With a game series like Final Fantasy, going back for seconds can be bad taste, going back for thirds is gluttony. Yet Lightning has returned to conclude the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy and with it, an adjusted battle system and even a different approach to the story. Does Lightning striking a third time finally show true on its original promise or is this one last cash-grab in a disappointing story?
Lightning Returns is all centred around just Lightning. After chaos has been unleashed on the world, the end of days is here. With just seven days left, Lightning has been tasked by God himself to save as many souls as possible and help bring them to a new world. While Lightning cannot save the world, she can help as many people as possible and in doing so, extends the life of the world to a maximum of 13 days.
The design of Lightning Returns is different than other games in the series. There are no teams of characters to choose between; instead you are Lightning alone which may sound boring but there are some inclusions in the mechanics to keep it interesting and rather fun.
If you have played previous games in the series, you may be familiar with the paradigm system. Lightning Returns still has it to a degree in the schemata system. You can give Lightning three different schemata for battle. This can essentially brake down to dress up as you run around finding and buying new garbs for Lightning that brings with it stat changes and new attacks and spells. This does keep the paradigm system in the game with some slight changes. The clothes collecting aspect is superfluous and rather goofy though.
The world of Lightning Returns is much smaller than other game with just four main areas in the game. This smaller world is explained through the story and it also allows you to become accustomed to the layout of the world rather quickly. All four areas are open from the beginning and you are free to roam around them as you please, just don’t expect to survive everywhere you go from the beginning.
Your main task that coincides with saving as many souls as possible is taking down five main bosses that have been surrounded by the chaos. Naturally they are spread through the four main areas and you are free to take them down in any order you choose; however, due to the design, there does seem to be a certain order to approach in order to succeed efficiently.
And efficiency is key to Lightning Returns. Unless you’re in a battle, time never stops ticking down. Near the start of the game, you are given a spell that allows you to freeze time momentarily. The spell itself only lasts a few short minutes before the clock starts ticking again. This means that learning the layout of each of the four large areas is key. If you happen to get lost, that’s time you’re never getting back.
In a decision that some may love, and others hate, should you run out of time without completing the game, you must start again from the beginning. Thankfully, you carry over all your equipment and stat increases until that point. This allows the game to have a longer run time to uncover everything but it will also mean that some players will have to play through most of the game twice in order to see the end of the game. All of this is of no concern should you play through on the game’s easy mode but on normal mode, it’s a constant, luring thought in the back of your mind that can cause more stress than the game actually has tension.
The battle system though in Lightning Returns may be its strongest point. Unlike the other games in the Final Fantasy XII series, you can move Lightning freely around the battle-map. As I’ve mentioned you switch Lightning through three different schemata of which you can largely customise to the spells and accessories you want. Each schemata has its own ATB gauge and as you are pulling off moves in each one, the others are constantly regenerating. This means it’s all about speed and knowing which schemata has which spells and moves and how much you have left in the ATB gauge. Unfortunately, it’s that monitoring of the ATB gauge that hinders it slightly. All three gauges are visible at all times but when you are trying to see which moves to pull off, the position of Lightning, and what moves the enemies are about to pull off, your eyes can start to strain as you trying to make everything out. You will eventually get accustomed to it, but it cause confusion to often to not mention it.
One thing, even through the series’ rough spots, Final Fantasy has always been known for its incredible cut-scenes and visuals. Thankfully the main cut-scenes are still amazing to watch but they can feel too few and far between. Gameplay-wise though, Lightning Returns can be really disappointing. Lightning and the other main characters look great, as do most of the enemies you fight but the areas you visit as well as NPCs can downright look terrible. Some of the NPCs and details in the world look like it would fit perfectly in the PlayStation 2 era.
Lightning Returns is a mixed bag. The gameplay is possibly the best in the series, story is goofy but you can sense that the team knew it, the visuals are exactly that, a mixed bag but the premise ultimately is interesting. It’s certainly a risk, possibly enforcing multiple playthroughs of a JRPG sounds unreasonable, especially considering that the game can take up to 30 hours to complete but I couldn’t help be enthralled by it. It stressed me out, it made me want to save everyone but I knew I didn’t have the time and there was no time to take things in. It’s that feeling I sensed Lightning would feel too. Suddenly being called upon to save as many people as possible in a short time, knowing she could do nothing but accept it. It’s knowing all that that somehow, when it was all said and done, I rather really enjoyed Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.