Most games would allow the player to take their time with progression. Want to talk to every NPC? Go ahead. Admire the scenery? Sure. Complete every side quest? Go for it. The feeling of being able to get off the main road that is the story and taking a detour to explore every nook and cranny or take in the atmosphere of a certain location allows the player to appreciate everything that the game has to offer. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII fails to provide this distraction, even when it purposefully allows it. What we get instead is the constant push of time prohibiting the chance to take that detour and instead enforcing the player to stay on the main path of what just seems to be a revisit of the past.
With 13 days until the end of the world, Lightning is on a mission to save as many souls, called Eradia, as she can for the god Bhunivelze for his new world. In return, Bhunivelze will resurrect Serah, Lightning’s sister. Lightning is able to delay the end of the world by offering enough Eradia at the end of each day to Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life. This cycle begins and ends every day at 6 a.m. at which point Lightning returns to the Ark, a place where time stops and where veteran character Hope Estheim resides to assist Lightning throughout the game.
Just like its predecessors, the game relies heavily on religion and mythology to carry the story, particularly as evidenced by Yggdrasil (the name given to the tree in Norse myth that holds the nine worlds). The Children of Etro is a religious faction that opposes the Order of Salvation, the dominant religion. Lumina, a character that occasionally tests Lightning at various points in the game, acts like a devil on Lightning’s shoulder, constantly badgering her about the job of saving souls and making her question Bhunivelze’s motives. Just like the idea behind the l’Cie and the seeress Yeul, these facets of religion and myth serve as the backdrop and reiterate the series’ overall theme of free will and destiny.
This translates to the main time-based gameplay mechanic, which is great in theory but terrible in execution.
Every day Lightning has 24 hours to complete her task, starting and ending at 6 a.m. During this time she can pursue the main mission or to complete enough side missions and save enough souls in the hope of delaying the overall time limit of 13 days. From the beginning, I treated it like any normal RPG – get as many side quests out of the way and then continue onto the mission. Considering the size of many of the areas, it’s obvious that there is a lot of backtracking for most missions, which is fine. The one thing missing was a sort of quota indicator. I could complete a bunch of quests, but I wouldn’t know if I met the daily Eradia quota to delay time. The only way to know was at the end of the day when Lightning offers her collected souls; if one of Yggdrasil’s flowers bloomed, then I would have another day to continue. However, it’s unknown if maybe the main quest would bring in more souls than a certain amount of side quests, and so that balance was hard to gauge.
Combined with the time limit, the pursuit of this unknown quantity of required Eradia only reinforced the idea that time is money. In a way, it feels like a timed demo. There’s only so much to do in such a short time that decisions have to be made quickly that could help or hinder progress. If the latter occurs, it’s immediately discouraging and the player is forced to get back on the main quest. Fortunately, battle events, shopping, and cutscenes are not included in the countdown, but the first two mechanics have their own unique way to test Lightning.
Unlike past games, Lightning is the only combatant, but the idea of taking on different roles is still there thanks to the Schemata system. Various outfits, weapons, shields, and accessories can determine each schemata. Only three are allowed in battle, but the many combinations allow for experimentation. However, I found myself only changing schemata a few times. It becomes obvious that most combinations don’t work, giving way to only a elite few that can be used throughout the game. Minor changes in weapons or accessories sometimes occur, but it’s rare to warrant a whole wardrobe change.
As for combat, minor tweaks show the eventual direction of the series to real-time fights. Instead of waiting for the action bar to fill up and issue commands, Lightning can spend commands as soon as they are available. However once the bar drains, I have to wait until there is enough to input another. Lightning also has the option to use energy points (EP) to increase her damage or use special abilities to escape or aid her. These points can be regained by winning encounters.
Much of the battles require accurate timing and switching between the three schemata. For the most part it’s exciting and fast-paced, and it’s really cool to see a great sequence of moves, but there are still looming problems. The stagger bar that would tell players if they were near an enemy’s weak point is gone, replaced by visual waves emitted. More intense and bright waves show that staggering is near, but in the heat of battle it’s sometimes hard to notice them, especially when the player is too busy timing the enemy’s next attack. On top of that, the default camera position, the close-up view that switches positions to further add to the intensity, sometimes does not capture all the action, leaving Lightning and the player blind to what the enemy might do. There is a wider camera view available, but even that isn’t enough to give enough time to react especially after a powerful attack from the adversary. For those seeking a more intense battle system in the series, look no further. It certainly has more than enough to satisfy thrill seekers, but be prepared to fight blind at times, and sometimes become frustrated.
The traditional idea of leveling up is completely gone in this game. Lightning still gets additional stats by completing missions, but most abilities are now either discovered by defeating enemies or are already included in certain outfits. Sorcery shops allow Lightning to level up her abilities by combining multiple copies of the same one. As I played the game, it became apparent that certain abilities only appeared after I progressed far enough in the main story. Instead of a feeling of natural progression, this lockout of new abilities made it feel like combat was just a series of plateaus and rises instead of a paced climb.
Recovery items also have their limits. Gone are the days when you can have 99 potions. At the beginning there are only six slots available for potions or other items. The number of slots only slightly increase as the main story continues, but it seems materials and junk seem to keep the 99 item limit. Even with the limit it didn’t seem that difficult to survive in most situations. Combined with a steady flow of gil from battles and quests it wasn’t that hard to stay stocked either.
Like the final game in any series, Lightning Returns revisits old ideas and characters as part of its farewell tour, but in this case the old aspects greatly overshadow the new. Most of the music is from Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2. It latches on too heavily on the principle characters of the past games and doesn’t give enough time for new ones to develop. It seems like it demands your attention to the past while exploring new territory. It became so confusing to the point where I didn’t care anymore about the plot and just wanted the game to end.
Sadly, Lightning Returns Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t give the trilogy a proper ending. The ending to Final Fantasy XIII was sufficient and did not necessitate a second or even a third game. In my preview of the demo, I said that I had cautious optimism of the game. Now, I’m just disappointed. At this point I have an even greater worry for Final Fantasy XV. Will Square Enix continue this downhill trend or change direction for the better? As this series comes to a close, I’m instantly reminded of a quote from this game that described the entire experience in general: “In this dying world, nothing is more precious than time. Why do you waste it on me?” A good question indeed.
This review is based on a copy of the game purchased by the reviewer.