Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is positioned as a parade of diverse ideas colluding to represent a wild expression of its namesake. This isn’t unusual; Final Fantasy can be defined by how much it’s willing to let go with each iteration. What sets Lightning Returns apart is how effectively it surrenders its core criteria for the explicit purpose of inflicting a sense of impending doom into every moving part of its system. Clever additions and smart retractions are meant to coalesce, but in practice the game is total chaos – albeit the kind that’s fun to play around in.
The narrative of Lightning Returns is constructed with a cool premise but instantly burdened with exhaustive detail and meaningless baggage. The world of Nova Chrysalia is ending in thirteen days, and Lightning has been charged by the god Bhunivelze with preparing Nova Chrysalia’s undying, 500-year-old population for the end of time and the birth of a new world. In theory the idea of immortals yearning for some sort of ultimate end presents an attractive premise, but Lightning Returns’ narrative threads aren’t strong enough to support its conceit. Occasionally some of the side quests dwell on the trials and tribulations associated with a population frozen in age and yet moving through time, but more often than not Lightning Returns seems content to trot out familiar faces and engage in melodramatic dialogue.
Operating under the generous assumption that Lightning Returns was planned four years ago, the story is a mess. Viewing it as an elaborate play in which extinguished characters are forced back into the spotlight, it’s still a mess. It seems cool that Snow is some sort of apocalypse grand-master constantly throwing end-of-the-world parties, but functionally it serves no purpose other than to give Snow something to new do. The same can be said for Sahz, who has returned to worrying about a new nebulous problem affecting Dajh. The death of and subsequent search for Serah serves as a constant Dues ex Machina for Lightning, rarely allowing her to escape the emotionless void that’s come to define her personality. Every aspect of Lightning Returns’ narrative is enveloped in a wave of banal minutia and nonsense constantly searching for the bottom of a rabbit hole. These characters served their respective purposes two games ago and now they’re masquerading as fan-fiction fueled husks.
Ironically, Lightning Returns’ four open environments speak louder than any of its words. The city of Luxerion, dominated by an aggressive religious influence, is drenched in drab tones but offset with a soothing, jazzy soundtrack. In stark contrast is Yusnaan, a veritable party city ripe with color and featuring endless fireworks, a half dozen adventurous eateries, and even a giant neon cactuar effigy. The Wildlands and The Dead Dunes are vast swaths of land, the former’s winding forest paths, open fields, and rocky crags are more appealing than the latter’s haunted desert. Each area also arrives with a full day and night cycle complete with divergent citizen activity at different times. As either a tightly constructed city or an open environment, Lightning Returns’ four areas are deliberate response to the narrow hallways that composed most of the previous two games, demonstrating that Square-Enix can still make their Crystal Tools engine sing.
Being an unprecedented second sequel to a core entry certainly allows Lightning Returns’ gameplay to wander further away from its usual responsibilities as a Final Fantasy game. Nowhere is this more visible than the ticking clock that governs all of Lightning’s activities. Three seconds of real time is equal to one minute of game time, and starting at 6am every day Lightning has 24 hours to do as she likes. There are five main quest lines that can be accomplished in any order, and there are over fifty side quests found through NPC’s appearing in every area. Completing quests earns Eradia, which extends the number of days available to Lightning; six are there to start, with as many as fourteen on the table.
The process of understanding and dealing with the constantly-ticking clock was an enjoyable decent into madness. Certain NPC’s are only available between specific times, and the same goes for items or monsters said NPC’s may want Lightning to obtain or slay. Travelling on trains and fighting in the battle arena also burns time, and dungeons are constructed specifically to waste your time. Even certain parts of a city are only open between specific times. Time isn’t always ticking, it stops during battles and while you’re fiddling around in menus, but it’s an enduring threat that requires constant consideration. Once the ins-and-outs of each environment are committed to memory, it’s not hard to start forming mental game plans like, “Ok I need to go collect four Chocoborel flowers before 4pm because that’s when I have to go to Luxerion to learn why this girl is crying and to talk to this guy about his lost diary.” Every destination soon becomes a carefully planned race to the finish.
