Review: Lightning Returns – Final Fantasy XIII

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A blizzard is the perfect time to catch up on some backlogged gaming. This year, during the big snow-in, that’s exactly what I did. I managed to finish my playthrough of Final Fantasy XIII – Lightning Returns. The third and final chapter in the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy.

I purchased this game when it was released, but this was my first time sitting down to play. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect with this title, I had heard it was very different than the first two XIII games, and indeed it was. Admittedly, I was quite confused for probably the first 4 or 5 hours of playtime. I couldn’t quite figure out the mechanics and flow of the game. It felt very foreign to me. Eventually, it did all begin to fall into place. But before I dive into all that, let’s first take a look at the storyline.

This game takes place 500 years after Final Fantasy XIII-2. During that time, the people of the world of Gran Pulse have been gifted with near immortality. However, the world itself has been consumed by mysterious dark force and mostly destroyed. At the time in which this game takes place, only a few small patches of land are habitable. This world has been rebranded as “Nova Chrysalia” by it’s inhabitants. As chaos continues to consume what remains of the world, the end of time is mere days away. Those who played the previous game, will be aware of the fate of both Lightning and her sister Serah. Spoiler Alert, for those who may not have played it, at the end of Final Fantasy XIII-2, Lightning is transformed into crystal, assumingly for all eternity. But now, something has changed. A new god known as Bhunivelze has decided to craft a new world. His desire is to populate it with human souls. To do so, he will need someone to reap the souls of the living. To accomplish this task, Lightning is brought back from her crystal statis, with the promise of having her sister resurrected if she will assume the role of “Savior”.

Only thirteen days remain before the end of the world, and Lightning must do her best to help ease the suffering of the people of Nova Chrysalia before the end of the final day if she wishes to be reunited with her sister again. This mostly consists of undertaking various quests and solving problems for those in need. But of course, during the course of the story, Lightning is sure to encounter some familiar faces.

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As mentioned above, the main objective of the game must be accomplished in thirteen “game days”. This means, that a large part of this title involves trying to get as much done before the clock runs out. When I first started playing, this was very unnerving to me. It became apparent pretty quickly that some content in the game is time-sensitive. Certain objectives only occur at certain times, so it’s a constant race against the clock. I dislike this mechanic in games very much and I was worried that I would end up missing some critical content as a result. But, after spending a lot of time with Lightning Returns, I’m happy to say this is not really as big of an issue as it first seems. In reality, there’s more than enough time to accomplish everything in the game that needs to be done. In fact, if you manage to complete enough sidequests, you can even extend this deadline by one full day.

While the timer is certainly one of the biggest changes to the game mechanics, that’s not the only thing. The combat system in this game is radically different from anything seen in Final Fantasy yet. Gone is the paradigm system that has so far been a staple of XIII, now we have something called the Schemata system (or as it is official known, the Style-Change Battle System). It’s best described as a mix of the XIII Paradigms and the Dressphere system from FFX-2. Essentially, Lightning can set up three different active roles to switch between during combat. These roles are customized based on her weapon, clothing, accessories and skills. The Garbs (or outfits) are the core to this system. New Garbs can be obtained through NPC merchants, quest rewards, and DLC.  The combat itself is very action based. Each role has it’s own Stamina Meter that is depleted as Lightning executes actions. This meter recharges as actions go unused. The key to mastering this system is to create a balanced set of Schemata and learn how to make the most appropriate use of them depending on the enemy you are encountering. I found the whole thing to be a bit confusing at first, but after a while, it started to click.

As I mentioned above, some outfits are available via DLC. Yes, this game does feature downloadable content, but unlike Final Fantasy XIII-2, it’s all optional items. The entire game story is included with the purchase of the game itself, so you don’t have to spend any extra money to experience the entire game. The garb that is available in the store is largely cosmetic, but there are a few useful pieces. Personally, unless you really want to play dress-up, I see no reason to spend your money. The Garb that is available in game is more than enough to accomplish everything you’ll ever need. That being said, there are a few free pieces you can acquire if you happen to have XIII, XIII-2 and FFX-HD saves on your PS3. (This might be true for Xbox users as well, I cannot personally confirm).

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Aside from DLC, the game also features a rather novel Online function called the Outerworld Service. This service, if enabled, will occasionally place avatars for other players in your gameworld. When talking to them, you can view a gameplay screenshot that they’ve shared, and sometimes even purchase items and weapons that they’ve decided to sell. At one time, Outerworld would also connect to both Facebook and Twitter, but SE pulled the plug on this option last year. Also worthy of mentioning, enabling Outerworld Services also rewards you with free DLC that was previously only available to those who played the Lightning Returns demo.

