Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is the confusingly named last part of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy. At the end of the last game, the villain Caius succeeded in destroying time, and Serah died. Five hundred years have passed, and humanity no longer ages or gives birth. Each human limps along until he or she inevitably succumbs to an accident, disease, or murder. All the while, a mysterious darkness known as Chaos is slowly devouring the planet.
Lighting was frozen in crystal at the end of the last game, and God awakens her with a deal. He will destroy the world in 13 days and remake a new world elsewhere, so Lightning has 13 days to collect as many human souls as possible. Any uncollected souls will be erased from existence. In exchange, Lightning's sister Serah will be revived. Driven by guilt (and because the other choice is the apocalypse), Lightning agrees.
Perhaps the title's biggest issue is that there is no reason for it to be a Final Fantasy XIII game. The world has changed so much, and so many new things are introduced that it easily could have been a different game and nobody would have noticed. Vanille returns from her frozen sleep with a new set of powers that nobody in the game can explain. Most of the setting and concepts introduced in the previous games are thrown out the window or ignored. There are plenty of references, but they feel forced and out of place. It feels like the cast and characters of Final Fantasy XIII were dropped into a different world and are struggling to pretend that it makes sense as a direct sequel. Going from the wacky fantasy setting of Final Fantasy XIII to what feels like a Shin Megami Tensei game is a tough adjustment.
Unfortunately, that renders much of the game nonsensical. Lightning has gone from a soldier in a bad situation to God's soul collector, and the rest of the cast's transformations are just as bizarre. The game spends so much time trying to set up its bizarre cosmology and world setting that it feels like it's starting fresh anyway — except it's structured like the end of a trilogy. Additionally, things occur because the plot said they occurred; sometimes, it is explained, and sometimes, it isn't. Several major plot points are either unclear or boil down to "because we said so." The ending is one of the most ridiculous, excessive, and over-the-top things I've seen in a JRPG, and I've played more than my fair share of JRPGs. Final Fantasy XIII fans may be happy at the closure for the characters, but everyone else will just be befuddled.
It's a shame because Nova Chrysalis is home to some pretty cool concepts. In this slowly decaying world, humanity is on the brink of extinction merely through entropy. It'd be interesting to see how people deal with the inevitable end of humanity or the bizarre way the world has dealt with 500 years of life. The game occasionally manages to touch on some of this, but it tends to forget about or ignore its own concepts.
The world of Nova Chrysalis is divided into four sections: two towns, a wilderness area with villages, and a desert. Each represents one of the last bastions of humanity, and each is filled with places to explore and people to meet. Compared to the last two games in the franchise, there's a more coherent sense of where each place is. There is a large overworld map, and you use a train system to travel between the four areas. There is not much in the way of dungeons or optional areas. You'll revisit locations at different times of the day, and there are only a handful of deep dungeons to explore. You spend a lot more time outside than you do delving into dungeons.
It's pretty interesting the first time you visit an area and everything is new, but after revisiting the same areas over and over again, it wears on you. There's something rather MMO-ish about it all; you'll spend most of your time in a few hubs, though the game lacks the additional areas that make MMOs interesting to explore. There's more than enough to do in each area to keep you busy for a while.
The game has a global time limit, since the world is set to end in 13 days when God awakens. When you begin the game, you only have six days before the world ends, and you extend this time by performing the main quests. Each adds one day of time to the clock. Each day is comprised of 24 hours, starting at 6 AM on one day and ending at 6 AM on the next. Time passes in the game world at the rate of a minute every couple of seconds. Certain activities, such as riding a train, take longer chunks of time. Time is stopped during any fights, so you're not forced to rush through battles to avoid running down the clock. Each of the four main locations has its own schedule. Certain side-quests and missions are only accessible at certain times of the day, and every area has at least one location like that.
All of this might sound stressful, if not for one important thing. At any time during the game, you can spend 1 EP (Eradia Point) to stop time for about 90 seconds. This may not sound like a lot, but it's actually quite significant. This counter doesn't count down while you're in battle, and winning fights earns you a fraction of an EP. If you chain together enough fights to earn 1 EP between skirmishes, you can effectively stop time indefinitely. Certain enemies drop 2 EP, and several Chaos Zones force enemies to drop at least 1 EP, so it's possible that you'll have an overabundance of time on your hands. However, you lose an hour every time you die in a fight or escape from a fight, so it's also possible to end up with a lot less time to spare.
There is no leveling experience mechanic in Lighting Returns. Your stats improve as you complete side-quests. The more difficult the side-quest, the larger the boost to your base stats. The main story missions also reward you with additional EP, item slots or rare items. You can't grind for levels, though. There's a set level of power Lightning can obtain during a first playthrough of the game. Finishing the game unlocks the Limit Break option, which lets you improve your stats, as well as the Hard mode and weapon/armor synthesis features. You'll never out-level the game on a first playthrough, but you absolutely can during the second or third.
