This review is based on over 20 hours of gameplay with the English-language PlayStation 3 version of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Warning: this contains some spoilers.
MANILA – When Square Enix released the first English-language trailer for Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII last January, I was far from impressed.
The graphics were similar to the game's predecessors (not that Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2 had bad graphics, I was just expecting even a little improvement since Lightning Returns is the final installment in the series), the video editing was terrible, and the narrator (Hope Estheim, a mainstay in the FFXIII games) did not make any sense.
Referring to one of the areas in the game, Estheim said in the trailer: “Luxerion, the divine city of light and prayer. The residents are taught the ways of salvation and faith. The city of faith is built on the people’s beliefs in their God. However, even in the metropolis lies darkness untouched by divine light. That is, those who disregard the teachings of God.”
It was too hard to bear. Being able to control Lightning once more, however, was enough reason for me to pre-order a copy of the game. And besides, I already played the first two, so I might as well finish what I started.
As the title suggests, the game brings back Lightning as the only playable character. It follows the events of FFXIII-2, which ended with the death of Serah (the game’s protagonist), the release of a mysterious energy called Chaos into the world, and Lightning being turned into crystal.
The Chaos, a black smoke-like substance, has resulted in people being unable to age and bear children, although they can still die from accidents and sickness.
Thirteen days before Chaos completely consumes the world (or 500 years after FFXIII-2), the god Bhunivelze wakes Lightning from her crystal sleep and tasks her to save as many souls as she can so they can be reborn in a new realm. Lightning agrees to take on the role of Savior after Bhunivelze promised that she will be reunited with Serah, her younger sister.
The game’s plot would not have sounded so ridiculous if it wasn’t set five centuries after FFXIII-2. It’s hard to imagine how people who have lived for 500 years have changed so little – they sounded and acted the same, with some even wearing the same clothes from XIII and XIII-2. At best, it felt rushed and lazy.
Expect to see the main characters from FFXIII and FFXIII-2 making a comeback in this game, whether as enemies, extras, or supporting roles. And yes, almost all of them look exactly as how you remember them.
Lightning Returns has an in-game clock that is constantly ticking down to the apocalypse. You are initially given seven in-game days (or seven real-world hours) until the world ends.
Time passes as you travel to different places, but not when you open the menu and during battles and cutscenes. As you complete more quests, you are given more time, up to a total of 13 in-game days.
While it is restrictive and frustrating at certain points, the clock makes the game a lot more challenging, especially to players who tend to take their time exploring an area. This makes grinding (engaging in repetitive tasks to level up) pointless because you only get to increase your stats when you finish quests, and most of them are not battle-related.
Speaking of battles, Lightning Returns has a lot of it, and you will enjoy each one. The revamped active time battle system, referred to as Style ATB, has all the good elements of FFXIII, FFXIII-2, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, FFX-2 and the Kingdom Hearts series.
Unlike its predecessors where you can only order characters to do individual commands or stack up multiple actions, the third installment of FFXIII lets you move Lightning at will – you can do real-time attacks, blocks and dodges. You can also walk around during battle too, albeit in a limited way.
Instead of the paradigm system of the XIII series, the game takes off from the dressphere concept from FFX-2, with Lightning able to swap between schemata or sets of garbs, weapons, accessories and adornments. Aside from having different combinations of equipment, you can also change the colors of the items, ultimately giving you control over Lightning’s look.
The schemata customization system is great, save for a few get-ups which are bordering on fan service. Those who pre-ordered Lightning Returns get to have some powerful schemata at the start of the game, including the outfit of Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII.
My only complaint about the gameplay is that Estheim, who plays a major supporting role in the game, tends to talk too much (and say the same things) while Lightning runs around the field, which can become quite annoying. Installing the Japanese voice pack (it can be downloaded at the PlayStation network) makes Estheim's unwarranted advice a lot more bearable.
Graphics and music
Lightning Returns features a mix of old music from FFXIII and FFXIII-2, remixes of these tracks and totally different sounds. The music changes at different times of the day, adding life and energy to the game.
The graphics are beautiful but inconsistent. The cutscenes and battle sequences are breathtaking, yet some environments are dull and the textures are low-quality. Lightning's outfits are well-designed, but her swords appear to be floating behind her back.
Lightning Returns is a fun and challenging game that has replay value, but Square Enix could have done much better, particularly when it comes to the story.
Should you play this game? Yes, but you will appreciate it more if you have played FFXIII and FFXIII-2.