My review of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

The underlying mythologies of Square Enix's Fabula Nova Crystallis universe are not clearly explained in the stories appearing under that banner. I've spent dozens of hours exploring these labyrinthine, glitzy, gorgeously over-produced Japanese role-playing games without fully understanding the plot. But fun is what matters, and I can't get enough of Final Fantasy XIII.

The centerpiece of the series is the trilogy composed of Final Fantasy XIII (2010), Final Fantasy XIII-2 (2012), and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (2014). At center stage is a woman warrior with pink hair named "Lightning". She and her stylish friends are caught in an epic power struggle between the goddess Etro and the mysterious male god Bhunivelze.

Since this is a review of only the concluding chapter of the trilogy, Lightning Returns, I'll breathlessly summarize the story so far. There was a story in Final Fantasy XIII, with heroes joining together to stop an artificial planet called Cocoon from falling out of the sky. But it got messed up because of time travel in Final Fantasy XIII-2 due to a tragic love triangle involving a likable hero named Noel with spiky hair and a never-say-die attitude, a possibly underage girl who can see the future (but who is condemned to die young and then reincarnate ad infinitum), and a super tall purple-armored supervillain—absurdly named "Caius Ballad"—who shows up periodically to declare in his booming soap-opera-hunk voice: "You've corrupted the timeline. You must be punished," and then unleash a wave of devastating magic attacks from the glowing red crystal at the center of his impossibly gigantic purple sword, before he snaps his fingers and transforms into a giant winged mecha-demon. And what Caius Ballad does, he does for love.

Anyway, the time-travel resulted in a paradox. Lightning disappears from one timeline and is unable to save Cocoon, and it crashes. Her sister Serah is the only one who remembers Lightning, and so Serah teams up with Noel (who is a refugee from the post-apocalyptic timeline where Cocoon fell and smashed the world below) to repair the paradox and bring back Lightning. But doing so rips apart the fabric of spacetime, unleashing a flood of Chaos which kills the life-giving Goddess Etro, and as a result the world is now doomed. At the opening of Lightning Returns, the world has only a few days left before it is consumed by the Chaos. Bhunivelze has set up Lightning as the Christ-like "Savior" whose purpose is to guide souls into a new world.

The story is actually pretty interesting. Several religious sects vie for the player's attention. One is called the Order, and they pray for the return of the prophesied Savior. But a group of outcast Heretics see Lightning as a false Prophet, and have begun assassinating women with pink hair in hopes of pre-empting the return. Over time we see Lightning begin to question her role in events, and things develop in ways you might not expect given the initially Western-seeming metaphysics.

Unfortunately the story's execution is quite uneven. For every interesting turn of events, there's elsewhere an overlong monologue about how everything will be all right as long as you maintain hope for the future, or another spate of flashbacks to previous events whose connection to the present is not always clear. Furthermore there are too many fetch quests, and too many of these involve town NPC's whose writing, animation, and voice-acting are not up to the relatively high standard set for the main cast.

But I play Final Fantasy games for the battles, not the story, and battle is where Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII excels from start to finish. Instead of a party of characters, in Lightning Returns you venture alone as Lightning with an occasional AI teammate. The realtime-strategy-esque, menu-driven "Paradigm Shift" battles in FFXIII and FFXIII-2 have been entirely discarded in favor of a high-speed, action-RPG combat system where you must time your moves and block enemy attacks with precision.

The awesome twist here is that Lightning can instantaneously switch between three different customized costumes during battle, each with different stats and equipment. Instead of choosing attacks and spells from a menu, you can assign a command to each of the four face buttons on each costume, for a total of twelve commands available in a given battle. Each costume has its own Active Time Battle gauge which recharges when not in use; running out of ATB means you can't attack or guard until you switch costumes. Both commands and costume changes must be carefully considered and well-timed if you wish to succeed in battle.

There's also the highly useful Overclock system, which allows Lightning to freeze time for a few moments and dish out a dozen or more attacks.

But you don't just whack buttons in this game. You have to hit the right buttons at the right times, because the enemies you fight are clever and amazingly designed. Their behaviors are quite diverse, given that you have a large gameworld with two cities to explore and several different ecosystems.

There are hard-shelled desert "fish" who can "swim" in the dunes, and who disappear beneath the sand during battle (or appear suddenly when you're running around.) They'll knock you high into the air if you don't guard against their rush attack at the right moment.

Out in nature I encountered the gargantuan, crawling Chocobo Eater. I fought creepy forest spirits who will keep multiplying if you don't kill them quickly enough, mutated cyclopses who barf on you and a towering purple turnip monster that can spin and slap you with its carousel of a dozen tentacles. In city areas there are robots who zap you with lasers and blade-wielding Heretic assassins who attack in groups. In the city of Yusnaan in particular, armored policemen hunt you down with rifles and "Flanitor police" pudding creatures providing backup.

The boss battles are even better. A very tense fight with Caius Ballad clocked in at 12 minutes for me. My fingers felt more like they were playing a rhythm game than an RPG. (I certainly felt punished.) The duel with Noel was similar; these are real-time battles of timing, attrition, and endurance in which you cannot stop moving or paying attention for a moment. Stuff is happening all the time, and everything that happens is just so… awesome.

Because of all this, combined with the sensory overload of gorgeous graphics, special effects, and a soaring musical soundtrack, Lightning Returns was a hilarious blast for just about all of the thirty-something hours I spent with it. The story may be ponderous on occasion, but the central characters are genuinely interesting, and the gameplay itself is great.

