Full Disclosure: I thoroughly enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2.
When Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII was first announced, I can’t say I was exactly thrilled, but I also had no reason to be disappointed or upset. This turned to cautious optimism when an awesome Collector’s Edition was announced (which I did purchase). I spent plenty of time with FFXIII and FFXIII-2, and enjoyed both games. While the predecessors were certainly flawed, the flaws were fairly minor and easy to overlook when you consider the package as a whole.
Lightning Returns is what you get when you combine these flaws into a single, awful game.
Do you enjoy taking your time with RPGs? Do you enjoy finding every chest, easter egg, and hidden boss? Great! Lightning Returns has introduced an artificial ticking time bomb that poorly ties into the story. Something about God destroying the universe and re-creating it, but with the souls Lightning redeemed. Or something.
When the timer runs out, the game ends… again, or something. I don’t remember, because I grew sick of the game before I could burn it to my memory. There ARE ways to extend this timer, but at the cost of certain battle enhancements and other game mechanics that seem to be slapped on haphazardly. This becomes more of a problem if you want to do any side missions, as they have to be carefully balanced with the time limit. Completing one quest may lock you out of another because of these time constraints.
Did you enjoy the mix of Active Time Battle and Character Class switching that were a staple in the first two games? Great! Lightning Returns has severely watered that down, limiting you to one character. It turns out that this is even worse than it sounds when combined with the other battle mechanics.
For instance, the only way to do a reasonable amount of damage to an enemy is to ‘stagger’ it, which is accomplished by chaining abilities (most efficiently by chaining abilities while switching to another class to continue the chain). This is now incredibly tedious in Lightning Returns, since you only have one character, and the time gauge loads slower than a Pennsylvania driver.
Did you find the characters in Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 hit or miss? Great! Lightning Returns takes the worst character in any Final Fantasy game ever, Hope, and makes him a main story NPC.
Better yet, they decided that, after making adult Hope bearable in FFXIII-2, they would scrap their progress and turn him back into an annoying kid. The game also takes a complete 180 with Lightning’s character, transforming a strong, level-headed heroine into a God-fearing lackey. The very same heroine who figuratively spent the last two games giving the middle finger to various godlike entities. Any other character who seemed remotely interesting are either missing or repurposed into some weird plot point (Minor spoiler: Snow is a bad guy now who runs some kind of Sin City thing. Huh?).
I have to admit, I didn’t beat this game. In fact, I didn’t even get very far into it. I played it for close to eight hours before deciding it is one of the most disappointing games in recent memory. I REALLY wanted to like Lightning Returns. I kept telling myself that it may get better, but it never did. The most fun I had with the game was customizing Lightning’s outfit, which also altered her battle abilities. The Collector’s Edition is also pretty awesome, but it seems to be more lovingly crafted than the game itself.
TL;DR – Lightning Returns is a hodgepodge of odd game mechanics, a poorly integrated story, and boring characters. If you haven’t played this game, you haven’t missed anything. Unless you REALLY like dress-up, that is.