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Lightning Returns

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Lightning strikes way too many times!

   This month brought the end of the Final Fantasy 13 trilogy that I’m not aware many of us requested! This game is less than a month old, so I won’t touch on plot specifics. How many of us still play JRPGs for their plots, anyway? That’s a whole other beast, for a different post. Instead, this post will be focusing on the gameplay elements of this, well…game.

I imagine creating video game trilogies is a slippery slope, for a variety of reasons. You have to create a cohesive world, a tangible story that spans not just the typical forty hours, but upwards of a hundred, bare minimum. When you’re visiting the same base cast over the course of three games, you could rightfully expect to see considerable growth in the cast. Storytelling aside, however, I think we can expect the same consistency in gameplay elements. I’ve spent extensive time in FF13, I could stomach only one playthrough of 13-2, and am 3/4’s of the way through my Hard playthrough of LR. That being said, this has to be one of the most inconsistent trilogies I’ve ever played.

The battle system had a fair bit of tweaks between 13 and 13-2, but it was still reminiscent of the system that (in my opinion) was a remarkable evolution of the ATB system. Lightning Returns takes things into a wildly different direction by eliminating the rest of the party. With a few exceptions, you tackle the task at hand completely alone, and the Paradigm Shift feature has been replaced by letting the titular Lightning change her outfits and abilities mid-battle. This makes the loss of versatility that a full party would provide a bit less of a sting, and adds a fair bit of customization in giving you (almost) free reign over what parameters and abilities each outfit has. Each garb has, on average, one or two abilities “locked” onto the garb, around which you base the garb’s role. No more Ravager, Saboteur, Commando…you can build a magic-centric role that specializes in debuffs, but has an AoE elemental spell in to boost the Stagger gauge and deal damage. Your melee bruiser can leave a spot available for Deprotect, so he isn’t reliant on another role to optimize his damage. It’s an interesting twist on the battle system, and considering their insistence on limiting you to one character I’d say it works well. I recall statements earlier in the game’s development claiming it eschews the traditional turn-based system in favor of being more action-oriented. I was a bit skeptical when I initially heard this, but when I played the demo I was pleasantly surprised. When I hear “action-oriented RPG”, I think Kingdom Hearts. This game retains most of its ATB system, and despite missing two party members, it retains the structure of its predecessors. It crept toward the realm of ARPGs in a few ways, namely time-based attacks and defenses, and the ability to move in combat. Regarding the former, plenty of RPGs have incorporated timed attacks and defenses into their gameplay; Super Mario RPG and the Shadow Hearts trilogy, to name a few. Regarding the latter, Lightining’s movement speed is so slow that with the exception of a few attacks, the movement aspect does little more than keep all enemies in frame so you can time guards.  You get a select few abilities that displace Lightning in a select direction and can make for some crafty dodges, but the movement aspect sees little use otherwise. I found myself treating the game as its predecessors and disregarding the movement speed due to its slow rate. If I come back to Lightning Returns, I’ll experiment with Fatal Sweep and Evade (displacers) and Sniper’s Gloves (long-distance damage boosting accessory), but the abilities were simply too infrequent to give accolades to the movement system.

Compared to its predecessors, the amount of customization in Lightning Returns absolutely DWARFS the previous two games. Aside from the aforementioned role customization, they imported the cosmetic Adornment system from 13-2. Instead of putting a wind-up knob in a Behemoth’s skull, however, it’s Lightning’s! I’m not sure if that’s better or worse. Some of the adornments mesh very nicely with the myriad of outfits, others will never see the light of day.  The garbs themselves have a surprising degree of color customization, as well. On more than one occasion I found myself changing the outfit colors to match my hat, hair ribbon, or absolutely fetching Tonberry lantern. Lots of fun there, to be quite honest. Aside from a garb’s default colors, you can save three different custom color layouts. You also have a limited amount of customization with passive bonuses on abilities, but I’ll comment on this later.

Now, things are going to get a lot less pretty. The not-so-awesome changes, and the could-have-been-so-much-better changes. The battle system change brought with it a couple of baffling side-effects. Let’s start from the beginning…one character. You control Lightning as she performs her duties leading to the end of the world.  I can understand why you control her alone at the beginning, but as the main quests progress I see little reason why you must engage the rest of your crusade alone. To add insult to injury, the NPCs that could very well be flushing out a party and adding gravity to your quest can be found sitting around their towns, doing absolutely nothing.  When you spend the entirety of the first game banding together against a cruel fate, and the entirety of the second game amassing help from creatures to fight your way through time…why are people just sitting around town letting me do all the work? A little effort here, guys.

But the down and dirty is that you do, in fact, control one character. Which means one death is the end of the fight, unless you use consumables to revive or valuable EP to Arise. The three different active garbs have varying HP values, so your HP can fluctuate wildly as you switch from garb to garb. The biggest point of confusion is the withdrawal of Cure spells. You have a few quirky ways to restore your health, as well as the standard potions (in limited capacity). You could also opt to use your limited EP to heal, but with the other uses of EP it’s difficult to expend it on healing. In Easy mode, you gradually restore health outside of combat. It is confusing to me that, with the drop to a single character, why they would tear the staple healing spell from your repertoire. You’ll be glad to know that the game is balanced enough that Cure spells aren’t -required-, but it’s yet another omission that ostracizes the game from its predecessors.

