Square Enix and the development team behind Final Fantasy XIII just can’t seem to quit and they’re topping off the end of this console generation with yet another return to the world of Fabula Nova Crystallis. You can’t be blamed for having absolutely no clue what’s going on in the game’s story, especially since Final Fantasy XIII-2 couldn’t capitalize on an audience that never finished the first FFXIII to begin with. Still, Lightning has a few new tricks up her invariably short sleeves, short shorts, and exceedingly high cut evening gowns, a few of which directly address the issues players had with previous games.
Whichever God rules over the messy situation created in the previous two Final Fantasy XIII games has decided to send Lightning back to clean up the mess. There’s chaos everywhere and only two weeks to the end of the world, should you accomplish enough in the time given to actually extend the coming attractions before the apocalypse. All you really need to know about Lightning’s return is that she’ll be escorting souls to a brand new world, not unlike all the boxes of desk toys and figurines Square’s developers are moving from one office at Square Enix to another clearly marked for the staff behind Final Fantasy XIV patching and customer support.
There’s no more paradigm battle system and you certainly won’t walk down extremely long corridors with no end in sight. Instead, you’ll move between four different hubs, each with their own quests and characters and boss battles and more. You’ll play and fight alone as Lightning, switching between three different Schema and earning improved stats with every finished quest. With a constant countdown clock ticking away and plenty of bosses that will kill you or force you to flee outright, it doesn’t take long for something about the adventure to feel off.
Still, you’ll have plenty of time to explore that sense of being totally lost at the end of the universe, especially since the solo combat system can prove to be a lot of fun. Without the paradigm battle system, Lightning uses Schema to set and customize three different outfits, each with four different abilities. You can choose from skimpy to silly to frankly badass-looking armor and more, each with unique stats and attacks offering different strengths and weaknesses in battle. Obviously you’ll want to tailor your outfit to your opponent because we’re all just sparring with potential partners for the end of the world anyway.
Each Schema comes with a gauge that ticks down as you use abilities. The bar will refill over time, so switching between outfits smartly will allow you to keep up a near constant stream of damage, self-healing, stat buffs, and more. Pulling off critical attacks, countering perfectly, and dealing thousands of points of damage will certainly make you feel powerful, especially as time ticks further and further down and your power ticks up. By the time you reach the end of the adventure, you’ll have tons of finesse and an expert sense of which outfits work and which don’t. You’ll likely not want to stick with the strength-giving armored bikini when you discover some of the sillier or more powerful outfits. Eventually, Lightning Returns gives you that satisfying sense of progression you crave from an RPG.
Still, the game doesn’t communicate as much as it needs to give you a definite sense of right and wrong in combat or in questing. More on quests in a bit, but combat provides a good example of this phenomenon where a huge mechanical depth is only matched by how little the game informs you of how to best explore it. You might stubbornly cling to outfits that best suit your play style, but bosses and quest-specific challenges do a lot to force you out of any comfortable groove you’ve established. The only way to truly explore what works and what doesn’t work in combat is to try on as many different outfits as you can and deal with deaths and other set backs as you go.
Further, learning how to block can be difficult, but repeated engagements with the same enemies will train you up. You can stagger opponents as you could in previous FFXIII games, but between switching Schema, blocking, counter attacking, and more it’ll be hard to exploit that system all over again. Overall, the battle system is entertaining no matter how frustrating the game’s overall structure is.
Lightning Returns lets you explore the world as you like, but some major problems crop up when quests either disconnect from the story or things just don’t make sense narratively. Lightning will have to frequently discover small, obscure items in faraway corners of the game world to satisfy a quest that doesn’t seem to have any effect on the main story. You might save another critical soul for the formation of a new world, but it still feels like a waste of the time made into an apparent and valuable resource. Major story quests can also throw you up against a big boss that refuses to go down. You can’t simply grind out higher hit points or attack power either. You need to complete those mundane quests in order to obtain the power you need to clear a difficult and mandatory boss.
It ends up feeling like a lot of marginal improvements to life in the face of a universe shattering event, one where it doesn’t matter if you played the previous games or if you’ve been dressing up as Lightning for all the local anime and gaming events. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII practically forces you to accept the fact that you might not “complete” the game in time or you might totally miss out on the one soul-saving quest that really mattered. Whether certain bosses block you and force you to backtrack a little or mop up mundane quests, you’ll no doubt waste some time by launching into a battle you have no hope of actually winning.
Lightning can only build up 13 days of in-game time and that’s only if you do enough quests. Further complicating matters, Hope teleports you away at a random curfew hour, interrupting whatever you’re doing to bother you with mundane chatter and I guess a reminder that you’re never gonna accomplish everything you wanted to in the first place. No companions and a constant clock make the game world and action feel lonely, solitary, like you’re exploring a museum just before it’s demolished, open for you to explore any wing at any time, but always reminding you that closing means you can’t stay anymore. In fact, when this world closes, it’ll cease to exist.
Lightning Returns is a museum that taunts you, interrupts you while you admire some pretty vistas, and even kills you outright for not knowing how to exploit enemy weaknesses. Aesthetically, Lightning Returns is beautiful and you get to dress up our pink-haired hero like the most insane Japanese Barbie doll ever imagined, the music is fantastic, varied, and sweetly orchestral, but it’s not an entirely happy game.
It’s more melancholy than anything else—sad at times, joyfully freeing for the franchise at others. Lightning talks to herself and cracks jokes in some truly silly outfits. It’s like a love letter from Final Fantasy XIII’s development team where they say all kinds of nice stuff but ultimately break up with you anyway. Lightning Returns allows the character to go out in style and with a wicked sense of self-referential humor. I’d say it’s better for Lightning not to take herself too seriously as a humorous smirk and a wink might be the armor everyone needs in this situation.