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The final chapter
Graphics and art
"Final Fantasy XIII" looked very impressive when it first came out, but three games in, the engine is starting to show its age. "Lightning Returns" features detailed character models, silky animation and attractive particle effects, but it's nothing that the previous two games didn't do just as well.
One of the most impressive visual systems in the game is also one of its most problematic: the Schema system. Lightning has dozens of outfits, weapons and shields, resulting in thousands of possible looks. Anyone who grew up playing with fashion dolls or drawing fan art of their favorite game characters is sure to like toying with Lightning's outfits, right down to each uniform's color scheme and accessories.
The trouble is that the outfits are, in many cases, unnecessarily revealing. They portray Lightning as either a sex object or as someone overly concerned with her appearance, neither of which is even remotely true based on her characterization in the three games featuring her.
Lightning's outfits are not demeaning, per se, but they do indulge in cheesecake and fan service, which feel like a disservice to one of the most fleshed-out female characters in modern gaming.
Music and sound
The days of "Final Fantasy" as a series with iconic music are long over. The tunes in "Lightning Returns" are, with few exceptions, almost immediately forgettable. Battle music sounds sufficiently frenzied; music in overworld areas sounds sufficiently calm.
The voice acting is as good as ever, though: especially Ali Hillis, who reprises her role as Lightning. She captures the character's cold demeanor effortlessly, making the juxtaposition with her occasional moment of humor or warmth even more affecting.
The bottom line
"Lightning Returns" has a lot of great ideas, but each one comes with a sizable caveat attached. In a cynical way, an uneven game that fails to deliver on its enormous potential is a fitting end for the "Final Fantasy XIII" subseries, as the first two games faced similar issues.
Still, "Lightning Returns" will undoubtedly attract its share of fans who come for the innovative battle system and potential replay value, as Lightning's stats carry over from playthrough to playthrough.
If you're dying to see what happened after the cliffhanger in "Final Fantasy XIII-2," "Lightning Returns" delivers a definitive — if potentially unsatisfying — conclusion. Newcomers to the series would be better off picking up the first game and determining whether it's worth seeing it through to the end.
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: Feb. 11, 2014
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3
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Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.