There's a lot of contention surrounding Lightning, the leading lady of the Final Fantasy XIII series. Some love her, some hate her, and a lot of gamers are caught in the middle. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a big game that's supposed to tie up the trilogy's loose ends and leave this console generation with a bang, so I called on Baker McDonald (who helped out a lot on the Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn review) and Victoria Holden (no idea who she is) to take a closer look at this game!
NATE: Okay, so! Thank you, both of you, for helping me out with this!
BAKER McDONALD: Absolutely!
VICTORIA HOLDEN: Screw this game, Nate! It's so hard!
N: God yes, but we'll get to that soon enough. So, quick introductions for everybody, please.
B: Howdy! I'm Baker (aka: Bjaker in the forums). It's a pleasure to be doing this co-op review with y'all!
V: SailorBee here! Happy to be able to play with Nate and Baker!
N: Thank you both! So, Baker and I talked about our Final Fantasy history in the Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn review, but Victoria, what's your history with the series? When did you start, what's your favorite, etc.?
V: So, my first introduction to the series was good ol' Final Fantasy VII (which I didn't play but watched my mom play). Growing up, we took turns playing and watching games, and watching her play FFVII was the first FF I'd ever seen. Also, my first real cosplay was Red XIII--no furry jokes, please.
AAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA too bad (not pictured: Victoria. Good job to whoever made this suit, though.)
My favorite in the series is Final Fantasy IX. I think it has some of the best music the franchise has to offer (even to this date) and the way the story slowly built your affection for the characters and then rips them away from you really plays up the emotive parts of what I think an RPG should offer.
After that, I played Final Fantasy X (this time, my mom watched me!) and we cried like babies. I then delved down into searching out and playing the first games in the series, as well as VIII (my least favorite)... and now I'm here today, playing the third game in the newest installment.
N: Awesome, IX doesn't get nearly enough love (although VIII is one of my favorites). Now, overall there's been a lot of back-and-forth about the XIII trilogy. I mean, I didn't care for Final Fantasy XIII much (until I got like twenty hours in), I actually really liked Final Fantasy XIII-2, and then we have this one. What are you guys' overall thoughts on the FFXIII "series" up to now?
V: I think it's super messy. I think they have great characters, but don't really know what story to throw them in to make sure the audience really gets to appreciate them. I actually really liked the first one (way more than the second), but it left me with a lot of questions, and the plot holes were huge. Luckily, I'm able to oversee those and look at what made it enjoyable. I like the characters a lot, but most of them were underdeveloped because not enough time was given to really get to know them. I GUESS I LIKE CHARACTERS
N: I don't see what the problem is--you can't tell a story without characters, and you can even tell NO STORY as long as the characters work.
B: I really enjoyed the first one a lot. I was ready to see what Final Fantasy on the PS3 would look like, so when it finally landed I was ready to dig in and get lost! XIII-2 was interesting. I felt like the story was meh, mainly because we were tossed a new lead/new main characters and I was like "where is the familiarity we built in the first one?!" I ended up really digging the battle system. I spent so much time refining my monsters.
N: Yeah, I think the real standout of the series has been the battle system. It's flexible and fast, but it has a lot of the almost-turn-based feel to it. There've also been a lot of changes in the overall presentation of the series--I mean, XIII was really on rails for the early part of the game (like twenty or thirty hours), and then XIII-2 felt more open and it left a lot of the exploration and figuring where to go to you. I think with Lightning Returns, they've hit this kind of balance with the hub towns.
V: I don't like that! I need guidance! That's why I like LR, because it gives you a bit of direction, but you still have to work for the next steps. And the battle system in this game is so great--it takes what was great about Xenosaga I-II and turns it into a fast-paced amazing battle frenzy. I also really like how much timing matters in the battles, it's a nice way to reflect the overall theme of the game's plot through the gameplay.
B: I'm very much the same way. I actually didn't mind how linear XIII was at all. Honestly, if you had one giant open map and then dropped XIII into it, it'd be like other Final Fantasy games. You still have your direction, A to B, but you just have more world to explore. But as far as the amalgamation of the two--more direction vs. open-world--I think they struck an interesting balance in this one. And adding in the aspect of time had me terrified at first.
V: This game is literally anxiety-inducing. I'm like so not ready for this kind of commitment.
