Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a bit of an odd duck when it comes to the world of sequels. It flaunts what a sequel should be by dumping in several major features and ideas that made Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2 so popular. Perhaps it can be seen as Square Enix trying to lure former fans of the franchise back, or perhaps the company just wanted to change things up on a series that they knew could handle it?
Putting gamers back into the shoes of the titular Lightning, the game takes place 500 years following the conclusion of Final Fantasy XIII-2. After an extended crystallized slumber, Miss Farron is summoned by the god Bhunivelze in order to save the souls of the remaining denizens of Nova Chrysalia. If our heroine is able to do so within the 13 days the world has left, she will have the chance to be reunited with her sister Serah. In order to accomplish this task, Lightning will have to travel to four distinct lands (Luxerion, The Wild Lands, The Dead Dunes and Yusnaan), and confront her former allies and enemies who live in each one.
She is not alone in her work though, as a mysteriously younger Hope watches over her from the Ark — a floating safe haven that allows him to see everything and communicate with Lightning as need be. Also along for the ride is the elusive Lumina, a girl who brings trouble with her more often than not. Although she bears a striking resemblance to Serah, Lumina’s origin is definitely not of this world.
The fundamental problem with making the story so contingent on one character is that said character has to be enjoyable to be around. While Lightning is not exactly unlikeable, she’s not exactly the most compelling lynchpin. Granted, Serah’s older sibling has always been the stoic sort of character, but this time around she barely reacts to anything. Confront a former friend? Nothing. Eat the best dish you have ever had? Monotone. Get a glimpse of your dead sister? Geez, don’t look too excited. Although it’s explained that Lightning doesn’t feel anything because she is the savior, that doesn’t justify her demeanour. What’s more, the other two main characters, Hope and Lumina, are both wholly tiresome in their own special ways.
The “enthusiasm” that Lightning does show also tends to be hilariously contrasted with the melodramatic plot and dialogue that the game spews out. For starters, everyone seems to be miserable and sulking in Nova Chrysalia. Although it’s slightly understandable with the world coming to an end, that doesn’t change the fact that it leads to some rather overwrought scenes. Even stranger is that, while the main storyline is as grim and brooding as they come, the side quests tend to be on the more humorous side, which leads to some wild and jarring tone shifts. One minute you will be helping a musician find the 374th song he wrote about his lover and the next you’ll be talking to Snow about how much he wants to die. The story is all over the place, but at least there is some levity to be found.
While the conclusion to the storyline started in Final Fantasy XIII is probably the biggest selling point for Lightning Returns, the title’s revamped combat system would definitely be another. Doing away with the Paradigm Shift engine that was used in the previous two titles, this game has a new action-oriented system that relies on the use of schematas. Schematas are basically new outfits that Lightning can wear that allow her to do battle in different ways, similarly to the Dress Sphere system from X-2. Each one has its own specific look and ATB meter, which allows for seamless transitioning during battle.
As someone who enjoyed the Paradigm Shift engine that was previously used, I have to say that the real time engine used here is much more enjoyable. Reminding me of the various BioWare titles that have come out in recent years, battles in Lightning Returns are more active and enjoyable than they were previously. Chaining together attacks throughout your three main schematas and timing blocks and counters perfectly is thrilling in a way that the series has been lacking for some time now. Although I can see this engine being divisive, simply for how different it is for the series, it’s the type of improvement I wish that Square Enix would have implemented earlier.
When you are not fighting assorted monsters, you will be spending the majority of your time with Lightning running around the world of Nova Chrysalia. You can travel between all four main locations either by train or by using your teleport ability once you have properly visited the desired location. That ability will come in handy too, as the majority of the quests that need to be fulfilled in Lightning Returns require you to retrieve an abundance of items. Be prepared to run back and forth and back and forth in order to complete even the smallest of goals. Without doubt, this backtracking is most apparent in the Dead Dunes and Wildlands sections of the game, which are sprawling areas of open land.
Part of the frustration of having to travel all over the place comes from the constantly ticking clock counting down to the end of the world. Since it is always running, certain tasks and areas are only open at certain times of the day. Time is supposed to be an enemy in Lightning Returns, but I shouldn’t be unable to finish a mission because I can only talk to someone at a specific time of day.
The upside to all of this traveling and waiting, though, is that you get the chance to really soak in the impressive visuals provided by Lightning Returns. As expected, the cinematics are some of the best work I have seen on the PlayStation 3, but I was also surprised by how pretty the assets looked in-game as well. Lightning and the rest of the major characters are all heavily detailed, and even the random citizens of Nova Chrysalia are generally unique in their own ways.
In addition, the locations for the game are both interestingly designed and splendid to take in. The Dead Dunes and the Wildlands may be major pains to travel through, but I’ll be damned if their untamed wilderness isn’t a sight to behold. The cities of Luxerion and Yusnaan could have easily been identical replicas of each other, but they both feel completely different, and it’s interesting to see the style clash between the two.
Considering it is a conclusion to a trilogy, it would have been easy for Lightning Returns to play it safe. However, Square Enix’s decision to change things up in the gameplay department may be game’s saving grace. The storyline is as melodramatic and frustrating as it’s ever been, and the reliance on fetch quests is consistently annoying, but my mind keeps going back to how much I enjoyed the new combat engine. It may not be enough to sway the minds of those that were turned off by the other Final Fantasy XIII titles, but Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII provides a solid conclusion to the saga for those that stuck with it hitherto.
This review is based off a copy of the PlayStation 3 version of the title, which we were provided with.
While Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII may suffer when it comes to story, the engaging new combat engine and gorgeous visuals more than make up for it.