I have been a fan of Final Fantasy games ever since Final Fantasy VII completely changed me as a gamer. Final Fantasy, is a series that is as much about big story telling, characters you get connected to on an emotional level as much as it is about gameplay and giving you an experience what will be unique to you as a player, but one which others who enjoy Final Fantasy games will resonate with. When the first chapter of the Final Fantasy XIII was released back in March 2010, I had high hopes that the Xbox would finally get to have its own Final Fantasy legacy. Sadly, they got just about everything wrong you could get with a Final Fantasy game. It was on-rails, limiting how much freedom you to explore its world and the main character and hero of the story Lightning who had all the personality of a cement brick! Fans were less than pleased with this game, so when its sequel and middle chapter of the trilogy, Final Fantasy XIII-2 was released in 2011, it was a refreshing change to find they had moved the story this time to the sister of Lightning, Serah who now three years after the climatic ending to the first game was now in search of Lightning as well as trying to save the world using time travel – it was a much better gaming experience.
The question is, can the final chapter of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy live up to the last game, or will the failings of the first creep back into the series as we once again return to the story as Lightning, on a journey of redemption?
Not that I want to spoil the ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2, but kind of need to do so in order to introduce Lightning returns; the third and final chapter in the story is set five hundred years following the end of the last game. Believing the world had been saved, Serah died during the closing moments of the story. The price for killing the villain Caius in the story was the release of the Chaos energy, which threatened to kill all of time and the world. The game opens with the return of Lightning, now known as ‘The Saviour”, who has been tasked by God to guide the souls to the new world which will be created once Chaos has consumed and destroyed the world.
As a fan of Final Fantasy I am no stranger to the big story telling concepts used in the game’s, and in Final Fantasy XIII as a trilogy, the story has had a continuation through the three titles although each game has had its own story. The use of God sending Lightning back to the world in order to save and guide the souls of people to the new world even for me was a tad much. The story telling style is quite theatrical and can get long winded at times which slowed down the game to almost a painful crawl as cut scenes of characters talking to set up the story consumed the first three hours of game time with Lighting Returns. Not helped by the voice acting for Lightning which suffers the original game’s problem of just lacking the personality needed to have a player connection with the character. Whenever Lightning would go into a speech to move the story along it felt more like a drone which combined with similar voice acting for the many other characters you will need to interact with in the world when using shops or for gathering information for main quests and side quests can really grate after a few hours.
Not only has the main character changed but also the gameplay style has changed too. Final Fantasy is most known for using a Party system, whereby (especially in combat) you would control a group of characters. For Lightning returns you instead only have the control of Lightning for the duration of the game. Final Fantasy XIII-2 used a Paradigm system where you would have control of Noel, Serah and a Monster to create combat profiles to mix up melee, magic and ability attacks or defense. This time the game uses fully custom made Schemata with three beings equipped and usable in battle. Whilst in combat, you can hot switch between the three Schemata’s at will. Each one has its own ATB bar, which depletes every time an ability is used either melee, attack, defense, magic use. As you use the ATB of one Schemata the ATB’s of the others replenish. How you custom make the Schemata’s is key in combat as you can use one for example to do maximum physical damage or one to do magic damage or one for defense.
How you create the Schemata’s is also new. Everything from the outfit or ‘Garb’ you pick, to the sword, shield and accessories is fully open to customization and will give Lightning her health and ability boosts. There are many different options as you can see from the image above, some can be bought via outfitter shops as you travel the world, some will be rewards for completing main or side quests. DLC will add new outfits and weapons such as the Cloud outfit from Final Fantasy VII and in true Square Enix style, you can even give Lightning a Lara Croft look from 2013’s Tomb Raider game.
Once you have put a ‘look’ together, you will then be tasked with added the options you will use in combat from attack to defense and magic use. These can be bought from stores or found as rewards again for completing quests and for winning in combat and can be upgraded as you progress in the game. It took a while for me to get used to this style of gameplay as usually you simply choose the weapon and then what abilities and magic will be used. To have such a deep level of custom creation for me even though I know the series and the Final Fantasy XIII games well was confusing at first. New comers to the trilogy if picking up Lightning Returns for the first time could be overpowered by such choice and attention to detail required for such a key part of the gameplay. Experimenting with different combinations often left me changing how I would usually handle the combat, as I fine tuned the choices I had made.
