I and many of my gamer peers have a love/hate relationship with the Final Fantasy XIII games. The first entry left me wanting more, as the game never fully delivered on either its narrative or gameplay aspects. XIII-2 presented itself as a more open game with a much more satisfying exploration aspect, but tacked on a rather convoluted and almost incomprehensible plot. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII follows in the footsteps of its direct predecessor by expanding even more on its gameplay and changing some fundamental mechanics that make it that much more fun to play, but continue with a plot that I don't even think Toriyama himself fully comprehends.
In Lightning Returns, our titular heroine is basically Jesus. That's the most accurate comparison I could muster. Taking place 500 years after the events of XIII-2, Lightning is freed from her crystal state by a God who deems her a Savior, and tasks her with collecting human souls for him in order to have them be reborn in a new world, all in exchange to see her sister Serah again. Oh yeah, the world is ending, I probably should have mentioned that. The storyline is overly religious, but still nested deep within its own lore. Since the world is ending in a matter of days, the game becomes a race against time, as an ever present countdown clock is leering at you from the right side of the screen. Completionists like me who set out to complete all side quests will undoubtedly have a rough time accepting Lightning Returns' time based gameplay, since very early on you're told that you simply can't complete them all.
Even those coming from Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 will most likely scratch their heads more than a few times. Why are Snow and the gang still alive 500 years after? Why is he hosting an end of the world party? Isn't he friends with Lightning? Why is he fighting her? The game thankfully does explain a lot of these plot points. Whether you find them satisfying or not will completely depend on your personal tastes, but if you've stuck around for the entire trilogy, chances are you'll be pleased.
Putting aside Lightning Returns' strangely confusing plot, it's the gameplay where the game truly shines, and makes the race against time much more bearable. Everything from world exploration to combat has been reworked to the point where it doesn't feel like a Final Fantasy game, and that's certainly not a bad thing.
Combat is probably one of the best aspects of the game, though it ends up being a double edged sword. Gone is the system from XIII and XIII-2 and in its place is a real time combat style approach that has Lightning as the only person against a monster (or a few) at a time. The result is a fast paced and kinetic thanks to the Schema system. Final Fantasy X-2 introduced players to mid-combat job switching with the Garment Grid, and Lightning Returns' Schema system is its evolution.
Lightning will always come equipped with three Schemas at a time, which consist of an outfit, sword, shield and a few accessories. The combination of these aspects allows for some truly impressive character customization. Since each piece of equipment comes with various stat changes and special abilities, you can spend some quality time tinkering with just the right combo, whether you want to go all out offensive, or would prefer to concentrate on defense, buffs and debuffs.
In combat, every ability comes with a specified ATB cost, and executing it will immediately drain it. When empty, you can switch to a different Schema with a press of a shoulder button, and dish out damage once again with a fully refilled ATB bar while the empty one recharges.
Here comes the kicker regarding combat: there is no XP to be gained. Instead, character progression is tied to completing quests. Fighting monsters will gain you various materials you'll need to complete quests with and the game's most precious resource, EP. However, you can only have a certain amount of EP saved up at a time, so once it's full, you really have no incentive to keep fighting. One of the most helpful skills that rely on EP is the ability Chronostasis, which freezes time for a few hours, letting you complete a few more sidequests than you previously could have.
Lightning Returns opts for a completely open world exploration mechanic, where you're left to explore and complete a plethora of sidequests at your own discretion. You'll want to spend any free time you have completing sidequests, since they will not only raise Lightning's stats, but will also reward you with Eradia, which can be used to halt the inevitable end of the world for just a while longer. Allowing the player to go nearly anywhere at his/her leisure can be somewhat confusing at times, especially since most of the sidequests don't have any sort of quest trackers whatsoever. I highly recommend using the game's map marking system to label quest givers, unless you have an awesome memory and can remember exactly where they are. On my first playthrough I wasted so much time trying to find this one NPC to complete a quest, only to find out that he was no longer there because it was night time. That's yet another fantastic/frustrating aspect of time play. You'll have to plan your questing accordingly since NPCs have their own individual schedules in any given day.
It also helps that all the locations are beautifully varied from one another. Luxeria is a dark city teeming with secrets while Yusnaan is easily its opposite, being a much more industrial city that thrives on throwing end of the world parties. It definitely takes a while to get used to the layouts of each location. Even after a few hours, I was still getting lost in Luxerion.
Since Lightning is the only party member, this is the first time we get to really focus on her character, her regrets and wants for the future. She's a tragic character who lost everything she held dear and clings on to hope to right her wrongs. He personality shines through even more so when having to interact with various random NPCs who ask her for her help. Whether its a lighthearted conversation with a boy who challenges her to a race through the city, or a heartbreaking story of a daughter in need of a lifesaving cure for her father, Lightning is certainly most human (despite her Savior status) in this installment, and fans are likely to appreciate that as much as I did.
It's not all that surprising that some corners were cut when it came to the visuals department, especially since the game is on a single disc on the Xbox 360. While cutscenes and characters still retain their high fidelity, the environment isn't as polished. This is evident as early as the first flyover of the major building you start in. It doesn't ruin the experience in any major way, but you'll certainly notice the odd, out of place and muddled textures from time to time.
While Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII isn't flawless by any means, the big and fundamental changes to the gameplay make it a fun and rewarding experience. What Toriyama was thinking when he drafted this storyline is beyond me, and while I would have settled on a much more coherent story, the final game does bring Lightning's too-epic-for-its-own-good storyline to a much needed conclusion.