Come with me if you want to live… for a few more days.
Unlike both the PlayStation and the PS2, the PlayStation 3 has received only one story arc from the Final Fantasy universe. That arc, which began with FFXIII back in 2010 and continued with XIII-2 in 2012, concludes with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Now the question is whether Lightning’s saga goes out with a bang… or a whimper.
Although Lightning is the only true playable character, there isn’t much difference controlling her versus a traditional party. Instead of switching between characters, you switch between three outfits (called schemata), each of which comes with its own set of attacks. Some are assigned to the garb, but most can be tweaked at your leisure. Ultimately, you’ll have abilities for each face button while the shoulders handle switching. The right trigger analyzes your enemy, and the left engages “overclock,” which slows time at the cost of Energy Points.
It’s unencumbered and makes for smooth, fast-paced action as you’ll quickly learn how to shift on the fly for maximum carnage. Our only real frustration was that we’d inevitably overclock enemies when we had no intention to, wasting EP in the process. Considering that you have to enter sub-menus to employ healing items or in-world EP abilities (such as teleporting) it seemed odd to have overclock in such a high traffic position on the controller.
Few series, if any, carry the graphical pedigree of Final Fantasy. The cut scenes, which have dropped jaws since FFVII, are still among the best in the business, and the elaborately choreographed fight scenes are fun to watch. The world looks good, too, with a combination of variety and vastness that really makes each of the four areas feel distinct from one another. Lightning’s weapons and outfits are very well designed, and the ability to customize them was surprisingly enjoyable.
As with the previous game, however, much of what once made FF so distinctive — its incredible spell effects and summons — has been lost in the ongoing pursuit to ramp up the speed of combat. We fought hundreds of creatures during our time with Lightning Returns, and many battles became so rhythmic that most of what we did was keep our eyes trained on the ATB meters at the bottom of the screen. It’s a shame to have such a strong element of previous games reduced to occasional glances while large numbers fill the screen.
Having just played FFX/X-2, it was easy to appreciate the growth of the voice acting in these games. Not everyone is great in their roles, but we never found ourselves cringing or turning down the volume like we did during some of the hokier moments with Tidus and Yuna. There are a lot of different musical styles represented in the game’s soundtrack, and while some undoubtedly clicked more than others, it’s a solid all-around effort.
Even as someone that played through the first two installments, we’ve still had trouble following all the various minutia of this story arc. That doesn’t change with Lightning Returns, which casts you (as Lightning) in the role of God’s saviour, sent back at the end of days to battle the spreading Chaos and harvest worthy souls to be reborn in his new world. Guided by Hope, you’re asked to save as many souls as possible before the inevitable finale.
It’s a dark story, and there seems to be precious little happiness among former cohorts like Snow, Vanille and Sahz. In stark contrast to that is the goofy nature of many of the side quests. Here, as the clock ticks down to judgment day, you may be asked to find a lost doll, help revive a restaurant, collect fireworks or dozens of other menial tasks. From a story perspective, it doesn’t make much sense that you seem to be targeting the helpless to rebuild a new world.
Moving past that, there have been a number of changes to the gameplay of Lightning Returns. As noted, battles are now solo affairs with Lightning swapping outfits on the fly for tactical advantage. Each of your three outfits has a meter that gets depleted every time you use an ability; how much varies by the potency of the move with powerful variants of spells draining more than a basic physical attack and so on. Your outfits are tailored toward specific skills or abilities, and it’s incumbent upon you to pair them with complementary swords, shields and accessories to maximize their potency.
This switch took a little getting used to, but as the hours flew by we came to enjoy the up-tempo nature of switching schemata repeatedly during combat. What we never warmed to, however, was the game’s new approach to leveling. Rather than the usual setup of earning experience for battles and then getting incrementally stronger, Lightning Returns completely divests combat from the equation. Instead, the only way to improve Lightning’s base values in strength, magic and hit points was to complete the main missions, side quests and tasks from the Canvas of Prayers (usually collecting monster drops).
Whatever the developer’s motive, the end result is the complete de-emphasis of fighting monsters. The absence of leveling also creates a secondary problem: there’s really no way to gauge your readiness against foes. Therefore, you don’t know which ones can be fought and which should be avoided. It’s a frustrating miscalculation that had us choosing between phoenix downs and the title screen in too many random encounters.
The other big innovation is the clock, which is (almost) always counting down to the end. In theory, it adds some urgency to what you’re doing, and given the plot it makes sense. In practice, though, the clock just ends up making you feel alternately rushed and impatient since some areas or missions are only accessible at certain times. Saving more souls (read: finishing side quests) allows you to actually extend the game, up to a total of 14 days, but we’d classify the time element as more of a miss than a hit.
Clocking in around 30 hours, Lightning Returns isn’t very long by Final Fantasy (or RPG) standards, but it does encourage multiple plays by offering a new game-plus mode. Here you’ll carry forward all of your buffed skills and most of your garbs and weapons. Also, upon your initial completion, “Hard Mode” will unlock to provide a stiffer challenge.
To its credit, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t play it safe. It shuffles the deck in a lot of areas, and while not all of them work, the new combat system holds up quite well. If you played the first two you should absolutely snag the final act of the FFXIII trilogy.