Final Fantasy XIII had a pretty convoluted plot, and Final Fantasy XIII-2 didn’t help clarify it much. Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns adds even more confusion to the narrative, so much so that it’s very difficult to enjoy the tale it’s trying to weave. However, if you can look past the ridiculous, and except the overall tone and setting of the Final Fantasy XIII universe, there’s a conclusion to the story here that series fans are likely to enjoy.
Newcomers to Square Enix’s most recent Final Fantasy sub-series won’t stand a chance in navigating the plot, though. It’s a story spread over hundreds of hours of exposition, and spanning in-game centuries over three titles. Gods, twinned worlds, and crystal fates have shaped this denouement, and for better or worse the story sticks to its unfathomable guns. The protagonist, Lightning, has awoken from her crystalline slumber 500 years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2, and has been tasked by the deity, Bhunivelze, to gather human souls so they may be reborn on a new planet when the current ones dies in seven days. To reap these souls Lightning must unburden peoples hearts, finishing business they have with the current world. Additionally, an evil entity called Chaos is ravishing the lands and quickening the world’s demise — the collected souls can help slow its conflagration.
How much sense and enjoyment you get out of this concluding story very much depends on how much you absorbed and enjoyed the previous two outings. However, by the time the end comes around it does tie up the trilogy fairly well, although the journey there is lacking in excitement and intrigue. Despite the usual cinematic showing of extreme acrobatics and combat, it plays out rather dull, with minor mysteries present in the four hubs you visit failing to add urgency to the world’s impending doom, and Lightning’s emotionless state making it difficult to feel connected to any of the cast. Lightning’s lack of empathy is explained as a result of her servitude to Bhunivelze, but despite this reasoning it still hurts your immersion and dulls the experience.
The aforementioned main story fails to reflect any sense of urgency about the apocalypse, and unfortunately this carries over to the copious amount of side quests, too. These suffer from an MMO flavour of fetch quests which don’t really inspire you to finish them. However, ditching the traditional method of leveling up your character through combat, Lightning Returns boosts your stats after you complete missions, encouraging you to diligently find X amount of Y in order to improve your health, magic, and strength, etc. It’s a great idea wasted on mundane quests. In the end it replaces one kind of grind for another. What doesn’t help is the lack of guidance your map provides — it’s up to you to pay attention to your quest giver in order to best work out how to complete your task. Additionally, certain characters and quests only appear at certain times of the in-game day, which bring us to another interesting mechanic.
You’re playing against the clock in Lightning Returns. For each hour you play an in-game day is lost, with time freezing during battles and conversations. It’s a great way to encourage haste, but it plays against your RPG instincts. The four hubs are large mazes of streets, sand dunes and vegetation, but exploration costs you precious time. However, completing missions allows you to collect the quest giver’s soul which can be sacrificed at six o’clock each day when you return to the Arc — a base of operations for Lightning where time stands still — to lengthen the time until the world ends, up to a maximum of 13 days. Though, it’s not long before Lightning learns an ability called Chronostasis, which freezes time, undermining the urgency which the time limit otherwise instils and empathizing the stat grind of the dull side quests.
Fortunately, the combat fairs a great deal better. Lightning Returns ditches the turn-based combat from it predecessors for an action orientated real-time system. Lightning takes on foes one-on-one with the ability to move around the battlefield whilst she attacks. Standard attacks and magic use up an ATB gauge. Once it’s depleted you can switch to one of the three other schemata at a press of a button to use a set of different attacks on its own separate ATB gauge. Schemata acts as customizable classes, where you can equip different actions to the face buttons for use when it’s active in battle — whilst a schemata is inactive its ATB gauge will refill. Meanwhile, you can block attacks at will, and if you time your guard well enough you can negate all damage from an incoming attack.
It’s a great combat system that rewards timing. Enemies can still be Staggered — beaten into a state where they take more damage for a limited time — and switching to the right schemata at the right time to deal the best damage to your enemies becomes an important tactical consideration. It’s also a terrifically balanced system. No one schemata is going to be powerful enough to take on all enemy types, so crafting your set of three with varied attacks and abilities challenges you with regular tweaking. Additionally you can equip different weapons, accessories and clothing to each schemata to really customize a personal set of attack options.
Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns doesn’t make it easy to enjoy. The narrative ventures towards the incomprehensible at times, side missions have been turned into a dull grind, and the changes to the traditional RPG formula don’t really work — that is except for the new battle system, which is fun, challenging and refreshing. Die hard fans of the XIII saga will no doubt enjoy the definitive conclusion on offer here, but if the previous two entries failed to impress you then Lightning Returns certainly won’t.