Square Enix has always been a company that knows how to beat a dead horse in style. Not content with the sales of Final Fantasy XIII and unwilling to move on to new projects, they'd much rather continue their apathetically-received Fabula Nova Crystallis plan with more sequels in the same XIII universe of gods and unnecessary jargon that ends with “cie”.
The third and (hopefully) final installment, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII rezzes past mechanics like the Paradigm and Stagger, and throws in an open world with a time limit to spice things up. Does it succeed? For a sum of its parts, yes, but it’s a classic case of fixing something that’s already terminal.
Thirteen Days, Four Cities, One RPG Errand Girl
Players control FFXIII mainstay Lightning; she’s Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud without a Y chromosome. Hundreds of years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2, she’s given the task by one of the universe’s gods to free burdened souls and lead them to a new universe before the current one ends in 13 days. Players are given 7 days to explore the world at the start, but they must complete a number of main quests in each of the four main hubs to extend the deadline.
The story itself builds upon the convoluted lore of FFXIII. Fans will appreciate the story’s twists, the way mainstays like Snow and Noel cope with tragedies of the last game, and the overall closure of the story arc. Too bad new players will find it hard to get into the swing of things. They’re not going to get invested in the game’s lore, which is a crux of any RPG trying to build a new fanbase.
Finishing quests, from the significant to the trivial, is the only way Lightning’s stats and powers can improve. While one or two of the major quests are worthwhile for their narrative context, puzzles, and exploratory offerings, the rest of them aren’t so. Having to chart out a giant desert and unlocking the secrets of an ancient rune that details the secret history of FFXIII’s gods? That’s fun. Playing fetch quests for every denizen in a city for the purpose of padding? Heck no. The mundane tasks of finding object “X” for people far outweigh the interesting parts of Lightning’s adventure, making the whole thing a chore from start to finish.
Getting into combat is a means to farm for some gold, extra spells and skills, and Glory Points(GP). The latter is a special power that lets you alter time and combat to your advantage. You can stop time for a bit, heal yourself to full health, and teleport to other cities without eating up minutes. The game’s whole seven day structure is built in a way that you will need to divide your time to farm for GPs and use your god-given powers to beat the clock. You won’t be able to do everything in one shot without any form of foresight, so a New Game + is offered so you can restart the process with your stats intact. While admirable, the repetitive nature of the game doesn’t make the slog all the more different or fun.
Active Time Battling
Still, the parts that show genuine effort from the developer’s part do shine, like the combat. Conflict in Lightning Returns is done in real time. Players have access to three action bars, represented by different garbs and weapon combinations called Schemas. All actions, from slash attacks to spellcasting, use up different amounts of AP points on the bar. Once a bar has been expended, it regenerates slowly, which forces players to switch often to different Schemas using the L1 or R1 buttons.
Players can customize the heck out of their Schemas with different garb and weapons that are amassed in a playthrough. These fashion items include the usual plate armor and tight leather pants ensemble for anime female forms, throwbacks to past Final Fantasy classes, and even a few that are inspired by male-tailored affairs like Dead or Alive 5. Despite a few questionable-looking outfits purposely made for fan service, the Schemas add a huge level of flexibility.
Some garb will have skills locked on to it, but with the benefit of a faster-charging AP bar. Others are free from spell restrictions, but offer lower or even no stat boosts and in-battle effects. Players can have hours of fun figuring out the best Schema combinations that tailor to crowd control, controlled spell-casting or all-out blitz attacks with no regard for defense.
And yes, these battles can get challenging in a good way. As it’s real-time, players aren’t given room to breathe, and must react to whatever enemies do. Each of them has their own quirks, like being weak to a specific element, or getting frazzled when an attack is perfectly blocked. Players must exploit this to knock down and stun a foe for additional free damage. Not only are fights a beautiful mish-mash of acrobatics and spell particle effects, it can get deep and strategic thanks to the wealth of options from the Schemas.
Major boss fights are dangerous too, and can test your patience and Schema setups. One small mistake can break the momentum of a fight and force a restart. RPG players accustomed to the semi turn-based nature of past RPGs may take a while getting used to Lightning Returns’ system. At least there’s Easy mode if the going gets too tough.
That Odd Sense Of Familiarity
While it’s nice that older fans will get to see a fresh take on the Paradigm and Stagger system, they will get turned off by how many elements from past games have been recycled, from the enemies to the music. Yes, it’s a sequel, and some elements should be constant, but the sense of déjà vu is dangerously close to the point where you feel like you’re getting conned into paying full price for an FFXIII greatest hits remix. Even the game’s engine is having a hard time rendering the new open world structure in a consistent frame rate.
While a few aspects puts the game a few steps forward like the Schemas and fighting, other issues like its unfriendliness to new JRPG players and its old engine pull it a few steps back, reserving the game only for die-hard fans who don’t mind the whole FFXIII ordeal.