The announcement of Lightning Returns was met with surprise and reticence, even from fans of the first two Final Fantasy XIII games. I was content, I didn’t think I needed to see more from this world… SquareEnix disagreed. They assured us all that they had one more chapter to tell, and that it would give us a fitting conclusion to the Fabula Nova Chrystalis and to the story started in Final Fantasy XIII. Thus was born Lightning Returns, returning us to the dying world left behind 500 years after the end of Final Fantasy XIII-2 and once again giving us control of Lightning.
Firsts For Final Fantasy
On a Timer
Lightning Returns gives you a strict time limit. You start with 6 days of game time which sounds like a lot except that time passes at a rate of 2.5 seconds per in-game minute whenever you are not in a menu, cutscene, or combat sequence. Your only mission at the start of the game is to extend that to 13. At the end of the 13th day, God will destroy the world and create the new world. Yes, the God. Creator of All Things. And Lightning is chosen by God to save the souls that will move to this new world and extend the world’s life until new world is ready. If Nova Chrysalia lasts until then, Lightning will have fulfilled her mission as ‘Savior’… and her reward? God will revive Serah for Lightning.
This time limit, which is coupled with a relatively realistic day-night cycle, is the driving force behind everything in Lightning Returns. Certain quests are only accessible during certain hours, many vendors close their shops at night, certain enemies can only be fought at certain times, and even the core story is reliant upon these time restrictions. This could become extremely punishing except that the game gives you the ability to temporarily stop time, which alleviates a lot of the stress. But don’t get too complacent – it costs EP, a special resource which regenerates quite slowly after battles and is used in many of your most useful abilities.
Lightning Returns may be the first truly ‘open world’ Final Fantasy, although arguments could be made for Final Fantasy X-2. Prettymuch every core Final Fantasy before now has been largely linear, with brief open world components to it… but Lightning Returns gives you Nova Chrysalia, a world with four fairly large regions that you can explore at your leisure – and even features numerous towns and cities with NPCs and vendors… the whole works. It is well done, but it doesn’t really feel like Final Fantasy anymore. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing will be up to the individual but I really missed the more linear focus that Final Fantasy games usually have.
Sadly, the game gives you a little too little direction in this wide open world. There are quests to be found everywhere, but many of them have strange requirements, and you never quite know if you’re ‘done’. You see, by about the 7th of my 13 days, I had only 3 quests left in my log – none of which could be completed at this time. All the main quests seemed complete, no NPCs offered any new quests and yet the game gave me no indication that I was done… so I had 6 days that I just wandered around aimlessly searching for things to do. It was not satisfying, although I had enjoyed the game up until that point. I was left worrying that maybe I’d missed something, that maybe I was just not looking the right place but there seemed to be nowhere else to look.
You can imagine my relief when I get to the last day and everything’s all good. But to have that much time where I wasn’t able to do anything, without knowing that was the case, left a bad taste.
Savior For Hire
Now, the Savior sounds like a grand title. It sounds like some glorious quest… but in reality, most of it is busywork. You save people’s souls by solving mostly menial tasks for them. People have regrets, they have burdens, things tying them down… by helping them fix these regrets and complete these unfinished tasks, you form a bond with them which allows Lightning to save their souls. This grants Lightning an ephemeral substance known as Eradia that she can use to extend the world’s life.
The Problem With Eternity…
Essentially you’ll spend the thirteen days you have on this world solving people’s problems. This sounds boring, but in the end it turns out to be quite fascinating because of the specifics of the world. You see, the world is not only dying, it’s stagnant. People no longer age and can no longer be born… yet they still die. Immortality and the curse it can be has been frequently explored in fantasy and science fiction, but it is usually explored in the context of a single character or race of people, and often ‘immortality’ also means incapable of dying from sickness or wounds.
The specific style of immortality that Lightning Returns features is one that I don’t think I’ve actually ever seen before.. and you get to explore how this impacts people through the side missions. And many of these sidestories are, in a lot of ways, more interesting than the main story. How could this type of life affect you? Would you be the character who abandoned his past and buried it so deep that he actually forgot it over the centuries… would you be the one who let their sin drive them to the point where all you could crave was death… would you strive to perfect some art form or another… would you be a child forever stuck as a child, never permitted to experience life?
It is these questions that make the side quests so intriguing… getting to see that glimpse into this world, and what the end might mean to it.
Army of One
The Final Fantasy XIII subseries has had fantastic gameplay. I’ve said numerous times that it is the best combat system I’ve seen in an RPG. Lightning Returns takes this phenomenal combat system and makes some pretty significant changes to accommodate the fact that you only play as one character. They’ve dropped away, with a few minor exceptions, all of the party aspects of the game. In order to avoid the 1-dimensional combat systems that RPGs without party interactions often have, they turned Lightning herself into a kind of party by herself.
In place of the Paradigm system that the previous games have featured, Lightning Returns gives you Schemata. A Schema is basically a customizable class. You start with one of several dozen different ‘garbs’, which determine the appearance, passives, and usually one or two base abilities that your Schema will have. After you’ve picked your garb, you can choose a weapon, shield, accessories, and up to 4 abilities to create the class you want. You can have 3 Schema equipped at a time, and change between them at any time during combat.
Is One Truly the Loneliest Number?
