do a FF-XV they do some massive improvements.

      So far my favorites were VII, X, and VIII

  • http://www.facebook.com/DownloadableConflict TaboriHK

    Anyone who bought the second one after how abysmal the first was is crazy. The third one in the series? Exclusively for game reviewers and masochistic psychopaths.

    • cidgrad01

      I agree with everything you said except 13-2 was, paradoxically, not that bad (I got it used for $12, so…). Unfortunately, the awfulness of the other two crush anything good in it like a piece of glass crushed between two cinderblocks.

      • http://www.facebook.com/DownloadableConflict TaboriHK

        That may be, but the act of buying it considering how bad the first one was is strange to me. But then again, so is the defense that “after the first 45 hours, FFXIII becomes good.” That’s like saying waterboarding becomes fun after you almost drown for the 45th time.

        • cidgrad01

          “But then again, so is the defense that after the first 45 hours, FFXIII becomes good.”

          LOL, yeah I’ve heard that line, too, but it’s still a lie. FF13 still sucks even if you sink 1000 hours into it.

          Nothing but sheer desperation was behind my purchase of FF13-2. I’m not proud of it. I had been looking forward to FFX-HD for six months or so, only to have them push the release out another three months. I should mention, though, that I had a month window to get a full refund if I didn’t like it. Otherwise I don’t think I would have bought it, even at $12. It was pretty entertaining, but since the whole thing ends with a setup for a sequel we now know sucks, I would not recommend anyone waste their time with it.

          TL;DR — Yeah, you’re right. I have no excuse.

  • Charlie7878

    I actually went and bought this one haven’t played it yet but oh well back to ff14 ARR

  • Pak55

    Remember when JRPGS where king? It seems like overnight that old school play style of RPG’s was dead and everyone moved on to a more western style except Japan. Now they are trying to catch up and are having a really hard time. Its like someone played a western RPG and told the developers about it and they took what sounded cool and tried to add it without ever seeing how it worked. I know old school RPG’s are still out there (seems mostly on handheld) but i wish hey could find a nice balance.. I love FF but 13 broke my heart pretty bad and I have no idea why they keep making more instead of just moving on.

    • http://www.facebook.com/DownloadableConflict TaboriHK

      The JRPG format worked better when that was the best the technology of the time could do. That slow motion aspect and infinite menus was a result of limitation. The limitation is gone now, and we’re in a culture that has no patience for anything and is constantly moving on. It just makes JRPGs feel old and out of touch.

  • Charlie7878

    So I played this game and yes it is like everyone said it is a big disappointment. But I guess Ill just keep it for the collection to look good.

  • Jerry

    Sometimes you just have to vote with your wallet. I vowed not to buy another EA game after i got duped twice by their hype machine and then delivered crap.

    I am doing the same with the Final Fantasy series. I can’t be giving them $ for this crap just because I loved FFIX 10 years ago. If they see a considerable drop in sales, maybe they will get back to their roots.

  • http://www.instructables.com/member/deandrekellway/ Latia

    ” Although I did actively participate in the community, I also spent a great deal of time simply including links to my work as a post. Write in a conversational tone and you’ll see that your readers will get involved.

  • CRTS28

    FF13 was terrible, couldn’t even finish it. Didn’t even bother with 13-2. Now i couldn’t even finish the demo to this 3rd one! Seen the trailer to XV and it looks ridiculous, i hate what square enix has turned into the ff series. Stop trying to make new battle systems, just go back to your roots!! It can’t possibly get worse than the garbage you’re trying to sell us now.

  • codypaull

    COMPLETELY disappointed with this third installment. I’m not a HUGE gamer but I’ve always lovde the FF franchise. I personally loved FFXIII and FFXIII-2 but this, for lack of better terms, sucked balls. Had to bring mine back because I just couldn’t deal. Sorry ’bout it.


    my god.. always been FF freak, always defended the games… and like the gentleman says above actually took the 45 hours to get into it.. I agree with FF13 criticism, but I have to say I actually had “fun” when I played ff13-2, I really liked the game and enjoyed it ( and that is the way it suppose to be. Fun..). But this game is horrible; the mechanics are broken, difficulty lvl is all over the place. They rush you through the game with time constraints.. and then you have nothing to do for a day :C. I always been know to say “well… a bad FF game is better than most other(considered)good games..” but don’t think I can say that know. It wasn’t “fun” it actually was irritating and anxiety causing

  • bdcesar

    Wow its bad.
    wtf is this time constraint??? WHY?
    And BS quests like find my teddy bear are the only way to “level”.

    Wasted my $$ and time waiting for this swill to download.