Also On: Xbox 360
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
I still think it’s a bit weird to see a trilogy of games focused solely on Final Fantasy XIII, a title that never seemed to garner the goodwill from fans that its predecessors had gained. But here we are with the last game in this Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, Lightning Returns. And honestly, I think I actually prefer both this and Final Fantasy XIII-2 to the main game.
Lightning Returns does have a few issues, but much of that stems from technical limitations and building upon an already ridiculous story. Other aspects, especially the combat system and customization options, are extremely robust and a remarkable evolution compared to the previous titles. Key combat elements from the original FF XIII return, like pinpointing an enemy weakness in order to stagger an opponent for a beat down. But the majority of the combat builds upon the groundwork laid by XIII-2. The biggest change being that Lightning runs through the game solo for the majority of the time, forcing her to take on all roles in what used to be a three person party experience.
To accommodate this, Lightning Returns introduces the Schemata system, a series of obtainable outfits that carry various specific skills or effects that can boost Lightning’s abilities in a variety of ways. There is an huge selection here, with Schemata focused on offensive magic, guarding, offensive physical attacks, elemental physical attacks, evading, debuffing enemies and so on. As far as the actual quality of the costume designs go you’ll find that they vary between a mix of downright ridiculous to legitimately cool looking outfits. These can be further customized with color swaps and accessories.
To go along with Schemata, you’ll gain a variety of abilities by defeating monsters, with magical abilities from the standard Final Fantasy catalogue, such as Fire, Fira, and Firaga, along with different defensive guard and evade abilities, debuffs, and physical attacks. Each Schemata you equip has four slots mapped to the face buttons on the controller where you can slot in gained abilities. Some Schemata may come with abilities locked in, but there’s a number that allow you to freely customize all options. In addition to attacks, you can equip two different accessories for each Schemata, that tack on defensive and offensive buffs.
Attack abilities earned can be further customized as well. As you gain more drops of any particular ability, you can take those drops to a Sorcery Shop and combine them to improve the stats of the ability. Once you’ve performed an upgrade a certain amount of times then that ability can level up, provided you have the material to do so. One neat aspect to this is that once you finish Lightning Returns, or run out of the allotted days allowed to finish, you’ll unlock New Game+. Provided you’ve finished the game you’ll also get access to Hard mode, which will give you the ability to not only upgrade attacks, but equipment as well. In addition to that, monsters may drop previously inaccessible crafting components and items, making it worth playing a second time through just to see how far you can push Lightning’s abilities.
Lightning is able to take three Schemata into combat with her, and you’ll have a number of additional slots for Schemata to build up if you want to easily switch between outfits outside of battle. When in battle, you can switch between your different outfits by tapping the left or right shoulder buttons on the controller. Each Schemata has its own ATB meter, which dictates how many times you can attack or cast magic. Switching from one Schemata to the next allows the previous one to recharge.
Combat tends to take on a flow similar to this: I encounter a large beast called a Reaver in the Wildlands. My opening Schemata comes equipped with Heavy Guard, Attack, Sparkstrike, and Thundara. I open up with a salvo of Thundara in order to bring the beast close to its stagger point, displayed onscreen through the health-bar for the Reaver, which starts to look like an out-of-control EKG meter the further I push it. Once I’ve expended the ATB meter for my first Schemata, I switch to the next, and unleash another round of magic attacks. This is enough to stagger the Reaver, bringing it down to the ground and temporarily dazing it. I switch to my third Schemata to unleash a series of physical attacks before the Reaver regains consciousness.
Larger enemies like the Reaver tend to feel like mini-boss encounters. In the above scenario after the Reaver comes to, it’ll go from an all-fours stance to rearing up on its hind legs, and begin to brandish a giant sword with devastating physical attacks. If I can manage to stagger it again, then the Reaver will drop to its knees. While in this state, I have a small window to trigger another stagger, which then allows me to launch the Reaver into the air, where I can create the most damage and hopefully finish the beast off. For my trouble I’ll see one of five different item drops with varying degrees of rarity, including the actual sword the Reaver brandishes during the fight.
