As you probably guessed from the name, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII returns the lead protagonist role to Claire “Lightning” Farron, a stoic yet tough woman who finds herself constantly embroiled in the matters of gods and the state of the world. This game takes place some 500 years after the events of XIII-2, when the Chaos was released and began to overrun the world. Everyone who survived found that they no longer aged and can only die from diseases or physical harm. Children can no longer be conceived. Slowly, the world is dying as the Chaos creeps ever inward, killing off more and more of the population to never be reborn. Lightning is woken from her crystal sleep to be the god Bhunivelze’s savior, tasked with recovering the souls of the last remaining humans to be reborn into a new world created by him. She is gifted with divine powers and told to serve God’s will; in exchange, God will reunite her with her sister Serah and finally let Lightning rest in peace.
I’ll be the first to admit that going from any of the games in the XIII series to another is quite insane, story-wise. Each of them tie together, yes, but the differences and logical leaps made to get from one place to the next is hard to wrap your head around. It’s hard to know what you’re going to get before you start playing. However, I feel that once the developers set you up in this new plot, it actually manages to move quite logically and soundly for the remainder of the game. The events may be massive, but they make sense in the world that’s been crafted. The hump can be a bit hard to overcome, but it always leads to some well-written characters and interesting events. This is especially true of Lightning Returns, what I would easily call the most intriguing and meaningful of the three games in the trilogy, mostly due to its subject matter.
The idea of God is something many of us avoid talking about, myself included. I’m not particularly inclined to believe in such a being, but I do find it fascinating to explore the possibilities of such an idea. It’s pretty neat to see a game that doesn’t ask this question–as God is clearly real in this universe–but instead explores what various people think of him and his actions. In the game world, there are various parties whose beliefs are explored over the course of the plot, such as the Order’s devout dedication versus the Children of Etro’s beliefs that true death is the final answer. Even Lightning herself flips back and forth throughout the game as events play out and inform her feelings on the god she is working for. There are some fascinating conversations and ideas that play out here that can only be had because God is known to exist and his intentions are very clear to those surrounding him. I was intrigued by these questions and motivations from minute one and had a hard time putting the game down.
Easily the best parts of the Lightning Returns’ plot come from the smaller character stories. Unfortunately, I found Lightning to be a bit stiff and predictable for most of the game, even more so than she has been in the past games. I can’t really blame the voice actress (Ali Hillis), as it doesn’t feel like she was given much to work with, but it can be a truly cringe-worthy performance at times. She does open up on occasion, and does so more permanently near the end, but I think the game could have greatly benefited from this happening a bit earlier on. Her attitude can really get a bit insufferable at times, an unfortunate thing to say about the character you spend the whole game playing as. Even more annoying is Hope, who has been severely downgraded from his role in the last game. He’s back to his whiny kid self and is easily one of the most annoying characters I’ve seen in a long while. I didn’t have any problem with him in the last few games, but this game has him constantly bugging you with repetitive, useless information over the radio. He NEVER shuts up, and it really got on my nerves. I also feel he is royally shafted in terms of his purpose in the story, making him the absolute worst character in the game. Where Lightning and Hope fail, however, the rest of the cast picks up the slack.
I can’t drop too many names, due to spoiling who might be present from past games, but I will mention Snow since he is in the opening scenes of the game. Snow is a guy you come to know (if you’ve played the other games, at least) as that guy who wants to save everybody, even at the cost of his own pleasure and possibly even life. He is constantly seen as being unable to stop himself from doing everything in his power to help others in need. As the world is dying, Snow becomes the leader of one of the last human cities, doing his best to save as many souls as he can. Of course, no matter what he does, he can’t save everyone. The thought of someone who has a pathological need to help everyone coping with the fact that humanity is going to die out no matter how hard he tries is a chilling one that sends shivers down my spine every time I think about it. This is probably the greatest example of how Lightning Returns plays with the expectations of characters from past games and uses the terror of the dying world to highlight their despair and desperation. The events that have to do with Snow are probably some of my favorite in the entire game and are absolutely worth seeing.
There are a few other noteworthy characters. My particular favorite new character is Lumina, a mysterious young girl who somehow has powers linked to the Chaos. Her motivations are very hard to pin down: sometimes she feels like a villain, while other times she feels like an aid. She helps Lightning almost as many times as she hurts her and never reveals why she does the things she does. It’s a very hard character to get a read on, someone who is very unlike the other often predictable and cliche characters found in Lightning Returns. Her relationship with Lightning is humorous but endlessly fascinating and every scene featuring these two had my eyes glued to my television screen–I couldn’t get enough of her. The voice performance by Jessica DiCicco is also excellent, easily the best in the game. Without spoiling anything, I will also say that her eventual resolution is immensely satisfying and makes perfect sense in the context of the world.
