Here is an important lesson – getting into a game series for the first time at the end of a trilogy is very, very confusing. Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns is that game and since we managed to miss out on the first two releases, we’re going to be doing this review based on titular character Lightning’s antics alone.
Which might not be a bad thing. At the outset of Lightning Returns, players are greeted with a length and gorgeous cut-scene that features mysterious (for those who aren’t versed in Final Fantasy lore) protagonist Lightning as she faces off against the Patron of Yusnaan, a city that is concerned with having as much fun as possible before the end of the world takes place. You’ve got a week before that happens, by the way.
It quickly becomes apparent, though interactions with NPCs and main characters on your journey, that there is a lot of history behind the events that players find themselves firmly entrenched in. Perhaps FF13: LR will convince you to head on back and play the others, it certainly had us convinced that this was a good idea. But, back to the story. Players are taking the role of Lightning, who seems to have been resurrected to play the part of the Saviour of the world. But there’s nothing along the lines of actually saving the whole thing happening here, you’ve got a small amount of time to save the souls of as many people as possible before the world ends.
Here’s where it all goes a bit pear-shaped. Lightning Returns has an unusual gameplay mechanic, a timer that is counting down to the end of existence. And it’ll keep counting as long as you’re playing but there are ways to delay matters. Returning to the central hub, which happens once a day, stops the timer. Completing quests will give players extra time to work with, up to a maximum of 13 days (counting the six you started with) and there’s a time-stop ability that will give you time to complete quests on a given day. Which is a great idea, players are fighting the clock as well as a succession of monsters, humans and boss characters, but it can feel more like work than it should – especially since there is no quest priority indications while you’re playing. You have to figure it all out, which isn’t impossible but it can be stress-inducing. Which is the point but it can also be frustrating, which isn’t.
If you manage to balance tackling enough side quests to give yourself time to complete the five main arcs, you’re on your way to a final showdown (of course). But we’ll let you get into that yourselves. Getting there means mastering the combat and Schemata system, overcoming several distinct environments and varied enemies that live in them and completing the all-important quests. Even the little ones, like finding lost toys and rescuing 500 year-old teenagers.
Players get to customise their weapon and armour setup into three main Schemata, sets of outfits and gear that confer various abilities. Buying or acquiring these items lets players spec for magic, damage, offence or defence, with a variety of buffs and elemental damages/resistances – depending on the foe. Some enemies will be healed by certain attacks (an ice attack, for instance) while being more susceptible to others, meaning that players will have to work out just how to do the most damage in the shortest amount of time. This takes some practise but combat isn’t overly challenging once you’ve gone a few rounds with something three times your size.
But all of this is nothing without EP, points that are gained from combat that let Lightning stop time for a short while both in and out of combat as well as teleport to certain locations later in the game. Using these effectively lets players maximise their questing, potentially getting all the way through to the end of the game in one piece. Or you could, you know, mess around in one city until the world ends six days ahead of schedule.
Lightning Returns, on its own, will appeal to a certain type of gamer – one who likes a challenge mixed with some time management as well as those who just want to see how the story ends. But it might grate on other players, who don’t like playing games that have a very restrictive time limit. Lightning’s outing is worth playing though, as long as you can get past the potentially negative aspects.