Review: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13-3

Here I am, a full six months early with my review for Final Fantasy 13-3, wondering what the hell it is I just played. Sure, it says Final Fantasy on the box. Sure, it’s got all of the characters from the last 2 games, and even some of the mechanics. Wow though, I mean wow. What the hell did I just play?

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After the Pokemon style mechanics of the last game, I was ready for anything. Anything is just what I got. You find yourself acting as a literal Jesus, saving souls for a robot god in the sky. The gameplay embraces this mythos whole-heartedly. You’re 13 days from the end of the world, and it’s your job to save as many souls as possible. This means, almost without fail, that you’ll be collecting items dropped by monsters scattered throughout the world. That and clothes shopping. The few times you’re not out literally committing genocide (more on this later), you’re collecting items dropped by the NPCs whose souls you’re trying to save. Following? Let me break it down for you, you’ll be backtracking and grinding and changing clothes.

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This is an odd sort of grinding though. Abilities are found by killing monsters, as is gold. You never “level up”. Your health and action points are determined by the clothes you’re wearing, and your base points. In a typical Japanese style RPG, you’d be steadily gaining levels, health, and action points by earning experience and killing monsters. It’s a tried a true formula: kill monsters, earn experience, level up, repeat. Final Fantasy 13-3 chucks that right out the window. You directly earn health and ability points through saving souls. This means completing quests is the most direct way to “level” your character. It’s an odd choice for a Final Fantasy game, but in weird way it kind of works. You’ll still be grinding though, big time. You just won’t be grinding for heath and XP. You’ll be grinding for time, and item drops. Oh, and genocide.

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Yeah, genocide. As you’re playing a Jesus figure at the end of the world, a lot of morally questionable options become available to you. One of them is to literally wipe out every last creature of every single species of wild animal on earth. All of them. In some cases this is just a few, in most cases it’s many dozens or hundreds. In one case it’s over sixty thousand. As you don’t get experience for killing these monsters (just item drops,) if you wish to complete this quest you’ll be spending a lot of time just murdering monsters for the sake of it. That’s pretty grim, and the very definition of grinding. Again though, it kind of works. It also opens up some fresh possibilities, especially in the end game. In most RPGs, you never run out of monsters. Ever. So even at level 9999 with all your stats maxed, walking across the land is still an exercise in tedium and pointless battles. This game gives you the option, however tedious, of completely wiping out the monsters in your favorite haunts. With a little time invested, you can have a monster-free experience while saving those last few souls.

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You’ll also earn a hell of a lot of cash while you’re out there eradicating entire species. This is perfect for buying just the right kind of outfit for your fighting style. As you play one character (eponymous fan favorite Lightning,) you’ll be buying clothes just for her. During battle you switch from a set of three main outfits, each that you’ve previously filled with moves and spells and just the right sword to match that dress. There’s a surprising depth to the clothing (armor) system in this game. At first glance it seems like just another “dress up your character” type minigame, but it’s actually the primary mechanism for customizing your play style. Sure there are the cheesecake bikini costumes that fanboys and fangirls gravitate towards, but there are also the throwback retro costumes from previous games, costumes from enemies, furry costumes, animatronic ears and tails and all sorts of things that would feel right at home at your nearest anime convention.

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I mean, it’s not like this is an excellent game. The story is half-assed and drops a lot of plot threads, while simultaneously summing up a lot of intricate story details with a wave of the hand and “because love, or something.” It’s a fun story though, and one that dares to take some storytelling risks that previous games in the series would have avoided. The graphics sparkle, and the music is a fun mix of heavy metal and classic Final Fantasy tunes. The directors of this game clearly had a lot of fun with the audio as well, sprinkling in references and re-imaginings of old Final Fantasy standards in new styles.

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In a way, that’s what Final Fantasy 13-3 is, a re-imagining of Final Fantasy standards in a new style. It wasn’t the Final Fantasy game I was expecting, and I didn’t think it would hold my interest after the paltry 5 main quests, but somehow, 35 hours later, I find myself looking back on it with a kind of reverence. What a trip I just had, so strange, so different. I give Lightning Returns a surprise 73/100, quite an experience if you can ride out the strangeness.

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