Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is visually impressive. Let me start there, because no matter where someone stands on the rest of this video game―its long-running series and numerous spin-offs―there's no denying eye-popping prettiness when you see it. In fact, by the time I reached the bombastic and vibrant cosmic battles at the end, I couldn't keep myself from whispering "wow" at the rich visuals the gamemakers had splashed the screen with.
But beauty can be, as they say, only skin deep. And I was whispering far less flattering things during the rest of the game's 40-plus hours of play.
One More Fantastical Finale
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (or, as the kids are saying these days, LR:FFXIII) is the conclusion of a trilogy of games that began with 2009s Final Fantasy XIII. What are they about? A dense and often confusing Japanese role-playing tale that focuses on a group of giant sword-swinging heroes and mankind's struggle against Eastern mythology-inspired deities.
In this, uh, final fantasy of the trilogy, for instance, a young woman named Lightning has been waked by "God" after a 500 year nap. This god is named Bhuniveleze and wants the skillful Lightning to work as his "Savior"―a servant who must rescue as many human souls as possible so they can be reincarnated on a new world he's creating for them.
Lightning is being nudged into this service by the promise that her dead sister Serah will be given new life. And she's being helped along her path by a former friend named Hope, who's manning a moon base central command post that exists outside of time and houses Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life.
Well. There's a lot more to it than even that―and scores of very, very long-winded character conversations to reveal it―but the basics are all I have time to write about here. (And all you really want to read about.) So suffice it to say that there are 13 days left until the current human world is destroyed and the new one starts purring into life. Let the questing begin!
Watch the Clock …
Gameplay is a second-by-second balancing act. How much time should you use on each job? One massive quest may reap large rewards but eat up so much time that you fail to get to other vital bits. Because against that ticking clock backdrop you must explore the massive open sandbox world before you, speak with its inhabitants, perform quests for them and/or satisfy whatever else is required to free their souls. The task of deciding who is to be saved is yours and yours alone. And there is, of course, never enough time to save everyone.
In the midst of that solemn choosing, gamers must also keep track of something called Eradia, a substance that can be fed to the Tree of Life to keep the current world spinning just a bit longer. All the while, players must learn how to master the game's combat system―which comes down to accumulating the right accessories, outfits, shields and weapons to square off with whatever monster, robot or human foe comes their way.
… And Clock Your God
Hacking at the hundreds of heavily muscled, gnarled beasties, floating ghosts, beam-blasting robots and giant sword-wielding humans is a near-constant activity. The fights themselves are a series of sword thrusts and slashes accompanied by brightly colored flashes, but some cutscenes also show piles of corpses, pools of blood and characters impaled.
For a T-rated game, there's quite a bit of skin revealed by the various female characters, too. The high-def camera doesn't shy away from ogling bikini girls and Lightning's leather-strap battle outfits that leave her chest, side and backside partially exposed. The dialogue is sprinkled with "b‑‑tard," "h‑‑‑," "d‑‑n" and "a‑‑."
But the largest content issue here is the convoluted spirituality that I've already started scratching the surface off of. There are cultists trying to stave off the end of the world with human sacrifices. There are "godly" orders willing to destroy souls in order to save their own. There are all manner of odd demon-like foes. And there's a big game-ending battle between "God" and "Us."
Although "God" is painted initially as an all-knowing being who's set on the "renewal" of mankind, it turns out that this version is actually a self-serving and quite evil entity. "There's no place for God here now!" Lightning yells out. And by game's end, our female protagonist and her friends must come together, "uniting their love" to ultimately create a perfect human world without any of the old world's need of or belief in things of the divine.