Speaking of sensuousness, a few of Lightning's various costumes are rather revealing. None of them are so risqué as to interfere with the game's "T for Teen" ESRB rating, but it is rather odd considering that Lightning is apparently asexual in other respects—she's the only major character in the XIII series without any hint of a love interest. When an NPC looking for fashion advice compliments Lightning on her amazing sense of style, Lightning says "what are you talking about? I don't know what you mean," as if unaware of her bright orange vinyl miniskirt with matching vest and boots. In another self-conscious moment, Lightning nearly backs out of a plan to infiltrate a stage show and replace an actress who had been portraying the Savior because… she doesn't want to dance in front of people. (How will she save the world?) But she overcomes this by winning a special evening dress (by defeating a giant beast in a tournament!) and wearing that dress to the audition in one of the game's most bizarro tongue-in-cheek moments.

It's unfortunate that Lightning Returns was criticized so harshly (mainly in the West, I gather) over the alleged salaciousness of these costumes, despite their actually serving in some instances to flesh out the characterization (sorry, the pun was unavoidable.) In other words, Lightning may be beautiful, but she's all business—ready to wage holy war at any moment, with the help of those fabulous getups.

The way I look at it, the Savior role itself—imposed on her by Bhunivelze—is one costume Lightning isn't entirely comfortable wearing. That she ultimately makes her own decisions on this score (literally by defying a male demi-God, who is also the final boss) carries much more weight in my view than a few glances at her wardrobe through censorious Western eyes. Would her characterization as a rough-and-tumble tomboy with balls of steel really be improved by more modest attire? At least, as it stands, we have a study in contrasts.

And so what if her boobs were enlarged a bit for the closing chapter of the trilogy? (I didn't actually notice this myself during my playthrough, but I did read about it afterward.) Again: So what? Perhaps I'm too mired in the 90s, but I thought the Tomb Raider kerfluffle had settled the issue: it's perfectly kosher for a female character to have nice boobs, long as she's in charge of her destiny and not some kind of walking stereotype. Now, the main thrust of the story here shows Lightning becoming an all-powerful Goddess and dishing out wave after wave of destruction upon 12-foot-tall scimitar-wielding living skeletons, twisted Arcangeli, giant two-headed dragons, and even other Gods in her struggle for salvation of the world. She can even slow down time to deliver maximum pain. (By the end of the game Lightning is so absurdly powerful, she can issue enough attacks to drop the game's framerate all by herself.)

Do you see where I am going with this? What exactly is the problem here, insofar as depiction of women goes? Can nothing in the story redeem Lightning's slightly enlarged breasts? Self-styled cultural critics were willing to weigh in decisively against the game even months before its release, decrying it as "objectification". I suppose that deciding to increase her breast size makes Lightning an object in the context in which that decision occurs (say, the marketing department at Square Enix.) But I thought I was supposed to look at a woman's accomplishments and respect her unique individuality and rights and lived experience as a person, not judge her boobs or notice or comment upon slight changes in their size.

The trouble is that "objectification" is, ironically, not objectively defined, and requires context. Are we now to recoil from ancient Hindu art showing goddesses with exposed boobs? We need to put Lightning's covered boobs in context too. And the truth is that one cup size doesn't amount to all that much, when set against the character arc of Lightning as a whole and against the veritable mountain of "girl-power" content on offer in the FFXIII series. High fashion and bare midriffs have been a big part of Final Fantasy since long before XIII, anyway—the men often have more jewelery and prettier hair than the women! (Plus—I'm pretty sure gal pals Fang and Vanille are lovers. It's kind of unspoken, but everyone seems to know.)

To restate: actually playing this game through will throw cold water on the idea of Lightning being treated as a sex object, either in story or gameplay, or even that Lightning Returns departs all that much in its treatment of women's bodies from the other mostly "T for Teen" rated titles in the franchise. It's normal for characters of both sexes to strike a dramatic pose with their weapons after each battle (or just at random other times) mostly assertive but occasionally playful. But overt eroticism is absent, and this (together with the storyline) should inveigh against any caricature of Lightning as a kind of locker room pin-up. The costume concept is not simply tacked onto the game like this. With Lightning Returns, Square Enix has revamped the Final Fantasy experience so that rapidly switching between different costumes and customizing them are fundamental gameplay mechanics. The costumes have different special powers and are thus key to choosing your your fighting style for each moment. The underlying "garb" is only one active component of a costume which includes a weapon, shield, accessory, bracelet, and more. Knowing the history of the franchise and Square Enix's love of all things pretty, it is hard to imagine the result not being outlandish and a little bit sexy.

While it is somewhat disappointing that we catch only glimpses of Lightning's inner contours, overall it doesn't detract much from the game that we are left wanting to know just a bit more about this pink-haired heroine's history and personality. And I would like to go back and see if there are any monsters or interesting side missions I missed. I suppose that's a microcosm of a response to a good game: it's over, but I want more battles and more Lightning! While I'll miss the character (and her English-language voice actress Ali Hillis), I'm definitely looking forward to the apparent further evolution of the Lightning Returns battle system in the upcoming Final Fantasy XV, and I won't soon forget my time with the XIII trilogy.


Awesome action-RPG battles with high degree of character customization

Large environments to explore

Great graphics and sound (though inconsistent in a few areas)

Pumping, eclectic soundtrack


Story can be ponderous and difficult to understand

A bit too much running around

Some frame rate drops

Wish the main story was longer

Overall rating: 8.5 out of 10

Author: David O'Toole

Created: 2017-03-21 Tue 17:38