Lightning Returns, from Square Enix, was a game that I was skeptical of at first, mostly due to the somewhat disappointing gameplay in the original Final Fantasy XIII and then the massive plot twist and controversial ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2 that left a particularly bad impression on me with the nasty “To Be Continued” screen you are greeted with upon the game’s end.
Fast forward to 2014 (2013 if you’re a Japanese reader) and we have the final entry to the XIII trilogy – Lightning Returns. Set five hundred years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2, Lightning has awoken from her crystal stasis with mere days until the end of the world. She has been tasked by the god of the Final Fantasy XIII world – Bhunivelze – with saving the souls of as many people as she can, in doing so labelling her as the “Savior”.
Lightning Returns differs from the previous instalments greatly, introducing a completely new combat system and a necessity to manage tasks on the clock, forcing you to make sacrifices and carefully choose what tasks to complete and what to ignore in the game’s free roam, open world environment.
The new combat system been radically changed to the extent that it now feels like a completely different genre of combat. You now have the ability to freely reposition yourself during combat and enter commands by pressing one of four buttons to which you have assigned abilities. Adding further depth to this is the schemata system, which allows you to cycle through three outfits, each equipped with their own abilities, weapons and accessories, which in effect allows you to have a setup for various kinds of situations. As combat is now in real time, you can freely enter commands until you empty all of your Active Time Battle gauge, at which point you can cycle to another schemata and let the current one recharge (the currently-equipped one does recharge, albeit at a slower pace). Items do return, however. Gone are the days where you could hoard potions and phoenix downs forcing you to manage inventory spaces and using items sparingly (on normal or hard difficulties, health won’t regenerate between battles). Battles are fought for the most part alone, with occasional guest party members joining who are controlled by the AI. Healing with magic is also no longer an option, forcing you to depend on potions. In usual Final Fantasy fashion, the combat system features a form of limitability in the form of Overclock, which allows you to stop time and unleash attacks relentlessly until the Overclock gauge is emptied. If used under the right circumstance, this can completely change the tide of a battle.Exploration is far more open than the previous titles, allowing you to freely travel between all the locations in the game shortly after beginning. The game takes place in the region of Nova Chrysalia, the last remaining part of the world not destroyed by the Chaos unleashed at the end of Final Fantasy XIII-2. Divided into four main regions – Luxerion, Yusnaan, The Wildlands and The Dead Dunes, you can travel between locations via train – although this consumes precious time on the clock – and complete the few main scenario quests in any order you like.
You initially begin with six days on the clock, however, this can be extended a number of times by completing the main storyline quests and, to a lesser extent, by completing side quests. Completing these quests also provides permanent boosts to your stats, replacing the more traditional forms of level-up systems found in other Final Fantasy titles. Some of the quests can be simple fetch quests; others brutal battles against very challenging foes, which I found to be a nice mix of variety and more often than not I would make an effort to complete every single quest I could, only skipping the difficult ones, which were more frustrating then enjoyable. Effective time management makes it possible to clear every quest in a single run, despite the game trying to say otherwise.
In terms of graphic presentation, the game doesn’t seem a huge difference to its predecessors, but I did find the environmental designs to be much more aesthetically pleasing than in the other games, with the vast vegetational expanse of the Wildlands being my personal favourite. The soundtrack does a nice job of complementing the game’s many locales, battles and cutscenes, using diverse varieties of music – from the electronic elements found commonly in the first game in the trilogy to the more instrumental and orchestral commonplace throughout the entire series, I even caught a hint of dubstep in the Yusnaan battle them, adding a more contemporary element to the game’s score.
The story itself for the most part piqued my interest and made me want to find out what was going to come next. In a rare case for me, I found the side quests for the most part interesting and entertaining, giving me more reason to complete them, rather than just doing them for the sake of rewards. I did, however, feel that the ending was a bit over the top and out of place in the game’s world – but ultimately I enjoyed the game too much to let it bother me much.
In conclusion, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII definitely corrects the mistakes of its predecessors, adding a multitude of new features that players will more than likely welcome. However, the time management system may not be for everyone, as it does put a bit of pressure on not dawdling around and forces you to rush the game a bit. The schemata system provides plenty of customisation options for those who love variety and lets you not only customise Lightning’s appearance, but also her battle style in the process. The default schemata is also used on the field and cut scenes, allowing you to make a tense moment seem almost comical at times.
I highly recommend this game to players of the Final Fantasy series and Action RPG players, but also feel that the game may not be for everyone.