The games industry seems to be increasingly saturated in titles based on the end of the world. Be it Fallout as it observes survival and preservation of the past; Telltale’s The Walking Dead as it explores the more immediate matter of the human condition; or a whole host of other IP’s as their project leaders steer them into the realm of a bleak future. In Square Enix’s Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, however, they have decided to attack the concept of the apocalypse from a fresh angle. The end is coming, that much is true. There’s no way to avoid it, but something can be done to sugar the pill. The hopes of the inhabitants of the world rest on Lightning living up to her role as their saviour. But the question begs for both Square Enix and Lightning – is the road ahead one of prosperity, or are their efforts mere folly? And should you engage in it either way?
The story is based some five hundred years since the closing events of Final Fantasy XIII- 2. The release of the Chaos has destroyed Gran Pulse and what little of the world remains are a few sparse islands, now known as Nova Chrysalia. The effect that eternal life has left on society has not been a desirable one for many, and the presence of the Chaos makes matters all the worse as monsters appear as if from nowhere in clouds of darkness and attack civilians in cities just as much as in the wilderness. The end of days approaches and the people, aware of this, are divided. The Order see the end as the new beginning, a new world imparted on them as a gift from up on high. The Children of Etro, on the other hand, feel otherwise believing that death is as important as life and this immortality they hold along with their now supposed reprieve from the world’s end is depriving them of that right to balance.
The game begins with Lightning waking from her many centuries of slumber to the voice of God Almighty himself; Bhunivelze. He has hand picked her to be the saviour, blessed her with tremendous power and burdened her with a daunting task. That task: to remove the darkness from the many souls of the human race in just thirteen short days, so that they are cleansed and ready for the new world he plans to build upon his return. Her incentive, in case that wasn’t enough: the opportunity to be reunited with her sister, Serah, whose death Lightning blames on herself. Along the way she will meet with old friends, and enemies, who, as well as witnessing the deterioration of the world around them, haven’t shared the luxury of snoozing away the hundreds of years of anguish, sadness, regret and guilt that have passed. What follows is a hugely detailed sign off to a story that has been a long time in the making for it’s development team, it’s fanbase and, more so than anybody else; the people the story revolves around.
The aspect of time takes centre stage in gameplay. In a sense, the game can actually be failed if time is not managed properly. While the aim is to accomplish your goal within thirteen days, you’re not provided with this from the outset, and are only given a mere handful. The rest of your time must be earned through activities. By questing, you acquire stats (HP, magic and strength), as well as Gil (money), items (adornments), and most relevantly souls, which you will deliver to Yggdrasil, the tree of life, in exchange for more time.
One of the changes that makes it stand apart from XIII and XIII-2 is the removal of group combat. Lightning is now a multi-talented jack of all combat trades, courtesy of the schemata system. Able to be a mage, fighter, tank – though it might be more appropriate to say damage mitigator – or any hybrid of those above, and capable of switching to any one of three pre-built setups to best accommodate the ever changing fighting conditions. Not only does this serve as a spectacle to behold in the many fights, it also provides the ability to customize her appearance. Garb (clothes), weapon and shield lay the foundation for each schemata build, with additional accessories and adornments added to further increase combat efficiency and look fancy while doing it. Upgrading these items is a factor not dissimilar to abilities. In keeping with Final Fantasy as a whole, it’s a rich and detailed approach to micromanaging how best to brave the hostile ground laid before you, but some FF vets may see it as a step short of the true complexity they have come to expect.
Another big change is the complete removal of character leveling. No longer do you acquire experience from grinding monsters and ‘ding’ when the next cap is met. Let’s face it, you possess as much power as God himself is willing to bestow upon you, a leveling system would imply that he did a half job in his infallible glory, right? That’s not to say that you’re just an unstoppable killing machine from the start. While it is true that, narratively, Lightning is at the precipice of her power, that wouldn’t make for a very engaging difficulty curve. In practice you grow more powerful from two things: acquisition and upgrading. Each monster now has a chance to drop an ability that associates with it’s style, and that ability ends up in your inventory along with the many others of it’s kind. A trip to the local sorcery shop allows you to combine – or synthesize – them into more powerful versions. Later in the thirteen day plot, level boosting becomes an option, and with a pocket full of the crafting component known as malistones you can upgrade from Blizzara Lvl 1 to Blizzara Lvl 2, for example. The item upgrading system is very similar, minus the combining of multiple versions of the same item. Instead you’ll visit the forge and, with the use of malistones, increase the properties set to your garb, sword, shield or accessory. Another, though minor, change is the limit to how many recovery items can be carried. Starting with a finite amount of slots for health potions or knockout reversing Pheonix down feathers, these slowly and steadily increase over the course of the game.
The combat itself is a lot more inclusive than it has been in the past. Where you are standing, for instance, can have a crucial effect on the tide of battle, and as such, you’re able to actively move Lighting and map your abilities to the face buttons. Each different schemata build has it’s own individual ATB (Active Time Battle) gauge that depletes with use of the abilities, forcing you to make the most of your activity, as well as the validity of your neighbouring schemata. Moving, changing target, switching schemata and memorizing where you have positioned which abilities can be finicky at first, but it’s far from a matter of perseverance to grow accustomed to it. Once the initial awkwardness is out of the way, what is left behind is a combat system that is fun, great looking and a rewarding method of fighting. It’s easy to learn with plenty of room to master. Inside and outside of combat, one of Lightning’s main God-given talents comes in the form of EP, or Eradia Points. A scaled back version of God-mode to make the adventure a little less daunting for the person who, quite literally, has the weight of the world on her shoulders. EP grants Lightning the ability to briefly stop the clock when lost or confused, heal back to full health or even save those precious minutes by teleporting to where she most needs to be. EP is earned through combat, and the amount earned dependent on what you fight.
Visually, it maintains the standard it’s predecessors laid down. Character models are impressively lifelike as usual, and the costume designs range from referential throwbacks to previously beloved attire, to outright weird choices on how you dress Lightning, but the real beauty is still in the scenery. From cloud-breaking mountain vistas surrounded by quaint villages and settlements, to intricately detailed ancient ruins in the centre of vast spans of sand, all the way down to sprawling city skylines bustling with life, Lightning Returns is a joy to look at. The music, while varied and unique, is unmistakably Final Fantasy and, as always, has had a lot of work go into it. There is a reason that this franchise has it’s own concert after all. While I don’t say this to claim that anything that came before it pales in comparison, Final Fantasy XIII’s own The Promise is one of my favourite songs to have come from a game in recent history. What can I say that hasn’t already been said about the voice acting, though? The option to listen to Japanese RPG’s with the voices in their native language is one that is more opted for than any other game. While that’s not the option I personally go in for, it’s one I can perfectly understand. It seems Ali Harris’ Lightning is canned and disinterested and, while the cast do a decent job – not by any means jarring the experience – none of it is worth writing home about.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a lot of fun for those that go into the venture looking for it. Not only offering replay value but demanding, at the very least, a second playthrough. The changes made have been a bold step for Square, but in this reviewers opinion, the humbling feedback brought forth (in wave, after wave, after wave) by long time fans has been taken on board and implemented into this refreshingly unique approach to a genre that frequently shows signs of stagnation. My time with this one is far from over.