Combat is a lot of fun, and rarely gets old throughout Lightning Returns. It was suggested that I play through the review copy we received on Easy, but I’m stubborn and selected Normal instead. I’m glad I did, because the game provides a remarkably satisfying challenge in Normal. I had a number of boss fights that saw me dying and restarting numerous times, which was refreshing for a modern-day RPG.
Checkpoints are lenient enough to not make this feel like a struggle, along with an ability that allows you to restart right before a battle while only losing an hour of time. There were a number of occasions where I had to toy around with Schemata and ability combinations to find the right one for a given fight, and I really enjoyed going back and forth trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t.
In addition to the solid combat system, you’ll have a lot of additional activities to keep you busy in Lightning Returns besides the five main quest lines. With Lightning Returns you’re given a 13 day window to complete the game and see the final boss, which can sound short and restrictive. But you’re given the opportunity to freeze time, and while you only start with handful of days available, you’ll expand that out by just completing quests. I wouldn’t be too concerned about time management or failing here, even with multiple hours lost due to fight restarts I had plenty of time before the world ended to do everything I needed.
There are lots of side quests to check out throughout the game, with varying degrees of difficulty. You’ll encounter a number of NPC’s in different towns that’ll task you with finding items or missing people, or taking on difficult monsters. Unfortunately a lot of these quests equate to simple fetch activities, like obtaining a number of monster parts and reporting back in. But considering how fun combat tends to be, you’ll likely have little trouble gathering these items. There are a few quests that are unfortunately tied into certain times of the day, which can often be a bit vague and annoyingly difficult to pinpoint. Likewise a few quests offer up little in the way of useable clues, making them nearly impossible to finish without the use of some sort of guide.
The side quest activities are really a pretty minor complaint compared to everything else, but issues with the story and technical performance are a bit more severe. Having played the previous two games, I still found myself having a difficult time following the plot with Lightning Returns. From what I could ascertain, it’s been 500 years since the end of XIII-2, and everyone in the world has stopped aging. This, of course, allows for a number of cameo appearances from the previous two games. Lightning, now under command by God, is attempting to save the denizens of her previous world from utter annihilation as the world is doomed to end in 13 days. So she needs to help out her friends in order to save their souls, and bring them over to the new world God is creating.
I think this is the gist of it all, but character motivations, attitudes, and direction tend to change with the drop of a dime. Lightning herself is a massive contradiction of words and feelings, often lamenting the lack of her own humanity and ability to feel while clearly showing emotional moments throughout the game. Other characters go from a defeatist woe-is-me attitude to being right as rain after getting slapped around by Lightning for a bit. The game tells you that no new children have been born since aging stopped, so you’ll see a lot of small kids running around that have lived for 500 years, but still act like little children. There are a lot of elements to this non-aging world on the edge of extinction that could have been handled a lot better than this.
From a technical standpoint, the biggest offender in Lightning Returns is the sub-30 framerate that becomes noticeable any time there’s a lot of stuff happening on screen. This isn’t too surprising considering how poorly Final Fantasy XIII-2 ran, but I wish the developers could have stabilized this in a bit more. I’ll also point out that while the game has some impressive environmental visuals, character models outside of the main cast are pretty ugly. Just about every NPC you encounter looks low-res and starved for attention compared to Lightning. Even the monsters you encounter seem to get more love than the drab NPC citizens that litter the world.
In the end, I definitely enjoyed my time spent with Lightning Returns, and I’m planning to do a complete Hard Mode run in the future just to see everything the game has to offer. The incredibly fun combat system and the sheer amount of customization options make this final entry in the trilogy well worth seeking out. If you’re coming into this with the hopes of seeing the story turn itself around then you’re going to leave disappointed. But if you enjoyed the refinements made in Final Fantasy XIII-2, then I think you’ll find a lot to love about Lightning Returns.