Finally! The story of Final Fantasy XIII is finally final with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy. But this closing act turns the trilogy on its head with brand new play mechanics and a game structure that is unlike anything seen in the previous titles. Lightning herself may be (mostly) the same, but everything else is quite different.
The third time's the charm, right?
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Releases: February 11, 2014
If you missed the first two Final Fantasy XIII games, you're not going to have any idea what's going on in Lightning Returns. But, for those that are caught up, I'm pleased to say that you can expect some story resolution. Even as a supporter of the other two series games, I would never claim to fully understand their stories, and even now I'm a bit unsure of what happened at some points. But things do wrap up nicely in Lightning Returns, with a conclusion that puts the series to rest once and for all.
The details don't really matter as much at this stage, though. It's just a bit less than two weeks away from the end of the world, and Chaos has swept over the land. God has tapped Lightning to be the Savior, and has tasked her with gathering as many souls as possible to be taken away to a new world before this world's end.
Even if you are fully up on the story thus far, just about everything outside of Lightning herself will be new to you. Square Enix ditched their fast-paced paradigm battle system, switching to a action-based affair where Lightning moves freely and fights alone. She has access to three outfit load out sets called Schema that she can freely switch between at any time. Each Schema has its own gauge that depletes as any of the four abilities assigned to it are used, and each of these gauges refills over time. The idea is to switch between the three Schema constantly, using the available gauge of one while the others refill.
Each of these Schema allow the assignment of one outfit to it, and each outfit gives the Schema unique abilities and statistics. Lightning Returns' designers went wild with the designs of these outfits, giving Lightning clothing sets that range from skimpy, almost bra-and-panties getups to elegant evening gowns to full battle armor. Some of these outfits are so ridiculous and funny that I'd hate to spoil the surprise. Add on the ability to accessorize and even tweak custom colors, and this clothing change system is like a strange game within itself.
After assigning an outfit, the player can customize the Schema fully, assigning up to four abilities, two accessories, and even a adornment to it. With all of the possibilities provided, this system allows for some very deep equipment and attack ability strategies. The depth and freedom are appreciated, but the game provides little guidance on how to fully take advantage of the system. This will have players learning the hard way -- dying. Normally a little trial and error wouldn't be a problem, but dying takes precious time, a resource that is limited in Lightning Returns.
It took a fair bit of time to become fully comfortable with Lightning Returns' battle system. For me, the learning curve extended way beyond the game's tutorials, which had me struggling well past the introductory stage. It takes some time to get a feel for how effective your attacks are, and even more time to learn how magic and abilities can be upgraded. The hardest part was getting used to watching for visual cues from enemies to block properly.
But, once you do learn its intricacies, Lightning Returns' battle system can be quite fun. After fully understanding the attacks and their power, and after nailing timing and movement, I had a good time juggling enemies, punishing them with their known weaknesses. After learning how to do it, switching at just the right time to perform a perfect guard and counter attack feels really good. The stagger system from the previous XIII games returns, though you'll find that it requires a lot more effort and speed to take them down. And even after you get the system down, it will keep you on your toes throughout the entire game. While I prefer the system of the previous games, this new one is enjoyable on its own merits.
The sink-or-swim theme continues with Lightning Returns' leveling system -- there really isn't a leveling system to speak of. Being the Savior, and having a power almost on par with a god, I suppose that it wouldn't make sense to be able to get considerably stronger. But that's at odds with the countless situations I came across where Lightning simply wasn't strong enough to get through quest boss battles. Lightning Returns' enemy encounters give nothing in the way of challenge indication, so you'll find yourself going into battles with no idea if you'll make it out of them alive. And again, a death costs you valuable time on the clock.
With the lack of a leveling structure, competition of missions and quests are the only way to grow Lightning's power in Lightning Returns. Finishing any will add points to Lightning's attack and magic stats as well as increasing her total available hit points. But without clear indicators for Lightning's strength or enemy challenge, you're left guessing as to whether your current ability will be enough to make it through a given challenge. Lightning can escape from any battle, and even a death permits an escape of sorts, but using this ability will cost you an hour off the clock.
Since Lightning only has the world's 13 remaining days to complete her mission, an in-game clock is constantly counting down, keeping the pressure on. The idea is neat, and it sounds like the concept would provide good motivation for players to do as much as they can in the time they have. But, in the end, the use of the clock seems like an unnecessary pressure that somewhat hinders the player from fully being able to enjoy the varied lands and wealth of missions Lightning Returns provides.The ever-present time updates made it hard for me to relax and enjoy, which is a real shame.
