Three games have been released within five years of each other that span the Final Fantasy XIII realm, and Lightning Returns has its sights set on ending the series outright. Since the general views on the series have been so polarized, the close of this story arch could be either good or bad. Regardless, Lightning Returns makes choices that differ how the game plays from the previous installments in a substantial way, and many of the risks are worthwhile even if some of the smaller problems are still there.
500 years after the end of Final Fantasy XIII-2, Lightning awakes from her crystalline slumber under the order of God Bhunivelze to save the remaining human souls at the world’s end. Riding co-pilot, and quite often backseat driving, is series native Hope Estheim who helps direct Lightning through the remaining days. Within the Ark that Hope made in FF XIII-2 is where Hope stays, and Yggdrassil, the Tree of Life, has been brought up into the Ark so that Lightning can bring it nourturing souls so that the world can have a few extra days in existence. Hope does a great job in giving constructive feedback to quests and where to start looking in order to progress quests, no matter if they’re main or side quests. The opening sequence has Lightning chasing after Snow Villiers, and the rest of the game features even more series characters in nostalgic and effective ways.
Questing in video games usually merits either a mention of its existence or how repetitive the process is. However, Lightning Returns rewards players for completing quests in a unique way. Instead of having experience as the reward, players receive raw stats for their efforts. As expected, main quests yield greater rewards; and side quests are scaled on a three-star system that dictates the difficulty of the quests themselves, where three-star quests are harder than one and two-star quests. Another group of side quests called Canvas of Prayers is distributed by FFXIII-2 vendor Chocolina, and those quests focus on collecting random items from monsters and the world itself. New Game+ also coaxes players back into more playthroughs, and higher difficulties make it more beneficial to play through all difficulties in succession. When activating New Game+, Lightning will keep the stats, weapons, shields, and most items that were obtained in previous runs so that she can be more and more powerful by running through the same quests–and any other missed quests–all over again.
Another major change comes from how Lightning must use Schematas. Schematas are essentially a template for a type of combat stance that can be heavily customized, and almost every one has some sort of beneficial effect that dictates which direction to take it. For instance, magic-heavy Schematas will have increased magic, melee-based will have higher strength, and so on. Abilities, wardrobe color schemes, weapons and shields, and accessories are all customizable. However, the reality of what initially looks like a lot of user options becomes later in the game a limited, but still refreshing, amount of choice. The true negatives to what players can do with their Schematas lies in what they want with the Schematas. Many begin to look alike, especially late game, but that does highlight the special-looking ones that usually have more powerful benefits and more options. Regarding colors, weapons and shields cannot be customized, so users wishing for matching colors will either deal with an eye sore or choose a weaker one for aesthetic; nowhere near gamebreaking, since combat is very demanding, but, again, this is relatively significant to those who become engrossed in the game’s customization.
Combat has a different pace than before, but the principle of it is essentially the same. Battle revolves around the Active Time Battle (ATB) System, but now Lightning has around 100 ATB slots instead of only five or six. Attacks clearly require more ATB slots each, and the damage and/or effects that each ability induces on opponents will reflect that, where more powerful abilities will need more ATB slots. The time it takes to refill the ATB bar becomes part of the art of mastering the combat in Lightning Returns, and players are equipped with three separate Schematas that they can freely switch between in combat. Each Schemata has its own relative ATB bar, and the combination of the three gives players the chance to constantly use abilities across all three. Then Energy Points (EP) take what makes the Schematas great and makes them better. The use of EP allows for abilities like Overdrive, which slows time in order to execute more abilities, and Army of One, which is a carry over ability from FFXIII. EP is limited somewhat, because Lightning will leave the Ark with her EP gauge filled, but the only way to refill the gauge is to fight monsters or return to the Ark; the name of the game is knowing when to use EP abilities. Another limitation is the ability to heal, which takes precedence in harder difficulties. Lightning is limited to only a certain amount of recovery items, and they must be purchased and equipped in order to use them in combat. On Easy Mode, Lightning will regenerate her health between battles, but the other modes don’t yield such a benefit, so recovery items hold a greater role in later difficulties.
The world itself is impressive on a grand scale, but it becomes a bit too much for the engine at times. While out in the field, monsters appear from across vast horizons; but when navigating between areas in a city, non-player characters tend to be represented with an exclamation sign until they fully load. At the same time, the game itself doesn’t lag anywhere near as much as XIII-2 did, so the enhancements that allow Lightning to run from a village directly into an open world are quite impressive on the older hardware.
Sharing has become part of the game in a big way, but the feature itself doesn’t necessarily hold much relevance to the game as a whole. Screenshots can be taken of anything outside of cutscenes, and they can be sent to both Twitter and Facebook through a service called the Outerworld. It’s interesting that screenshots taken by other people can be left in the world where those people took them, but the ability to share in game what you’ve done is nothing more than that. Doing so is not required, and sharing on Facebook is a cinch if the user’s Facebook account is already linked on the PlayStation 3; screens can be sent to Twitter, but the workaround to link to Twitter accounts isn’t favorable.
All encompassing, the look and feel of the game is a testament to the series as a whole. Apart from the opening sequence and a few short clips, the entire game is delivered through the game engine alone which creates an ambience that’s engrossing. The musical score is effective, enhancing what’s taking place in the game wonderfully; and the cast of voice actors such as Troy Baker and Ali Hillis return to play their roles perfectly. The only drawback to the voice acting this time around is that both Hope and Lightning are the more stoic characters, so their voice work ends up being rather uneventful, even if it makes sense in the overall plot. Still, when emotions run high, the acting delivers – creating consistent emotional highs, somber lows, and humorous comic relief.
Perfection is hard to reach, but the major con of perfection – much like how it is with people – is that it doesn’t have the same character as a game like Lightning Returns, where the gameplay is engrossing and the narrative is such that it forces players to hold their own hands. Tutorials only explain so much, which has been a negative for the entire series; but this time around, the game instigates more challenges and scenarios that help make players try new things instead of expect them to learn on their own time. Coupling that with Hope’s guidance makes for a perfect combination of hand-holding and user freedom.
The entire experience of Lightning Returns is rewarding to those who have been along for the ride that the Final Fantasy XIII series has taken, but even though it does well in backpedaling in order to explain what took place in the other two titles, Lightning Returns really requires both of the previous games to be played to fully appreciate all the major and minor references made continuously throughout the game.
Lightning Returns makes some great decisions not only to the role-playing genre but to the franchise as a whole. The aggressive nature of the combat and the way it goes about questing feels refreshing in a way that the genre has needed for a long time. Still, tutorials and engine limitations leave the game a little rough around the edges. Nonetheless, fans of the Final Fantasy XIII series will revel in the end of the world as Lightning leads humanity to a new template for role-playing games.
PSU was provided a copy of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII by Square Enix North America for the purpose of this review.