The Fabula Nova Crystallis series has certainly been a strange amalgamation of video game design philosophies. First we were given the divertive Final Fantasy XIII — a title that aggressively divided fans and critics alike due to its hand-holding nature and restrictive parameters — and then Square bestowed upon us its sequel, an installment sound in gameplay conventions, but a total disaster storyline-wise. So at this point, then, we must ask ourselves a series of critical questions, first and foremost: where does this third entry fit into the trilogy? Does it improve upon its source’s linearity; does it tell a tale that is actually coherent; is it more than just dressing Lightning up in a horde of costumes and parading her around the eclectic world of Novus Chrysalia? It’s time to answer those queries. So let’s get right to it.
Don’t be fooled for a second, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is very much a continuation of its previous games, in terms of gameplay and narrative. As such, its story and characters will be familiar to, and make the most sense for, folks who have at least played XIII and XIII-2 — though it can still be enjoyed even without knowledge of the storyline up to this point. Returns takes place 1000 years after the first title, and 500 after its sequel. Thankfully, though, Returns puts our stoic, rose-headed heroine back in the picture front and center, ensuring that Lightning’s the star of the show and not someone else, like what was seen in the middle game. Thus taking place so far in the future means a lot has changed in the world of Final Fantasy XIII.
So how exactly is Lightning the lead protagonist after all that unfolded in XIII and XIII-2? Well, it would seem that our intrepid lady-of-the-sword has been brought back by the God, Bhunivelze, under strict contingencies. Bhunivelze has made Lightning his personal envoy and tasked her with saving the souls of the dying world formerly known as Gran Pulse, so that they can be reborn on a new world he is creating that is sustainable for long-term human existence. As an incentive for undertaking the weighty task, old Bhuni has promised Lightning that he will grant her sister, Serah, life once again if Light can manage to save the world from destruction, which is said to occur in — wait for it — 13 days. Unlike the game that came directly before it, Lightning Returns doesn’t mince words when initiating its tale. Players are told the aforementioned premise by Hope, who has somehow been restored to his boy-ish age first seen in XIII and not his adult self of -2, given a little bit of direction and then let loose into the giant open-world that is now referred to as Novus Chrysalia.
Let us get this out of the way now: there are no time-traveling elements in Lightning Returns. In spite of the story presented here, Square’s plot has managed to avoid much of the absurd angles used in the past games, and in turn have given us a more focused account. In fact, the storytelling this time around is a bit tighter and less extraneous overall. Unfortunately, it still lacks any true suspense or overwhelming excitement. It’s not bad per se, seeing as it does a decent job at trying to make sense out of the second game’s story — without over-exerting itself in tying up too many loose ends — but it’s hardly a compelling character-centric drama. Regardless, Lightning Returns can be a very staunch, serious game. Its implications are always dire, with dialogue that matches that tone. As a result — and like any JRPG, really — the central message can come off heavy-handed at times. So for those that do not like extrapolating monologues on existentialism or what it feels like to have loved and subsequently lost someone near-and-dear, they may not get the most out of the game’s story.
We should talk about Lightning herself for a minute — or at least her costumes; after all, they are the main dish that Returns is serving. The final product is probably exactly what folks are imagining, if they’ve been following coverage of the game since its reveal. All combat, and aesthetic choice by proxy, is essentially decided by the outfits unlocked, purchased and then equipped. These costumes, called “Garb” in-game, each carry their own unique statistics that lend them well, or not so well to certain battle situations. Meaning to say, some outfits will boost HP, or strength, while others increase MP and ATB regeneration. They also come with certain attacks that already equipped (and cannot be changed) that play toward their inherent strengths and capabilities. The “Heartstealer” Garb, for instance, allows for quick and agile attacks, hastens the recovery of ATB, and comes with two abilities already equipped: Leaping Rush and Evade. Therefore, knowing which attacks are pre-established with a costume is important, as Garbs only allow up to four attacks to be assigned to them.
In other words, everything becomes a wild game of mixing and matching abilities to best suit an encounter — the thrill of the hunt to obtain all of the available pieces of Garb is also a huge gameplay incentive. The best part of this is the simple fact that there are approximately 70 pieces of garb in all to collect, with more on the way via DLC. When put altogether, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of customization options when it comes to matching Garb with attacks and accessories, as well as offensive and defensive items and weapons. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a host of fan-service with regards to outfits reminiscent of past Final Fantasy games, such as Garb resembling Yuna’s summoner get-up and Locke’s gear from FFVI. In fact, Lightning Returns is a game that incorporates a good deal of past Final Fantasy content and Easter eggs, sure to delight longtime franchise enthusiasts. Of course, this could disenfranchise those unfamiliar with the series, so take the fan-service for what it’s worth.
All of this talk ultimately culminates in Returns’ most redeeming quality: the actual combat. With each successive entry, the XIII series has added to its battle formula, and LR is no different. In fact, it uses its two prequels as a foundation for which its mechanics are built, but ratchets the intensity up to 11, all the while evolving the system to something that feels a little nostalgic and a lot new. Instead of taking a party of two or three into combat, Lightning goes it alone this time, befitting of her personality and the mechanics at play. It may seem like only controlling one character would make scenarios boring, or at least lacking in strategy, but the end result is just the opposite. Players go to war with three outfits at the ready. They can be switched between with the R1 and L1 triggers, which is necessary for getting the most out of the returning “Stagger” system – a process that allows heavier damage to be dealt once an enemy has already been whooped up on through complementing attacks.
Each outfit comes with its own ATB bar, which depletes whenever one of the four moves assigned to the Garb is used. See, when an attack isn’t being made, the ATB meter regenerates slowly. Henceforth it becomes a balancing act of dishing out punishment before switching to a different Garb to make use of its full ATB bar. And it will require every ounce of strategy and every attack to make it through Returns unscathed; what we’re implying is this is a hard game, sometimes frustratingly so. It’s mostly difficult during segments where out-of-date design philosophies are on full parade, such as fighting an end boss that has an unnecessary amount of “final” forms. Nonetheless, the game isn’t Dark Souls-hard, but challenging enough that playing on Easy for the first time through is highly recommended. Fortunately there’s a new game+ that allows folks to carry over all experience and items, so that’s sort of a saving grace.
At any rate, we would be remiss to not talk about the Valkyrie Profile-inspired countdown clock Lightning Returns employs. For the uninitiated, the developers have given players a certain amount of time to finish the game; 13 in-game days to be exact. Every in-game day equates to about 72 minutes of real-world time, but the game clock only ticks when exploring, and not during cutscenes or combat. To eliminate some of the pressure of having to do things in a relatively swift fashion, players can use a skill that consumes a certain amount of Energy Points that allows them to stop time for a few minutes. This is most useful when at the end of a chapter or dungeon and a few more minutes are nessecary to finish things up, as at 6am every in-game day, the player is promptly whisked away to the Ark — a station set up as a sort of hub for Lightning to rest, do boss-rush missions (that can be seamlessly uploaded on Facebook or Twitter) and interface with Hope. In some ways, the time limit seems exactly what it is: limiting, especially in the beginning when players may just want to walk around and explore without purpose. In general, the time allotted never feels like a real constraint. We thought it would at first, but we finished the game with plenty of time to spare — and that’s with having completed an innumerable amount of side-quests.
Trust us when we say that the game has a shedload of side-quests, some of which have heartfelt or fun back-stories. But while the premise of these quests are sometimes interesting, far too often do they lack purpose, and have players just engaging in kill monster A to get item B. The game looks like it has a lot to do upon first glance, but the world presented is rather quaint, with the content at large being quite smaller than the developers would have folks believe. At least the synthesis mechanic will extend the play time, as it gives the chance to adjoin various spells and attacks to create more ferocious ones. Luckily, the system is super accessible, so upgrading gear and attacks truly is a breeze and integral to finding victory in combat.
Despite the good that sometimes comes out of the gameplay department, Lightning Returns is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of presentation. Right away, it’s clear that the Crystal Tools engine is showing its age. Meaning to say, the game suffers from some poor textures, pop-in and intermittent framerate dips. While animations are still quite fluid, some character models are far from note-worthy. Returns is not a bad looking game by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just not the head turner its predecessor was back in 2010. What is bad, however, is the re-use of assets from the previous games. While it’s to be expected to some extent, the title uses too many of the same characters and enemy designs we’ve seen in the previous installments. Fortunately, the cutscenes and CGI are still top-notch.
The audio department fairs better, though, thanks to a soundtrack that does an effective job at blending old jams with new ones, with the arrangements of already known songs being interesting, and new tunes coming off as far more inspiring and emotion-filled than those found in XIII-2. That said, Masashi Hamauzu, Mitsuto Suzuki and Naoshi Mizuta are still at the composer’s helm, which means if folks didn’t like what they had to offer in the past XIII games, they probably won’t be won over for this outing. Still, the voice acting is far less debatable thanks to some excellent performances throughout, which certainly can’t be said for the last game. Jessica DiCicco’s work as Lumina is especially astounding, perhaps taking the prize for best voice acting in the entire XIII trilogy.
Lightning Returns is the antithesis of its predecessors. The confined and plodding pace of the last two games is no more and the nonsensical narrative has been lightly improved. More still, the combat is hands-down the strongest of the three games. Unfortunately, Lightning’s new quest isn’t without its limitations as the visual fidelity has dropped in quality — after all, this is a four year old engine in a more open environment — and the degree past assets are reused is almost criminal. The countdown clock will also be off-putting to those who like to take their time and explore to their heart’s content. There seems to be a general lack of content, too, as the game feels like it should only be about fifteen hours long instead of upwards of forty. In the end, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is one step forward and two steps back for the XIII saga and will only attract those looking for fan-service or high-octane combat.