The brilliant new combat-system and the bold new design, which ventures away from what we’re used to from the series, making Lightning Returns one of my favourite Final Fantasy’s. The experience as a whole however, is not the smoothest, almost as if the game wasn’t quite finished. Lightning Returns does move towards reinventing the series, for which I am glad, but it could’ve been polished up and smoothened out.
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Distributor: Megarom Interactive
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
Also available on: Playstation 3
If we had to give it a numerical score: 7.7/10
What I liked
- Bold new design
- Combat system
- Plethora or weapons and items
Not so much
- Playing against the clock
- Graphics and presentation could use an overhaul
- Sound and score – if you’ve heard one Final Fantasy, you’ve heard them all
- Can be bone-crushingly difficult at times
Gameplay and Features
Lightning Returns wonderfully fast-forwards to 500 years after the events of the previous game in the trilogy. I say wonderful, because the first couple of hours are filled with a charming account of the events that lead to that point – the end of the world. Lightning has been chosen by the God of Light, Bhunivelze, to save as many souls as possible within 13 days, to make the transition into the new world. I loved the bold new angle on the story as I found the trilogy’s storyline until now a little forgettable. I loved the new, darker and desperate mood. I loved what happened in the interim, how Lightning and everyone got to this point. From the word go – the new demise had me intrigued.
It wasn’t all peaches and roses though from the word go though. While the battle-system was better than ever, the introductions to all the gameplay systems were coming off a bit tedious for good couple of hours into it. So much to read, jumping around in true perplex, Japanese-style. Was I going to get the hang of it all? Fortunately I would come to terms with it all – the game unrecognisable to those gone by in many ways, but I would find out it that it would be for the better.
The headliner here is the new combat-system which is less turn-based than before. The combat happens instantly now – Lightning can strike, use magic and defend at the push of a button. The entire controller’s facia is used for instant attack or defence. So hitting the B button for example, instantly strikes the opponent. Players hold in the button to carry on striking until the attack-gauge is depleted. It’s the same story with magical strikes and blocking is now either carried out by holding the button down, or engaging a perfectly timed block which will allow the counter to be a little more powerful. There is still the ability to Stagger, and different foes are still susceptible to different magic or attacks. There’s also the pre-emptive strike ability to remind you of the previous systems, but the abandonment (just about) of the traditional turn-based gameplay gives Lightning Returns a completely new feel, and for the better.
You can map out three sets of combat styles or ‘Schemata’. Each with a magic attack, weapon attack and defence. The game really opens up with the more weapons, magical abilities and items that you gather, in true RPG style. This is where the charm is found, and there’s plenty here. Each Schemata features different characteristics and strengths, and can be tailored to suit different battles or foes. This aspect of the game alone made the experience such an engaging and rewarding one for – again, a trait of a good RPG. I loved that there’s so much to collect, try out and mix and match. The trial and error of it all made for entertaining hour after hour.
Now for the less than stellar bits. Firstly, the production qualities are not quite as genteel as games in the past. When I think Final Fantasy, I think polished to the last tee. Lightning Returns is not – not just in the graphical sense, but the gameplay hiccups here and there and there’s a lot of rough edges. This is compounded by the fact that the game jumps around – not only as do normal RPG’s when you open up side-mission after side-mission – but the playing against the clock aspect, and having to be somewhere at a certain time. I found this a little illogical. I mean the joy with RPG’s is getting lost probing around, and getting deep into side-missions or just wondering around. Lightning Returns makes you be choosy with what you do, and I couldn’t stand having to drop what I was doing, to be somewhere else. Fortunately not only can you set points of interest on the map, but you can even scribble personal notes on the map itself. So admittedly, the ‘time thing’ drove me up the wall for the longest time, but once I got used to using the map and its tools, it became manageable.
I am sure some will argue that while it looks and sounds just like a Final Fantasy game, and I am actually saying that in disapproval, it doesn’t play just like a Final Fantasy game. While I am disapproving of this on the visual side of things and the way it all sounds, it feels like the series went nowhere in all the years. I do however like that the developers are definitely trying new tricks. While the battle-system is quite different, there are still some core Final Fantasy elements which I loved about the series. Little things like how different foes will require different forms of attacks and magic attacks. This whole aspect felt like any other in the series. There were those battles where it just seemed like I couldn’t possibly defeat a foe, then after a little examination, some adjustments and the sun shines through. I also loved that with Lightning Returns you can even purchase notes on how to defeat the various foes. The gameplay as a whole is balanced despite being rough round the edges. There’s a lovely blend of recognisable Final Fantasy elements, and then more than enough new surprises that just need a touch-up here and there, but ultimately work.
While my introduction to the new combat-system was instantly gratifying and instantly enjoyable, the game itself was anything but love at first… play. The gameplay as a whole, coming to terms with the new systems and such, was a long hard-slog. It felt like a week worth of tutorials. Fortunately after persevering, one of my favourite Final Fantasy experiences was to be found. Some of the traditional and stale J-RPG traits have commutated to a more Western flavour, and as a whole, Lightning Returns is a bold new direction for the series. Finally a Final Fantasy title that actually leaves me fulfilled. The experiences was not without its nuances, but the satisfying and engaging combat, the unconventional progression system and the elegant narrative went a long way to distract me from anything that could’ve spoiled the affair.
Read about our ratings here.