Review: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII – Lightning Strikes Thrice

Unlike a lot of people, I’ve actually enjoyed the Final Fantasy XIII series. I acknowledge that the first game had several problems but those issues didn’t prevent me from enjoying the overall experience. The follow up game, Final Fantasy XIII-2, addressed a lot of the concerns that folks had and it delivered a more robust RPG experience. I wasn’t expecting another game to be released for this series so you can imagine my surprise when I heard that a third game, called Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, was being worked on.

The idea was a bit strange at first–a second sequel to a main Final Fantasy game–but since I had good memories of the previous games, I looked forward to it. Final Fantasy XIII-2 was radically different from XIII and I expected that Lightning Returns would be equally as different from its predecessor. I wasn’t wrong. Lightning Returns takes the basic mechanics of the XIII series and remolds them into something new and fresh. This game also delivers a satisfying and meaningful end to the saga which began in 2010.

Though it is part of the XIII saga, Lightning Returns is the most unique entry in the series given how much has been changed and overhauled. This is by far the most expansive and the most customizable of the XIII games. Players are allowed to do missions in almost any order that they’d like and can tailor Lightning’s appearance and fighting style to what suits them best. This degree of freedom makes it so that everyone will have a unique experience when playing this game.

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Final Fantasy XIII-2 ended with a cliffhanger and Lightning Returns tells the story of the aftermath to the events of that finale. The world of Nova Chrysalia is being consumed by an entropic force known as Chaos which has been slowly destroying it for the last 500 years. People have stopped aging but they can and do die. With only a few days remaining until the end, the god Bhunivelse decides to create a new world. He needs souls to populate this land and he chooses a savior to gather as many as possible to bring to the new world. That savior is of course, Lightning.

This is the conclusion to the XIII saga so a story about the world ending is thematically fitting. Given the nature of what is happening to Nova Chrysalia, the tone of the story has a heavy air of finality to it. There are some lighter moments here and there but they are few and far between. As with the past games, the voice acting and performances help to give the often times melodramatic plot depth and credibility. All of the main characters from past games return and each has a significant role to play. This story also comes back full circle, and like the first game in the series, is ultimately a tale about people defying fates forced upon them by cruel and unjust gods.

One of my favorite things about the XIII series has been the way that you engage in battles. The Paradigm system let each of the characters take on several roles (healer, tank, or warrior for example) and switch between them on the fly. This gave combat a real sense of urgency and allowed the player to better react to an enemy’s ever changing battle tactics. This system worked for the three characters in your party but since Lightning is the only character you can control in this game, the system had to be altered somewhat.

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The new Schemata system allows Lightning to take on the six basic roles but she can only switch between three at a time. You can think of Lightning as a one woman army as she is essentially three characters in one. To change her abilities and attributes, Lightning has to play a bit of dress up. Different garments let her use different attacks, magic and abilities. You can switch between Schemata at the touch of a button and you can do so as many times as you want. Actions can be assigned to buttons and each action eats up a bit of the Active Time Battle bar which you have to let replenish after you’ve used up all the ATB points.

I have to admit that having only Lightning as a playable character took a bit of getting used to. Once I did however, I found the new Schemata system to be just as varied as the Paradigm system. Given all of the different abilities and accessories that Lightning can put on each Schemata, I had a lot of options when I needed to change things up with certain enemies. By the end of the game, I felt very powerful and capable of defeating whatever foes stood before me.

This game is easily the most challenging of the series. Even on easy, this game is tough and you’ll need not just the right Schemata/accessory/equipment combinations, but also a bit of good old fashioned reflexes. The best way to deal the most damage is to stagger your foes by either bombarding them with specific types of attacks (magic or physical) or by countering their attacks. Guarding against attacks at just the right time will stagger some enemies so you’ll need to precisely time your blocks.

You will die several times during certain sections and you’ll need to reconfigure your equipment, alter your strategy, and try again. The trial and error aspect can be frustrating sometimes but also rewarding when you find the right combination that lands you a victory.

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Unlike the other games in the series or even other RPGs, there is no traditional “leveling up” in this game. The only ways to become more powerful are by changing your Schemata, weapons and accessories and by synthesizing magic to create more powerful versions of spells. Completing the main missions of the game will give you the biggest boost in power and the many side quests also help to bolster your strength. On your first playthrough, the game doesn’t exactly let you become overpowered. On New Game Plus you’ll be given the option to upgrade your Schemata, equipment and accessories which will make you very powerful.

Speaking of sidequests, there are a ton in this game. Lightning is tasked with saving as many souls as she can and with a gigantic world like this, there is no real shortage of people who need the Savior’s help. What I liked about the side missions is that each was a little story in and of itself and didn’t feel like filler content since they were all fully voice acted. I liked how interesting and unique the side characters were. Each new sidequest was another opportunity to better get to know the people that I was attempting to save from oblivion.

The side missions that did feel a bit like fluff where the ones that could be found on bulletin boards. These just require you to deliver certain items which you gain from beating monsters or which are found in treasure spheres. Like I said before, these missions help to make you stronger. While each individual mission only gives you small amounts of experience, these points eventually add up and become a big help down the line.

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Although much of Nova Chrysalia has been consumed by Chaos, there is still a lot of it left to explore; this is by far the biggest FFXIII game of the bunch. Every locale is vast and diverse, each with its own distinct feel and ambiance. With that said, I was surprised by how unimpressed I was with the way that many of the environments looked. The visuals were definitely not up to the high standards set by the previous games in the series. A lot of the textures were noticeably pixellated and muddy.

Things tended to look better at night and there were a few select areas of the game which looked phenomenal. However, the overall presentation wasn’t what I was expecting considering how amazing the last two games in the series looked. This didn’t affect my enjoyment of Lightning Returns, but the less than stellar visuals were definitely noticeable.

As someone who has played and enjoyed the other two games in the series, it took me some time to get into Lightning Returns. I tried to come into the game fresh but expectations born from playing the previous two games still came up. The fact that I could only play as one character was the biggest mental hurdle I had to overcome since I’m used to having a party of three.

The time management aspect was also a bit annoying. I felt compelled to rush through things for fear of the clock counting down to the final hour without me having finished the main story. Once I got a handle on the Schemata system and saw that I wasn’t exactly bound by a strict time limit (there are many ways to stop the clock), I really got into this game.

The Final Fantasy XIII series has received a lot of bad press from journalists and negative reactions from fans of the Final Fantasy franchise but I like it for what it is and what it tried to do. The series may have had a rocky beginning but I feel that each game improved upon the original formula and gave gamers something new and fresh to enjoy and experience. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a great way to end the saga and is a game that says that the Final Fantasy franchise is still an important and vibrant one.

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