The ability to hot switch between Schemata’s in combat does allow you to have a more personal connection with the combat as it is reliant on how you have built each one and what abilities you have given for attack or defense that will determine victory or not. Not only has the style of combat changed but also the way in which you can use recovery items during combat. Traditionally you can store multiple potions and items that you can use in battle to keep your health or magic levels up. Lightning Returns forces you to only be able to carry up to six recovery items to use in combat. Once used you will need to find a store or merchant to top up your supplies rather then carrying around large amounts of each all the time. This adds a level of care to the combat as you can no longer rely on having 100 health potions to keep a fight going. Some may call this cruel, but for me I actually found it added a nice challenge and made recovery items more of a fall back use rather then as a crutch to always rely on.
The game does have an open world feel to it. Destinations can be traveled to on foot, the traditional Chocobo later in the game or by using the Monorail system to move between the cities. You have the freedom to travel to these locations when available, and because of the main aspect to the game, The Doomsday Clock, you may not get to visit all locations in your first playthrough. The Doomsday clock is the real time duration of the story and world. When you start the game, you are told that you only have six days in order to save the souls of the world before Chaos destroys them. Each day lasts twenty four hours, although time stops during combat and cutscenes. Both main and Side quests are at times restricted by the clock. Some quests will require you to be at a certain location at a certain time in order to do that quest and some stores will not be open until a certain time. If you arrive early the game will give you the option of speeding up time to get to the earliest point the quest will require to be completed, if however you are too late you will have to wait until the next day to try again. Inns and hotels can also be used to stay in to replenish health in whilst you skip forward a few hours during your ‘stay’ to also get to complete quests.
The other aspect of the Doomsday Clock is the Ark. At 06:00am everyday, no matter what you are doing or where you are, you will be instantly transported back to the Ark in order to give your “offering of collected souls” to God or in this case Idrasil Tree. You collect these souls from completing side quests, the purpose of which is that should you offer enough, the Idrasil Tree will grown a new branch thus adding another day to the Doomsday Clock. A maximum of thirteen days can be achieved enabling you to spend more time in the world and delays the end of the world. It is an interesting addition to the story narration and makes the need to complete side quests more important. There are many side quests to complete. Some are the usual “go here get this and bring it back” to the collection of components a person suddenly has a need for before the world ends. Chocolina herself, the strange woman dressed as a chicken, who acted as a shop for you in Final Fantasy XIII-2 returns. She now looks after a message board, filled with side quests that you can complete if you have the right number of components and will earn upgrades, money and souls to add to your offering. Side quests can also be obtained by talking to the characters on the street as you travel the world, some even form part of main quests. Tedious at times but necessary in order to extend the Doomsday Clock, I found it became somewhat of a chore to run around towns to complete the side quests at times, but some were actually entertaining. I even got the chance to go on a date as Lightning, never thought I would be doing that in a Final Fantasy game!
Lightning Returns also brings a new social media network to the game series in the form of Outerworld Services. Completely optional, a player can link their game to their social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Doing this enables the player to be able to take snapshots of the game and share them across social media and the Outerworld service in game. You can even attach an item and sell it using this method. In the game itself, random non playable characters will represent the players using Outerworld service, you simply interact with them as you would any other character like a shop keeper by talking to them. Their screenshot will then download and you will have the chance to buy their item, read their message and look at their picture. You can even cheer the message on. I found this service to be incredibly poorly implemented. It took ages for the service to ‘download’ the message and broke up the gameplay when I tried to use it. It is an interesting idea but the system they used is far too slow to be of any real use, and I just found it to be intrusive and ended up turning it off in the options menu.
Overall my experience with Lightning Returns Final Fantasy XIII was not as much fun or enjoyable as FFXIII-2. I have never been a fan of Lightning as a main character, just never managed to warm up to her and for me her best use was as the narrator in FFXIII-2. The constant ‘in service of God’ got a little thin very quickly, the narration early on slowed the game down that I was almost willing to skip main story points just to end the painful babbling of Lightning talking to Hope on board the Ark. The new combat system does change things up and requires some time to get used to and the game throws up battle situations which are both challenging and fun. It took a good few hours before the game and its story really picked up momentum for me, and the cutscenes are as beautifully animated as Final Fantasy is known for. The Outerworld services was a let down, an interesting idea but poorly executed. The story is a good way to end the trilogy but I do wish they had chosen to go with another lead character then Lightning who for me, and taking into account the whole end of the world theme to the story, very cold and unreachable. I do like this game but I do not love it as much as I did the last game and would recommend that only the committed Final Fantasy XIII fans pick it up right now to play. I would advise waiting for a price drop on the game for the experience it gives you. The first chapter failed to deliver, it got much better with the middle story but with Lightning Returns I really hope that she will not return again to Final Fantasy.