Lightning strikes thrice
I wasn't a fan of Final Fantasy XIII.
I felt like in many ways it was a step back for the franchise, and the cast wasn't nearly as charming as Square Enix thought it was. But with XIII-2, I partially warmed up to the series, as it slowly but surely injected that classic Final Fantasy charm of old. It embraced the silliness factor, had a less confusing (but ultimately still confusing) story, and crazy bits like Mog and Chocolina only added to its allure.
Somehow, Lightning Returns has dialed it up a bit, adding in insane elements like the Lady Gaga-esque Moogle suit, more Chocolina, and a story that actually makes sense. For that reason and many more, it's my favorite of the trio.
The XIII brand has gotten less serious with each game, to its benefit:
XIII was too serious for its own good. Although many games in the franchise still maintain an air of dread, there's always a string of comedic elements to help break the tension. Final Fantasy VI had Umaro and Chupon. VII had Cait Sith and the Golden Saucer. X had that silly laughing scene (maybe not the greatest example) and X-2 was just silly all around.
But after watching 40 hours of Lightning being the most stoic hero on the planet, it made me want to bang my head against a wall. In Lightning Returns, she gets the chance to let loose a bit, and break free from her typical conventions. While I wouldn't say she really changes all that much at her core, she does go through some ordeals that shake up what we're used to seeing out of her that I won't spoil here.
I mean, the selection of costumes alone ensures that you'll crack a smile or two while you're playing it.
Lightning Returns has a real ending, with no DLC needed:
While you could debate the finality of XIII's conclusion, XIII-2 did the despicable deed of forcing players to buy DLC to get "the extra ending." For brand new unknown and unproven IPs like Asura's Wrath it's a little more understandable (kind of), but for a storied franchise like Final Fantasy that's known for providing complete stories, it's inexcusable.
With Lightning Returns though, you're getting the full story, with one true ending. You'll also find the vast majority of the cast from XIII and XIII-2, all of whom get a real resolution without any sort of "to be continued" nonsense.
The story overall also makes a whole lot more sense, and the characters you may have hated before (Hope) are a lot more tolerable, and even likable. The general gist of the narrative is that Lightning has been deemed "the savior," and needs to rescue as many souls as possible before the end of the world. It doesn't get a whole lot crazier from there, and the words "Fal'Cie" and "La'Cie" are only uttered a few times in passing.
If you can grasp the concept of a divine struggle and lost souls, you'll follow Lightning Returns just fine, without the need to read a Wiki synopsis multiple times or watch a recap video.
The pacing is flexible, and there's actual exploration involved:
One of my least favorite parts of XIII was the incredibly poor sense of pacing. When it takes you 20 hours of tunnels to reach "the real game world," there's a problem. Lightning Returns offers up a "timer" before the end of the world that keeps you on your toes, but it's not nearly as bad as you may think, since the game basically gives you free reign to explore right off the bat.
The timer is always there, but it's not nearly as restrictive as say, Dead Rising. By doing quests, Lightning can extend the lifespan of the world all the way up to 14 days, which is more than enough time to do pretty much anything you want (I beat the game and did a good chunk of sidequests in eight days). You only need around 15-20 hours of "experience" to take on the final boss, so provided that you've done the five core story quests to unlock the final chapter, you can just advance time and skip to the finale (be sure to have a separate save file just in case though).
In that sense, Lightning Returns is tailored to your skill and comfort level. If you want to jump into the gigantic Wildlands that feels like it's straight out of the sprawling world of Final Fantasy XIV, you can do that. If you'd rather explore the streets of Yusnaan and do some more low key quests first, you can do that too. Although you will need to level up a bit to experience all of the content the game has to offer, the ability to jump around all four major hubs at will is a welcome addition to this historically linear sub-franchise.
It's challenging, and the combat system is engaging:
Although XIII-2 was a step up in many regards, it was also a very easy game. Lighting Returns is not. In fact, if you play on Normal out of the gate, it's one of the hardest Final Fantasy games ever made (seriously). If you don't kit out your costumes and take the time to learn the nuances of combat, you're going to get rocked -- and that's before you even square off against some of the game's punishing bosses.
The combat system rewards you for acting quickly, and every reaction can be made in less than a second. With three schemas to switch between during each fight, you can queue up actions with one magic based costume, and while the spell is doing its work, quickly switch to another costume to initiate a juggle, then switch to a third to throw up some buffs.
As the game goes on and the bosses get tougher and tougher, the combat only gets more rewarding. There will be times where you'll get beaten to a pulp, and feel compelled to run away until Lightning is stronger. It's a natural, welcome feeling that's often missing from games these days.
It's not perfect, but I'm a fan:
Lightning Returns still has flaws. Many of the quests on offer are fetch oriented, or otherwise shallow affairs that may not compel you to do everything the game has to offer. While it is challenging, some may view the difficulty as unfair in a few parts of the game, and it does take a while to really understand all of its intricacies, almost to a fault.
But for those who keep at it, they'll find a wonderful action game buried within Lightning Returns' RPG veneer. It's fast, it's frantic, and best of all -- it actually makes sense this time around, without forcing a cast of annoying characters down you're throat. If this is how XIII finally ends, I'm perfectly okay with that.