As I mentioned earlier, this game is very different from others in the series, and as a result can be a bit confusing at first. But if you go in without any expectations and keep an open mind, everything soon falls into place. It wasn’t long before I found myself drawn into the game itself and having quite a good time with it. Lightning Returns is certainly it’s own game, and it’s not a bad game at all. But to me, it didn’t really feel like Final Fantasy. Yes, there’s moogles, chocobos, and a number of other classic FF throwbacks, but it just doesn’t feel like Final Fantasy to me.

No matter what changes may exist here, this game does stay true to one constant in the Final Fantasy universe: there’s plenty of optional content. As always, I made it my goal to unlock and defeat every optional boss the game had to offer. (One of which, can only be done ensuring you have access to the missing 14th game day). The trophies I earned for defeating these battles were well deserved if you ask me.

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Difficulty: Variable –  This title comes with a Normal and Easy mode option out of the box. Once you have completed the game, Hard mode will be unlocked. Based on my experience, Normal mode is not really that much more difficult honestly. So this choice is really up to the player. Regardless of which option you choose, the time limit will still apply and the game can still be challenging in spots.

Story: The story presented here is actually very rich and enthralling, if you can manage to make it far enough into the game for all the pieces to start to fit together. For me, at the beginning, it was a confusing mess. It’s unclear at first why so much time has elapsed, yet everyone from the last game is still alive and kicking. Not to mention the sudden new deity everyone is so worked up about. But, as I said, if you hang in there, it’s all answered in the end and once it’s all said and done, it really makes a wonderful capstone to the Final Fantasy XIII mythology.

Originality: While many of the gameplay ideas founds in Lightning Returns are not fully original, they are certainly new to the series itself and really make for a new experience. The outerworld services are a neat touch, but I feel like they could have been implemented better. Combat in this game is certainly different than what we’ve seen in the series thus far.

Soundtrack: The soundtrack here is a mixed bag. Some of the new musical pieces are very well done and hold their own with many of the other Final Fantasy classics. Others are a bit drab. A good bit of the background music is ambient type stuff that is appropriate for the game, but not very rememberable. Thrown into the mix with all of this, are reworkings of other XIII and FF songs.

Fun: I admit, at first, I was not impressed with the title and was not enjoying it very much. But I’m happy to say that this changed about a quarter of the way through. Once I hit that point, I had quite a good time with this game. Many of the sidequests are quite a bit of fun.

Graphics: This game uses the same graphical engine as XIII and XIII-2 and looks just as good if not better than the previous two. It seems that by this point, SE has had plenty of time to really tweak their Crystal Tools engine. Again, the PS3 has a slight edge over the 360, but not by much.

Playcontrol: No real complaints here. The game controls work as expected. The camera controls are natural and precise, the button mappings are intuitive.

Downloadable Content: YES – Downloadable outfits for use in the game. Some of these are nice to have, but offer no major tactical advantage. Somewhat overpriced. (PC users can snag most of this for free)

Mature Content: Minor language, skimpy outfits, heavy anti-religious overtones (fictional).

Value:  I purchased the game at full price when it was released. I feel that there’s enough content in the game to make it worth the amount that I paid. These days it’s often available for around $20.00. Certainly a great bargain at that price.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Lightning Returns is good game, but it doesn’t rank with some of the other games in the series. Fans of XIII are the most likely to enjoy this one.

Available on: PS3, Xbox 360, Steam

Other Reviews In This Series:

IIIIIIIVVVI VIIVIIIIXXX2XIXII XIIIXIII 2XIII Lightning Returns XIV – XV 

IV: After YearsVII: Dirge of CerberusVII: Crisis CoreVII: Advent Children (Movie)XII: Revenant Wings – Type-0 – XV: A King’s TaleXV: Brotherhood (Anime)XV: Kingsglaive (Movie)

World of Final Fantasy – Explorers – Mystic Quest – 4 Heroes of Light 

Tactics – Tactics Advance – Tactics A2

Dissidia – Dissidia 012

Crystal Chronicles – Ring of Fates – My Life as King – My Life as Darklord – Echoes of Time – Crystal Bearers

Dimensions – Record Keeper – Brave Exvius – Mobius Final Fantasy  – Justice Monsters V – King’s Knight 

Review: Final Fantasy XIII-2

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It took a while to get this review out there, but I have finally finished the second game in the FFXIII trilogy and I’m ready to share my thoughts on the title. I want to start by saying that I often feel like the odd-man-out when it comes to the original Final Fantasy XIII. Most people pan the game, but I found it to be an excellent title.  Regardless of the negative criticism the game received, it sold well enough to spawn a sequel: Final Fantasy XIII-2. This game was generally held in much better regard than its predecessor. So I was curious to see just what I thought about this entry.

