“Time for another approach”-Claire “Lightning” Farron
(York Robilliard returns with his review of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII)
Lightning Returns is an interesting beast, a melange of new gameplay ideas, the final chapter of the Final Fantasy XIII saga is both exciting for its bold new gameplay direction and conflicted for it’s desire to shed the tonality of both XIII & XII-2.
Concerning the now eponymous Lightning and her awakening in time for the end of the world, the final entry of the XIII series puts players in what remains of the former Gran Pulse, the name given to the natural landscape of the world.
Having awoken five hundred years after the end of the previous game, Lightning is empowered by the All-God Bhunilvelze and tasked as his “saviour”. Given the power to save the souls of the populace, paired with former ally Hope and set upon the world to rush against time, Lightning has the unenviable task of saving as many people as she can to be reborn in the new world to be created…but not everyone can be saved.
We open on the city of Yusnaan, where a Venetian styled end of the world feast is taking place. Lightning, the proverbial fly in the ointment, watches from atop a structure the proceedings-intent on beginning her task.
Crashing the party with gusto, Lightning finds herself encountering old ally Snow, now the gracious yet dark protector and leader of the hedonistic city.
Cue impressive happenings in cut-scene (of which is available on YouTube should you be interested) and we’re off! The clock starts ticking and we’re anxiously chasing Snow, the Chaos of Valhalla and darkness closing in behind us.
An intentional love song or design co-incidence?
On that note, darkness is a key aesthetic and tone in Lightning Returns, gone are the overly optimistic protagonists of XIII-2 along with the heroic platitudes spouted in XIII- the world is ending in a short time, humanity has grown stagnant due to the flow of time being disrupted, people don’t age, cannot reproduce and all come to worship religious figures for hope as they entrust their lives to deity’s in order fight the building despair.
I have no intention of making light of Lightning Returns’ innovation, but I cannot help but see and immensely enjoy the influence/likeness of/to the Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
Here is a game that is a dark sequel to a previously whimsical affair, which features a time limit to achieve ones objectives (though the player can extend time), with four quadrants as regions, a mouthy guide and a game mechanic that allows the player to alter and change the sole playable characters play style.
It’s as though the boys at Square-Enix have taken a jab at a modern Majora’s Mask and I must say- the results are refreshing, though not without flaws.
Yes yes, we get it, you’re a MM fanboy, what about FF?
Gone are the set time-frames and areas from XIII-2, gone is the combat system first seen in XIII and refined in XIII-2, Lightning Returns features four main areas to traverse in free-roam gameplay interspersed with combat encounters that feature real-time Active Time Bar gameplay.
Tasked with saving the world was never going to be a straightforward task, and it isn’t, the player is beset by both main and side quests. Initially given only a limited amount of days until the worlds end, Lightning is able to extend the doomsday countdown further by completing large quantities of side quests.
These are generally but not always fetch quests that can vary from humorous to monotonous and in this regard give the world of Nova Chrysalia the characterisation previously seen in XIII-2: wacky and serious encounters give a sense of the state of society as the world closes to an end. Although incredibly contrasting compared to the weighted main story, the world featured here feels more alive by virtue of the finer details of the people that inhabit it.
The main journey sees Lightning progress toward the end of days, mysteries abound regarding mystical items that may help her, whispers of old friends and foes here and there incentivise the player to press forward, ever anxious as the clock ticks synchronous with Lightning’s footsteps as she scampers, teleports and jumps around to reach her goal.
Much like Majora’s Mask, certain quests and events occur at specific times, and making note of these happenings is important to your success, though the game does keep track of the most important parts, it’s always important to pay attention to your next objective. This aspect of gameplay makes for an enjoyable sense of urgency: juggling quests, making concessions and just making that deadline are some of the most rewarding parts of gameplay present here.
Though I found the time constraint somewhat generous for my normal mode play through, it’s likely that completing the game 100% will require good time management and intelligent use of Lightning’s abilities to mitigate the lack of time.
The big star however here is the combat system in place, which is incredibly distinct from previous incarnations.
Given real-time control of Lightning, the player has three main “schemata” to set and customise to suit different combat roles.
