It’s been a long journey, but we are here: the end of what has been dubbed the “Lightning Saga.” Nearly five years after the release of the original Final Fantasy XIII, this chapter in Square Enix’s mega-popular RPG series comes to a close with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. While the franchise may be well-known, and certainly comprises a large chunk of the RPG market, Final Fantasy XIII, as a series, has been perhaps more divisive than anything else in Square Enix’s storied history. There are those that think XIII has overall been a huge step backwards for the RPG genre, and would rather not talk about it or acknowledge its existence. Then, there are those that truly enjoy their experience, and have been overjoyed that the story of XIII has received three titles, a first for the series. Being that Lightning Returns is the final entry in the first Final Fantasy trilogy, it should be looked at both as a stand-alone game in its own right, as well as a component of the overarching segment of the Fabula Nova Chrystallis.
It has been 500 years since the ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2. The world is in shambles, only days away from ending, and Lightning is back in the spotlight as the god Bhunivelze’s Savior to collect as many souls of those still alive in order to let them be reborn in a new world. While Lightning is probably the most qualified individual for such a job, she did not volunteer eagerly for the position. Lightning has lost someone very precious to her, and wants nothing more than to bring that person back from the dead – and that’s where Bhunivelze comes in. If Light does the god’s dirty work, he will revive our heroine’s dearly departed.
The people that she must save populate Nova Chrysalia, which is being swallowed by a sea of Chaos, a dark mist that cannot be stopped, even by a god. The planet is too far gone – nothing can bring it back from its sorry state and, instead, it is the souls of the people that are the main priority. Easy job, right? Nah, you’re no dummy, you knew this wouldn’t be easy. The people have been affected by the Chaos, as well, becoming immune to aging and natural death (though not injury or disease). Five hundred years on the planet with no more children being born, friends and family dying, and the impending doom that is the end of the world hanging over their heads has been a pretty big bummer, to say the least. To extract the souls of the living, Lightning must solve their worldly worries, and make them want to start fresh and live again. All the while she must fend off the nastiest monsters you’ve ever seen. It’s a race against the clock to save as many people, as well as Lightning’s friends and former comrades, and do God’s work to bring the person she most cares about back to life. Man, dancing around that Final Fantasy XIII-2 spoiler is quite the tango!
As the player, YOU are put in direct control of Lightning, and that’s it. No party. No companion monsters. Nothing. Just your sword and your shield against the world. Battles are a whole different beast compared to past titles. You can move freely around the battlefield, defend on command, and you can time your attacks to dole out further damage. You can unleash vicious combos, as well by stringing together all your attacks and switching “schemata.” What are these schemata, you ask? You’re able to equip Lightning with three different garbs, each with four different moves that you map to the face buttons. These moves range from your standard “attack” or slashing actions, to magic spells to cast across the field, to defending with your shield, evading attacks, instilling debuffs, slapping on buffs and so on and so forth. You customize her however you like and to what fits your current situation. It’s all about making it unique to yourself, strategizing and preparing for whatever comes next.
Outside of battle, you are able to explore all four islands of Nova Chrysalia on foot. Running, dashing, jumping, climbing – all your standard character action genre fare. To help get around to the different cities and vistas that are left in the world, there is a monorail system to move you from one locale to another. Is that not convenient enough? Early in the game you gain the capability to fast travel (at the expense of Eradia Points) to different major areas you’ve previously visited in an instant.
While we’re talking about Eradia Points, let’s talk about that doomsday clock ever ticking and tocking, mocking you in the corner. Using these Eradia abilities is one of the Savior’s most useful tools for completing her mission before the end of the world. As said before, you can teleport to other places instantly. You can also use “chronostasis” – an ability to freeze the clock for a few minutes. This is very helpful when you’re trying to tie something up before the day ends and you report back to base, or if you’re trying to turn in that quest before the quest giver turns in for the day. Now these Eradia Points can also be used in battle to freeze enemies and unleash a chain of attacks, or as a sort of “Limit Break” – an ultimate move that dishes out crazy damage while you sit and laugh maniacally at your foe’s pitiful state.
The game also features an upgrade system that allows you to synthesize skills together, boosting their damage output, shortening the time it takes to stagger opponents and increasing how long the enemy is staggered. What’s more is that playing New Game+ opens up even more options! You can upgrade swords and shields, and further improve the potency of your skills. Multiple playthroughs are encouraged with this system in place, as it allows further customization of Lightning, making her the most intimidating badass on the planet. Well, what’s left of it, I guess.
The main story quests are pretty clearly set out for you when you enter a new area and your datalog (journal) does a good job of pushing you along with those. Side quests can be obtained one of two ways: The first being the usual of talking with a person on the streets, hearing their woes and offering to help them out. The other is through the ‘Canvas of Prayers’ board that The Savior can read like a job postings board. You read what the person wants, or prays for, and you answer their prayer by finding what they’ve lost, avenging someone by killing a monster and bringing back a trophy, etc. Each job you complete rewards you with stat boosts and, sometimes, some new gear. While you can accept quests at almost any time once they are available, it’s a good idea to tend to them as soon as you can. They might not be clearly defined, but there are time limits on those, as well. Need to meet up with someone at night? Wait too many nights, and the other person gets fed up and won’t show up either. Now that stat boost or piece of gear is lost to you the rest of your current playthrough. Your datalog will be your friend. Side quest objectives are not shown on the map, but the description of the quest will give you plenty of information, such as areas of the map and what item you’re looking for, which you can cross reference with your bestiary. It’s not the most intuitive, but it gets the job done without leaving the player completely in the dark.
You’re given plenty of tools to get your job done, which is good, as there is plenty of challenge to be had. I know some have fears of a countdown clock that limits your time, and I’ve seen an abundance of comments online about how this fear can be a deterrent. Honestly? You have nothing to worry about. With teleporting and chronostasis at your fingertips, you could finish the whole game in a handful of in-game days. All it takes is a couple battles to fill your EP gauge and keep that clock from ticking. Initially I had worried about how the clock might affect my ability to explore and accomplish things, but, after a session with the game, I found there was nothing to worry about. I had 13 days to finish my mission. Was I sweating and racing the clock? Well, I slept for six days to get to the end game stuff. And I, by no means, heavily abused chronostasis. Let the fear go, and enjoy the game. Explore, fight, customize to your heart’s content. If you DO happen to use all the time you have without opening it up to the last day, you begin day 1 again, but with all your garbs, weapons, shields, abilities, etc., and start your own sort of New Game+ run.
Lightning Returns is not a graphic slouch, but is by no means the visual crown jewel of the last generation – the PS3 version runs at 1080p, and there is plenty here to treat your eyes to. The four main regions all have a charm to them with plenty to see and explore. The animations for spells are, well, spellbinding. Lighting is something that Square Enix have been doing really well in the XIII games and it is, again, impressive in this entry. With the day/night cycle, there are always fun nuances to the scenery as time passes by. The Wildlands in the morning is so fresh and crisp and inviting. The Dead Dunes at night feel so mystical and harrowing. While the locales all look really great with some wonderful vistas and imagery, up close some textures on walls and other areas can be pretty muddy and rudimentary. Seeing as how these aren’t really a main focus of the game, you can kind of give them a break there.
A bummer that has carried on through the trilogy is the inconsistent framerate. The battles, luckily, have no problems – giant explosions of fire or crackling ice crystals in the air deliver a smooth framerate. The main perpetrators are large cities in the more dense areas. Running through large crowds will make the game stutter a bit, but they are short bouts, and the game quickly recovers.
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