I purchased this game when it was released in 2012, but I only played it for a few days before other games captured my attention. So at the time, I didn’t really have a chance to really sink my teeth into the title. For this playthrough, I erased my old savegame and started over from the beginning.

The story behind FFXIII-2 begins about three years after the end of the previous game. It focuses on Serah as she struggles to understand the events that followed previous title. Serah has a vivid memory of speaking with and spending time with her sister Lightning after the events of Final Fantasy XIII, but to everyone else, Lightning disappeared (and assumingly sacrificed herself) during the events that ended the game. Then one day, a strange boy named Noel suddenly appears in the village, claiming to be a time traveler sent by Lightning to retrieve Serah. As it turns out, Lightning was chosen by a powerful goddess to be a guardian to the eternal realm of Valhalla. The goddess is under attack by a mysterious time traveler named Caius who is causing dangerous paradoxes and disturbances all over the timeline, causing havoc with the universe. Serah decides to follow Noel and travel through time resolving these paradoxes in hopes of eventually meeting her sister again in the timeless realm of Valhalla.

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Admittedly, the storyline above may seem a bit confusing. In fact, I was quite confused by it when starting the game. But eventually, things start to piece together and by the end of the game, it’s quite impressive just how much sense everything makes. Trust me on this one. Regardless, if you played the original Final Fantasy XIII, you can probably already tell just by the story alone, this is a very different game.

At risk of sounding contradictory to what I’ve stated above, in a lot of ways, XIII-2 is similar to the original game, but in just as many ways it is radically different. First, let’s talk about what’s the same. Combat. For the most part, XIII-2 uses the same combat/paradigm system as XIII. If you are familiar with this, you’ll feel right at home. The only difference here is that your basic party is only made up of two main characters now (Noel and Serah), the third slot if occupied by a monster. Monsters are collected throughout the game, often by defeating them in regular combat. Different monster are assigned different “classes”, so by adding a monster to your roles, you can effectively make a three-person Paradigm just like in XIII. Since monster roles cannot be changed, you have the ability to “equip” three different monsters in your “paradigm pack” and can swap out as needed. Most monsters can also be leveled up to a certain point as well. This brings me another familiarity, the Crystarium system from XIII is back, albeit slightly refined.

That’s where most of similarities stop. One of the greatest complaints about XIII was that fact it is was very “closed”. Many described the game as being “Final Fantasy on Rails”. This is not at all the case with XIII-2. Of course, in the beginning, options are limited. But it doesn’t take long for this game to open up dramatically. Essentially, players are able to explore various locations/times via a central hub known as the Historia Crux. This is basically a cosmic “Warp Zone” of sorts. When exploring new areas or completing certain objectives, more locations and options become accessible. The main storyline of the game does guide you toward certain areas and some locations are locked out until checkpoints in the storyline are reached, but where to go and what to do is left largely open to the player. Even though I personally enjoyed XIII, this new level of freedom is admittedly refreshing. Another interesting addition to this game are “cinematic actions”. Many boss fights end with these button mashing fests. I’ve seen these concepts in other games, but was surprised to see them pop-up here.  I’m not a fan. What’s the real point of this? You’ve just spent twenty minutes beating this monster only to have to execute a number of precise button pushes in order to a get a perfect win? Blech.

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Another thing that makes this title unique is the inclusion of Downloadable Content. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is officially the first game in the series with DLC. Quite a bit of the DLC for this game is worthless/vanity costumes, etc. But there are also purchasable “Coliseum Battles”. These are optional DLC boss fights that take place in a special zone on the Historia Crux. These battles are quite challenging compared to the rest of the game, but the reward for winning is being able to add the monster/character defeated to your paradigm deck. The most interesting of the coliseum DLC choices is the “Snow’s Perpetual Battlefield”. Yes, this is another battle, but one that shed’s some light on the fate of the popular character, Snow.

Other DLC options include an optional episode called “Heads or Tails”. This focuses on the character of Sazh as he finds himself in the strange “cosmic casino” known as Serendipity.  Essentially, this DLC serves as an expansion of sorts to the Serendipity zone within the game, adding a few new games to the casino. Completing this DLC will unlock Sazh as paradigm option and also provide some details regarding his inclusion into the game’s main storyline.