With the clock's constant pressure, many of the game's quests seem like they would be a waste of the precious time left. For example, looking for seeds to plant a garden seems silly when everything will cease to exist in a matter of weeks. And choosing to, say, look for a townsperson's lost dog over saving a village from an attack from a deadly beast feels like a poor choice, no matter how much you'd like to help out. Many of the things Lightning ends up doing seem really strange to be doing considering that the world is ending.
Adding even more pressure is the mandatory 6:00 a.m. curfew that Hope enforces so strictly that he teleports you out of whatever you were doing. The chances of the player being interrupted while in the middle of something are fairly high, which is quite annoying. It doesn't help that Hope begins nagging at you to prepare for the upcoming curfew while you're trying to wrap things up.
And while we're on Hope, expect to hear him talk a lot. He basically never stops chatting. At first, he's quite helpful with his situation summaries and system guidance. But it's only a matter of time before he starts to wear on you, telling you things you've already heard, or worse, things that need no explaination. At his worst, one lengthy dialogue set will be abruptly cut off to start another. It became a sad sort of game for me to see if I could flag another event to get him to chain to a third rant. There should have been some option to shut Hope's voice off.
At least Hope keeps Lightning company. Lightning Returns feels kind of lonely, especially when compared to the previous two games, where you'd always have a companion or two running with you. While Lightning has plenty of encounters with both new characters and old friends, she walks through the majority of the game completely alone, and even has cutscenes where she'll talk to herself. There are a few instances where a partner will fight alongside Lightning in battle, but most of the time she's a lone warrior.
It's too bad that the clock is always running, as Lightning Returns is totally open for exploration. Linear? No way. The four lands of Nova Chrysalia are filled with challenging quests, a range of interesting characters, lovely scenery, and lots of dungeons to explore. It’s even better when you’re able to ride on the back of a chocobo to have easy access to it all. I took the first opportunity to go sight seeing, marveling at all of the massive set pieces and architecture. I talked to NPCs, got caught up on some of the optional backstory, and tweaked my outfits to look their absolute best. But then I looked up and found that I didn’t have much time left to complete the game’s main quests, and things were never the same after that.
If you’re the type of gamer that wants to see and do everything, Lightning Returns could be a frustrating experience for you. There is a sort of New Game+ mode provided, but it only lets you return with your gear and abilities. You’ll have to redo all of the quests you've already done on top of the ones you've missed to fully complete the game.
Going back seems like even more of a task when you consider how difficult Lightning Returns is. This game is ready to punish you right out of the gate, and doesn't seem to care if you don't have the battle system down yet. Even from the beginning, enemies gang up on you and pummel you with weaknesses and chains that sometimes seem impossible to break out of. Some boss fights are so hard that one of my controllers has developed a permanent creak from stress squeezing. Even with the game set on easy you'll have an uphill climb.
Lightning Returns looks good, though some of the shine of the previous games of the trilogy has seemed to have worn off a bit. The designers have done a great job of building a world full of interesting attractions and bold designs. It's just that things don't always look great up close. Some buildings and NPCs feature blurry textures and rough edges, for example. But, as always, the backdrops are beautiful, which kind of makes up for some of the mushy walls and cut corners you'll find.
The musical score is fantastic, and even more varied than the previous Final Fantasy XIII games. The melodic orchestral pieces in particular are gorgeous. The Wildlands overworld song was so moving that I would just stand in place to listen to it. But pretty much all of the score is varied and exciting. The chocobo themes are outstanding, and one related battle song should have you rolling.
Those looking for more of the serious tone of the previous series games may be disappointed in Lightning Returns' lighthearted tone. I liked that the creators weren't afraid to goof off and keep things fun, though. While seeing Lightning crack jokes in goofy garb may make some of the more straight-laced series fans cringe, I though it was nice to see the lighter side of what was a very serious character. She's not so flat and lifeless now, which I think is a big improvement.
Lightning Returns may sound like a bit of a hot mess on paper, but that didn't stop me from enjoying it. The time limit can be a bit frustrating, as can the game's difficulty and lack of guidance. But there are several excellent dungeons to explore, a few smart quests to take on, some really good backstory elements to learn about, and even some surprisingly touching moments. The world is a delight to explore, packed with countless little hidden treasures and sites. Rare items are everywhere if you're looking for them. And the boss battles are fantastic, with the final fight being one for the ages.
Now, if you didn't like the first two Final Fantasy XIII games, I don't think this third one will do much to win you over. But there's plenty of fun to be had in Lightning Returns if you're open to it, and are willing to overlook some of the messiness.