The other noteworthy character, Luka, actually comes from a side quest. To make this relevant, I first need to note something: since no one ages in the world anymore, this means that kids always remain young. This also means that they remain innocent and pure-hearted without ever growing up. Luka, a young girl who looks to be about on the edge of puberty, doesn’t get off so easily. You first meet her near a train station where she is selling her tears to passersby. She says she does this to help those who can’t feel emotion anymore, deadened by 500 years of life, experience what it’s like for someone to cry. Repeated trips to this young girl has you learning her backstory, a fascinating tale of someone she once loved but could never be with due to her young age and his inability to treat her love seriously. Through her retelling, and Lightning’s prodding, Luka realizes that her crying for others is just a way to cope with her inability to cry for herself anymore. It’s all supported by an excellent voice performance that sells every line perfectly. I’m probably doing a terrible job explaining why it was so powerful for me, but seeing this quest unfold was one of the most thought-provoking and powerful things I’ve ever experienced in a video game.
Unfortunately, few other side quests even come close to this level of emotional strength or take advantage of the world that has been built. It’s really pretty hit-or-miss overall, with some interesting and meaningful characters and some boring and forgettable characters. One or two times, such as one quest involving the one person in the world who still ages for unexplainable reasons, a great setup is disappointingly squandered. It’s all so uneven that it almost feels like different people wrote the different quests or that a bunch of them were added as filler to hit a certain number. However, I will say that nearly all of them feature events that are at least amusing or endearing if not touching or cerebral. Many of these moments likely aren’t going to appeal to everyone. As cheesy as JRPGs can often be, I still usually find them touching and sweet in a way that no other games are. It’s very likely that moments like these won’t appeal to you if they haven’t in other games of this type.
Gameplay in Lightning Returns is just as different and interesting as the story. You are the Savior, God’s chosen fighter who must collect the soul energy of those best suited for life in the new world. This manifests itself in game as helping those in need by bringing them peace and clarity–a clear heart to bring into the next life. It’s actually pretty clever, as it gives good justification for Lightning to help even those who demand things of her or don’t seem worth saving; since it is her job to save souls, she must do whatever is asked of her to build the new world. Doing these quests also gives you rewards, of course. It’s important to note that you don’t actually level up in this game; instead, all your stat increases (more HP, attack power, item slots, etc.) come from completing quests. Fighting enemies just earns you money, crafting materials, and EP (a special currency described in more detail below). This means you must constantly be completing objectives in order to ensure Lightning is powerful enough to overcome the various challenges she encounters. It could potentially lead to a chicken-egg scenario where you need more power to complete quests you must finish for that power, but I never ran into this issue during my playtime.
In addition to stat bonuses, you also collect Eradia (soul energy) from completing quests. Eradia is what is used to extend your potential time spent within the world. You start with only seven days before the end but are able to extend that time all the way up to fourteen days with enough Eradia. As you may guess, this means there is a constantly ticking clock during the game, one that pauses during combat and cutscenes but is otherwise always running. You can, however, use your EP, a meter that refills from combat, to use goddess powers like freezing time for a short bit or teleporting across the world with no time lost. This meter is limited in use, of course, but it can be a great way to extend your time in a pinch. You spend your time running around the world, fighting any random encounters, and trying to find and complete as many quests as you can, both main and side, to extend your potential time and make it to the end..
I had mixed feelings about the timer during my playthrough. There is certainly plenty of time to do everything, as was evidenced by my two days of free time at the end of the game before the final events. The problem came from the constant sense of dread and pressure that pushed me to avoid over-exploring, to focus on quests I knew I could finish quickly, and to avoid certain parts of the game due to my fear that I would run out of time. The timer does do a great job of lighting a fire under you butt and keeping you moving ever-forward, but it can get a little nerve-wracking at times. It’s worth noting that you can start over with all your stat increases if you do run out of time, which may ease the strain a bit, but it is absolutely finishable on the first go. I did eventually came to appreciate how the timer sold me on the urgency of the world’s plight, especially with the knowledge that I really did have plenty of time (even if I didn’t know it) that came with experience. Some will absolutely hate the timer and demand that it was never necessary; I praise it for being something even slightly different than the traditional JRPG structure.
