Final Fantasy XIII + XIII-2 + Lightning Returns Review
Final Fantasy XIII is a game famous for it’s polarizing status. Since then, the game has spawned 2 more titles in this sub-series, and while each game definitely improved from the last, I am not too sure if the series actually deserved that much attention in the first place…
The world of Cocoon is a massive artificial sphere floating in the skies where humanity resides. Living on the surface down below, the Gran Pulse, is something they avoided at all costs — after all, the Gran Pulse is where hostile Fal’cie inhabited, a godlike-being which has the ability to turn humans into magic-wielding slaves; I’Cie, who are forced to fulfill their missions, if not risk mutating into monsters or fall into crystal stasis. For Lightning and her party, it is a journey to challenge destiny as they embark on a trip to save her sister. Challenging the world and gods themselves, Lightning and her allies are fighting an impossible battle, their destinations almost never in sight…
If there is one phrase I can use that effortlessly represent the umbrella of problems Final Fantasy XIII has — odd design choices. As far as storytelling goes, XIII is definitely one which relies on “tell” rather than the “show” approach. Final Fantasy XIII has an interesting premise, setting and theme, but unfortunately poorly-executed all around. Throughout the trilogy, I feel like the story is progressing just for the sake of progressing. None of the developments and progressions feel natural.
In the introduction of this post, I said each sequel improved from the last but I was mostly referring to the gameplay (which I will get to in a second) when I said that. As for story, I am of the opinion that it somehow gets even worse. XIII-2/Lightning Returns is a classic example of expanding on a game that certainly doesn’t require it, turning the already needlessly complicated story into a convoluted mess. While Lightning Returns managed to wrap up everything nicely, I feel like the journey to get there doesn’t justify the lengthy frustrations. I am not even going to lie — playing XIII-2 and Lightning Returns feel obligatory for me rather than legitimately willing to play them.
With the weak plot, Final Fantasy XIII also doesn’t do itself any favors with their characters either. Because the game is set in an apocalyptic setting, some drama would definitely settle in, and while I do love myself some drama, XIII’s isn’t particularly good. Characters would take any chances they get to shout at each other for a major portion of the game, and really, that’s not my idea of a good drama. It’s like the game is pulling all stops just to make these characters appear sympathetic, but it just has an adverse effect. The overwrought designs and backstory to all of the characters also make it harder for the group dynamics to shine — so I guess a major part of the issue isn’t just the way the characters are written, but also their base designs too. It’s because of things like these that makes it difficult to feel for the characters. This particular issue gets ironed out over the two sequels, but not by much. The damage has been done so much that even when it got better, my feeling for the characters only evolved from distaste to indifference.
Earlier I mentioned Final Fantasy XIII suffered from a lot of odd design choices, and you can easily notice this the most from the gameplay. The consensus is that it’s incredibly linear, which is something I agree. In fact, XIII is pretty much a “hallway simulator”. Throughout the game, your objective is moving from point A to B in linear, uninspiring fashion. No people to interact with, not much areas to explore — for a RPG, XIII is one of the most non-interactive one I played. The battle mechanics is interesting, though not particularly amazing by any stretch. Through the Paradigm system, you can configure your characters into several roles (Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, etc…) which is pretty much their version of the classic RPG roles like damage dealers, mage, tanks and so on. In battle, you will be lining up commands (attack, magic skills, items, etc…) as soon as your ATB refills, which might have been fun if you are not pressed for time to complete your actions every time.
As far as battle mechanics are concerned, XIII-2 is similar for the most part, only that you will be using 2 characters for the whole game, with the 3rd an interchangeable captured monster which is a fun little addition. The biggest improvement though, is that XIII-2 isn’t as linear anymore. The world is more expansive — there are more areas to explore, more people to talk to and quests to do. Though while XIII-2 is an improved XIII, Lightning Returns feels like a completely different game. Gone were the Paradigm system and instead, the game uses the Schemata system which is a reminiscence of X-2’s Dressphere. Throughout the game, Lightning can wear various garbs each with different stat boosts, roles and functions and obviously, you can switch them around in battle real-time too (though you can only equip 3). Abilities like attacking and magic skills are all done by mapping them to the face buttons, and each garb can have totally different configurations — this makes battles more seamless and dynamic than they were ever before. I actually had the most fun with the gameplay in Lightning Returns as the customization and battle mechanics just drew me in — and paired up with the same non-linear approach of XIII-2, it’s easy to see why Lightning Returns actually has positive feedback (or the very best feedback from the trilogy, for what’s it’s worth). It opted to be different and for the most part, it worked as I truly enjoyed Lightning Returns.
No matter what kinds of controversy surrounds Final Fantasy XIII, if there’s one thing that I feel everyone can agree on, it at least has excellent visuals. XIII’s cinematic sequences are absolutely stunning to watch, though things like these are what we have come to expect from Square Enix, still amazing nonetheless. And being a graphical heavyweight, the difference in quality between the pre-rendered cutscenes and the normal character models are barely noticeable, making the transitions between the two appear more smoothly than they seemed. The effort that also went into the designs of characters, costumes, monsters is clear to see, as each and every single one of them are obviously crafted with painstaking details.
Although Nobuo Uematsu wasn’t involved in Final Fantasy games anymore, that doesn’t stop XIII from having an excellent set of soundtracks too. The music did a fine job of immersing you into the world, though there won’t be any songs as iconic as some of Nobuo Uematsu’s older works anytime soon.
Final Fantasy XIII has grown as a sub-series, with each improvement over the last. However the series never evolve into a masterpiece of any kind in my eyes. Despite the fact that I may have enjoyed Lightning Returns, I still feel that Final Fantasy XIII is a series that really should have ended in it’s very first iteration.
(Note: I scored this overall as a trilogy. But if you’re curious about my individual scores for all three titles:
XIII – 4, XIII-2 – 6, Lightning Returns – 7.5)