Final Fantasy 13: Lightning Returns
Despite being a mad keen gamer I have made the decision not to move a “next-gen” console yet so I am pleased that we are still getting plenty of major title releases on the PS3 and 360, even if some of those have been somewhat disappointing (Gran Turismo 6, Beyond 2 Souls). Final Fantasy 13: Lightning Returns is the latest offering from the JRPG masters Square Enix and although I was turned off of the FF series by the original FF13 I was still excited to see what graphical magic they could pull out of my now “last-generation” console.
The introduction is impressive and I was wondering why a next generation of consoles has been required but it does rather come crashing to a halt when you move from the cut scene to the main game exploration screens. The graphics are just not up to scratch by the standard set in GTA5 (or even Mass Effect 3). The character is at an awkward distance so that she loses detail and looks very cartoony. Of course the JRPG genre is not about ultra-realism but I felt genuinely disappointed. That disappointment is compounded when you realise changing the way your character looks is an extremely important (and enjoyable) part of equipment customization but after you spend 15 minutes getting the right look you can really only enjoy the final effect in the cut scenes which are, of course, beautifully rendered to match exactly to your character.
The cut-scenes have always been a major part of the Final Fantasy style, so much so that some of the time it feels more like an interact movie. In FF13:LR the quality is high (although not ground breaking) but it seems they have pared down the length of the scenes. For many people that will be a good thing and in general I it makes the game far more accessible for a larger audience but it doesn’t feel quite right for FF. They have replaced the extensive dialogue with an information feed from Hope (your ally in Gods task) that gives you general advice and reminders to keep you on track. Although this information flow is well implemented it totally fails to give clear direction. In fact when it does give direction it can lead you directly to unwinnable situations. A main character said “I shall not fight you here” Find me and we shall battle…. so I did. And he had 192,000 HP and I’m doing around 500 on a good hit…. die, die, die, die, reload save, die die, reload an older save…. Now PERHAPS he said “Find me when you are ready” and so it’s all my fault but it was an extremely annoying hour of my life that I’m not going to get back.
When you combine this lack of direction with the limited number of game days you have to complete your task it becomes extremely frustrating. I freely admit I am a slow game player (part of the reason I love RPG games). I like to stroll around, talk to people, and explore dark alleyways. One of the greatest things in gaming ever was “just seeing what was on the other side of that hill” in Fallout 3. So to have an RPG game with a time limit and no direction just does not work for me. It does give you some incentive to focus on achievable side quests and to push-on rather than dropping back to complete small quests and restock.
Added to this frustration are opening and closing times for stores. What is that about? It’s annoying enough in Skyrim but you can just wait. I have NEVER played a game and thought “what I really need is time specific elements that require me hang around doing nothing until a determined game time is reached. That will make my experience more immersive!!” And so when you combine the ridiculous concept of “this gate (which is essential to your current mission) does not open for 6 hours with the urgency of a limited game time you just get a mess of confusion and frustration…
In my frustration I went online for some hints, 1 hint, was sprint. Sprinting will save significant time over the duration of the game… Now usually I sprint in games because the travel becomes repetitive but when sprinting is a legitimate Hint something has gone wrong with the game balance. Also this game lends itself to perfectionists who will either replay whole days or go online to get walkthrough guides to make sure “they get everything done” and FF players do tend to be those kinds of perfectionists…
There are a couple of benefits to this focus on time. When you lose a battle the game doesn’t end you just lose an hour of time. Now I say “just” but this is definitely a bad thing but not quite bad enough to have your reaching for the “reload” button all the time. So you get punished for doing stupid things but not too severely. Also the passing march of time is essential to the overarching storyline, it would make no sense if you have unlimited time until the world ends. It always feels slightly wrong when you have this urgent, world changing event coming up but the game lets you run off and finish a few side quests first. None of that here, that side quest may just cost you far more….
One of the key aspects of any RPG is combat, this is very well done and far superior to the likes of Skyrim. The switch to battle mode is distinct but the graphics in battle are superb so although you have some ability to engage or avoid combat it is so intrinsically rewarding I would frequently seek out battle for the fun of it (oh and to collect all the millions of items you need to complete quests).
Combat has all the expected FF aspects (elemental weaknesses, stagger, EP abilities) but it is refreshed by having a choice of 3 Schemata (equipment load outs) which you switch between during combat. Combat is real time but is not simply a hack and slash affair. You have a limited number of action points that recharge overtime so clever use of these different Schemes is essential for success. Knowing the right elemental attacks and timing both blocking and attacking for maximum damage is, if not essential, at least very important. And it is very important because this game is not easy. I thought my background would justify playing on Normal difficulty (you only have easy/normal options to start) but in several places I’ve found it necessary to avoid combat to progress. Possibly I stuffed up and the fact I couldn’t win the combats should have made me turn back but I didn’t because Hope kept giving me directions. This meant the game was very unrewarding in 2 particular sections of the main quests that I was being instructed to follow when woefully under prepared.
Throughout this review I’ve been intentionally obscure about the nature of the story and all I’m going to say now is that the story is one of this games strengths. The story and background expands naturally as you explore and although occasionally disjointed (particularly when you travel to a new area) it develops at a good pace. The characters are well crafted and old favourites reappear often in new guises or changed by the intervening centuries. . Oh and Lumina! Lumen is a real treat!
If you approach Final Fantasy 13: Lightning’s Return as an “interesting game” I have almost no doubt you will enjoy it. It is extremely well crafted, combat is rewarding and playing dress-up with Lightning is surprisingly enjoyable (in my defence I have 2 young daughters so dressing dolls is a significant part of my life). However if you approach it as “the next Final Fantasy game” you will probably come away a bit disappointed and possibly frustrated. Perhaps the most damning comment I can make is that having written this review having only played around a quarter of the game I really doubt I will play it again…
Rating: M Contains violence.