It goes without saying that the Fabula Nova Crystallis series has been anything but ordinary. With the action-based combat of Type-0, the shockingly divertive conventions of XIII, the catch-em-all inspired mechanics of XIII-2 and now the let’s-play-dress-up adventure that is Lightning Returns, it would seem that practically every game including the strong, silent heroine has been created with intentions to deliver an outside-the-box experience. While this approach has certainly divided fans, one can’t deny that Square Enix is at least trying to shake up an aging formula. And it would seem that with each iteration of Lightning’s journey, the games try new things, adding to the base formula implemented back in 2010 with the mainstay title while also subtracting bits and pieces along the way. Ultimately it’s the players who have been tossed this way and that, expected to adjust to each installment’s wild ideas and cliché-breaking tactics; and to say that it has been a roller coaster ride all the while would be an understatement.
What’s most interesting about Final Fantasy XIII, XIII-2 and Lightning Returns is how each title executes its design philosophy. Some games perform better than others in particular areas, while others pale in comparison to its sequels/prequels. But the real question is, now that we have the trifecta in-hand, which of the three is the best game? It’s a question that’s on the minds of many gamers, really. And so, we are destined and determined to answer that exact query. So, we took to a “versus” article to see just which game reigns victorious when put up against its two brethren. That’s what today’s feature article is all about: which Final Fantasy XIII game is the best Final Fantasy XIII game. We will be evaluating and subsequently ranking the games in terms of six key categories: story, characters, gameplay, combat, replayability and presentation.
So without mincing any further words, let’s start this.
The story that spans all three Final Fantasy XIII games is, at best, compelling and full of potential, while, at worst, an incomprehensible disaster. The base game seems to mostly steer clear of the mess that gets introduced in the sequels, opting out of a narrative that pulls in time-travel and performing God’s will, and instead focuses on delivering a tale that is character-driven and devoid of unnecessary fluff. While XIII‘s plot is very Final Fantasy — which means the usual tropes are present: destiny, free-will, the strength of friendship in the face of adversity, defying insurmountable odds, etc. — it manages to feel extremely unique amidst its lineage that also confronts very similar ideologies. The concepts of fal’Cie and Cie’th, Focuses and the entire Fang-Vanille reveal… Well that’s when the game’s storytelling is at its apex, giving way to an artistic approach that understands how to give players just enough information to keep them pushing forward, while not too much to the point of overwhelming or heavy-handedly foreshadowing future twists.
But what’s even more significant when talking about XIII‘s narrative is its message. This is a game about perseverance, acceptance and, above all else, forgiveness. These thematic undertones are prevalent throughout the adventure, showing audiences the importance of finding meaning in personal suffering, showing empathy for others’ pain, figuring out how to make room for the deaths of those we love most, as well as learning that growth is most evident and profound in the fall, not the conquer. While these topics certainly get lost at times, against all the other moving pieces — and even come off as a little too preachy at other moments — one cannot deny Final Fantasy XIII‘s willingness to tackle such large, existential experiences. For that reason alone, the title feels the most humanistic of the baker’s dozen of headline entries, clearly making up for any deficits that might present themselves in the department of gameplay.
Unfortunately, such praise can’t be said for XIII-2, which is criminally incoherent and about as easy to understand as learning quantum theory from a wild brown bear that gives lectures with a mouth full of trout. The time-traveling hooks are what break the experience as they are anything but interesting, riddled with glaring plotholes and contain more jargon that you can shake a stick at. Sure, the narrative’s intentions are in the right place, and everyone loves a good Empire-Strikes-Back, the-bad-guys-win plot, but the story writers very apparently lost their way when trying to build upon the already transcendentally ponderous concepts introduced in the first game. What we’re left with then is an absolute mess of a plot that is a headache to try and make sense out of.
