I was one of those people who really enjoyed both Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2. They tried to establish a world with a full back story, while still having the epic feel of a Final Fantasy title. Sure, they strayed away from the norm, but it worked well for me. Now, years after XIII hit, we get the third installment to the XIII series with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, and it goes even farther from the standard formula.
After the events of XIII-2, chaos has been released into the world and is slowly taking over the universe. It can’t be stopped. Lightning awakens from her crystal slumber and is tasked by God himself to save humanity’s souls. God has created a new world for humanity and tasks Lighting with transporting humans’ souls to this new world. With the guidance of Hope Estheime, Lightning returns to the world as The Savior to rescue as many souls as she can before the world ends, which just so happens to be occurring in a matter of days.
The game revolves around quests, both main story quests and side quests. Completing these will save souls and give her power to both increase Lightning’s combat strength and delay the end of the world. Quests can be as simple as getting a child’s lost ball back to taking out giant monsters that are terrorizing people.
The world is broken down into areas that can be traveled to via train stations or a special teleport ability Lighting has. Each area has its own main story quests to be completed. While in the world, Lightning can move around, speak to people and initiate battles.
Lightning Returns has a time mechanic that has days counting down during play. For around every two seconds a minute of in-game time passes. Certain people and events only occur at certain times of the day, so knowing when and where to be is of the utmost importance. If I ever missed a deadline, I would have to wait for the next day to try it again. At 6am every day, Lightning must return to her base, The Ark, and offer some of her power to the Yggdrasil, a giant tree of life. The more quests she completed that day, the more power she can offer, and in turn extend the amount of time she has before the world ends.
The battle system has taken a more action-based turn in Lighting Returns. Players control Lighting in battle and can move her as they see fit. In the same vein as the Paradigm shifts from the previous titles, Lighting can switch her roles on-the-fly. These are called Schemata. Each Schemata changes both her equipment and abilities, as well as the stats associated with the equipment. The abilities use up a certain amount of the ATB meter of the Schematic that is in use, and when the meter is depleted, the player must switch to a different one and allow it to recharge.
While in battle, Lightning can’t move very fast but positioning is very important. The stagger mechanic makes a return as well, where certain attacks that hit the enemy’s weaknesses can knock the opponent down and leave them open for more damaging attacks. Guarding is another important factor to remember. Knowing when to block and when to attack can be the life or death of Lightning. Hitting guard right as an attack is connecting can stop damage altogether and in some instances even stagger opponents. It was all about learning the opponent I was facing. Luckily, experimenting with attacks and buying monster guides from merchants can help out greatly. With a simple pull of the trigger, I could see exactly what an enemy’s weakness was and what I would need to do to initiate a stagger. Guarding and learning enemy attack patterns took me a while to get a hold of, but when I finally understood, the combat became very rewarding.
Healing is another change-up from the original games. Lighting can only hold a certain amount of healing items and once out of them, can only escape when her health hits zero. It costs nothing to escape a battle, but it does make one hour of time pass in-game, and in Lighting Returns, time is a more important commodity than anything. It’s always better to go into battle with the right equipment.
Lightning also has the ability to use EP. These are very powerful moves that help in both battle and in the world. Abilities like Chronostasis allow her to freeze time for a short while so the player can finish up a quest before a deadline. She also has healing abilities and a powerful Overclock mode that can be triggered in battle that slows time and allows her to dish out numerous attacks, usually when the enemy is staggered. EP is gathered by defeating enemies in battle. In fact, other than Gil used to buy items and the occasional spell and gear, that is all the player will receive after battle.
Lightning doesn’t gain experience points or level up in Lighting Returns. The only way to improve her battle abilities is by completing quests and equipping better gear. After completing quests, she will gain more maximum hit points, more strength and magic attack power and other stats. How difficult the quest was will determine the rewards she gets.
Finding the best garb, sword, shield and accessories for her Schemata is almost a game in and of itself. I can’t say how much time I spent looking over all my equipment and seeing which combination would yield the biggest increase. It can be overwhelming to begin with. On top of that, the attacks and abilities that can be equipped to each Schematic can be powered up as well by combining two of the same abilities together through fusion at magic shops. This can offer up passive abilities to go along with the attack. Needless to say, the customization options are vast and complex.
The story is one for the Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 fans. This is not a good jumping in point for newcomers. Lighting will run into many familiar faces throughout the story, and the game doesn’t hold hands as to show who these people are, but for fans of this particular series, it does offer up a rather decent tale.
The voice acting is still top-notch and the presentation is some of the best around, and even though it’s running on last gen hardware, it is still a grand spectacle to see. If there’s one thing Square-Enix does well, it’s make a very good-looking game, in both its cut scenes and in-game.
While the combat is different and offers up a good challenge, I found it to be too reliant on trial and error. When it came to the major boss fights, I felt lost at times trying to figure out what I needed to do to bring their health down faster, and like I said above, learning to guard and guard well is a must. This game will not hesitate to kill the player, and since traditional level grinding is out of the question, when I reached a boss I couldn’t handle I had to run off to another area and do side quests to gain better stats, and some of those quests take up a lot of time and offer up not too great of boosts.
Due to the time mechanic, I always felt rushed to get as much done as possible, and the 6am curfew that is set in place always seemed to come at the worst possible time. When 6am hit, it didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing, Hope was teleporting me back to The Ark. To the game’s credit, it did allow me to teleport back to the exact place I was when 6am hit, but much like how time was handled in Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, it became annoying more than a neat mechanic.
There’s ton of content in Lightning Returns and the game just keeps on going. Trying to make it to the very last day of the world is a challenge, and one that is full of story and epic set pieces. The game has a new game + mode where all of Lighting’s stats, gear and items carry over, and the game opens up the ability to upgrade her weapons and armor as well. I don‘t really know why they left it out of the first play through. It would have made the boss battles a little easier to handle; yet another choice that hindered my experience with the entire thing.
Lighting returns is a good game with some interesting mechanics and a well acted story. It has some game play quirks that I could have done without, but in the end, I enjoyed my time with it. It takes some getting used to with both the combat and the time mechanics, but after adjusting to how it wants to be played, it offers up a nice installment of the XIII series.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.