Finally, the last and most controversial DLC option is “Requiem of the Goddess”. This content is essentially a mini-episode intended to be enjoyed after players have finished the main game. It is through this DLC that players will be able to see the final “chapter” in the story of XIII-2. As expected, there was a loud voice of disapproval from fans over the concept of locking out such a crucial part of the game storyline behind a paywall. Personally, I find these DLC episodes to be largely inexpensive and well worth the investment. But I do find it hard to shell out more money after already spending a big chunk on the game itself. Regardless, I personally enjoyed each and every additional scenario and arena battle. However, the only customs/weapons I obtained were the ones that I received by preordering the game. I didn’t spend a dime on the gimmicky costumes.

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All in all, I found Final Fantasy XIII-2 to be fairly solid sequel to the original. For me, it took a lot of getting used to at first, but once I got an understanding of just how the level-hub system was put together, I began to really enjoy the game. Regardless, I still found myself enjoying the original XIII just a bit more.  Either way, if you’re a fan “Fabula Nova Crystallis”. It’s certainly worth setting aside some time for this entry in the series.

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Difficulty: Variable –  This title comes with a Normal and Easy mode option. But in all honesty, even in normal mode this game is not particularly difficult. The main scenario is quite beatable with little difficulty. The only caveat to this is that to be successful, you do have to actually take a little time to learn the mechanics of the paradigm system. Once you have a firm understanding on how the combat works, the game is more than manageable. The biggest challenges in the game can be found in many of the downloadable Coliseum Battles available for purchase.

Story: Building off the mythology of the original game, the storyline to XIII-2 starts off in a very confusing place. The game does a great job of setting things up at first, but before long, things become muddied and confusing. Fortunately, about halfway through the title things start to clear up and the storyline really begins to shine.

Originality: Despite being a direct sequel to XIII, XIII-2 manages to stand on it’s own quite well. Even though it is set in a familiar world, with familiar characters. The whole time travel concept presents a very unique experience. Even re-used game mechanics like Paradigms and character advancement are tweaked just enough so that they remain fresh.

Soundtrack: This is probably where XIII-2 receives is lowest marks for me. Yes, there are some very good tracks in this game. The title screen theme is a prime example of classic/excellent Final Fantasy music. But a large bit of the music in the game just left me cold. For one, too many background songs have vocals. While this is ok from time to time, it feel like it was overdone in this game. Not to mention that quite a bit of them are not just not that good. Sad.

Fun: I wasn’t sure what to think of this game for about the first half of the title. It started off quite fun, but then began to feel a bit repetitive. Eventually however, everything clicked and I ended up enjoying the game quite a bit.

Graphics: This game uses the same graphical engine as XIII and looks just as good. Beautiful stuff. Again, the PS3 has a slight edge over the 360, but not by much.

Playcontrol: No real complaints here. The game controls work as expected. The camera controls are natural and precise, the button mappings are intuitive.

Downloadable Content: YES – Vanity items, optional battle content, and additional story scenarios. Average pricing.

Mature Content: Minor language, skimpy outfits.

Value:  I purchased the game at full price when it was released. I feel that there’s enough content in the game to make it worth the amount that I paid. However, considering all the additional story-based DLC, I feel that the original release price was a little steep. These days, the game can be found for around $20 or less. At this price, you certainly get a good value. PC users even get most of the DLC at no additional cost.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Most people rate this title better than the original XIII, but to me the first entry just had a certain charm to it that seemed to be missing from this title. Not to mention, I was slightly turned off by the concept of spending more money on additional story DLC.  That being said, don’t misunderstand. XIII-2 is a great game! I certainly recommend it to fans of the series, but to me, it misses the perfect score mark.

Available on: PS3, Xbox 360, Steam

 

Other Reviews In This Series:

IIIIIIIVVVI VIIVIIIIXXX2XIXII XIIIXIII 2XIII Lightning Returns XIV – XV 

IV: After YearsVII: Dirge of CerberusVII: Crisis CoreVII: Advent Children (Movie)XII: Revenant Wings – Type-0 – XV: A King’s TaleXV: Brotherhood (Anime)XV: Kingsglaive (Movie)

World of Final Fantasy – Explorers – Mystic Quest – 4 Heroes of Light 

Tactics – Tactics Advance – Tactics A2

Dissidia – Dissidia 012

Crystal Chronicles – Ring of Fates – My Life as King – My Life as Darklord – Echoes of Time – Crystal Bearers

Dimensions – Record Keeper – Brave Exvius – Mobius Final Fantasy  – Justice Monsters V – King’s Knight