For the Final Fantasy series, on-going character development has mostly been absent, unless the character is from one of the legendary titles (Final Fantasy 7, Final Fantasy X). Most other characters do not tend to stick out. However, since the release of Final Fantasy XIII, fans have now seen three games to help keep the story and characters going. Each of the titles in this trilogy has its perks and differences. The case with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII could not be any more apparent, as it truly strays away from its roots of the entire catalog of any game with the name Final Fantasy. Is this a bad thing? Certainly not, as Lightning Returns is a very engaging and deep title that has replay value. The game is much faster paced, as the overall experience keeps players on their toes at all times.
The story focuses on a more compassionate Lightning as she returns as God’s Savior 500 years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2. The world has 13 hours before its end, and Lightning will try to save as many souls as possible before the world is raptured. Chaos has engulfed the world, and it is apparent the world cannot be saved. Without giving away any spoilers for the story, per Square Enix's request, the story in Lightning Returns is very compelling, as previous characters return along with the emotional ties they have established in the past.
While the story is engaging, the interesting part of Lightning Returns involves the way the gameplay and setup has completely changed. Besides the MMORPG’s, no Final Fantasy title has only involved one main character, especially in battle. Players will traverse the world with only Lightning. The world includes four main locations and are connected together by a monorail system.
Lightning Returns offers a quest system with a focus on exploration. Each of the different locations has a main quest tied in, along with side quests and smaller quests known as the “Canvas of Prayer”. These smaller quests appear at the train station at each main location, accompanied by a ditzy Chocobo Girl. These quests will appear at random, and some are global-location related, which means the required item might not be in the area the player is currently in. Most of these smaller quests are completed by killing monsters and receiving their items. Accruing these will solve the quests, and grant Gil, HP, Strength, or Magic. The side quests involve exploring the world and chasing items or monsters. The side quests will pop up on random people at different times of the day, and will have star indicators next to them which is the difficulty for the quest. Otherwise, the main quests are the overall story for Lightning as these will net the statistical increases as well. The result is a moderate, open-world feel that grant ways to increase Lightning’s abilities over time.
Yes, the quests are certainly a different aspect for a non-MMORPG Final Fantasy game. However, this is a bigger concept at hand. Certainly, the world now offers day-to-night transition, making certain quests only available at certain times. This is great and all, but due to the new basis of Lightning Returns, players will have to pick and prioritize these quests, with some being more time consuming due to investigation purposes as the game might casually drop a hint on these quests. This new basis revolves around time. The world has thirteen hours until it ends, and everything Lightning does, will consume time. Completing the main and side quests will defer the clock from running out, but once the clock runs out, Lightning is done, and that is the end of the game. Players default to seven hours to start the game, but this can be extended up to thirteen. Time will not be consumed in the menus, in battle, or in the Ark, which is a required hub where Hope resides that has to be reported to every morning at 6:00 A.M.
Different gates are only available at certain times, and depending on the time of the quest, different cut scenes can be experienced. This yields more possibilities for the game. Lightning cannot die in the game. If she is killed during battle, players are given the option to escape. Escaping a battle will reduce the world’s time by an hour, so if a tough battle arises, it might be best to avoid. Boss battles certainly will fall into this category. Because of the quest-driven system, grinding enemies will not help level up Lightning. This is because she doesn’t level up in Lightning Returns. For her, skills can only be increased by completing quests or buying garb and weapons. Doing so may involve having to go to a different main location, in case the player is stuck on the side quest (which is something this reviewer took too long to realize). All of this combined together makes time management the focus in the game, and also makes strategy key, which is something unseen by this franchise in the past.
There is an aspect to grinding enemies, as scooping up their drops will most likely assist in completing quests. Also, beating enemies nets gil and Energy Points. These Energy Points can be used for multiple things, such as slowing down time in battle to land extra hits, completely refilling Lightning’s HP, or even slowing down the world’s clock when outside of battle. Chaos battles will net larger rewards, as enemies will appear in a black cloud. Enemies will also be more difficult at night, so this needs to be taken into consideration. Lightning also has six slots for recovery options or potions, so gone are the days of loading up on potions. This is expandable to ten over time, but players will have to gamble between phoenix downs or special potions.