Enemies drop EP when defeated, so fighting allows you to extend the time limit. They also drop skills, items that are needed for side-quests, and money to spend in the shops for new equipment and items. It's not XP, but fighting enemies still translates into more power for your character.
Lightning Returns uses a modified version of the combat system from the first game, but with a few major changes. For one thing, you no longer have a three-character party. Aside from a few fights alongside AI opponents, Lightning is alone. Instead of switching between paradigms, you switch between three different schema (pluralized as schemata), which represents three different character builds for Lightning. Combat can be brutal. Enemies hit hard and fast, and several kinds of foes can wipe you out in a few minutes.
The combat has a lot in common with the Final Fantasy XIII system, but it's mixed with a dose of Paper Mario-style button timing. Each schema's abilities are tied to a face button, and each spell takes a chunk of Lightning's Active Time Battle (ATB) bar. When it runs out, it slowly begins to regenerate. These moves play out in real time and have an element of timing to them. Each schema has an ATB bar, and the ATB bar regenerates faster when you're not using a particular schema. Much like paradigm shifting in the last two Final Fantasy XIII games, you can — and are expected to — switch between schema.
In previous games, staggering involved repeatedly spamming an attack. In Lightning Returns, every enemy has a set of staggers and reactions. Some enemies are most vulnerable right after they attack, and others are more vulnerable to attacks of certain elements. It makes the combat feel more intense when you're focusing on enemy weaknesses instead of just pounding them until their HP falls over.
Combat is all about balancing your schema. You don't want to use up your ATB bar, or else you won't be able to stagger enemies. Your health doesn't regenerate after fights, so you need to use healing potions or spend EP to heal. These are plentiful enough, but if you get careless or lazy, you'll need to return to town to stock up. Since healing isn't free, you don't want fights to become battles of attrition since the enemy can afford to lose a lot more health than you can. Some skills make it easier to defeat enemies, but they cost precious EP and must be used sparingly.
While each enemy type is unique, there is a limited number of enemies in the world. You'll encounter about 30 different enemy types in regular play, and some are just palette swaps, though with different attacks. The combat is fun enough that the relative lack of variety isn't bad, but you'll quickly get tired of them. To its credit, the last dungeon introduces a few new enemy types, so it feels more exciting. Monsters get stronger as the game advances, and they appear in more difficult configurations as each day passes. On Day 13, they're a lot deadlier than they were on Day 1.
Humanity isn't the only dying species. Monsters are also dying, and that explains why there's a limited variety of enemies in the world. Each one you kill depletes the total pool until, at the very end, there is only one member of the species left. This monster, called a Last One, is a mini-boss. They're stronger and faster than their brethren and drop special items when defeated. Once the Last One is defeated, that monster vanishes from the game world. If you exterminate every monster type in an area, random encounters stop occurring altogether. By the end of my game, the world was mostly empty except for the occasional Anubys, a spirit of the dead who can't become extinct since it's already an evil ghost. A special dungeon is accessible if you complete the side-quests that allow you to face the Last Ones without obliterating their brethren, but it isn't accessible until the last day.
Final Fantasy games are known for being visual spectacles, and that's another reason why Lightning Returns is a bit odd. The closest thing I can compare it to is The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, where the bulk of the game consists of old material that's recycled into a new game. Lighting Returns is very similar. Some areas look very nice, but others are obviously reused content or low-budget materials. Lighting is oddly proportioned, with extra attention drawn to her oversized head. Some outfits look great, but others look like Lightning forgot to wear pants. At no point does the game acknowledge that Lightning is running around in ridiculous outfits wearing a pumpkin head. It makes some of the cut scenes unintentionally hilarious.
Perhaps more problematic is that the game suffers from frame rate issues. It chugs when too much is happening on-screen. Fights tend to be smoother, but when they get bad, they are bad. One particular enemy in the desert brings the game to a near-standstill when he uses a sand-based attack, making it tough to block.
It's rare for a game to have voice acting as mixed as Lightning Returns. Ali Hillis does a good enough job as Lightning, and a few of the other major characters do well. Troy Baker, as usual, steals the show as Snow. The NPCs may or may not sound like random guys pulled off the street. Some are good, but others sound like PSX-era voice work, and it varies from character to character. The soundtrack is quite good, although it is largely remixed and recycles songs from other Final Fantasy XIII games. "Blinded by Light" is one of the better combat themes the franchise has had, and the rest of the music is good enough.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a strange game. Frame rate problems and a nonsensical story are balanced by one of the franchise's best combat systems, which is held together by a strange patchwork of gameplay mechanics. Some work, some don't, and some are too strange to properly judge. It's a rough game that was clearly made on a shoestring budget. It isn't an easy game to recommend, and it's even harder to identify an audience for it. There are a lot of bright moments to be found under the warts, and JRPG fans will find something to like in the strange stew that is Lighting Returns.
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