The world is about to end in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, but instead of saving it from destruction Lightning goes along with Bhunivelze’s plan when the god dangles Serah’s life as a reward. Lightning becomes the Savior and she has to save as many souls as she can which will be reborn in Bhunivelze’s new world. If you played the demo you might think that means exciting missions like chasing Snow through a palace dungeon. While that’s a part of the game, it’s not the bulk of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.
Lightning has been reduced to a holy errand girl because most of Lightning Returns is fetch quests. "Saving souls" means finding some random dude’s lost journal, winning a footrace around town against a kid, and helping a guy riding a chocobo cheat on his hunter exam. Fulfilling side quests rewards Lightning with Eradia, energy that extends the life of the world and your gameplay time. When you start Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII there are only six days left before Bhunivelze hits the reset button, but this can be extended if you have enough Eradia to make Yggdrasil, a tree in the Ark where kid Hope resides, bloom flowers.
The problem is most of the side quests aren’t integrated well into the story and they don’t even fit in within the game’s world. Think about it this way, if the world is really going to end, shouldn’t Lightning do something more important than check to see if clocks are working? In Animal Crossing you build relationships with your fuzzy, but lazy neighbors. Lightning Returns mulls over the NPCs you saved with a hasty resolution after you deliver the requested item. Instead of making dozens of meaningless side quests, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII would be better served with fewer meaningful stories because nobody is going to look back at the time Lightning returned a kid’s ball that was *right* above him as a highlight.
Running back and forth takes time and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a timed game like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask or Dead Rising. At 6AM you’re whisked back to the Ark and a day ends whether you gathered enough Eradia to extend the world’s lifespan or not. This brings us to the real reason to fight monsters. Defeating monsters to level up is common in RPGs, but Lightning eschews this familiar mechanic by having her level up when you complete side quests. Monsters in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII are basically there so players can farm Energy Points, a reward for winning a fight. You can use Energy Points to freeze time in battle, but these are better saved to freeze time on the field. The Chronostasis ability stops the clock, which gives players more time for fetch quests. Later on you also get a handy Teleport ability which reduces the amount of running around you have to do, but this also drains even more EP which brings us back to monster battles. I suppose the only other reasons to get into a scuffle is to collect drops for the Canvas of Prayers missions where you give items to Chocolina to fulfill requests for faceless characters or if you want to post battle scores online.
The battle system in Lightning Returns is a mix of Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy XIII. While Lightning fights alone most of the time, she has three Schemata, a player customized outfit and skill set, and each one has its own ATB bar. You create a Schemata by choosing Garb, a costume with innate abilities and set stat boosts. The Mist Wizard garb locks Thunder to the circle button (essentially making it useless quickly), Cyber Jumpsuit gives Lightning physical & magic resistance stat boosts, and Dragon’s Blood (an outfit that gives Lightning dragon wings) increases damage when Lightning’s ATB meter is below 30. Making Schemata is a neat idea, but battles are better won by exploiting weaknesses to stagger enemies than experimenting with a variety of abilities. If you know the enemies nearby are weak against fire, it’s more efficient to set fire spells on all three Schemata to circle and mash away. But, again there’s no real reason to fight monsters on the field unless you need more EP to… find a potion for a cat.
It’s a shame that so much of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is spent running around for the sake of running around because the five main quests are interesting. The Dead Dunes has a dungeon that locks doors depending what time it is and there’s a hilarious scene where Square Enix’s stoic heroine "acts" as the Savior for a play in Snow’s town Yusnaan. All of the major characters from the Final Fantasy XIII saga return in some form even though the game barely explains why some of them are back. Hope takes on the most important role since he guides Lightning from the seat of the Ark with advice on what to do next. The two of them talk throughout the entire game and some of their conversation is refreshingly lighthearted. It’s nice to see Final Fantasy XIII not take itself to seriously because the story is muddled by the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology and melodrama. I think the conclusion may strike a chord with fans who followed the Final Fantasy XIII saga, but getting there was way more of a chore than it should have been.
Food for Thought:
– Here’s a tip if you want to trim the fat, skip all non-essential side quests. Just focus on the main quests and burn the rest of the days by sleeping at the inn.
– Nova Chrysalia is really two towns and two fields. The Dead Dunes and the Wildlands, a desert area and forest area respectively, are giant fields. The designers put thought on how players can move around faster by adding warp points in the Dead Dunes and giving Lightning a chocobo to ride in the Wildlands.
– The quest where you nurse the wounded white chocobo back to health was neat and had silly side quests that go along with it like scaring sheep to get an item to heal the chocobo faster.
– After clearing Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, you unlock New Game+ and hard mode. While the story remains the same, there are some items you can only find in hard mode.
– I usually let graphical glitches slide since gameplay takes precedence, but it’s hard not to snicker at what happens when your chocobo’s face gets too close to a mountain or the texture pop in bugs when Lightning is dressed in an evening gown. I can’t wait to see all of the funny photos players create using the submit snapshot feature.
– Speaking of garb, the Final Fantasy VII inspired costume is cool fan service, but so overpowered it breaks the battle system. There are other Final Fantasy throwbacks like a costume based on Final Fantasy VI character Locke Cole and classic mage outfits.