In my quest to explore, experience, and analyze the Final Fantasy XIII Trilogy, as seen in my reviews for XIII and XIII-2, I was dreading this installment. Not due to any quality concerns, but due to the time limit. I was horrified by the idea of being unable to do everything I can in a given amount of time. It was enough for me to go through this game with a guide to assist me, and I played the game on easy mode as well, because Square Enix actually recommended doing so.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS3, Xbox 360
Developers: Square Enix and Tri-Ace
Publisher: Square Enix
In describing the story of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Final Fantasy XIII-3: Clairevengance, I realized just how distant it is from the games that came before it. Because of events of XIII-2, the world fell into chaos, people ceased to age, new life could not be created, and the world has grown stagnant after 500 years. Because of this, Bhunivelze, a god of light only ever mentioned in passing within a datalog in prior games, decided that he is going to destroy the world and replace it with a new one. Seeing as how this took him so long, he naturally can’t be bothered to save the souls of the people, and instead recruits the guardian of the deceased goddess of death, Claire Farron, to act as humanity’s savior. Nice to see that Square Enix took that criticism about the storyline being too convoluted to heart.
In all seriousness, that is the crux of the story, and it thankfully does not get bogged down in the semantics of directionless time travel or the actions of inept characters who wandering around a poorly explained world aimlessly. You are the harbinger of souls, collect as many as you can in thirteen days to make god happy, and you should be able to piece together what happens from there, because it’s really quite predictable. Don’t get me wrong, the story is still muddled in poorly explored mythos and lore, most of which is centered around the setting being an isolated island where humans have been living for hundreds of years and how that interesting premise is mostly wasted, but at the very least it’s cohesive. …It’s sad that I legitimately consider that a compliment, isn’t it?
Beyond that your main story is split between five main quest lines dealing with recurring characters from the prior game. They manage to be mostly comprehensible, for the most part, but they also come across as very generic and boring. Investigate a cult led by an angry young man who was lied to. Find five macguffins to revive a sleeping child. Save a leader tormented by his lost lover. Go into a tomb and find an ancient artifact to save the world. They are acceptable, average, alright, but they also lack the more fascinating elements that come with a poorly told or conceived storyline, or the intrigue that comes with trying to comprehend how it turned out this way.
Thankfully, the side quests manage to be far more interesting. The premises are either absurd in and of themselves or the execution contains a very underplayed current of comedy and the humor comes from how straightly and seriously the material is taken. This is a game where you can help out a boy who’s turned into a cat, a baby chocobo who becomes a woman for a minute, a drunkard who you need to intoxicate in order to get some fireworks he made for a dead child, and a little robot who you teach about mortality before they die in front of the remains of his friends. I was genuinely looking forward for the next newly introduced character or stupid moment that had to be intentional on some level.
A big part of this is the performances from the English voice cast, who realized that this was a game where you could dress up a stoic young women in a dress covered in moogles, wearing a zebra-strived eyepatch, and wielding an oversized sword. Claire herself is supposed to be devoid of all emotion due to reasons, but through her deadpan delivery specks of sass and sarcasm shine through, and actually make her an enjoyable character. She’s like a big sister to most people, pointing out the obvious, lecturing to them, and taking action when need be. Claire has some attitude, and despite how weird it is for me to say it, I actually liked her character. Though, I would be lying if the overzealous outfit customization didn’t play a part in that.
I suppose I would call the story a pleasant surprise, but the gameplay is about as large of a departure from the original XIII as you possibly could without changing its genre entirely. All of XIII, including Gran Pulse, was designed very deliberately with a very transparent roadmap for the player that gradually distributed experience points, narrative progression, and generally not a lot to worry about. Clairevengenace throws the player into a complicated world with next to no guidance on what to do, where to go, how they should go about doing things, and throws a time limit on them so they know not to so much as take in the scenery. There’s shaking a series up, and then there’s changing every aspect on a fundamental level.
You have up to thirteen days to explore four main areas, discover the aforementioned five main quests, find and complete over fifty side quests, kill every monster, and collect every item you possibly can. It sounds horrifying, and it genuinely was for me, but I managed to do roughly 90% of it before the end of the fourth day. Mostly due to the guide and easy mode I mentioned in the introduction. If you aren’t using a guide, like I was for the first two hours, you are given some guidelines for storyline quests, but little else. It was a confusing and alienating experience in comparison to the lax and linear pace of most JRPGs, including XIII and XIII-2, and I genuinely have no idea who would want to go through it.
Especially on higher difficulties, where you do not recover health after battle, and must rely on a limited number of healing items, inns, restaurants, and EP. EP is your godsend throughout the game, a resource that can be used for dealing extra damage, healing, teleporting, and even stopping time for a short while. How do you get EP? You fight monsters. Seems simple, but you have a finite number of most monsters, and are encouraged to hold off on killing them, killing all of them that is, until the tenth day so they drop more and better items. Wouldn’t that make you underleveled? Not really. Enemies do not give any form of experience points, your stats only increase from either your equipment or in the form of quest rewards. So this is a game where you need to manage time, quests, and when you kill what enemies.
To make matters more confusing, the combat system has completely redesigned to a model I really do enjoy in theory. Claire is the only controllable party member, and can switch between three preset Schemas, each of which has four attacks that consume a certain amount of the recharging ATB meter. When you exaust one Schema’s meter, switch to another one, trying to expose an enemy’s weakness with your variety of attacks. I actually really enjoy this system in theory, but the execution left much to be desired.
Your movement speed is very slow, making dodging far more difficult and giving you more reason to dedicate a fourth of your slots to a guard command. Guarding also has a system where you can block an attack the instant before it hits to take less damage, but because of the visual business of the game, it can be very hard to discern when that perfect moment really is. There’s also this complex web of drops, infusions, leveling, and so forth that make up the creation of new abilities, which relies on mechanics that are more or less locked off from you in the New Game Plus that Clairevengenace is built around. If it isn’t clear by now, I find most of these design decisions to be baffling.
I prefer this to the monotonous auto-battle of the prior games, but I have to say that I prefer the prior two titles visually. With an increased scope in the world, the overall quality of the environmental assets in Clairevegenace is not that great. There are muddy textures aplenty, several models that don’t look quite right, and environments that are all takes on rather generic locales. Claire and the monsters still look great all things considered, as does the world when viewed as large set pieces, but then there is this dog.
At least the port performs better than the console versions, even though I failed to get the game run at any smooth framerate higher than 30. It can fluctuate to 60 but it never stayed there for too long, especially when in the two towns. There are also a series of minor visual options included, but they all bizarrely are tied to a menu bar that can only been viewed when playing in windowed mode, which I don’t understand the logic behind. It is a whole lot better than the abysmal XIII-2 port, but that bar may as well be laying on the floor.
All things considered, I genuinely did not enjoy playing Final Fantasy XIII-3: Clairevengeance. I don’t understand the appeal of its design, how I am intended to comfortably play it, and who it is for. It is a bizarre, alienating, and rather boring JRPG that encourages multiple playthroughs, the rationing of enemies, a walkthrough, and a level of micromanaging that I cannot condone. Despite numerous changes to the core mechanics that make for what should be a better game, it largely falls in line with the rest of this trilogy I invested roughly 150 hours into.
The Final Fantasy XIII trilogy possess some interesting elements, but its goals and vision are so obscured and execution so lacking that the story is best left forgotten. It’s boring and confusing above all else, and I was left regretting my decision to figure out just what happened in the series when I could have gotten that out of an hour of research. It wasn’t worth it, and I feel foolish for giving it a chance.