As a second sequel to the sub-standard Final Fantasy XIII, Lightning Returns certainly isn`t anything like any of its predecessors. Unlike the more traditional Final Fantasy (FF) games, this RPG continues to border the action game boundary with features such as a compelling real time combat system and a vibrant open world environment. Also, you have to give credit to the masterpiece of a plot which Square Enix has crafted for this latest FF installment along with its lovely soundtracks. This game certainly isn`t perfect, but its amazing presentation and stylish cinematic approach easily makes up for any nuisances encountered during your gameplay. Some gamers may be wondering why Final Fantasy XIII spawns two sequels when it isn’t even that good or why the game is so over-rated, considering that it isn`t anything like the retro Final Fantasy games of yesteryears. As a matter of fact, after the release of Final Fantasy X, the series took a plunge for the worst and has spiraled into a creative yet sterile status. With the release of Lightning Returns, you can see that Square Enix is now shifting its focus back towards what had worked before for the franchise and making sure that the end product is not only gorgeous and a step above the rest in innovation but is also fun to play first and foremost.
In this third and final installment of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, the main protagonist of the series named Lightning returns as a playable character. I`ll admit, Final Fantasy XIII failed to live up to the hype when it was released four years ago. It was a game with so much potential to become one of the greatest games of its time but failed short of expectations. It was simply nothing more than the biggest disappointment wrapped in a pretty package. Thankfully, this concluding sequel to the thirteenth iteration of the FF series has a lot more to show than the previous two in the series and offers some improvement in gameplay and visuals.
Lightning Returns has a much larger world map than the previous titles in XIII and the open world environment is so vast that players may not be able to visit every places during their first play-through. The game’s developers have made it so that there is barely any load times between areas. The game is also designed so that Lightning can interact with anything that is visible in the game. She can run, jump and in addition, move stealthily through enemies’ terrain.
In this game, Lightning is out to do God’s bidding and her job as a worldly savior is to save the souls of the human race as the world only has thirteen days left before Doomsday hits. There’s an in-game clock that counts down as you go about your quest (more on that later). As Lightning, you are tasked to do as many good deeds as possible by carrying out requests from mortals which in turn helps you gain Eradia which you need to nourish the tree of life called Yggdrasil in order to delay apocalypse. Requests consist of your usual fare of finding someone or looking for certain items, etc. The game also includes a large array of side quests and missions that you can do in addition to the main storyline course. The side-quests are each scaled on a 3-star system to indicate its level of difficulty, with 3 being the most challenging. But ironically, how could Lightning find time to do side quests if she only has 13 days to stop the apocalypse? Some quests are timed and should you find that you are running out of time to complete any of them, Lightning can activate the Chronostasis ability which stops the flow of time but doesn’t affect worldly activity since people continue to go about their business and so can you. The more errands Lightning completes, the more souls she saves which results in a drastic enhancement of many of her stats and abilities and she becomes more powerful because of it. This game harkens back to the old Squaresoft days with the return of the New Game + feature that allows players to replay the game from the beginning with all stats, weapons, and items from previous play-throughs fully intact. So the more time you play through this game, the more powerful Lightning becomes which in turn makes some of those pesky side quests easier to tackle while also providing you a chance to complete those missions you may have missed the first time through.
The game is full of upgrades and the Paradigm Shift combat system from the original Final Fantasy XIII is back in the form of Schematas. The battle mode strays away from that of the more traditional Final Fantasies. Supplementary to an action-RPG combat system, this game features the original, but yet revised, Active Time Battle (ATB) system seen before in FF XIII. The new system now has around 100 ATB slots instead of only 5 or 6. More powerful abilities will require more slots. Much like XIII and XIII-2, most things are customizable such as weapons and shields, characters’ outfits color schemes, and accessories. Adopting a similar job system as Dresspheres from XIII-2, Lightning can change her clothes/outfits on the fly during combat to take advantage of different abilities to fight enemies. Combats revolve around Schematas, which are essentially battle templates with different combat stance. For instance, equipping a Schema called “Divinity” provides Lightning with the following offense options – melee Attack, Guard and Thunder. Players can equip up to three Schematas which can be switched on a whim during combat. The way that combat works is, enemies are usually spread out nicely all around Lightning as she travels all over Nova Chrysalia. To enter battle, simply press on the shoulder trigger button as you bump into one of them and this brings up a battle screen where Lightning confronts her enemies head on. As long as the ATB bar is filled, Lightning can execute a series of offense attacks in real-time by mashing the melee or magic attack buttons repeatedly as she runs and jumps until the bar is empty (in which case she can either wait for it to refill before she can attack again or quickly select the next Schema which has its own set of ATB bar and attack options) and repeat this cycle of moving from one Schema to the next and mashing buttons until the enemy is defeated. Combat is lightning fast (pun intended) and is actually a lot of fun.
Since Lightning is on a mission from God, it would make sense that she can’t die during battles. If the player *dies* in battle there is no “game over”. However, the player must use the “Escape” function to return to the field, taking one hour off the world`s time as a repercussion. By means of the EP Abilities, players can temporarily halt time such as the case with the Overclock ability, which requires EP to slow time in order to allow Lightning to execute more attack abilities against her enemies. The Energy Points bar is displayed at the lower-left part of the screen. These points can be acquired by completing battles, and the EP gauge can be refilled after the start of a new day or by visiting the Ark that Hope made in FF XIII-2.
As previously mentioned, Lightning’s quest proceeds with an in-game clock that counts down the hours until Doomsday. This clock is referred to as the Doomsday Clock. At the end of the countdown the world goes into an everlasting apocalypse. The player is given seven days from the start to explore the world, but six more days are added for completing side quests. Each day is 24 hours long just like in the real world. Nevertheless, players may want to get out of the way when a phenomenal black haze, called Chaos Infusions, appears. During that time, the toughest monsters will emerge. This is something you’d definitely want to avoid, because I found escaping that haze inevitable, and I don`t have “time” to die in battle, a scenario which will take even more time off the clock. As mentioned earlier, quests are completed to increase days to the Doomsday Clock and enhance Lightning`s skills and abilities. A new utility is integrated into this new title, and it is instant snapshots. This allows players to take and upload snapshots via social media networks.
As Lightning traverses deeper into her quest, she will eventually uncover a devastating truth. She initially agrees to carry out these missions as the “savior of souls” for Bhunivelze, the god of light who created the fal’cie deities, because of his promise to resurrect her sister Serah. The story brings back some nostalgic characters from previous titles such as Hope, Snow, Mog, and Noel. Also, Lightning Returns` ending is quite exhilarating and comes with a strange twist that some may or may not like.
The Final Fantasy franchise is prominent for its music and soundtracks. How can a Final Fantasy game be reviewed without discussing the invigorating soundtrack that accompanies it? If you don`t know, the music for Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns is composed by Masashi Hamauzu, Naoshi Mizuta, and Mitsuto Suzuki. Unlike Final Fantasy XIII-2, this game does not have a vocal theme song. Still, all three composers wrote the ending song. One of the most impressive tracks is “The Savior”, which is one of the battle themes. Also, each continent has its own composer. Depending on the time of day, a different track is played. This is a fairly neat addition in my opinion. Masashi Hamauzu claimed that on his tour in Europe, the church bell reminded him of the passing time in Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns.
Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns is another beautifully made game by Square Enix that successfully meets the expectations in gameplay, storyline and music from long time RPG enthusiasts like myself. This final chapter to the story of Lightning and the world of Nova Chrysalia brings a satisfying end to the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy.