So with Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 now firmly in the ‘dealt with’ drawer, and Type-0 HD along with the Final Fantasy XV demo knocking on the door, it’s time now to look at the final installment of the “Lightning Trilogy” of the Fabula Nova Crystallis – Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Which is kind of a backwards title to be honest. That always confused me. Surely it would make more sense as Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns. But maybe they wanted it to be viewed as more of a standalone game. Which is both odd and completely makes sense because this installment is about 90% references to people and events of the previous two games, and the other 10% is the where and how, and THOSE are completely brand new. Yes, in a weird change of pace, the entire combat system of Lightning Returns is completely different than anything seen in the previous two games and almost seems built as a weird RPG/Fighting game hybrid that somehow manages to actually work really well. As for the places, well… that’s best explained by getting into the set up of the story for this installment.
For those who recall my recap of Final Fantasy XIII-2, the game ended with Caius claiming victory from beyond the grave and the heart of the goddess Etro destroyed, allowing the chaos to pour out of the Unseen Realm and into the Seen Realm destroying the space/time continuum pretty much. Then our main protagonist, Serah, dies and Lightning seals herself in crystal in hopes to ride out the storm for a chance to be reunited with her dead sister someday somehow. Lightning Returns begins 500 years later. Yea. You did not read that wrong. Five hundred years later. Yea, it’s quite the time leap. In that time, the world has completely changed. No recycled areas this time. No, as the sea of chaos slowly consumes the world, the remaining land is divided up into 4 regions: Luxerion – the city of the faithful, Yusnaan – the city of the never ending party, The Dead Dunes – a savage desert, and The Wildlands – a wilderness where folks try to live with nature. Across these four regions, the remnants of humanity try to live out the remaining few days of the world. Humanity too has changed a bit. Remember that bit about the space/time continuum going boom? Yea, no one ages anymore. Seriously! People can still die from things like murder, getting ripped to shreds by monsters, disease, etc but no one has aged in 500 years. Hence how pretty much every character from the series comes back in some fashion. The chaos has also had some strange side effects now that Etro is dead. People and creatures have had drastic changes to their shapes in some cases, or other things like a certain pair of Gran Pulse residents being woken from crystal slumber.
So with no aging and a brand new world, what is the basic plot? Well, with the Unseen Realm opened up, Bhunivelze the God of Light, Creator of All, Giant Ass Who Killed His Mom, has returned to his creation to find it all broken beyond repair. He has awoken and tasked Lightning with saving the souls of humanity and preserving them in the Ark (that giant ball that Hope built in XIII-2 which was supposed to be a replacement Cocoon for when the Crystal Pillar broke, which is now just considered a big second moon to the world at large.) before the world is destroyed in 13 days. Yea, you get woken up and given the task of saving as many souls as you can in 13 days. All the while you’ll meet up with old friends and enemies, meet new friends and enemies, and Lightning will learn an important lesson. More on that later. The whole saving souls thing is done in the form of completing quests. Quests are the life blood of Lightning Returns. Completing quests will give you access to equipment, cosmetic customizations, stat increases (no more levels or crystarium), and most importantly: TIME. Oh yea, time is not on your side. At the start of the game, you have 7 days of game time before game over. Wait! Didn’t I say 13 earlier? Well, yes. See, the world will be destroyed in 13 days. If it makes it that long. You start with only 7 days left, but by helping others and completing quests you will gain more time which will ultimately give you 13 total (technically if you complete all 5 main story quests and enough side quests you can gain access to a special 14th day created from all the lost time after the Chaos flooded and days went from being on a 13 hour clock to a 12 hour one… Just go with it. All it really does is unlock the bonus dungeon, I’m surprised they tried to give it a lore based reason for existing at all.) Any time you are not inside the Ark that serves as a safe haven and base of operations, the clock will be continuously counting down. You can slow it down using bonus abilities that you’ll unlocked through out the game, but honestly I abused the hell out of them and ended up with 5 whole days of nothing to do but ride the train around. So they’re not crucial to burn unless you are close to missing a window to complete something since certain quests are only available at certain times each day or give you so much time to complete the task.
So along with the new world and time mechanic, what else does Lightning Returns bring to the table? Well, there’s the new combat system I mentioned. Since Lightning is the only playable character this time around, how do you handle the myriad of enemies being tossed at you? Well, besides being an agent of God (cue the Blues Brothers music please!) you have the ability of rotating through a myriad of abilities divided into the ‘roles’ established in FF13: Sentinel (Tank), Commando (Stagger Retention DPS), Ravager (Stagger Building DPS), Medic (Heals), Saboteur (Debuffs), and Synergist (Buffs). You change your set of abilities, by changing outfits. Yes, you play dress up and as a modern 30-something year old man in the 21st century, I will tell you… it’s pretty damn fun. The outfits consist of your clothes that dictate your abilities, your weapon that determines your attack power, and a shield that determines your defense. There are insane amounts of each that allow you to mix and match to your hearts content to build the perfect outfit for combat or just to run around in. On top of the stat and ability customization, you can change the color of outfits and add cosmetic accessories that do nothing (hats, glasses, plushies on your shoulder, badges, tattoos, etc) but add some aesthetic fun and other things to collect in the game. In combat, each outfit has its own ATB bar (think of it as energy or mana) to use that outfits abilities. It will refill as you fight but usually not fast enough that you won’t have to switch between your three outfit slots during the fight to continue the battle. Each ability is assigned to one of the four main buttons (ABXY on Xbox 360, Square/Circle/X/Triangle on PS3) so you just hit buttons to do the attacks. During combat (which occurs in a separate little universe like any other Final Fantasy combat), you actual control Lightning’s position, movement and blocking with the shield using the other buttons and joysticks. So you can move out of a blast, or move to the side of the enemy, or get up close and personal. Beyond that, the trilogy mechanic of ‘build stagger meter up till staggered then unleash hell for massive damage’ remains par for the course.
The whole combat system is much faster and attention holding than the traditional Final Fantasy turn based method. As I said, it feels a bit like they tossed in some Fighting game into the mix and it really makes all the repetitive combats fun. The only down side is that without the slower turn based system, strategizing is usually done with trial and error with lots of dying and restarting the combat, especially on bosses and the heavy hitting enemies. You can usually load up right back to the start of combat or right before the combat was initiated for a chance to run away, so it’s not a huge loss of time but it can wear on you a bit after dying 5-10 times on a single encounter. Still, I personally feel the change is a net win.
Moving around the game is fairly the same but with the addition of being able to actually jump whenever you want instead of just certain spots. The moving around actually feels very similar to SquareEnix’s other series Kingdom Hearts where the movement is really fluid and you get used to jumping up and grabbing onto ladders or snatching poles to slide down on as you run around. I actually found it perfectly entertaining to just run around Luxerion, climbing up on things and diving off high spots.
The last new mechanic in Lightning Returns is the ability to upgrade your stuff. The main one is upgrading your abilities. You will routinely encounter enemies that drop unattached abilities that can be slotted into the blank spots in outfits. These unattached abilities can often be combined at a shop into more powerful versions of itself, creating higher level versions of the ability and gaining things like the ‘+’ suffix that gives it a bonus to its effects. (If you end up with a ton of them, you can also sell these abilities for cash. Helpful when you have 30 Blizzard Lv. 1’s sitting around.) It also seems clear that Lightning Returns was made to be a quick, enjoyable game that you can and should play through multiple times. Not only do you get more stat boosts for redoing quests on a second, third or even fourth playthrough (it has diminishing returns and eventually just becomes extra cash instead of stat growth), the New Game+ option also opens up the ability to upgrade your weapons and shields, making them more and more powerful. Thus you can almost treat the game like Diablo, where you can play through it on the lower difficulties to build up stats and gear to take on the higher difficulties (which also has exclusive gear for all you collectors out there).
Overall, I’ve always felt like the mechanical changes in Lightning Returns were a mixed back. It felt like, much like the rest of the game, a radical departure not only from Final Fantasy as a whole, but the 13 trilogy as well. On the other hand, the changes by no means detract from the game. They are still fun and work with what this game in particular is trying to do. It just feels odd calling it a Final Fantasy game, or as part of the Lightning Trilogy since its such a radical departure from the established status quo. It kinda feels more like a spin off than a main entry in the series at the moment. I supposed the best way to describe the feeling is like being an American trying to pronounce something with the British English pronunciation (think ‘aluminum’). You recognize it as a valid way of saying the word, and it may even make more sense then how you usually say it, but it still sits funny in your mouth. That’s Lightning Returns on a mechanical level. Fun, but different.
Anyway, next time I’ll crack deeper into the storyline and characters and we’ll see exactly what the deal with Bhunivelze is after all this time.