Thankfully, Lightning Returns gets back to its source material while simultaneously attempting to amend all the nonsense introduced in XIII-2. Thus, the title spends its time trying to make the second game make sense, while also providing nostalgia for those who have been around since 2010, in addition to developing its own ideas and identity. Although it too can meander off into the land of Twilight Zone obscurity, it usually is self-aware to the point of being able to reign itself in when it starts getting too far off the beaten path. Not to mention, the story comes back to Lightning, whom was replaced in XIII-2 with her younger, less intriguing sister Serah. That being said, Returns is also the most light-hearted of the trio, presenting plenty of side-quests that range from the head-scratchingly absurd to the head-scratchingly hilarious. Moreover, being able to watch dramatic cutscenes unfold with Lightning in a garb made strickly out of stuffed moogles is just plain fantastic. But even with all that craziness that can happen in those secondary quests, the mainline story has more than its share of touching moments and amazing voice work that hammers home those emotion-filled crescendos.
Runner-up: Lightning Returns
As mentioned, the original XIII is a character-driven science fiction opera. It’s main story is almost always playing second fiddle to the real star of the show: its cast. XIII sports an eclectic roster of personalities that each have endured their own exclusive tragedies: Sazh and his boy, Snow and Serah, Lightning and Serah, Hope and his mother, Fang and Vanille’s guilt over summoning Ragnarok… Every character has experienced deep trauma of some kind, and spends the majority of the adventure trying to find a way to cope with the resulting emotional distress. The burden that each carries is what links them, but also what creates so much tension at times; nevertheless it’s the cast’s ability to convey that resonate emotional scarring that makes each character and interaction so memorable.
And then there are the actual personalities themselves, which are diverse to say the least and thereby create excellent big-moment sequences when they intertwine: Lightning’s hard-edged attitude colliding with Snow’s baffling sense of optimism, which in turns fans the flames of resentment from young Hope who then spends half the game plotting how he will kill Snow after blaming his mother’s death on him. It’s an intense melodrama that could have come off as “too much” but in turn comes off as powerful and evocative.
XIII-2 continues this trend of presenting characters that players actually care about. While Serah herself isn’t very interesting, her flanking cast is top shelf, especially the morally ambiguous Caius Ballad and Serah’s compassionate, relatable companion, Noel Kreiss. Although some returning characters make an impact as well — Snow and Hope come to mind first and foremost — it’s hard to dedicate time talking about them when Noel and Caius exist. The onus that Noel bears, as the last remaining human from the future, gives way to plenty of scenes that elicit stomach-punching heart-pangs as he recounts the horrors observed as the only surviving member of his entire race. Because of this, it’s hard not to get behind his mission of repairing the timeline that has been all thrown out of sorts; his resolve is just downright commendable and an example of what can be accomplished when one puts their mind to it.
And then there’s Caius, who feels something of an amalgamation of various Final Fantasy villains, but without all of the unprovoked insanity and bloodlust that make the others before him pure super-villains. Caius, then, is a villain who would be, in Dungeons & Dragons terms, chaotic neutral. He serves his own purpose and is entirely selfish in his mission to protect Yeul, and all of her incarnations. What’s impressive about Caius is how different he feels when stacked up against typical “bad guys”. His motivations are self-driven, sure, but they are also aligned so that his partner does not have to suffer. He really is a pendulum character, one that swings back and forth, sometimes making the player hate him, and at the other times making folks sympathize with his recurrent trauma. This level of amorality feels so fresh when so many video game antagonists are so incredibly one-sidedly evil. He’s that villain who players can nearly understand and agree with, because of how almost honorable his motivations are at their very core.
Lightning Returns is perhaps the weakest in the character department, simply because there aren’t a lot of new faces to see. That being said, we do get new takes on old characters, more insight into what makes Lightning tick and get introduced to the awesomely devious Lumina. Still, the roster of folks just isn’t all that wide, nor very integral to having a complete understanding of characters — for that reason alone, it gets beaten out by its two prequels.
“Final Fantasy XIII is too linear!” “There’s no exploration in FF13!” “It’s like you’re just walking down a hallway for most of the game!” Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all when it comes to the criticisms of XIII‘s game design. Hell, we even agree with much of that commentary, which is why we’re not going to talk about that particular game too much in this section. Certainly the original XIII‘s combat system is extremely engaging and has a lot to offer — the problem is both games that came after built upon that initial foundation to the point of blowing it out of the water. But we’ll get to that in the next section.
