Square Enix (formerly known as Square or Squaresoft) started the Final Fantasy series back in 1987 as a final crack at breaking into the video game industry. They succeeded.
Since then, Final Fantasy has seen its fair share of great successes (Final Fantasy VII) as well as failures (The original Final Fantasy XIV) and has created a legacy for itself along its rollercoaster ride to success.
Final Fantasy XIII was announced in 2006 and was finally released in 2010. It received mixed reception, from both critics and players alike. But Square Enix soldiered on, announcing that XIII was merely the first entry of a trilogy that would be released over the following couple of years. The stoic character of Lightning was here to stay, like it or not.
Ironically, it’s not often that there is a sense of finality in a Final Fantasy game. Lightning Returns marks the end of the XIII trilogy, leaving fans with either a sense of relief and joy, or teary pride – depending on what end of the Final Fantasy fan spectrum you find yourself on.
This time around the player follows the trilogy’s most notable character: Lightning (now a divine champion for God himself, who has promised to return her sister, Serah, in return for her efforts.) as she fights against time to save as many souls as possible before the world ends. The time remaining until Armageddon hits is rather conveniently displayed by a visible “Doomsday Clock” which tells you exactly how long you have left before the world ends. It’s reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, which imposed a 3-day limit tracked by an omnipresent clock on the HUD.
Lightning can acquire more time and postpone the inevitable “Doomsday” by doing various quests to amass Eradia (The key to postponing the apocalypse); these range sporadically from light-hearted fetch and deliver quests, to dramatic story-telling quests. While this variety is welcome, it also results in inconsistent pacing, which can leave you confused.
That said, overall the quest system is done rather well, and there’s an abundance of quests at the players disposal. It’s important to note at this stage that the Crystarium, which was used in previous games to level up characters, is no more: Lightning now improves her stats through completing quests. This means that tedious grinding is no longer an issue, although it’s replaced with a frustrating sense of urgency as you rush to complete objectives that are only available at certain times of the day.
The sheer number of quests – and prerequisites before a large number of them are available – means that it’s nearly impossible to complete all of them in a single playthrough; you’ll need to play this final instalment multiple times via the New Game+ option to see all the game has to offer. That said, NG+ is a welcome feature; your first playthrough of Lightning Returns can be completed on average between 20-30 hours – a lot shorter than most Final Fantasy games – but NG+ mode adds plenty of replayability. In total, if you want to experience everything the game has to offer, you can expect to spend at least 70-80 hours across multiple playthroughs. It has plenty of replayability then, but familiarity and ennui soon sets in.
The world in Lightning Returns has changed; very little remains from the previous two games in terms of aesthetics and characters. The world is refreshingly re-imagined with stunning visuals, and it’s clear that Square Enix put in a lot of effort to make the new areas feel fresh and different to what we’ve seen before. Unfortunately, the characters inhabiting these areas are lackluster at best. The personality of familiar faces such as Vanille and Snow have changed so much that any fond memories you may have of them may start to feel null and void.
Final Fantasy has long been known for its fantastic musical scores, and Lightning Returns is no exception. The music manages to fit the ever changing mood of the game, and helps wrap up the new and exciting world in an alluring and attention-grabbing fashion. The voice acting (performed by well-known talents such as Troy Baker), however, suffers from an average plot and sub-par dialogue.
The combat system has received a much-appreciated overhaul that will leave previously skeptical fans sighing in relief. While Lightning is the sole playable character in a series normally known for party-based combar, Square Enix makes up for it by allowing you to seemlessly switch between customizable garbs. Each have their own unique and interchangeable buffs, abilities and items. The system is a nostalgic nod to fans of the job system that older Final Fantasy games used to sport – even going as far as naming some of the garbs after recognisable jobs such as “Red Mage” or “Dragoon”. You can assign different abilities for each garb to each of the 4 face buttons on the controller, so that they correspond with individual abilities. This means that players no longer have to line up commands through the menu. The effect of the changed combat system makes gameplay feel faster and more streamlined, without sacrificing any real sense of strategy.
Combat isn’t the only streamlined gameplay mechanic in Lightning Returns, however. The world in Lightning Returns is now open and can be freely explored. You’re given the freedom to run, jump, slide and even glide to wherever you feel early on, often to be met by creatures too powerful for your current strength. The sense of freedom is a nice change from the linearity of previous installments. It’s not quite the degree of open-ness as delivered by Skyrim, but it’s a welcome step up from the rail-roading exhibited in the original Final Fantasy XIII.
Another new feature in Lightning Returns is the Outerworld Services, which allows players to link their game to a number of social media outlets such as Facebook or Twitter. Players can share screenshots, battlescores, items, and messages with their friends or showcase their own customized rendition of Lightning.
There’s also DLC available for purchase, but thankfully it’s relegated to special garbs – often relating to other Square Enix games, like the Sphere Hunter Garb from Final Fantasy X-2 or the Lara Croft garb from Tomb Raider.
Lightning Returns is a solid game that we thoroughly enjoyed, despite its sloppy plot and monotonous dialogue. It’s a pleasure to see that Square Enix has taken feedback from fans in regards to previous games concerning things like linearity and lack of customization into account when creating this final installment. The exciting and appreciated new battle system came at the cost of a decent story, but we found that the host of new and fun features Square Enix managed to squeeze into the final game were wholly enjoyable. We weren’t on the edge of our seat wondering what would happen next, but that’s ok; we were too busy having fun and enjoying the game to care.
The XIII trilogy has been something of an awkward era for the Final Fantasy franchise; each game has been noticeably different from the last as Square Enix has tried to address concerns and explore new directions. Lightning Returns is no exception, and it also hints at what we can expect from the upcoming Final Fantasy XV – action-heavy gameplay designed to appeal to a far broader audience.
It’s certainly an interesting experiment, but Square Enix needs to be cautious, lest it alienate the series’ devoted fans.