A beautiful dying mess, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

I finished Lightning Returns (LR) last year during JRPG July. A year later and it has managed to be a game that stays in my mind.

Lightning Returns is the bizarre ending piece to what I consider maybe the strangest trilogy of games I’ve played. The Final Fantasy XIII saga is generally considered pretty bad by the internet at large, despite scoring fairly well critical. However, XIII represents something that is FF at it’s best, which is taking bold risks, even if sometimes for poor reasons. As a result all three games in the trilogy are deeply interesting and deeply flawed. Lightning Returns might be the most interesting and most flawed game in the series too. Which is somewhat remarkable given the original XIII. While the whole series is worth further discussion, and there is a lot to be learned about game design from the original, I’m just going to talk about its conclusion.

You see, Lightning Returns follows the proud tradition set by the Zelda game everyone loved 10 years after release, Majora’s Mask. With a world that will end and that you must save, within a time limit.  Curiously, both games feature worlds that really are very alive. But unlike Link, there is no loop for Lightning to relive her adventure making slow but sure progress with each loop. Lightning has to succeed within the 6 days allotted to her, which if she can save enough souls (complete enough quests) she will be able to extend up to a total of 14 days.

At the start of the game, this dying and soon to be ended world, actually seems pretty vibrant. You are collecting quests at a somewhat rapid rate and completing them what feels like very quickly once you’ve gotten into the game. However, eventually, the pace slows down… To the point where it’s possible to complete almost every quest the game throws at you without a lot of difficulty. And not only is it possible, it’s likely to happen almost by accident at least in one area. Naturally, the more you accomplish the less there is to do.

This is pretty natural of course, only a limited amount of content, therefore as you progress there is less. But because so little content is gated, it feels limited despite taking a fair amount of actual real world time to do everything.  I managed to finish every quest in the game barring about 4, and it probably took me around 30-35 hours, which is longer than Dragon Age Origins took me. At And despite this, I still have 4 in game days left, and the world… felt very dead. At the start there were new things to see, discover, quests to find! But now, there was nothing, the world had gone from vibrant and exciting to become stagnant and quiet.

And not just quests too, one of the bizarre and surprisingly compelling mechanics in the game is that monsters go extinct. That means limited drops of all those junk items, and of course, lower spawn rates if you remove monsters in a region. Kill all the monsters in the region, and you basically have no encounters, finish all the quests in an area too, and that part of the world has gone within your play time from being a fairly vibrant place to being noticeably desolate.  Killing off monsters doesn’t just net you less encounters though, the last monster is always a powered up version of the creature and rewards you with a cool item.

Outside of rewards though, this ties in surprisingly well mechanically, where Lightning is both savior and end of the world, and since as you play the game the world loses its sense of life, that theme actually plays out surprisingly well mechanically.

Although much like Majora’s Mask despite it being a sad dying world, it is also completely bizarre and silly. With one quest line requiring Lightning to sneak into an performance, and fight for dress required to play the part. Lightning essentially plays straightman to a universe that has given up on taking its plight seriously.

Although, I managed to make all the monsters extinct in this first playthrough too… Which left me in a bizarre situation of having literally consumed all the possible content in the game available to me other than one super boss designed for a character built up over multiple plays. So I literally had to go to an inn, and sleep off the last few days till the end of the world in order to trigger the end series of boss fights.

Lightning Returns is a mess though despite that beautiful mix of theme and mechanics. Combat can seem almost non nonsensical, the difficulty curve is a complete mess, the time mechanics are broken, quests can be far too specific and if you aren’t careful you could waste huge amounts of time on silly things, and if you don’t click with the time system, it can really punish you very hard. Oh and the story itself is a complete mess and nearly approaches self parody.

However, despite all that, it will sit proudly among my favourite PS3 games.