N: I notice that you get punished for fooling around too much. The first real boss in the game is Noel Kreiss and his hilarious JNCO pants, and if you take him on around Day 7 or so instead of earlier like you should be, he turns into this monstrously strong freak of nature.
So, I'm taking a break from the discussion to just explain that Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII features hub towns, which Lightning can travel between using the train system or the teleportation abilities she later earns. Each hub has a main quest dealing with the game's story, tons of side quests with NPCs that you can talk to, and a request board called the Canvas of Prayers for even more content. Back to the round-table!
N: I did want to talk about how bleak this game's story is... or at least, how bleak it got. 'Cause it had some darkness before, but the first two still felt more like bright, clean-lined adventures. Now it's like... 500 years later, nobody's aged, no children have been born...
V: This game is pretty morbid.
B: Story is great. I'm through four of the five main plotlines and everything just keeps getting more and more unhappy. I'm very much reminded of Nier.
V: The storyline is actually super interesting. It's dark and scary, and makes me uncomfortable. ME, THE GURO QUEEN. I think I know where the game is going? Which would seem super dark to me, but the world is messed up, everyone is sad or on the brink of ending their life.
N: Nier was a really weird experience for me. And yes, Lightning Returns really does remind me of Nier in all the best ways--and I'm actually interested in finding out what happens next. Okay, so--the battle system, we keep bringing that up. Now, I feel it's kinda mashy... but not really in a bad way.
V: Oh, it's button-mash nation.
N: I mean, you have to put some thought into it, and make your Schemata right, but once you Stagger or launch, then you just wail on that attack button.
B: Just make sure you get your timing right! It makes me think of Final Fantasy VIII and Squall's Gunblade.
N: Exactly--it's easy to burn all your meters and leave you screwed mid-battle.
V: It's pretty crazy. Button assignment didn't seem like a big deal until I kept accidentally using Thundara on monsters that were immune to it. I burn them all out and end up using one move per meter, over and over. Also, the--what's it called?--the little meter that lets you Overclock in battle and cure, etc.--it's not enough!
V: Yeah! Almost said SP thanks to Bravely Default.
B: Something that I appreciate--and this is for the entirety of XIII as a whole--is that debuffs are actually substantial! Learning how to use them is very good.
N: Yeah, Deshell and Deprotect are two of my favorite abilities, and you really have to balance which classes do what.
V: OMG, the equipment in XIII is like, a dealbreaker. Everything is good, and Death actually worked.
B: Essentially, Lightning is a Pokemon in this game. She only gets four moves, and you have a team of three of her.
N: The whole game's a big balancing act. How much EP do you use to stop time? to Overclock in battle? to buy really good items from Hope? And the game is difficult enough that all of this matters.
V: I love Schemata, the dress-up aspect. It's so hands-on, essentially designing classes... that's so cool. It's a numbers game!
N: Oh yeah, and there are a lot of options for customization--different outfits, change all your colors, there are a bunch of cosmetic items like glasses and hats and pins, necklaces, earrings, wings...
V: Also, I enjoy the stupid hats you can throw on Light to completely take away the coolness from her Schemata garb.
N: Millionaire's Mustache is the greatest thing.
B: I just put mushrooms on her head.
V: Can we talk about the limited inventory?
N: Yeah, because carrying only six healing items on your person doesn't do shit. I keep having to run back and buy more, and that gets annoying. I mean, like I said, it can be a fairly difficult game sometimes.
V: This is the hardest game I've ever played that isn't Dark Souls. Or Flappy Bird.
B: It's true, the difficulty can be very unforgiving. It's a very strange balance of how far you can push yourself and not backing yourself into a corner.
N: And again, it all factors into the balance--how much time do you spend dying? I really love how leveling up is done through quests, and not farming enemies.
V: Oh, it is--SIDE QUESTS?! No wonder I'm so weak!
N: GO HELP SOME PEOPLE. THAT'S WHAT A SAVIOR IS SUPPOSED TO DO.
V: I was like "why am I not getting stronger?! I'm killing hella Nabbits!"
N: Yeah, Lightning has Gurren-Lagann powers. If people believe in her who believe in themselves etc. etc. she's crazy powerful. I do like how it's not really easy to make Lightning overpowered. I mean, low-level enemies die in droves, but tougher enemies require forethought, and timing, and planning. Changing subjects, there's the "Otherworld" features that let you share stuff online--screenshots, items, that kinda thing.