One major improvement, or really ‘fix’ over the previous Final Fantasy XIII games, that I’d like to spotlight is the fact that the brief delay between switching Paradigms that existed previously is gone now. Switching Schema is instant and you can start acting immediately, in fact you can actually chain combos between Schema. It makes for a smooth and high-paced combat experience. Each Schema has its own Active Time Battle meter – which is what you use to perform abilities – that regenerate independently, faster if not currently in use. But, in the end, you are still just one person. With three exceptions, you’re on your own fighting and while it is still very fun, I found myself enjoying the brief moments where I had an ally with me far more. This combat system just really shines with allies to provide support, and without them it just feels like something is missing.
The Schema system takes the best of Final Fantasy XIII and the best of Final Fantasy X-2 and mixes them together, creating a giant game of dressup with an exciting, fast paced and strategic battle system. It should be a recipe for success, but Final Fantasy has always been a party-based series, and abandoning the party has not left the combat system feeling ‘improved’ by these changes overall. Which is a real pity.
There is no traditional leveling system in this game. You cannot grind for experience, there is no way to powerlevel. That isn’t to say you don’t get stronger over the course of the game, not at all. You gain stats – both your core stats like health, strength, and magic as well as more specialized stats like increased ATB size – through completing missions.
There are three types of missions in Lightning Returns, which provide varying rewards. Core missions provide the largest rewards, obviously. But aside from the core missions, you can also complete side missions and ‘Canvas of Prayers’ missions. Side missions feature story, they tell you something about the gameworld and its inhabitants, and they’re the ones that help you extend the world’s life just that little bit. Since they’re a part of the story, they offer fairly large rewards as well. The Canvas of Prayers simply asks you to turn in materials found either in the world or off monsters to (unfortunately) returning character Chocolina, and mostly offer very minimal rewards.
Most games feature a pretty stable difficulty curve that matches your progression curve to ensure an engaging experience. RPGs do often feature occasional difficulty spikes to provide a bit of variety to the curve, but overall still fit within it. The open world nature, combined with the lack of a traditional progression system, results in Lightning Returns’ difficulty feeling a lot more like a scribble or a squiggle than a curve. Mere steps away from where you start within the town of Luxerion you have access to enemies that will, quite literally, kill you in one attack… and then other enemies that by the end of the first day you will be killing in mere seconds. You can also get access to some of the game’s bosses as early as the second full day, despite some of these bosses being extraordinarily difficult.
Overcoming challenging bosses can be extremely difficult since you can’t just farm. It is possible to find yourself in the situation where you have no easy missions in the area, or possibly at all, in which case your only option is to just endlessly beat your head against the enemy until it falls over. Fortunately, like in the earlier FF XIII entries, the battle system allows for a tremendous amount of strategy and skill, allowing you to overcome some pretty phenomenal odds through clever play… but Lightning Returns would’ve benefited from a more reliable difficulty curve.
In With the Old
Every single major character from the previous Final Fantasy XIII games makes a return as a story character here… even the dead ones. I won’t give any spoilers, but there’s really only one new character – and yes this sounds absurd for a potentially 60 hour game, but it’s true. There aren’t a lot of changes to these characters either, which I guess is expected since that’s kind of the theme here. And, most disappointingly of all: Hope is Lightning’s constant ‘voice-in-your-head’ companion… so you have to constantly endure his banter, his advice, and his… well… his Hope.
But the new character we’re introduced to, Lumina… she’s a really intriguing character. She looks just like Serah, and she’s constantly pushing events forward. Nearly every story element, nearly every main and every side quest features her influence. It’s not until the very end that you get to solve the mystery of her character and surprisingly enough, it actually makes sense given the context of the story.
One of the main story points is that while Lightning is back, she isn’t entirely whole. She is constantly going on about ‘missing’ something, and not being able to feel anything. This would be an interesting development, if Light’s personality weren’t already one that is nearly devoid of emotion. It seems really silly to take a character who already doesn’t show her emotions and ostensibly strip them from her, leaving her acting exactly the same way as before. But in the end it does become an interesting story element, so I can’t be too upset with it.
Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 both had very unique and fantastic soundtracks. Lightning Returns takes these already good soundtracks, and remixes them to create its own soundtrack, placing these tracks in interesting moments that create some nostalgia and also helps to build the atmosphere. Both Luxerion and Yusnaan, your two main town areas, have street performers who are playing single-instrument versions of these songs. A guitar version of one Final Fantasy XIII-2 track, a brass version of another. It works really well, and it does help to tie everything in to this finale.
I really think that Lightning Returns is a perfect game to have coming out right now, with the massive surge in popularity speedrunning has had recently. Why? Quite simply the mechanics of Lightning Returns seem absolutely perfect for speedrunning. I have heard rumours of a few people already doing it, but I have yet to catch a run to see if I’m right about how ideal it is for that.
Lightning Returns is a weird beast. It’s a game not many people really wanted, but I think it will be a game that a lot will like. I can tell you that, despite the problems I saw with this game, I enjoyed most of my time with it. The main characters are as bad as ever, but in this case that is made up by a wide variety of really unique and fascinating side characters who are used to provide context and meaning to this strange world. More importantly, the game’s combat system, while not quite living up to its predecessors, is still one of the best I’ve ever seen. And, if the speedrunning community gets their hands on this and take to it en masse… I think we’ll all be in for a treat.