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Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13′s ticking clock raises alarm bells

Tuesday, 11th February 2014 14:00 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 makes radical changes to the RPG franchise’s ever-evolving formula. Brenna politely applauds, but isn’t convinced.

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Lightning Returns: FF13

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Available on PS3 and Xbox 360 February 11 in North America and February 14 in Europe.

Pros:

– bold, interesting design that shows Squeenix isn’t afraid to experiment
– Schemata customisation system is great
– Lightning is a badass

Cons:

– quests and time limit system poorly communicated
– FF13 engine graphics seem pretty dated now
– difficulty spikes combined with auto-save and death penalties make Brenna very angry

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrases “looked good on paper” and “in theory, if not in practice”. Maybe you’ve had a few ideas or adventures that didn’t quite pan out the way you expected, even though when you were first inspired to pursue them, they seemed foolproof. There’s probably a terrific German word for this concept.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 would make an excellent poster boy for it. So many of the ideas in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 are good. On paper, in theory, they make a great game. Sadly, the end result is far less compelling than the sum of its parts.

I’m disappointed in this, because other parts of Lightning Returns are pretty great. I’m personally fond of trilogy’s characters, aesthetic and lore, and really like Lightning. The Schemata system is deep, customisable, flexible and very interesting – especially when you get good at switching on the fly, or craft a perfect set to tackle a nasty boss.

But over all of this there’s that wretched ticking clock. In Lightning Returns, the world is ending and there’s nothing you can do about it, but if you manage to complete the five main quests and a good number of sidequests, you can delay it to unlock the best ending, with various events and endings available for greater or lesser degrees of success.

The first time I heard about this feature I nearly started gibbering with interest. I love games with rules like this, like Dead Rising or The Path – limitations that encourage repeat playthroughs and wildly different approaches in order to see and do most of the content on offer.

Ideally, this kind of system makes every playthrough rewarding, and allows the player the fun of building up a complete image of the game as a whole via multiple fragments or slices. It’s ripe for exploitation in non-linear narrative situations. It’s the kind of design trope a jaded player like me really digs.

On the other hand, it does have this really excellent trailer.

It’s sort of an odd choice for the Final Fantasy series, though, which has always rewarded completionist play and grinding. It’s bold of Square Enix to force players to rethink their approach to playing a Final Fantasy game, something that has been on its mind for this entire generation of releases; Final Fantasy 13′s paradigm system was the beginning of Square Enix’s shift towards a more action-like gameplay system.

It doesn’t work very well, unfortunately. The ticking clock doesn’t discourage you from grinding; it just adds stress to an already uncomfortable experience. The problem is there’s simply not enough signposting to make your first playthrough a pleasant experience.

You have multiple main quests to juggle and little to no guidance as to which one to tackle first. Wandering new areas in pursuit of one or another quest single-mindedly you frequently come across content that is far too high level for you at the time, without having had any indication that you ought to have taken some time away from this particular quest to go get stronger elsewhere.

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The Schemata system is really cool.
Some of the costumes are super.

It’s not just about difficulty spikes, either; in the first of the main quests you’re funnelled towards, you’re tasked with collecting codes from around the city. The city maps aren’t exactly intuitive, and the sameness of many of the assets makes it easy to get lost. Looking for these codes as the timer ticks, wandering the same areas over and over again, is frustrating – especially as at this point you have just six days on the clock, and should therefore be aiming for finishing one major quest each day.

After wandering the city for a full in-game day – twice, actually; I reset my game and tried again – I turned to the internet for advice. It turns out the last code is in an area that isn’t available until after dark each day.

The idea is you get the ones you can, do some side-quests in the city, then go off and achieve something else in another quest or map, building your character up in the process, then come back at the appropriate time and proceed. You juggle multiple quests and use your time as effectively as possible.

I think that’s a pretty cool idea, but there’s nothing in-game to tell the player to do this; as far as you know, you just can’t find the bloody code because it’s in one of a dozen identical-looking alleys. I’m not the first or only player to have encountered this problem; in before “lol bad at games”.

Similar problems turn up everywhere. I never had enough money to clear out the shops, but their stock changed day to day. How was I to know what I needed most to face the bosses I’d come across in my current quest? Multiple side-quests were available to me, but I had no idea how long each one might take, or how efficiently it would help me achieve my goals.

Series fans will no doubt play the heck out of Lightning Returns, and many of them will enjoy it a great deal I’m sure. For the record, I’ve been on board since FF6, and have played every entry except FF11, FF13-2 and FF14. I like the franchise a lot.

Dave also expressed some serious reservations about Lightning Returns in his comprehensive preview.

I didn’t expect to see and do everything on my first playthrough. In any case, I’ve long since abandoned completionist play – I need to play as many different kinds of games as possible, so I just can’t take the time to 100% everything. But even with these low expectations, I was frustrated. Rather than being met by what felt like alternatives, missing content and failing to complete quests felt like major failures – especially as dying in battle shaves precious time off your game clock.

To me, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 is a game that cannot be enjoyed on first playthrough – and maybe successive playthroughs – without a game guide or walkthrough, and probably in easy mode. It seems designed to sell those glossy books retail staff are always trying to upsell you on. Most of the time, I’d argue that limitations are enabling – but in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13, they’re just limiting.

Like I said, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 sounds so good in theory. I enjoy games like Demon’s Souls that don’t handhold you too much, and like Don’t Starve that encourage you to interface with other fans to figure out its secrets collectively. I didn’t enjoy this one, though, and I’d be hard pressed to give it an unqualified recommendation.

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1 Comments

  1. Takeshi

    I can’t help but feel that S-E needs more communication when their own are developing.

    It’s like they just find some good ideas and then pull through to the end, and then find out whether or not it’s actually fun to play. Same with Final Fantasy XIII, did they play it themselves? I still haven’t played that game.

    #1 10 months ago

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