If you haven’t been keeping up, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is the third game in a trilogy, preceded by Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2. The original game was something of a disappointment for a number of fans, ditching the westernized open-ended nature of FFXII in favor of a more linear design. The game still sold well though, so Square Enix used XIII-2 as an opportunity to address many of the criticisms of the first while integrating aspects from more successful games, like Chrono Trigger and Pokemon. The only thing the game struck out on was providing a satisfying ending, instead leaving everyone hanging with a vague “To be continued…”
So here we are, a couple of years later, and the FFXIII trilogy is finally getting its conclusion. Instead of polishing what they already had, though, the developers instead opted to go the FFX-2 route; completely revamping the battle system while allowing you to play dress up with the protagonist. Oh, and there’s a little Majora’s Mask thrown in there for good measure. If you think that sounds really bizarre, you wouldn’t be wrong.
Events kick off after Lightning is revived from her crystal stasis and finds out that the world is about to end at the hands of the Chaos that was released at the conclusion of FFXIII-2. In fact, it’s only thirteen days away from ending, and Lightning is hand picked by God to be the Savior; one who leads all of the souls to the new world to be reborn. Her reward? The opportunity to be reunited with her sister Serah after all is said and done. She doesn’t undertake the journey alone though. She’s aided by FFXIII alumni Hope Estheim, who offers advice from the safety of the Ark (and who has since reverted to a younger version of himself, strangely enough).
While the premise is certainly interesting and offers a very gloomy outlook on the major characters following the prior games, the execution is anything but. In order to reach the final day to witness God’s revival, there are a handful of main quests that need to be completed before your time is up. Each quest focuses on a character or set of characters from previous entries and is intended to bring closure to their lives and allow them to be at peace with themselves. This part of it great, as loose ends are tied up, and the entirety of the game concludes very nicely. Even the one new character that’s introduced, Lumina, gets a very interesting revelation and subsequent sendoff.
Where things break down is in everything that happens outside of the main quests. The majority of your time will be spent on side quests, aiding random people in their sometimes trivial problems. Now, some of these quests are nicely written, particularly the one involving an avid reader and his lost journal. Many of them are just window dressing for fetch quests, however, with a few of them involving dozens of monsters having to be defeated before you succeed; all the while a little clock is ticking away the minutes, constantly ushering you forward.
As with Majora’s Mask, many events will only occur during certain times of the day, while others only grant you a certain window of time to complete before it is failed forever. Unlike that game, however, there is no way to rewind the clock. There is a skill that you will earn that can freeze time momentarily, and you can certainly stay at an inn to make the clock progress. It would almost be more accurate to say that the game works more like Dead Rising, in that if you mess up, you can start the game over with your stats and gear intact. This is important, since side quests are the only way to raise Lightning’s stats. Same with the Canvas of Prayers, with the only thing separating them from side quests is the fact that they rely solely on turn-ins and can be done at any time. The only thing random battles will earn you is money and EP (used for abilities utilized both in and out of combat). It’s also impossible to see everything there is to see in one playthrough, and not because of lack of time. On the contrary, I did every main and side quest open to me and I still had half of my days left. It just adds unneeded stress that could’ve been better spent exploring the wide open areas available to me.
The combat got a large overhaul this time around. The Paradigms from the previous games were replaced with Schemata, a similar sort of system that involves choosing clothing and their associated abilities. You start with a garb, which provides base stats as well as a couple abilities innate to that item. From there, you choose a sword, a shield, accessories, and any abilities you want to map to the controller’s face buttons. Three Schema remain active during battle at any given time, and you must alternate between them as the situation calls for it.
Lightning is the sole combatant this time around, which can make things rather tricky in fights involving multiple enemies. The idea is to use skills that your opponents are weak against, though sometimes they have no weaknesses and it’s a matter of exploiting whatever it is that can stagger them. A bar that looks like a heart monitor will change color from blue to yellow to red indicating how close they are to being staggered, and once they are, they will often be stunned momentarily and gain debuffs.
You can attack for as long as you have ATB to allow it, though inactive Schema will slowly regenerate their ATB bar when not in use. As such, sometimes you may have to tailor your Schema for a boss, as you’ll have to cycle through all of them at some point during the lengthier battles. If you take too much damage, you can pull up a menu with the start button to use any potions or other healing items you might have on hand. Don’t want to waste them? Your EP can be exchanged for abilities such as Curaga for a full heal, or an Overclock ability that slows down time so you can dish out more punishment. The only way to earn EP is by defeating more enemies, so it’s definitely a resource you’ll not want to squander, even though the clock stops during battle.