I think it's kinda cool--I've only come across people who've played the demo (well, we all have, because review copies), and the official Lightning Returns account, which had a pretty good sword for sale. The idea's cool, it's like Demon's/Dark Souls' online, kinda behind the scenes and not really forced on you.
B: I do like that! I've actually made use of a couple of the items demo folks are selling! X-Potions for 640 gil instead of 1 EP off of Hope.
V: I haven't used it at all. But I like seeing LINK TO TWITTER in my game settings.
B: Yeah, it's a really cool step! The one thing I like most is that it can beam your in-game sharing into cats, dogs, and sheep.
N: So, what problems have you guys had with the game? Because I wanna talk about Hope and his attachment issues. I'm getting sick of Hope calling all the damn time. LIGHT, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE NUMBERS. WATCH OUT, HE'S CALLED THE SHADOW HUNTER AND HE WANTS TO KILL YOU. HEY LIGHT, THIS IS THE BAD PART OF TOWN, DON'T MAKE EYE CONTACT WITH ANYONE.
B: I have actually yelled "shut up" at my TV when he started talking.
V: I tweeted that Navi sure sounds a lot like Hope.
V: HOW HAVE I NEVER SEEN THIS
N: Oh, and Lightning's quotes as she transforms can get pretty hilarious. "Do you dream of death?" It's a giant bug, Lightning.
V: "I'll make 'em dance..."
B: I love when she just shouts "Go to hell!"
V: The only thing I don't like is how hard it is, and how much anxiety it gives you. The time limits are so intimidating, and that combined with other in-game obstacles like timed gates that are only open at certain times of day... it creates so much anxiety that I'm like "why am I playing this game?" For me, I'm not into hard games. I'm not into being challenged. I play JRPGs mainly for the storylines, so I'm always playing on Easy Mode if it's offered. This game's Easy Mode is anything but easy, so I can't imagine playing it on Normal.
B: I really want Hope to talk a bit less. The start was really uncomfortable for me because of the added aspect of a countdown clock (PROTIP: use Chronostasis! A lot!). You do start off relatively weak, so even popcorn at the beginning of the game can kick your butt. If you push too fast, you can get caught with your back against the wall.
V: I don't mind Hope at all. He is literally my only friend, so his voice comforts me. Also, he's back to shota-mode so I'm like HELLO ~<3
N: (laughing) Yeah, Hope is one of the big issues I have with the game. While I really like having freedom and deciding how to use my time, I think that sometimes the game is a little too opaque with how you're supposed to go about things. It just comes back to the old JRPG saw of "talk to everybody and examine everything," and I don't mind that.
So overall, I think Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a good cap on the whole Fabula Nova Crystallis thing. I've had my ups and downs with the FFXIII "series," but I think this is a good way to close it all up.
B: It's a great way to round things out. Any beef that I had with XIII-2 is actually being addressed in this via the lore you accumulate, and then through the main story. If anything, this is making me want to revisit the first two?
V: How lazy, though... let's just end the world.
B: OR WILL THEY?!?!
N: Well, maybe in Victoria's game...
V: NATE, STOP
B: OH. The other issue I had: Tetsuya Nomura designs. 'Nuff said.
N: Yeah, that kinda goes without saying. I miss Yoshitaka Amano so much... although I never got tired of Akihiko Yoshida.
B: Ivalice art is amazing!
N: So, final question--what's next, gaming-wise? What are you guys working on?
B: I'll get back to poking around Final Fantasy XIV, and I'll probably be picking up Bravely Default.
V: I'm playing Bravely Default now, but highly highly highly anticipating Drakengard 3! I already ordered the Collector's Edition!
N: Awesome! I've got One Piece: Romance Dawn to work on, and then a short wait until Thief comes out. And that's everything! Thanks, guys, for all your help!
NATE'S REVIEW ROUNDUP
+ Challenging gameplay that keeps you on your toes, forcing you to constantly make snap decisions
+ Lots of options for customization, majorly affecting gameplay as well as cosmetic appearance
+/- You're given freedom to explore and pick your own objectives, but the game is sometimes not clear with its directions
+/- While more contained and less ridiculous, it's still a Tetsuya Nomura Final Fantasy, with all the good and bad that entails
- Hope needs to stop blowin' up my phone, yo, I know what I need to do
Will you be picking up Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII? What are your thoughts on the series as a whole? Sound off in the comments!