Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.
As one note, I will repeatedly refer to Lightning Returns as XIII-3 in this review. Square-Enix made this bizarre numbering system, they can't drop it now just because it's getting silly.
With that said: The Final Fantasy XIII games are not very good.
Actually, they're really quite bad, on the whole. XIII had an utterly incoherent story interspersed between long periods of walking down corridors and pressing the 'A' button repeatedly; XIII-2 was cut from much the same cloth, and frustratingly its story – a convoluted yarn about time travel, chaos and parallel universes – had nothing to do with XIII's story about angelic interference, free will and a floating civilisation.
So coming up to XIII-3, a game which promised incoherent story, terrible gameplay and a ticking timer in the corner counting down how much time you had left before the game would just scream 'WRONG' and shut down on you, my hopes were not exactly sky high.
Having played it, my final verdict is that it's … okay.
It's never going to be amongst my top ten games. Or my top twenty. But having gone into it firmly set on hating it, I found the game growing on my quite quickly. The gameplay is a vast improvement on its predecessors, being more open world and having a battle system which involves choice and strategy, rather than just hitting the same button repeatedly. The plot is as disjointed and incoherent as its predecessors, maybe more so, and yet again has nothing to do with the previous games in its series (in this game, our protagonist Lightning has been appointed by God to save souls in preparation for the end of the world), but it had some interesting ideas which, in the hands of more skilled writers, could have amounted to a very interesting storyline.
It's odd, because it really should be a bad game. The ticking clock in the corner provides an unpleasant and unnecessary amount of pressure which saps out fun like a leech saps blood, but the varied gameplay and often not badly written sidequests manage to just tip it over the line into fun and engaging, especially when you do what I did and prepare an itinerary before every play session.
(The fact that I felt I had to do that is a problem, though, make no mistake.)
As a side note, Jesus Christ, what went wrong with Lightning's redesign? Why was there not an intervention? Why is Tetsuya Nomura still designing characters? For those who have not seen it, it involves a backless leather corset with incorporated shoulderpads over a backless leotard, double sideskirts, thigh high boots, and a cape. It is the most absurd thing I've ever seen.
The whole package comes together as a game which isn't great, and is riddled with problems, but isn't bad per se, at least if it's judged by the standards of mindless entertainment rather than art. What it is, however, is considerably lower in quality than what we might expect from the Final Fantasy series: The XIII series' immediate predecessor, XII, was a game that, while flawed, was undeniably excellent, combining interesting (if in need of fine-tuning) gameplay with a story that is best described as the child of Game of Thrones and Star Wars if written by Shakespeare and filtered through the entire Final Fantasy series prior to it. X, which came before that, was a fine if also imperfect game.
The XIII games have consistently represented a tremendous low point for the series, and while XIII-3 is an improvement, on account of the fact that it's actually enjoyable, it's not good enough to redeem this whole chunk of games.
I also have to wonder about why there's more than one XIII game in the first place. The plots of all three games have only tangential relations to each other, and often the process of linking any events in their storylines is a tortured and muddled task. That these games have been made into a trilogy, rather than each one standing on its own as separate Final Fantasy installments, seems less like good storytelling and more like an attempt to rescue the reputation of XIII – an attempt that more or less cripples XIII-2 and XIII-3.
It's a bewildering choice in an otherwise very celebrated franchise's history, and I'm rather glad that chapter of said history is over. Or ostensibly over: E3 is coming up, after all. Maybe Square-Enix's announcement will be 'Lightning Forever: Final Fantasy XIII.'?