Choosing a base outfit the player is given various stat parameters/bonuses, from there a weapon and shield are chosen which does the same, followed by an accessory or two and finally four abilities that grant stat changes or boosts.
The four abilities are mapped to the four right-hand side controller buttons, each one a skill of your choosing, though schema tend to have at least one ability locked to the outfit.
Customising schemata to fit your agenda is enjoyable and highly involving, over the course of my journey finding new gear to evolve my pre-set schemata and fine-tuning the combat role prescribed to each of the three main became essential to combating the scaling enemy difficulty.
But the system is flexible; the ability to set and customise a large amount of “benched” schemata allows the player to change their approach on the fly for encounters through the game, a welcome gameplay option that allows a handy little “party configure” mechanic.
Choosing your equipment carefully to specifically cater to a combat need is one of the key strengths of Lightning Returns, players concerned with a lack of more than one playable character fear not- the system in place is a dynamic version of the previous systems under the saga banner that essentially allows for completely distinct play styles between schemata and hence more than enough “party members”. Regardless, those in the bizarre minority of disliking Lightning but needing closure will find pre-order DLC to cater to their cos-playing needs in the form of Cloud Strife’s outfit along with Lara Croft’s Gear available post release.
Success in battle depends on paying close attention to enemy movements in conjunction with the information provided by the “Libra Scan” accessed by pressing the right trigger.
Knowing when to back off, guard or go for the throat in order to stagger enemies for massive damage is paramount to victory.
I must say, the first few hours of my journey did not go swimmingly, thrust into the world I felt lost and bewildered as the time limit ticked down and enemies forced me to constantly escape against my pride.
Calming down and side-tracking off the main quest allowed me to gain a grip of the games systems, find gear and become stronger and more adept at the combat, from there the game truly opened up as the enjoyable sprawling Final Fantasy adventure the developers likely wished it to be. This in itself was a highlight of the game design, coming to grips with the initially overwhelming world of Lightning Returns mirrored Lightning’s own struggle to reconnect with humanity, old acquaintances and attempt to perform her task admirably.
So it’s perfect?
Not quite, despite my glowing over this game, there are indeed flaws in place. From a technical perspective, Lightning Returns is the least impressive of the trilogy. Though the art direction remains fantastic, individual quality of objects, items and characters in the world remain incredibly inconsistent.
Though in actuality this doesn’t really deter from the game in any significant way, the true technical issue with Lightning Returns is its frame rate, constantly below 30, the frame rate constantly dips to noticeable lag, I’m assuming in the eighteen to low twenties range. This can be occasionally jarring, taking away from the otherwise fairly decent (but not as refined as XIII’s) presentation.
Some may also find the characterisation of the main cast a little………jarring. Take it or leave it, Lightning is essentially no longer human, and though her stoic demeanour was always exacerbated by Ali Hillis’ vocal performance, Lightning has become otherwise fairly despondent to the human condition, occasionally appearing aloof and arrogant-though she is not without compassion for people with whom she resonates.
Most of the cast you’ve journeyed with previously have become radically different over the course of time, some burdened with power and the crushing despair of the worlds end, others caught in ethereal problems, detached from reality and the worlds plight and others hopelessly clinging to false truths and denial in order to maintain.
Though this all sounds reasonable considering the circumstance, those fans hoping for their old favourites to reappear and provide resonance may be disappointed.
Admittedly this is the complaint of a severe Noel Kreiss fanboy, but I digress.
So, what now?
Regardless, Lightning Returns is a worthy purchase if only for the gameplay. Whilst some may pine for a different ending to the series in tone, the open world gameplay, revised combat, variety in customisation and overall effort put into presenting a fresh take on the XIII saga has achieved something the other two did not, it’s decidedly a very decent game, whereas the previous two titles polarised fans and critics alike.
I highly recommend Lightning Returns to fans looking to put the button on the trilogy that has been the ire and joy of so many across the planet. Those jumping in for the first time will be able to play and understand thanks to the games in depth data log, for everything else, there’s Mastercard the internet.
+ Great new engine, arguably the best so far depending on your preference
+ High level of customization ensures individual play-throughs
+ Time limit imposed adds enjoyable sense of urgency
- Technical issues include poor frame-rate and inconsistent visual assets
- Some may find story and characterisation lacklustre