Yet another violent jarring from what we’ve been accustomed to, is the time limit. Yes, the elephant in the room.  At first, the time limit put a whole lot of stress and pressure on me; you finally cut the reigns and let me do things by the beat of my own drum, but impose a time limit on me? By its very nature, it discourages exploring the open world they finally incorporated. And to an extent, that’s true…until you learn to abuse an early-gained ability called Chronostasis. This is the reason why it’s so difficult to warrant spending EP on Curaga (unless you’re playing on Easy mode…you’re swimming in excess EP, then). You can chain Chronostasis, yes…but then you’re limiting your EP expenditure to remove an arbitrary time limit, which means you aren’t checking out all the other abilities. I’m almost through the game twice and haven’t touched a handful of the abilities. I’ve only used Army of One on accident. When you put a death counter over the head of the player, a lot of us are going to clutch our EP for “oh crap” moments, even when it’s clear they won’t be needed.  I understand the story’s reason for putting a doomsday clock, but it could have just as easy tackled the day situation the way RPGs have for years; days end when you sleep at an inn, or in this case trigger an ability to return you to the Ark and end the day. The story gets its sense of impending doom, and the gamers wouldn’t have been frustrated and rushed through their first playthrough.

I have two huge grievances with gameplay elements of this game, and I’ve saved them for last. First, the levelling system. Talk about a huge step backward.  FF13 is tied with FF10 for what was, in my opinion, the best levelling system in the series. Customization from the ground up, right down to stat distribution as you level. You can beef up aspects according to what role the party needs at any pending obstacle, it was great. Then, FF13-2 completely gutted and dumbed down the system; it was disappointing, but still bore some resemblance to 13’s Crystarium. Then Lightning Returns came along and completely crapped on any sort of customizable character growth with their 3-point fetch-quest-based level system. Instead of killing monsters to gain points to allocate to stats in different roles, you go buy sunglasses at four PM for someone whose too shy to talk to his crush. Then you get a few HP, a couple points of strength and magic, and move on to foot-racing an eight year old to the train station.  Maybe after that you’re up for fetching a book for a goddamned message board. They call them ‘side quests’, but that insinuates that they are optional. And in a sense, they are…if you’re okay with absolutely zero stat growth, by all means ignore them. But if you want the sense of growing more powerful during your travels, gaining the might needed to overcome increasingly difficult obstacles then, by God, I hope you’re ready to sample food from six different restaurants and become a connoisseur of gourmet foods. Never mind the fact that you killed half a dozen eight hundred pound behemoths getting between towns, that doesn’t mean anything. If you want to increase that magical might, you had better be ready to go plant vegetable seeds! To be clear, I have nothing against quest experience; anything that diversifies how you strengthen your character gives you the option to spice things up a bit. But when the only way to level your stats is to accomplish a handful of bland, uninspired quests, there’s a problem. You discourage grinding, and while I’m all for giving alternatives to grinding for level gaining, just removing it altogether is absurd. The problem leads to an effective stat ceiling, and I’m certain I’m not the only gamer out there who thoroughly enjoys grinding to hilariously overpowered levels and dropping bombs on bosses. FF13 had stat ceilings as well, and I was about as fond of them then as I am now.  The level system was nothing short of a travesty. I suppose it’s just as well, considering grinding would be restricted in the game by way of the new Extinction mechanic. This has its ups and downs; the idea that your systematic killing has a lasting effect is kind of nice. The final specimen of a species is stronger, drops more gil and much better loot, so driving monsters extinct has a certain appeal. Just don’t think too much on the moral implications of what is essentially poaching. The other downside is that as you drive monsters extinct, you drive them extinct. No more farming EP to keep Chronostasis rolling, no more farming specific Abilities on later days, they’re gone until your next playthrough.

While I’m on the subject, allowing players to drive a creature extinct that only drops certain items on later days is pretty cruel. Giving the player no in-game indication that they drop said items later is even more cruel…unless I was mis-reading it, I had items listed on the bestiary page that were greyed out. I assumed I was unlucky and kept farming for said item, until the creature was extinct. I hopped onto a message board, only to find that they only drop those items on Hard mode. Oh, okay then. Two or three EP sources extinct and I had to rely on the internet to tell me what was going on? It seems inconsistent, because I’ve had other greyed out items drop; it was a matter of not yet acquiring the item. That makes sense. I can understand that you want to strong-arm us into a replay, but would it have killed you to leave the item drop spots blank, so I don’t farm them into extinction? Having to budget time and freaking monsters as a resource is bad enough, I’d have liked a bit of consistency in when I’m farming for something you won’t even drop in this game mode.

Speaking of forced replay value, my second biggest gripe is that they took the fun out of levelling; that’s pretty awful, but I soldiered on. In FF13 and FF13-2, you level your characters and their weapons and accessories alongside them. In Lightning Returns, you can upgrade weapons and shields, too! That is, after you’ve already beaten the game. Yes, in New Game +, you unlock the ability to do what you could do right at the beginning of the first and second FF13. In the same game that they absolutely eviscerated a decent level system, they also tore the ability to level your equipment until you’ve already beaten the game once. In a game whose overlying theme is restriction restriction restriction, expecting your players to stick around for a second playing is more than a little presumptuous.

The cons outweigh the pros, but when you get over the disappointment of what it could have been had it kept the strengths of the previous games, it’s mediocre in its own merit. If you’re on the fence, give it a few months; you will definitely see a sharp price drop.

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