Previously on Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning fights the fal'Cie to rescue her sister and break the mark of the I'Cie. Along the way she meets up with a group of unlikely allies, who band together to save the Cocoon from being destroyed. And then, out of nowhere, the whole thing turns into Back to the Future and introduces time travel. All this leads us to Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, the exciting (and convoluted) final chapter in the Nova Chrysalia trilogy.
For all the preamble, Lightning Returns has a surprisingly simple story that is quick and easy to summarize. You play as Lightning, who returns to Nova Chrysalia thirteen days before its prophesized destruction. She has been named the Savior by God Bhunivelze and is on a mission to save the souls of humanity from the burdens on their hearts, guiding them to a new world. She is driven by her desire to bring back Serah, the sister that started the domino effect some 500 years ago.
Obviously, there's more to it than I'm letting on. Beyond saving the souls of humanity, Lightning will use the final thirteen days to track down former Final Fantasy XIII cast members, such as Vanille, Sazh, Snow and more. On top of that, she's being guided by a youthful Hope and stalked by a mysterious girl named Lumina. It's a juggling act to not only save as many souls as possible, but also make sure all the pieces are in place for the final day. Being a servant of God can be incredibly stressful.
There's a reason I keep mentioning that these are the final thirteen days before the end of the world, and that's because time plays an important part in Final Fantasy XIII-3. With the exception of cinema scenes and fighting, the clock is always ticking down. Lightning is able to buy a few days by simply saving enough souls, but there's nothing she can do about the world coming to an end.
With the clock always ticking, Lightning's final chapter feels more like a Dead Rising game than Final Fantasy XIII sequel. Many missions are time sensitive. Not just when it comes to completing them, but also when it comes to interacting with the quest givers. Forget fighting scary monsters, Lightning's biggest enemy is time management.
The quests are split up across four unique regions, each with its own lengthy story mission to complete. We start in Luxerion, which is a quiet town with a very concerning crime problem. When bored of the small town, Lightning can hop on the train and visit Yusnaan, a large party city full of fireworks, staged fights and armed guards on the lookout for a rose-haired woman with a large sword.
Away from the cities, we are able to explore two huge open worlds. The Wildlands is made up of a large meadow, a forest maze and a treacherous mountain region. Over in the Deadly Dunes, Lighting is able to explore the labyrinthine tunnel far below the desert sands and scorching sun. These sections are a great throwback to a time when Final Fantasy was about exploring the countryside looking for adventures. And best of all, these locations and missions can be tackled in any order.
Instead of spending countless hours grinding for levels, this sequel puts the emphasis on completing missions. Resolving the various quests will increase Lightning's health, strength and magic abilities. You get none of these improvements from going around killing enemies. This may run counter to every other Final Fantasy game, but it ends up being a great improvement.
Each of the four regions has its own story missions, which generally features a familiar face from a past Final Fantasy XIII game, as well as a large boss fight. Beyond the main quest, players will spend most of their time solving side quests and taking on missions found on the Canvas of Prayers. Between these three types of quests, Lightning Returns packs a lot into Nova Chrysalia's final thirteen days.
There's a weird disconnect between the grave seriousness of Lightning's main story and the immense triviality of the side quests. The world is going to end in just under two weeks, yet Lightning spends much of that time running inane missions for random citizens. In one mission she'll be forced to sample all the delicious food in Yasnaan, while another quest is all about making sure all thirteen clocks in Luxerion are set correctly.
Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed many of the side missions. Sure, too many of them are MMO-style fetch quests, but there are also a lot of interesting characters to meet and I certainly like the idea of completing one last task to save their soul. My problem isn't with the concept, but rather how tonally different it is compared to the gravity of the main story. With only hours left before the world comes to an end, I found myself struggling to care about the plight of the little girl that lost her teddy bear.
Lightning is positioned as a Jesus Christ character, returning to the planet during end times to save the souls of humanity. The parallels to real world religion are not coincidental, though far enough removed to not anger any specific group. I couldn't help but wonder if this would be the fate of any returning savior. If Jesus Christ were to actually come back to Earth, would he be stuck running fetch quests for lazy farmers?
To her credit, Lightning isn't especially thrilled about meeting the citizens of Nova Chrysalia. Then again, she's not exactly thrilled about anything else. The Lightning that has returned is near emotionless; unable to remember the feelings she had centuries ago. She comes off like a disaffected teenage girl, ready to say "meh" after every important comment. At times it sounds like MTV's Daria doing her best Solid Snake impression and it's actually kind of wonderful.