From a pure gameplay standpoint, XIII-2 is a beast of a game. There’s the enhanced combat engine, the catch-em-all like monster-taming mechanics, the plethora of side-quests and a general reverse approach to the game’s bredth by exhibiting a world that is more open than anything presented in the first title. The altered and more refined Crystarium system, ability to save anywhere, return to the series staple of random encounters, the chance to capture and field monsters during battles, a truckload of DLC; it all comes together to deliver a more varied, complete experience than what XIII offered.
That being said, despite all the aforementioned beef folks have with XIII, it can’t be denied that there’s just a ton to do in it. There’s a reason why it’s not uncommon to hear someone mention that they sunk 80-100 hours into it, and only 60 into its sequel. Although the game takes a long while to get off the ground, when it finally gives folks the freedom to explore, there’s a wonderful world to explore and see. Gran Pulse is a wild, vast world that feels boundless. With the array of quests to undertake and the need to meticulous understand battlefield mechanics, such as creating balanced paradigms and subsequently switching to them at just the right moment in battle, the game that kicked off the Fabula Nova saga is a meaty video game. Add to that the Crystarium and Eidolons, and it’s easy to see why Final Fantasy XIII is a fun game to play, even when it has the training wheels on during the opening hours.
Lightning Returns can’t be counted out either, though. It’s bevy of costumes to find, attacks to synthesize and side-quests to tackle means there’s a lot to do. Its world doesn’t feel nearly as alive as the one shown in the other two installments, but environments are fascinating and distinctive. The Dead Dunes is especially rad, as its one, giant desert, barren of any kind of civilization, but plump with underground ruins and neat time-of-day specific puzzles. Areas like this are what put it on par with XIII.
Runner-up: Tie — XIII, Lightning Returns
Thus far, Lightning Returns has been getting snubbed overall. Well, not anymore. Combat is Returns‘ biggest strength and most prized feature. In fact, it exponentially outshines the other two titles by providing a more interactive and thereby engaging experience. Initially, the combat seems very basic; four attacks, three schematas to switch between. But then the meta-game opens up and players realize that learning to micromanage the ATB meter, string together attacks from various Schemas and prey on enemy vulnerabilities becomes a joyride that is equal parts fun and strategic. Part of what makes it so tactical, though, isn’t the actual combat itself, it’s the preparation that goes into it.
As already mentioned, there are a slew of costumes to find throughout the game’s 20-hour story and overall 60-hour experience. Each costume (or Garb, as its called in-game) possesses its own statistics and strengths that are meant to be understood and then played toward by the equipment players choose to equip while suited in that particular outfit. Knowing an enemy’s weaknesses becomes vital considering then players can plan which Garb they will take into battle, and which items they will equip by proxy. When it all comes together, and players enter into a combat situation, it can become a series of button-mashes and/or perfectly-timed counters.
Conclusively, the battling depends on swift reactions to pull off guard attacks and counters that in turn negate damage and open enemies up for taking bigger damage via Stagger attacks. So not only will an individual juggle all 12 of their attacks and three Schemas, they will also control their movement on the battlefield, take into consideration distance in order to avoid attacks or jump out of the way of melee barrages, know when to save ATB for a clutch guard-defense, use Overclock attacks to slow down time and lay on mega damage and use Recovery Items for in-a-pinch healing, buffing, or debuffing, all while trying to keep up with just how fast enemies attack. Phew; that’s a lot, right? Right. Boss encounters are especially hectic. When learning the ropes, this all can overwhelm a player as it feels like pure carnage taking place on screen. But as the hours tick by, things start to make sense and motor dexterity goes through the roof, carrying folks through the toughest battle without even thinking about what one’s fingers are doing. It’s an incredible system that is even more incredibly rewarding. It doesn’t hurt that the game is just tough-as-nails. So knowing how to use all the tools provided is key to survival.
Naturally, XIII‘s combat is a good time, as well. It, too, encourages effective battlefield management and knowing how to synergize attacks to deliver huge assaults. Understanding how to increase the Chain Gauge is important for Staggering and becomes one of the most viable options for vanquishing some of the game’s larger foes. It certainly feels more tame when juxtaposed with Lighting Returns‘ chaotic goodness, but its slower pace feels a bit more intentional and cerebral. Unfortunately, the game does use QTE during some encounters. These, of course, feel obtuse and destitute in any real purpose.