Most abilities you’ll find as drops from the various enemies you fight, though they can be synthesized to make them more powerful. Combining two of the same ability will strengthen whichever one is designated the host while also adopting any innate abilities. They can only be strengthened so far, though, before having to level them up using items. You can eventually unlock the capability to strengthen your weapons and accessories too, though not on your first playthrough.
In fact, you don’t even get access to the hard difficulty unless you finish the game once on easy or normal, though the game is plenty challenging as it is. You can gain an advantage if you managed to strike an enemy before engaging them on the world map, which leads to HP loss on their part. If you find yourself in a fight you’re not prepared for, escape will lead to loss of time on anything but easy mode. You also don’t regenerate health between fights under the same circumstances, which means most fights are best avoided unless you’re in desperate need of money or EP. You need to be very good about thinking on the fly in regards to what Schema does what and where your abilities are mapped, since things move quickly. It’s very difficult without any sort of overall level to gauge how strong Lightning is at any given moment, which makes preparing for the main quests something of a hassle. They can be tackled in any order, though they are numbered, but I’ve found that some of the later numbered quests are easier than some of the earlier ones. Lots of time can be wasted throwing yourself at a battle you can’t win simply because you haven’t done enough sidequests yet.
Lightning Returns is still a visually impressive title, though less so now since many of the assets have been reused from prior games. The environments are expansive, with some rather large draw distances at play, which contrasts with some pretty muddled textures when looked at up close. I’m not sure if it was because I was playing the Xbox 360 version or what, but there were some battles where the frame rate took a major plummet, to the point where I felt like I was watching a slideshow. Considering the larger parties in the other games and the fact that the monsters and attack animations are mostly identical, it’s a bit perplexing that there would still be these issues in this engine.
The soundtrack is also recycled from the previous two games, though considering how much I liked the songs, I don’t regard this as a huge drawback. There are a few new tunes mixed in, though nothing as memorable as what’s being reused. The battle music gets changed up frequently, with things such as the time of day and the location seemingly acting as factors as to what gets played. The most amusing aspect by far is when visiting the city of Yusnaan, where several NPC’s are playing versions of classic themes. I giggled with glee as I passed by a marching band’s rendition of the main FF theme or a tour guide’s attempt at Battle on the Big Bridge. As before, you have Ali Hillis as the voice of Lightning to keep you company if the music isn’t enough. You’ll be hearing just as much from Hope, who has the annoying tendency to state the obvious or urge you to hurry what you’re doing, which is unfortunate. At least the banter that occurs between these two characters during some of the quests is amusing.
If you took the gamble on obtaining a collector’s edition, it’s a nicely put together set. The artbook in particular is standout on account of its contents and hardcover, and the watch is certainly a neat piece to have. I was a bit disappointed that there was no soundtrack included, even if it would’ve been something of a greatest hits of the last two games. At least I have the one supplied by the previous game.
At the end of the day, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a tough game to make a recommendation on. On the one hand, they tried something vastly different with the series rather than recycling the same battle system one more time. However, the single character combat presented here, as innovative as it is, just isn’t as much fun as what we got before. Plus, the addition of a time limit is only welcome if done right, and in this case, it’s a severe hindrance to enjoyment. If you’ve been playing the games this far though, it’s at least worth it to see the conclusion, as the ending pays off nicely and ties everything up in a nice little bow. Unlike its predecessors, there isn’t anything here encouraging me to see everything there is to see beyond the credits. If nothing else, wait until it’s on sale.
Short Attention Span Summary
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII casts you as a Savior sent by God in order to usher in as many souls as possible into a new world before the current one is destroyed in thirteen days. The premise and the gloomy atmosphere definitely work to the game’s advantage, though there’s not nearly enough story content to fill the hours spent with the game. Instead, you’ll spend a majority of your time fulfilling side quests to build up your character while trying to properly manage your time to see all there is to see. This is going to make or break the experience for most folks, though the level of customization that comes from the Schemata system helps compensate some. Honestly, my thumb is in the middle on this one, though if you’ve played the games this far, it’s at least worth checking out for its conclusion alone.