With side quests at every corner, Chocalina’s “Canvas of Prayers” sub quests constantly beckoning Lightning’s attention, and the obvious main quest lines demanding resolution, Lightning Returns thrives on endless tension. The player is thrown a bone via Chronostasis, an ability from the limited EP points at your disposal, which pauses the clock for a couple of real world minutes. Even with that in mind there’s still satisfaction to be found in compiling a mental list of in-game challenges and completing them in the most efficient means possible (though perhaps it was all for naught, considering I had every reasonable side quest finished with three days left to spare). Lightning Return’s ominous and omnipresent clock isn’t as meticulously constructed as a similar mechanic in Dead Rising, but nevertheless it’s good at what it does.
The meat of Lightning Return’s myriad of optional quests range from simple fetch quests to relatively complex, multi-staged tasks. The classic trope of “go kill ten monster” or obtaining a significant quantity of a specific piece of loot are left to the Canvas of Prayers, leaving the meatier attractions to wandering NPCs. Locating all of the clocks in Luxerion, chasing down the trail of a man’s lost journal, hoarding costume adornments, rushing medicine across the map, and investigating ghost sightings are a small sample of divergent tasks undertaken in Nova Chrysalia. Completing quests are also the only way to boost Lightning stats; battles exist to earn gil and EP points and permanent stat boosts are left to quest completion.
Exploration and hunting down items hidden in the environment literally makes the time go by, but a great deal of the player’s time will be spent either in battle or tinkering with Lightning Returns intricate systems. Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2’s role-switching combat system has been pared down and adapted to a single character; Lightning herself. She is ravager, commando, sentinel, saboteur, medic, and synergist all in one. This is accomplished primarily through the use of “garbs;” differently styled outfits each bundled with special attributes. Garbs range from traditional roles like Velvet Bouncer (strength boost) and Midnight Mauve (ATB boost) all the way to widely specific roles like Miqo’te Dress (casts Esuna when guarding) to Vengeance (restores ATB when an enemy is staggered). There are over seventy garbs to find and use, and, despite a few pallet swaps, most are widely varied. Garbs are also visually customizable, allowing the player to color any texture to their liking and reflecting said changes in the game’s cut scenes.
Garbs are assembled into schematas, Lightning Returns’ term for an assigned ability load-out. Each garb carries a base attack, magic, and Active Time Battle stats. From there the player assigns a weapon, a shield, two stat-boosting accessories, and an aesthetically pleasing adornment. The ability load-out is the most versatile facet, leaving guards, attacks, spells, buffs, and debuffs are all open to interpretation. Some abilities come affixed to specific garbs (and some are only found on those particular garbs) pushing the player in a specific direction with that particular schemata. It’s possible to create the same traditional roles that defined Final Fantasy XIII’s past, but it’s certainly more fun to engage Lightning Returns’ wealth of customization options.
Lightning Returns’ battle system is far more hands-on than its predecessors. Gone is any form of automation and in its place is complete control over Lightning’s actions. Three schematas each run their own ATB gauge, leaving the player to switch between the three at will. Different attacks drain different amount of the ATB gauge, leaving more powerful abilities costing more of your precious gauge. Incomprehensible to the casual viewer but intimately familiar to a learned player, the amount of schemata-switching, perfect guarding, and rationing of abilities solves the problem of direct control within Final Fantasy XIII’s aging battle system. How tight the player grasps this system directly correlates to how much enjoyment they may derive from it, especially considering the brick wall certain boss fights may present.
Certain aspects of Lightning Returns walk the line between graciously efficient and apathetic to the player’s sensibilities. Generously available Libra notes detailing stagger conditions and other weakness for enemies are rapidly available, though many of the enemies themselves are assets lifted straight out of previous Final Fantasy XIII games. Likewise, the visual presentation is artistically inspired but often constructed out of weirdly low-resolution textures. The open environments are also quite nice but seemingly at the cost of a smooth frame-rate. Compared to the generational showcase its namesake typically implies, Lightning Returns feels kind of cheap in its virtual construction. The lone exception is the soundtrack, an eclectic and rapidly shifting mix of high energy day trips, subdued nighttime songs, and clever remixes of Final Fantasy staples.
This is the price of non-linearity. Prevented from becoming an ideal game by budget, time, or some nebulous force, Lightning Returns may have sacrificed too much in a vain attempt to go its own way. This sort of experimentation definitely has its cost, the value of which is left to be determined by the player. Racing against the clock to complete quests and frequently tinkering with the battle system are definite highpoints completely unique to Lightning Returns. Unfortunately, so are a dreadful narrative and any semblance of character development. What you value most in your Final Fantasy determines what you’ll get out of Lightning Returns.