It feels like some kind of milestone to finish a game trilogy, especially one with as sprawling a story as the Final Fantasy XIII series. The first entry came out in 2009, and this summer I’ve just gotten around to playing the final game in the set (that’s a long time to spend with one group of characters, particularly when you consider that Final Fantasy is a series still built on old school JRPG concepts like making sure the player invests at least fifty hours of play time into a title). It’s been an interesting ride, and upon the completion of this series (and realizing with every passing day that I care less and less about Final Fantasy XV, mostly because it’s the only way to cope with the interminable development time) I feel like I should share some scattered thoughts. Depending on how in depth I go, this may turn into a couple of posts. Let’s get to it.
Probably the most interesting thing about Lightning Returns as a title is how it presents as a summation of the evolving concepts that were first introduced in Final Fantasy XIII. The battle system retains the same emphasis on maintaining a fast pace through constant monitoring of a variety of fluctuating stats (you at any given moment the player has to keep an eye on Lightning’s health, the amount of stamina she has available in each of her three fighting modes, the enemy’s health, and the enemy’s stagger gauge). Fights still run in real time, but with only a single party member, things have been somewhat streamlined with most battles consisting of a one-on-one face off between Lightning and a single enemy in order to minimize the need for juggling multiple targets and attacks. The basic combat system of the earlier games, which revolved around a transition between various roles to perform specific functions has been revamped with distinct roles being replaced by customizable schemata that can use abilities that have serve specific functions in combat. Where before the player would set up a list of predefined party types to rotate through depending on the needs of a given battle, here the idea is more to create a set of schemata that are used in concert more or less continually throughout every fight. I found that once I had settled on my basic pattern of fighter, defender, magician, I didn’t make many drastic changes (as the game carried on, I did begin to blend what each schema was intended to do as end game enemies tend to require a steady onslaught of attacks in order to stagger and finish them off, and pausing for even a few seconds to allow the stamina on a necessary schema to recover was often highly frustrating).
Exploration in the game continues the trend begun in Final Fantasy XIII-2 with relatively large open areas filled with points of interest scattered around them (it seems that Square Enix took the prevailing criticism about Final Fantasy XIII‘s unrelenting and undisguised linearity to heart). This is refreshing at the game’s beginning, when the new mechanic of having an ongoing game clock that continuously counts down to the end creates a sense that every moment needs to be spent engaging with some objective the game has set. I really enjoyed the tense pace of the first couple of game days when I felt like I was going to have to seriously manage my time so that I could accomplish all the quests before game’s end. When I got to the third day and realized that I could freeze the clock almost indefinitely as long as I maintained a steady diet of combat, much of the tension dissipated so that what had originally been the prospect of having to set specific goals for myself through each game day and manage my time effectively transformed into a case of just running around completing side quests and occasionally letting the clock run so I could get to a specific time of day. The time component became a point of tedium once its pressure on my exploration went away. I was done with the vast majority of the content by Day 8, and the last few days were spent simply running to an inn to fast forward time so I could get to the ending.
Perhaps the most irritating thing about the game’s content was the fact that story related quests were relatively easy to complete and so were finished earlier, so a large stretch of my playtime was devoted to simply running around and eliminating monsters (most of the enemies that appear in the game can be hunted to extinction, which is fun up to a point, but again becomes tedious as the gradual effect is to create an empty world where Lightning can wander uninterrupted for hours at a time; also, while combat is a fun aspect of the game, it’s not the most satisfying one for me, and I didn’t appreciate having so much of my playtime taken up by searching for things to kill). Monster hunting, which was the entirety of the side quests offered in Final Fantasy XIII, was the last straw in getting me to put that game away instead of finishing all of its nonessential content. I can enjoy challenging fights, but I don’t like that being the entirety of a game experience. Perhaps most frustrating about the game’s preoccupation with making the player fight things for the majority of the playtime is the fact that combat offers very few rewards. Lightning only gains stat boosts from completing quests, so actually participating in combat is something that the player does more out of necessity than because it operates within the game’s feedback loop of positive stimuli. I found myself avoiding fights in the final dungeon except when they were unavoidable or because I needed to recharge my EP (the points that the player spends to perform special actions in battle like healing or slowing time to allow for extra attacks) for a boss fight. I’d say this is a nice design element to eliminate the temptation to grind, but the designers put in other, less fun incentives for grinding anyway.
Finally, while I’m discussing mechanics, I feel like something has to be said about the garb system. Final Fantasy XIII-2 introduced the concept of customizing the appearance of your monsters by giving them small adornments. It didn’t do anything for their combat effectiveness, but it was a charming feature that made monster collecting a little more fun. In Lightning Returns, the adornment concept has been converted into the chief hook of the equipment system. Because Lightning is the only playable character, the designers decided to make customizing her appearance a major part of gameplay, so she has around eighty unique outfits that the player can collect and dress her up in. These items range from stylish to outright fanservice, but they also carry stat bonuses as each garb is clearly designed to favor a specific combat role. In most cases there isn’t a clearly delineated chain of upgrades, which is good for encouraging experimentation, but which also, because I prefer not to mess with a good thing, led me to use pretty much the same three garbs for the majority of the game. The large variety of clothing ended up being a turn off for me, simply because I didn’t want to sacrifice my preferred combat setup for the sake of making Lightning look different.
This post has already run long, so I’ll have a follow-up in a few days to discuss the story in more detail. I have a lot of thoughts about how Square Enix decided to wrap this series up.