Recently I played the demo of this game, and wrote up a preview of sorts, and sooner than I expected my preorder turned up and it was time to settling into the game itself. Now I’ll be honest, the majority of the points I will raise in this full review, will be repeats of my initial thoughts, so bear with me on this as you carry on.
I’ll start with the positives. The combat is fun, as the demo was so keen to show. The idea of Schemas, or outfits, isn’t what I expected however. I thought each outfit would represent a different class, similar to the older Final Fantasy games, White Mage, Black Mage etc. What they actually offer is a little different. Each outfit offers different stat boosts and abilities that Lightning can benefit from, some have moves locked to them, such as the Black Mage Schema which has Fire and Blizzard, high magic and a magic boosting ability. Some however are more useful, such as the outfits which give abilities such as physical damage resistance or the ability to avoid status ailments. You can flick between these when taking on enemies to exploit weaknesses or stagger the opponent to deal massive damage. I will give it its due; it is a fun and interesting way of customising Lightning to make her stronger and more versatile in battle. There is one issue I have with it though, and it’s the fact that when’s all is said and done you are playing with dresses, and it’s a little off-putting when you are trying to create an all-powerful black mage, that because of stat boosts, Lightning ends up running around in hot pants. I’m sure that someone will find this charming or fun, but more often than not I end up choosing an outfit that has lower stat benefits, just to stop me feeling like a pervert.
The rest of the gameplay is actually quite enjoyable as well. Lightning starts off with 7 days to save as many souls as she can. Every soul she saves gets offered to the World Tree, which postpones the world’s destruction by another day. She has to keep the world safe, until God decides to wake up, which is in 13 days from the start of the game. To save souls, and through that the world, Lightning has to make people trust their souls to her, which generally involves doing side quests for them, some more interesting than others. Many of them are simple; fight this monster, collect these items type fetch quests. Some of them are more interesting, such as looking for ghosts in a city. A lot of these are time activated however, as the time in Lightning’s world marches ever onward certain quests become available, and others stop being so. Take for example the quest where you search for ghosts in the city of Luxerion, to start this you must talk to four regular civilians, between the hours of 6 am and 11pm. This is only the first part of the quest, once you have spoken to all of them; you have to find four ghosts, who only appear between midnight and 4am. Time is almost constantly moving forward though, so you can’t just sit around and wait until midnight, or go to an inn to speed up the time. You have to have multiple side quests on the go, in different cities, with different steps needing to be completed at different times. The more of these you complete, the more time you get to spend in the world before you reach game over.
Quests also have another benefit in this game, in that they are the only way to really gain stat increases. There is no levelling up in Lightning Returns, no Crystarium to sink points into and reap the benefits. Lightning has to finish quests to get strong enough to take on enemies later in the game, so the game pushes you to do as many of them as you can, to further the story, and increase Lightning’s ability to decimate her foes.
This however is where the game gets a little counter intuitive. The game wants you to finish as many side quests as possible, to save the world, and this involves exploring the world, and with some quests, grinding away at killing monsters for their drops. However it also drops a time limit on you that works against exploring and grinding, so despite their apparent importance, some quests get left untouched or attempted. Lightning Returns tries to work around this by letting you keep any items that are not “Key Items” and all stat boosts gained if you fail the world and have to start a New Game +, but no one really wants to play through all of the main quests and side quests again just to get back to the point you were at before. Even travelling between locations eats into the time you have left, with travelling between the four main locations taking up anywhere between 15 minutes and half an hour of the day. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you are constantly jumping between cities to finish quests those 15 minutes or extra half an hour could be the difference between handing in all your quests on time, and having to wait until it’s next available.
The worst part of this game is that a part of me wants to like it. Playing it isn’t a bad experience, the quests and combat are fun, the world is open and there are a lot of things to do. Square Enix seemed set on taking this away from you though, by making its story ridiculous and unnecessarily dull, and its characters fucking awful. I mean Lightning was never the most likeable character in the original Final Fantasy XIII, but she had a character, angry, stuck up but she grows beyond that to at least care about some of her companions. In Lightning Returns they take away all of that, she shows very little emotion in the almost constant dialogue between Hope and herself, and they make this a plot point. Lightning and Hope both admit several times, that they don’t feel the same as they did before, and have lost their humanity for their cause, and so far no effort has been made to make them move beyond it.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I want to play games where I like the lead characters. I don’t want to play a soulless automaton, who’s motivation is to bring back her sister from the dead, but shows no conviction in that motivation, and shows no emotion when she realises it might be all for nought. The other characters are a lot more emotional than Lightning or Hope but even they are unbelievable in their performance. Take for example one character, who at the beginning of the game, is so convinced by a prophecy, and his wish to save the world he attempts to kill Lightning, he acts conflicted about it, but after you defeat him in battle his decision seems made, and he attempts on last attempt on her life. I mean this literally, his decision changes in a heartbeat, one second he is threatening you, and ready to put a sword through you, the next he is telling you that Lightning’s way is best and he walks off. If this was a one off, maybe I could accept it as lazy writing, but it happens again with another character, and all the while Lightning is stony faced and barely reacts.
This kind of thing happens constantly in the game. You finish a side quest, Lightning says something about how people act, or her being sorry for being asleep for so long and how it’s all her fault the world is in the state it’s in, but it’s never believable. Then Hope decides to chirp up and chip in and tell you something that you already know. There are only so many fucking times I want to hear what I should be doing and how long I’ve got left. The fact is, he talks so often, that there is rarely silence, and he’s jabbering is being cut off by other dialogue, or battles, which will either make him repeat his babbling, or just give up entirely. The best/worst part of this is when he cuts himself off mid-sentence. At one point in the game, he was saying something fairly important, and useful, about the quest I was doing, when mid-sentence he decided to remind me it was nearly 6am and time for me to return to the Ark to give in my collected souls. Not only was it the fourth time he had told me that, but he cut himself off before telling me what I was looking for, which wasted more time.
I am going to stop ranting now. It’s a game that I will keep playing, I want to finish the trilogy, find out what happens in the end. I imagine that is how a lot of people, both fans of the trilogy, and those who didn’t enjoy it but still played through both, feel. I also feel that maybe Square Enix used this hype to try and get away with lazy story telling. I have a lot of respect for the gameplay itself. If Final Fantasy XV plays anything like this, I will be a happy fan. If the story is as terrible as this has been so far, then it might be the last Final Fantasy title I ever play.