In this closing chapter to the Final Fantasy 13 trilogy, time is most certainly not on your side. The world is ending and you have a mere 13 days to save enough souls to repopulate a new planet – or, if you screw things up, significantly less. It’s a task that leads you down some familiar paths – healing chocobos, tending to mythical trees, crossing blades with former allies – but you’ll need one mascara-lined eye on the clock the entire time.
The idea behind imposing such a strict constraint is to encourage repeated playthroughs. There’s a typically bonkers narrative thread to be followed, with time for completing side-quests kept deliberately short. However, instead of feeling like you’ll mop up the trivial stuff on a second run, the reality is more akin to having unset jelly slipping messily through your fingers.
Everything you do in Lightning Returns has to be prioritised. It certainly instills a sense of urgency, but it also feels uncomfortably like real life. In a game about gods and chaos and seven-foot swords, worrying about whether the shops are still open is preposterous. Worse yet, in the face of looming Armageddon, chirpy side-quests you accumulate feel like a waste of precious seconds. “Sorry, the celestial avatar of the Almighty can’t help save your soul right now – she’s buying spice for a talking cat.”
That constant, gnawing sense of probable doom also has an effect on the feel of the world. There’s something robotic the way NPCs scuttle around, giving the whole thing the numbing inevitability of an MMO two days before the servers shut down. The glorious opening cutscene promises the sort of layered detail JRPG fans have been craving since the days of Final Fantasy 7’s distant, pre-rendered backgrounds. Get up close, though, and the tired, boxy side streets feel unfinished.
Thankfully, the variety and size of locations makes some of this emptiness forgivable. Luxerion is a clockwork tangle of narrow streets, while Yusnaan is an opulent party district complete with organic food markets and smug locals (think London, but with goblins). It’s not just cities, either: your adventure gland will be kept throbbing by the breezy green Wildlands and desolate sands of the Dead Dunes. Both lack the twisting intrigue of the urban locations, but immediate access to such variety is great. Perhaps not ‘world map’ great, but it’ll do.
There’s no traditional leveling here; instead
you complete quests to yield minor stat
boosts. Most curiously, fighting monsters
has zero effect on your level
Locations can be completed in any order, hard as that might turn out to be. There’s no traditional leveling here; instead you complete quests to yield minor stat boosts. Most curiously, fighting monsters has zero effect on your level. Instead, killing them rewards you with saleable tat and Eradia – the precious life force that can be spent on in-game powers, or exchanged at the end of each day for more time.
That leads us onto combat – easily the only most satisfying element of Lightning Returns. During battles, Lightning has access to three Schema: occasionally scandalous outfits that can collected and customised, each with their own staggeringly deep strengths and weaknesses. The rapid-fire costume changes might sound like cabaret magic, but it’s essentially the same as having three party members. Not only is it flashy and fun, but it feels like Final Fantasy: an energetic, modern approximation of combat that was previously turn-based.
Lightning Returns sees you racing against time to save the word. Again.
It can be brutally hard, too. Discovering valid tactics requires experimentation, so there’s a nervous anticipation before fighting every new enemy. The major criticism here is that the game’s method of punishing you for dying or escaping is to suck away an hour of your invaluable time. This is a punishment entirely at odds with frequently inescapable, sometimes unwinnable battles that are randomly thrust upon you. When you’re already choking on the sands of a relentlessly filling hourglass, this makes the most enjoyable part of the game feel needlessly risky given the meagre rewards for success.
This sadly encapsulates the main problem with Lightning Returns; it’s a game so desperate to refine each individual element that they’ve become disparate. There’s undoubtedly stuff here worth exploring – the cerebral combat, fan-serving storyline and grand finale to a three-game story – but despite Square Enix’s intentions, it’s not a world you’ll make time to revisit. Ambitious in some places, but lazy in others – Lightning Returns is likely to divide fans without ever providing enough action to entice a new audience.
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