Winner: Lightning Returns
Final Fantasy XIII is a long game. Like, longer than the average JRPG, especially by today’s standards when most adventure’s are clocking in at (or even less than) 20 or 30 hours. Thus, its beefy story that spans a solid 50 is tout-worthy. But even outside of the story, there’s a good 50-60 extra hours for the completionists of the world. That’s, for lack of a better phrase, pretty damn enormous.
XIII-2 and Lightning Returns are a bit shorter, though, which is sure to disappoint those who just can’t get enough of Lightning and the gang. XIII-2 will run folks about 30 hours for the story, and another 30 to do everything. Of course, the monster taming mechanic is sure to entice folks to stay with the game a bit longer, as there are over 150 tamable creatures.
On the other hand, Lightning Returns has a heap of Garb to purchase, find and/or unlock. 70-ish to be more exact. And then there are all the accessories to find/buy to accent the outfits, along with the weapons and attacks to gather and fortify.
It’s a tough call as to decide who comes out the runner-up here, but we’re going to go with XIII-2, just by a hair.
The XIII games are head-turners, no doubt — or at least, they once were. Even though Lightning Returns is essentially running off a four year old engine at this stage, it still looks good — or at the very least competent enough. That said, it and XIII-2 re-use assets and run into screen-tearing, clipping, framerate drops and texture pop-in issues far more so than anyway than what is seen in the initial XIII title. At the time of its release, XIII was beautiful, and hell, it still is. Great art direction, great animation, great use of colors, sleek menus, gorgeous cutscenes… In the visual department, it’s a sound game. But its’ not just eye-catching flair that scores such high marks here; XIII’s soundtrack, while quite different from other FF games, is host to some stirring tunes. We’re even okay with the Leona Lewis song that plays during the ending in the North American version! (Yeah, suck on that, fanboys!) And of course, the acting cast is absolutely brilliant, with Lightning, Snow, Sazh and Fang delivering specific stand-out performances.
Of course, much of the stylistic decisions from XIII have carried over to XIII-2 and LR. As a result, both sequels look extremely appealing. That being said, there does seem to be a dropoff in the audio fidelity for XIII-2 specifically. Not only does the OST reuse many of the first game’s tracks, but the new ones it incorporates are lacking in fervor and uniqueness. Furthermore, the voice-acting is supbar at best. Noel and Caius’ voice actors deliver pretty top notch performances, but Serah, whom we arguably hear from the most, leaves a lot to be desired.
Lightning Returns, though, has a stellar voice cast as Hope’s actor is at his best, while Ali Hillis as Lightning gives yet another wonderful performance. Jessica DiCicco’s Lumina is particularly brilliant, maybe even taking the cake for best performance in any of the XIII games. Even the secondary and tertiary characters, such as random NPCs, are better taken care of than in 2. Lightning Returns’ OST is also wonderful; it does an excellent job at combining older songs with new ones, with the arrangements of already known tunes being interesting, and new jams coming off as far more inspiring and emotion-filled than those found in XIII-2.
Runner-up: Lightning Returns
So which of the three XIII games reigns victorious? Well, honestly, that answer will vary from person to person, depending on their experiences with each title. That being said, we can only resolve that paradox based off our own viewpoints. To that end, the winner of our versus battle is clearly the original game. Final Fantasy XIII, for all that does it wonky or even wrong, is still a supremely sound JRPG. It may deviate from the FF “norm” but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, it’s tendency to stray from the usual series experience is what makes it so special.
That being said, its sequels don’t exactly stack up to the precedent it set. Still, when taken on their own merits, they are solid roleplaying games. If we weigh out which games were given a winning and runner-up spot, XIII-2 and Lightning Returns are dead-even. But, no one likes a tie, so we’re not going to take the easy way out on this one. Therefore, if we had to choose a runner-up, we’re going to go with XIII-2 strictly because it’s a more polished game overall. That’s not to say Lightning Returns is a bad game, because it’s simply not; it’s actually quite decent — just read our review! But there must be a first place and a last place, so now you have our opinion on it all.
Having said all of that, we want to hear your thoughts on the games. Did we get it right? Do you violently disagree with our perspective? Go ahead and get to posting your opinions in the comments section below.