As for the actual battles themselves, there is no switching between characters. Lightning is able to free roam in the battle circle. Lightning Returns is based around Schemata, which involves wearing different outfits with different abilities and stats. Three can be chosen at once, and different actions assigned to the four face buttons. Players can simply hold down the button, or switch it up between Garb via the shoulder buttons. The action is very fast, and it will take time to get comfortable with the battle system. Each Schemata is based off of an ATB meter which decreases with each action, then regenerates shortly after. Different statistics will affect the recovery time and how much is used. Lastly, players can still attack enemies to instigate battle and reduce some of their HP.
A good portion at the beginning of Lightning’s journey will be spent customizing this Schemata, especially once players start to accumulate garb. The process of checking inventory isn’t that user-friendly, and can be taxing to the point where settling on certain garb is easier. Mainly the issue lies with comparing items that are unequipped with equipped ones. Also, purchasing new weapons or armor will show the stats that change for that particular garb, but not all three. There is just a lot of extra leg work that could have been made simpler with better menu presentation. Players can change the colors of Lightning’s outfits with four layouts. Flair can also be purchased or won and added to her, to help create unique characters.
Final Fantasy games have always looked beautiful for their respective generation, however Lightning Returns suffers a good bit. The cut scenes look magnificent, and there are some beautiful areas of the game, but the engine is clearly dated. People in the game that aren’t main characters look horrid at times, along with some really bad textures close up. Pop-up is also an issue, especially with people in areas. The game also suffers from bad a framerate at times, especially when taking in a grand scale of scenery.
The soundtrack in Lightning Returns really sticks out. Some of the music fits the mood of classic Final Fantasy games, and there is no super-cheesy music. Battle themes are mixed up, and there is adage to XIII in some of them. Voice acting is give or take as it’s recorded well, but suffers from translation at times. Characters mouths move well with the voices, which is a nice touch. Players can download the Japanese voices for free two weeks after release for a more traditional experience.
Controlling Lightning is generally fast and responsive. She can sprint through areas, and is now able to actually jump rather then having it automatically done. The camera can be moved around and zoomed out in battle. Sometimes the camera causes an issue when platforming between locations, but it was few and far between. Even though Lightning can move around in battle, she moves slowly and there is no way to sprint. But for a game that requires quick timing, especially when on the defensive in battle, Lightning Returns controls quite well.
Square Enix has included an online aspect called Outerworld. Players will encounter others along the way, but their character skins will be either a pedestrian or a pet. The identification comes in the form of blue text of their online ID and a custom quote. Players can share screenshots, messages, advice, and even sell equipment. Viewing their in-game profile will show how they have Lightning designed, and it’s pretty cool to see the diversity involved.
Lightning Returns, however seeming short by the premise of 7 hours (extendable to 13 hours) to save the world, is far from short. With different experiences depending on the times quests are done, and also going back and doing other quests that were missed, add the ability for multiple playthroughs. Boss battles can also be revisited to better the player’s score, which can be shared online. Players will most likely realize they took too much time exploring or doing side quests on their first playthrough, so a second will most likely be needed.
A trilogy with different play-styles is uncommon, but Square Enix did so well enough with the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy. With the depth in Lightning Returns, there are opportunities for multiple different playthroughs of the game. The action and battle system is fast paced, and the customization adds a different take to the series. The strategy involved in managing time, not to mention the day-to-night transitions, is something the series has never seen before, and it successfully adds a change to Final Fantasy as a whole.
+ Open-world gameplay eliminates linearity and opens up depth.
+ Battle system is responsive and fast.
+ Time management is an excellent change.
- Dated graphics.
- Menus and customizing is clunky.
- Initial learning curve for regulars.