Combat-wise, very few things are the same as they were in XIII-2. You still enter encounters by either hitting or being hit by an enemy, many of the spells are exactly the same, and the stagger meter (filled by exploiting weaknesses) still plays a big role in combat. However, this game only features one controllable party member, scraps the various classes for a new garb system, and mixes-up the paradigm system. Instead of roles like Ravager and Synergist, Lightning is able to put on a variety of costumes called garbs. These outfits come pre-equipped with certain abilities (which can be supplemented by the others you have collected), set ATB pools that determine how many actions can be taken at once before a recharge is necessary, and various passive buffs that can do a variety of noteworthy things like steal enemy buffs with every hit. For those inclined, you can also add various adornments to these outfits or alter the colors to better suit your tastes. I’ll admit that I had a lot of fun dressing Lightning up in the various garbs and finding the perfect adornments to suit each one. Once you’ve built one of these outfits, you can slot it into one of the three Schemata slots, which allows you to switch to it during the middle of an encounter. I mainly used a physical powerhouse, a defensive debuffer, and a spell-slinging mage as my three, switching things up when I needed to for a particular fight. However, there are plenty of other options to choose from, with dozens of garbs and spell types for any kind of build.
While the last two games featured a great system that perfectly balanced action and strategy, it also made me feel a bit removed from what was happening. You really only shifted Paradigms and let your auto-casting do the rest of the work–a fun system but a rather non-active one. This game solves that issue by shifting focus to an active combat system that requires demanding reactions from the player. Timing has become very important in both attacking and defending, with perfect timing rewarding the player with more damage or 100% blocks. Staggers feel harder to earn because it all has to come from you and not other party members (although you do have another member on rare occasion). Learning to manage the ATB gauges of each class is key, as leaving yourself without any energy may not allow you to block a particularly hard hit or push the attack during a lull in the enemy’s pattern. It’s hard to explain well, and I would suggest anyone interested in it watch some video or try the demo to see what it’s like before giving it a shot.
It’s a really fun combat system that comes with just one catch: it can be rough as hell to overcome the learning curve. I chose to play the game on Normal and had to fight for every inch of progress I made in the game. I could never get complacent with common enemies because there was always a new type around the corner who would beat me senseless before I could adapt and overcome. Learning the intricacies of the game, particularly in how best to stagger enemies, is crucial to overcoming later challenges. I can say I never got found the game easy or boring, even as I found more powerful weapons and garbs. The last form of the final boss really tested me; iIt required impeccable mastery of the stagger system to beat. I sweated bullets during the whole thing and nearly threw the controller to the ground in victory when I was successful. It was an amazing rush that I haven’t often felt in recent games.
This system can sound quite overwhelming, I’m sure, but it is also unbelievably rewarding when you succeed. With a few good tips (which I advise you seek out), like how to properly manage the stagger meter, the learning curve can be lessened for new players. However, everyone will likely have to give it a bit of time before it becomes manageable and truly understood. Once you do, Lightning Returns has a rhythm to its combat that is unlike any other. That feeling when you perfectly ride a stagger meter and time that last spell just as an enemy is about to strike, pushing the enemy over and weakening him for the beating you’re about to deliver, is never not satisfying. This has easily become my favorite JRPG combat system of the entire generation.
Visually, Lightning Returns feels like a real step down. Many textures look absolutely atrocious when approached, there are some very stiff character animations, and a lot of the creative design I felt in the earlier games seems to be lacking (except in the garbs, which are excellent and diverse). I don’t know what happened between this and XIII-2, a game I thought was one of the best looking games on the PS3, but it is a severe downturn in quality. Like XIII-2, it also skimps on the awe-inspiring CG scenes; I understand these probably cost quite a lot of money, but there weren’t nearly enough of them in either of these games. In terms of the music, I think this trilogy has some of the best music the series has had to date, with this game having particularly good tracks. I still love hearing the combat music every time I enter a fight, the true test of a memorable track. The rest of the game features some perfectly evocative tracks and even multiple tracks per location based on what time of day it is. This soundtrack is one that I would want to own, something I don’t say about many video games soundtracks.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII was fascinating to me the moment I first laid eyes on it. Everything from the story and world to the combat and gameplay seemed just different enough to grab my attention. I hurriedly played through XIII-2 mostly so I could get to this game–and I wasn’t disappointed. While there are definitely some rough spots throughout Lightning Returns, I never really cared. No matter what, I couldn’t stop playing. I wanted to see how more characters I knew from past games would be handled and explored. I wanted to learn more about the intriguing story and how it would unfold. I wanted to challenge myself more with the excellent combat system. It took over my life for several days, even when I needed to be doing other things. I can see the problem areas where people may not agree with me, but I still think that Lightning Returns may just be my favorite JRPG of the last five years. It paints a world I would love to explore more of and features combat I would love to get even better at. It certainly isn’t a game for everyone, but I urge anyone who is at least remotely interested in it (from my review or from other things they’ve heard) to give it a shot–it may just surprise you.