Taking place 500 years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2, the latest instalment in Square Enix’s mega franchise begins with pink-haired protagonist Lightning being shaken from her crystal slumber by God Bhunivelze. The heroine’s task? To save humanity from an imbalance between life and chaos which has prevented people from ageing and escalated the amount of illness in the world. As the Saviour, it’s the divisive lead’s role to save as many souls as possible before the end of time, so that they can be reborn in a new world.
As such, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is built around a doomsday clock. At the start, you have seven days to complete your task or you’ll fail, but completing main quests and side-quests will allow you to extend that time to 13 days. This countdown is constantly overshadowing your every action, putting you under a great deal of stress as you plan and make efficient use of each day in order to complete all five main story missions and as many side-quests as possible by the end of world on the ill-fated 13th day.
While it sounds intimidating, as long as you use your time wisely, it won’t cause you too many problems. Talking to non-playable characters, reading menus, and even combat all stop the countdown, and there is even an ability named chronostasis which allows you to pause the in-game clock for a couple of minutes of Earth time.
However, this is just one of the many God-like spells that Lightning possesses. Abilities such as teleportation, healing properties, and even a powerful overclock can be used in exchange for EP. This resembles a set amount of points that get reset each day in-game, but can be refilled by killing enemies or using special potions. Still, even with a vast selection of options, it’s difficult to justify using many of them due to the sheer number of benefits that chronostasis provides.
Nevertheless, the time system is well designed, and it helps augment value to every action that you take. Without a limit, it would be easy to get caught up in certain areas of the game, but here you don’t have that luxury. Consequentially, the time that it takes you to complete the title will vary depending on how you approach it, but there is a New Game + option to allow you to dive back into the story with all of your equipment intact, so there’s never any real danger of missing things completely.
As for the five main story quests, these each plot the return of characters from the previous two titles in the Final Fantasy XIII story arc. But while the developer has done a great job of explaining the stories behind these personalities, you will be rewarded if you’re up to date with the series so far. Each mission pushes to resolve the narrative started all the way back in 2010, and while it will never engage newcomers, it’s satisfying if you’ve been following it from the start.
That said, it’s the side quests that will occupy most of your time. From simple challenges like herding sheep to solving elaborate murder mysteries, the range of tasks that you’ll be required to perform is really quite staggering. The context behind some of these objectives can be a bit silly, but others are deeply emotional and emphasise the gloomy state of a world that’s coming to an end. These help to provide a convincing overall atmosphere.
However, with an enormous number of these in each city, it can be difficult to decipher when and where you need to be in order to complete each. The in-game quest tracking system is somewhat vague, and doesn’t offer many tips as to where you’ll find certain characters and monsters. This will often result in you running back and forth all over the cities, wasting precious time.
As you explore, you’ll find yourself in fights, and the combat system is built around the Schemata concept. Lightning is the only character that you’ll control during these bouts, but you’ll have the ability to switch between three different schemes. Each of these has its own Active Time Battle (ATB) bar, which depletes each time that you act. Abilities are mapped to the four face buttons and can be activated at any time, providing that you have the appropriate amount of ATB. Timing attacks perfectly results in a ‘perfect hit’, which deals more damage and increases the chances of staggering the enemy.
Indeed, it wouldn’t be a Final Fantasy XIII title without the stagger system. This time, the technique is notified by a wave over the enemy’s health bar. Build this up enough, and you’ll unsteady the foe, leaving them open to extreme amounts of damage. Perfectly dodging and attacking weak points can also aid you in your efforts.
As such, juggling between the three Schematas is crucial to defeating foes and creating an exciting flow in combat where you’ll always feel in control. Without pairing the correct garbs, weapons, and abilities together, you’ll find yourself frequently out of ATB, so it’s important to carefully plan for each major battle.
As already alluded, you can customise each Schemata with different clothes and techniques, creating more defensive or offensive options. This provides you with the opportunity to personalise Lightning as you desire, and while there are pretty obvious pairings in the game, you’ll be rewarded for experimenting with all of the options at your disposal with unique equipment sets and bonuses.
Of course, it’s possible to avoid combat entirely, as you’ll be able to spot opponents in the world. Adding to the difficulty, a chaos infusion will occasionally appear, doubling the strength of any enemies contained within it until one is defeated. As a result of this, you’ll earn better rewards for killing these powered up foes, meaning that you’ll need to decide whether you want to tackle a weaker beast to clear the infusion or wait for a more difficult antagonist to appear for even better goodies.
You may actually want to plump up for the former, as combat is a bit less forgiving in this latest iteration of the game. On the normal to hard difficulty tiers, health is not recovered between battles, and dying results in an hour being lopped off the in-game clock. Recovery items are also limited to the number of slots available, so using a potion at just the right time can be the difference between life and death.
The way that the game is structured means that getting stuck can quickly eat away at your time, and while it’s unlikely that you’ll have too many issues, there is a particular battle about halfway through the campaign that provides a massively unexpected challenge that will punish you if you’re unprepared. Considering that the title actually gets easier after this fight, it feels out of place and frustrating.
At least you won’t waste too much time getting lost, as while there’s plenty of content in the title, the world feels rather small. With only four major land masses, exploration becomes a bit of a chore once you’ve visited all of the areas. Two of the locations are extremely large open environments that take an age to traverse, while the other two are dense cities that can be awkward to navigate at times.
It doesn’t help that the title looks inferior to many of the PS3’s more recent releases. Anything outside of combat or the main quest could belong in a PlayStation 2 title, due to the abysmal textures and jumpy framerate. It’s a real shame because the character models and confined battle sequences are amazing, with beautiful skill effects and a silky smooth frame rate. The flaws feel like they’re the result of a low budget or rushed release, and while they’re purely cosmetic and don’t really impede the gameplay, they’re still disappointing.
At least the soundtrack hasn’t skimped on the series’ usual standards, with music that really brings out the atmosphere in each and every quest. Even though the audio is based on motifs from previous titles, nothing is out of place. The mixing and sound effects are less impressive – with some muffled samples and poorly blended pieces of dialogue – but everything is voice acted, so you won’t have to rely on text boxes this time.
You won’t be alone in your adventure either, as social features make their franchise debut courtesy of the Outerworld Services. This allows you to take screenshots, post messages, and sell items, with any interactions appearing in-game, providing a unique way for you to communicate with others. The developer even posts community events from time-to-time, with exclusive weapon and garb rewards.
At the end of the (13th) day, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a vastly different game to any other in the franchise. Your enjoyment will depend heavily on whether you liked the previous two titles, with close followers of the story arc much more likely to appreciate the closure that this instalment provides. There are flaws, but the combat, characters, and time system all provide plenty of entertainment. And while we’re sure that those that have disliked the divisive plotline so far will be glad that it’s over, fans will be thrilled to see the series end with a bang rather than a fizzle.