Well, here we are; with the increasingly more and more inaccurately named Final Fantasy series. We laughed when Final Fantasy X-2 was released. We accepted it when Final Fantasy XIII-2 was released. And now, today, in 2014, we have a game that is Final Fantasy XIII-3 in all but name. You can understand the reason why; in a game series that is based on the premise of creating new, interesting worlds, mythos and characters for each entry; it can be exceedingly painful to want to give them up when you finish, without answering the ultimate question: “What happened next?”
In the case of FFX however, there were more obvious plot holes to be addressed, which X-2 did a debatable job in addressing. With XIII though, the game ended with a real conclusion and climax, and the confusion and dropped plot points needing to be addressed only came in XIII-2. The world that Lightning and her friends inhabit is radically different to the one we saw in 2010, and while there are reasons behind that, this is definitely a game for the fans. Nobody, and I mean nobody, would do themselves any good by dropping into the Lightning Arc at this point in time, you would just come away with a headache and a disdain for Japanese video games.
Well, after the cliffhanger ending of XIII-2 that felt more like an insult than a conclusion, especially with the DLC released afterwards (DLC! DLC in a Final Fantasy Game! That this day should have come….) I was still determined to see what sense could be pulled out from the chaos that XIII-2 created with all of its Time Travel and alternate dimensions shenanigans (never a good place to start) and for the most part, Lightning Returns keeps its plot simple and straightforward, almost to force a conclusive ending for once. After the destruction of most of the world at the end of XIII-2, the remaining humans exist in a state of stasis, while the world around them slowly disintegrates, leaving them trapped in a few remaining enclaves. The world is on its way out, in 13 days to be exact, whereupon their god, Bhunivelze, will awaken and move all the remaining souls to a new world. Lightning is awakened to serve as his avatar, a savior of humans to help release them from their emotional bonds before those period occurs.
Both the 13 days aspect and the soul-saving aspect are important here. Each day is an actual day, with Lightning being returned back to base every day at 6 AM, and will return to the next day at that same time again. Time runs so that one day in game is about 1.5-2 hours in the real world, but time does not flow during battles, cut scenes or conversations. Certain events, people and quests are only available within certain time frames, and managing these becomes a priority. Lightning has 4 zones to explore, which are all massive and distinct in scale, and in all she must do her best to solve as many problems of the citizens as possible, with quests often being linked together to tell expansive stories of various linked people within certain towns. This is a narrative style reminiscent of Majora’s Mask, and the way it lets you focus on the NPC’s for once is a nice way of making you care more about the world.
These quests also serve a purpose in that they are now the only way to level up, with stats being assigned as result of completing more and more difficult quests. Each area has a “main” quest, usually involving someone Lightning knows, but as long as these are done before the days run out, you can avoid having to go to a New Game +. Lightning maneuvers easily around the open worlds, and her agility is a new inclusion in a game based on time. The battle system involves Lighting sans any party member, rather, she can equip three outfits, each with different native abilities and with your own abilities mapped to them as well. These serve various “job” purposes, and can switched on the fly with the R1 and L1 buttons. Each outfit has 4 abilities, mapped to the Square, Circle, Cross and Triangle buttons, and these must be used in combination with moving Lightning around the battle field to find an enemy’s weakness. This is a very nice mixture of real-time and turn based combat, and in many ways this feels like the ultimate form of the battle system FF13 wanted from the start.
A lot of fun can be had with the outfits, as they almost completely adjustable in terms of colours and accessories, and many hours can be spent getting your own look right, if you care about that thing. There’s a lot of detail put into everything, and the worlds feel very vibrant and alive. I would say the storyline of FF13 has gotten weaker throughout each installment, but the gameplay has gotten better, so factor that in for yourself when you think about getting it.
Overall, I was satisfied with FFXIII, I would have been happy if XIII-2 never existed in the first place for this one to need to fix, but fix it it does, in as much as it can be done. This a nice little coda to the Final Fantasy series on this generation on consoles, and now we can all look forward to the release of FFXV on the next.