With all this talk about the end of the world and people to save, it's easy to overlook the huge changes that have come to combat mechanics. Although you only play as Lightning, that doesn't mean this Final Fantasy has completely ditched the party system. Instead of choosing different characters, Lightning switches between three different types of "Schemata." That is, three different outfits customized with different weapons, shields and special attacks.
Although it has a silly name, this new set-up is actually pretty simple. Players will collect dozens of different outfits, each with its own unique set of attributes and abilities. One dress may be good at fire attacks, while a soldier's uniform may give Lightning an advantage with melee hits. With so many different outfits, it's easy to make a number of different schemata configurations for different types of enemies and encounters. But remember, even though you can create multiple variations, Lightning is only able to take three into battle.
On top of equipping weapons and armor to the schemata, Lighting is also able to assign different attacks to the four face buttons. Normally one button is reserved for a defensive position, but the other three can range from magic spells to melee attacks. With only four slots per schemata, players will have a total of twelve attacks in any given battle. And don't get too excited, because you may not even have twelve slots to assign. Most outfits have at least one assigned attack, which cannot be moved or replaced. This is where customizing you schemata can get real tricky.
In battle, Lightning is able to switch between outfits at the push of a button. This means that you will be able to quickly move from one schemata to the next, throwing different types of magic and powerful attacks at your foe. Although you only play as Lightning, these unique outfits feel like different characters. I thought I was going to miss the traditional party system found in old Final Fantasy games, but constantly changing wardrobes ended up scratching the same itch.
Forget the turn-based combat of yesteryear, this Final Fantasy XIII sequel has combat play out in real time. Lightning is able to walk all around the enclosed combat arena, plotting her next move and avoiding enemy fire. The player is also responsible for blocking, which is normally mapped to one of the four face buttons. There's even a timing mechanic for blocking enemy attacks. If you hit the button at just the right time, Lightning will avoid taking any damage. All these changes make the combat much more exciting and interactive.
And just to add another wrinkle to the gameplay, Final Fantasy XIII-3 introduces EP abilities. Throughout the 25 hour adventure, Lightning will earn a number of different EP moves, including the ability to escape all battles, a healing spell, an earthquake attack and even a decoy that confuses your opponents for a short time. Many of these abilities are meant to be used in battle, though a few of them are useful when just running around the maps. For example, you can spend EP to teleport to a different region, or even stop the countdown timer for a few minutes.
None of this is especially original on its face, but the way it's handled is certainly unique. EP abilities not only use a separate gauge than other attacks, but it also requires you to pause the game. It's just another example of how everything in Lightning Returns is a little different than what you're expecting.
Even with all these changes, Lightning Returns won't let you forget that this is the final chapter in a trilogy. Although there are a lot of great videos and resources for people who want to catch up, this sequel is intended for people who played through the first two chapters of Final Fantasy XIII. This finale doesn't work as a standalone game, but perhaps that's expecting too much from trilogy steeped in so much convoluted mythology.
Speaking of expecting too much, I found myself constantly disappointed with the game's visuals. Don't get me wrong, the many cinema scenes are absolutely breathtaking. Sadly, the in-game graphics aren't able to keep up. Lighting manages to look good, but there's something about the way the world looks that feels dated. Many of Nova Chrysalia's citizens are blocky and lacking detail. On the other hand, the fights look unbelievable. The presentation is a bit of a mixed bag.
Thanks to some fundamental changes and all the side quests, Lightning Returns is the first Final Fantasy game to offer real replay value. Chances are you won't be able to tackle every single mission your first time through, so take your gear and try the harder difficulties.
Lightning Returns is a fitting end to an epic trilogy. While it is a little messy and tonally all over the place, Final Fantasy XIII-3 manages to come up with a number of intriguing ideas. Not only does Lightning Returns stick the landing, but it may improve your opinions of the first two chapters. Although it's far from perfect, fans of the series will be satisfied with this emotional finale.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is surprising, but not for the reasons you might think. With only thirteen days to go before the end of the world, Lightning has her hands full. This final chapter tries a lot of new ideas, many of which work. Unfortunately, the game is a little messy and tonally all over the place. Fans of the series will be satisfied with the emotional finale.
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