Final Fantasy has not been getting much fanfare in recent memory, especially in regards to Final Fantasy XIII, often ridiculed as an utter disaster that needed to go away. But as loud as everyone yelled, the good folks at Square Enix pushed onward, making two sequels. Of all the entries under the XIII banner, Lightning Returns is the best of the bunch – which may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your stance of the series.
In Lightning Returns, you play as Lightning – no surprise there. You are the Savior, an individual chosen by the Almighty Bhunivelze to deliver souls to the new world that he is creating. After the ending of the last game, the world of Gran Pulse fused with Valhalla to form the continent of Nova Chrysalia. 500 years later, with the planet slowly dying, Bhunivelze gives you thirteen days to save as many people as possible before the end comes.
First order of business: the story. If you did not read through my Synoptic Sitrep of the trilogy, Lightning Returns does a good job of answering questions about the mythology and the events in the last two games that were otherwise difficult to comprehend or grasp. There are one or two small contradictions, but everything else fits in perfect synchronization.
Without going into major spoilers, in regards to the main cast of the games, everyone returns in some form or fashion. Some of the protagonists see little to no shift in their personality, such as Hope, while others change dramatically, like Snow. The additional roster of characters adds to the overall story, but blatant fan service – some of it canon breaking – often holds the plot back.
Snow is a lot more colder and distressed than in the last two entries (see what I did there?)
As for the star, Lightning always came off as a very stoic and cold character. In her final performance, her emotions have been taken away by Bhunivelze to keep her in line, making her completely unlikable and unrelatable. She treats everyone she encounters as if they were plotting to kill her – she even makes unnecessary threats to people. She is as cold as cold can get, and it is hard to take her seriously when it comes to her emotions, along with the ensemble of outfits that are completely out of character.
With those outfits, you have the ability to change Schemata, or roles, at will in the form of different Garbs. Similar to the Dress Sphere in Final Fantasy X-2, each Garb's unique attribute sets it apart from others, such as higher stats in Strength, Magic or ATB recovery, increased health, replacement of abilities with stronger ones, and other bonuses. In addition, most Garbs have a locked ability exclusive to that ensemble, such as Guard, Fira, Heavy Slash, etc.; some costumes have one locked ability, some two, while some rarer outfits that offer no locked abilities allow you full control of whatever setup you desire.
Another fun addition is the ability to change the colors of each outfit, which appears when exploring, fighting, and in cutscenes. The level of color customization is immense; you can change clothing colors down to the smallest difference in the RGB scale. While this sounds entertaining for some wardrobes, a handful of outfits are borderline revealing: exposed skin where the outfit might as well be irrelevant, overly emphasized breasts, etc.
Appearances aside, you are restricted to three Schemata in battle. While many may see this as a step back from the series' Paradigm setup, it is actually a step up, since Lightning must constantly switch setups when certain situations appear, making fights more interesting and altering players' strategies.
The gameplay receives another massive overhaul. Lightning can move around the battlefield while in combat, albeit very slowly, and commands have been mapped to the face buttons. Since you play as Lightning and Lightning alone, her movements let you perform some interesting tactical maneuvers that can turn the tide of battle, such as flanking a dragon and cutting off its tail for a rare item drop. Moreover, each Schemata has its own ATB gauge, and the one currently in use regenerates energy at a much slower rate than any of the inactive ones – in other words, Lightning Returns is not a button mashing fest. Enemies often drop abilities of varying levels that grant more customization to your arsenal, and the game does not screw around when it comes to boss fights.
There is a lot more depth to the fights than you think.
One of the biggest surprises, the boss fights are significantly more difficult than any regular enemy. No matter how much experience you have with Final Fantasy, these fights are incredibly brutal, with some even requiring you to die once in order to understand their patterns. Now, this is not Dark Souls, but I highly suggest that your first playthrough be on Easy Mode, as it lets you grasp the mechanics at a steady pace. While you will miss out on difficulty-specific gear, you also miss out on the nasty features that appear in Normal and Hard Mode.
On Normal and Hard, enemies are much harder to defeat, escaping a fight results in the loss of one hour for that day, and your health does not automatically replenish, meaning you must constantly recover health by using potions, eating food, or resting at an inn. To make matters worse, you cannot change the difficulty setting once you begin.
Because you are on the clock, it seems troublesome, at first, that you are on a time limit the whole way through. Do not worry about it – a day in-game lasts one hour in real life. In addition, time does not move forward when in a cutscene, battle, menu, conversing with an NPC, or in the Ark. Some abilities, such as Chronostasis, let you briefly stop time, allowing you to quickly move through areas. But just to give you a reference of how much time you have, once I reached the thirteenth day, I clocked a total of 40 hours in my first playthrough alone.
One day down, twelve to go.
Also, every time the clock hits 6 AM, Lightning teleports back to the Ark to replenish the world's remaining days. Initially, you start off with seven days to clear the game, but during your adventure you can expand that amount by A) obtaining enough Eradia and B) completing main story missions and/or side quests. Should you fail to reach the thirteenth day, you earn a game over screen and must restart from the beginning. But as frightening as that sounds, you enter New Game+ mode, where stats and gear transfer to a new playthrough. In NG+, quests of all types yield larger stat increases, and the bonuses increase if you successfully clear the game.
Those side quests, though, are not as glorious as you might like them to be. In Lightning Returns, you do not level up by defeating enemies. Instead, you level up by completing optional objectives scattered throughout Nova Chrysalia. Side quests come in three forms: Canvas of Prayers, an assortment of fetch quests that award miniscule stat gains; NPC side quests, which are also loosely-based fetch quests, but yield more stat growth depending on the mission difficulty; and the Slaughterhouse, a Coliseum-like arena where you battle against specific enemies for no stat bonuses.
Another big surprise, however, open-world exploration returns, a first for the XIII games. In Nova Chrysalia, four major cities populate the continent, each unique in theme and aesthetic. Luxerion is a gothic metropolis of mystery and crime filled with religious cults that await Bhunivelze's arrival, the city of Yusnaan's parties run rampant, The Wildlands' workers calmly anticipate their final days in this lush wilderness, and the Dead Dunes house a barren desert where treasure hunters explore ruins and dungeons for rare artifacts. Each city has its own music, too, along with easy-to-spot wayfaring musicians that play various renditions of songs from past Final Fantasy titles, such as "Clash on the Big Bridge" and "Terra’s Theme."
Everything you see can be explored.
All in all, Lightning Returns bids a fine farewell to the Final Fantasy XIII titles and paves the way for the release of Final Fantasy XV. Its vast exploration, along with the improvements to the gameplay, makes this finale a noteworthy entry in the Final Fantasy series. However, while Lightning Returns does its best to improve in the areas where the last two iterations faltered, it takes an unfortunate step back in regards to the character of Lightning, as well as some of the disturbing outfits that question what was going on inside Motomo Toriyama’s head.
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: February 11, 2014
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3