The Final Fantasy XIII saga has received some of the most negative reception from fans in franchise history. Lightning Returns attempts to drastically shake things up, but is it enough to appease fans’ expectations?
Now before we begin, I want to start by saying this review will be done in two sections. The first being Lightning Returns in reference to the Final Fantasy XIII series as a whole, with this as the last installment, and the second section being an overall review of this game, by itself, as a standalone.
Section 1: Final Fantasy XIII
Where to begin? This series took some ideas and a powerful graphics engines and fell flat on it’s face with them. Lightning Returns however, does an honest attempt to acknowledge it’s mistakes and own up to them. In Final Fantasy XIII, the character development took a back seat in a poorly done effort to illustrate the interesting world of Nova Chrysalia. With Final Fantasy XIII giving you a cast of interesting looking characters you want to like, but ultimately can’t, due to them all being very two-dimensional, Lightning Returns does what should have been done from the very beginning and gives reason and depth to the characters, making it so much easier to feel invested in the game itself.
The game reintroduces all the familiar faces of the previous games, but does so in a manner that gives nod to the fact that, yes, they were in the previous games, but dives deeper and starts to give the player a means of connecting with their stories. I found myself more involved with the characters in this game than the other two combined and this lead me to be interested in the locations that these characters were in. I explored not because of a linear progression of story and poor map design, but because the world and characters in it were engaging and interesting to me.
Overall Lightning Returns is a huge improvement to the series and I feel that had Square Enix lead with a design such as this from the very beginning, that it would have been met with more positive reception. It’s a shame that a large group of people won’t pick up this game simply due to their justified animosity towards Final Fantasy XIII as a whole.
Section 2: Lightning Returns
Now with all that being said, let’s break down all the things Lightning Returns brings to the table, starting with the setting. In Lightning Returns, the main character Lightning awakes from a 500 year slumber to find the world is about to end in just a few short days. She’s also discovered that since the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2 time has stopped, meaning that no one has aged and no one has been born for the last 500 years. People are still dying from sickness and murder, so the population has done nothing but fall drastically.
As Lightning interacts with the various characters throughout the story you get the feeling that everyone in Nova Chrysalia has been kind of stuck for the last five centuries and haven’t really grown or advanced as individuals. This adds some serious weight and depth to the doomsday. Yes, I said doomsday counter. Lightning Returns features a clock that is always visible to the player and counts down an in-game minute every 3 to 5 seconds. Certain gates in town or quests can only activated at certain times of day, and if the clock reaches the designated doomsday hour without you performing the necessary duties, it’s a big GAME OVER. You will have to start over from day 1 with all of your previous stats and gear in a New Game+ mode.
The player does, however, get the ability to halt time by using a power called chronostasis. This power, along with a few others you’ll acquire, costs Energy Points that can be replenished slowly by defeating monsters. So with some battles and/or time management, the player should have enough time in a day to do what needs to get done. That still didn’t stop me from always eyeballing that clock and trying to plan all of my moves to maximize my time.
Overall, while I feel the time system can take away from the exploration of the truly gorgeous and expansive world, I also feel it does an excellent job of making the player feel the weight of the entire world’s time on Lightning’s shoulder and acknowledge it as an effective immersion tool. It isn’t nearly as demanding as it initially seemed. With 40 hours in, I still had plenty of time to finish up a lot of things.
The maps are quite large, although not as large as Square Enix originally led on. A few broken promises doesn’t take away from the fact that the towns, deserts, and forests are really nicely designed. Most players, unless really stretching the use of chronostasis, probably won’t explore the entirety of these maps on their first playthrough of the game. Multiple playthroughs are encouraged with quests that can only be completed through additional plays, alternate forms, outfits and collectibles.
The maps are fairly expansive and it can be easy to get lost if you’re not careful. Even though the maps can be slightly tricky or confusing, they give you a sense of realism. The towns feel like towns and I often would get mad that a particular shop was located on the other side of town just as I would in real life. The deserts and forests feel treacherous and winding, but to combat this Lightning can jump, run, climb and slide on just about anything, making the areas pretty fun navigate.
I felt the level design was well done. I wish I had more time to jump around and goof off in these areas, but I always felt rushed to do other things. You can interact with objects, like poles you can slide down and ledges you can climb up, but they felt kind of useless because it was faster just to jump down, but it was still a nice touch.
While players only control the main character Lightning through the entirety of the game, in certain areas and after certain side quests you can find yourself with additional party members. These members don’t really do much aside from taking hits, healing Lightning, and auto attack/cast, but with how fast the new combat system is, them just being there proves invaluable.
The new combat system takes the familiar Active Time Battle (ATB) and gives the player three customizable classes (called schema), all with completely different stats and separate ATB gauges. As you perform actions while in one of the three schema, it’s corresponding ATB gauge drops until it is empty and you can no longer issue commands while the ATB gauge of your schema on standby are refilled. These commands are also customizable ranging from dodges, guards, light attacks, heavy slashes, spells, and AOE (area of effect) attacks, all of which ranging in damage, potency, and ATB cost.
You can switch to any other equipped schema to issue other commands on the fly or to just absorb a hit that would otherwise crush another one of your schema. Making appropriate use of skills and class changing is a must to succeed in Lightning Returns.
While the game gives the player free control of Lightning’s movement in all directions, I found myself mostly just trying to create distance between myself and my opponent and using evade to dodge roll when my back was to a wall. In my opinion the combat system can be a little tough later on and that can make it discouraging to experiment with new abilities, especially when you find a set of skills that work well together. Aside from that, it’s an enormous improvement over the Paradigm system from the previous games.
Lightning Returns is an interesting addition to the Final Fantasy series. While it helps to have played the other two games to get a feel for what’s happening, it definitely does enough breakdown through dialogue and cutscenes to give newcomers a sense of understanding. And while there are far too many new elements to break them all down in this review, the bottom line is that in it’s own right, Lightning Returns is a solid game that has beautiful environments, interesting combat, refreshing mechanics and a long deserved solid story.
The game itself doesn’t quite feel like a traditional Final Fantasy and this may bother a few people. Along with trailers of future endeavors from the Final Fantasy series, this could be the start of a new direction for the series as a whole and we may never see an old school traditional Final Fantasy again. Even still, that doesn’t stop this game from being a solid JRPG and an ultimately enjoyable experience.