After the final battle between Noel and Serah against Gaius that resulted in the destruction of the goddess of death, Etro, chaos was unleashed that consumed the world and killed Serah, causing Lightning to go into a long slumber to prepare for what was coming. She emerged at the behest of the god Bhunivelze, 500 years later to find the world had changed tremendously. Without the goddess of death, people did not die of natural causes, and even when dying of injuries or disease, their souls would just stay in the swirling chaos, never to be reborn. Furthermore, in just 13 days the world would collapse. Bhunivelze wanted her to become his champion, and collect the souls of the inhabitants of the dying world, so that he may take them to a new world that he was creating, and a new world may be born. In exchange, he would bring back Lightning’s sister, Serah as well. With this motivation, Lightning sets out to complete this task, running into many old faces, as well as many new ones, saving souls but ultimately questioning her role in the world’s final act.
Lightning Returns is the last entry in the FFXIII series. While it certainly continues and completes the story of FFXIII, it has a tremendously different game play to it’s predecessors. First of all, the combat is entirely different. It’s much more active, with attacks, which are mapped to the four face buttons rather than a menu, occurring immediately after they are selected, and furthermore provides manual control of Lightning’s movement during battle. The core of the combat system is the schema system, which allows Lightning to switch between three schemas on the fly in battle, which is similar in concept to switching paradigms but occurs much faster. This feels awkward at first, with having to switch incredibly often, and while this aspect is somewhat rough, in the end it makes the combat feel like it has the same tactical essence as the previous games but is more fast paced, and once you get the hang of it, the combat can be very satisfying. Overall, I would have to say the combat is about as good as the second, meaning better than the first.
I wasn’t much of a fan of the growth system however, in that it was incredibly lacking. It was different in that there was no XP or levelling up, and only completing quests increased Lightning’s inherent stats, though of course equipment increased stats as well. There was also synthesis of abilities to get newer more powerful ones, though another misstep was that synthesis wasn’t available for items until NG+. Overall, while that did make major upgrades that had noticeable effects on combat, which is quite satisfying, more common, ultimately it felt like there was a lot less control over increasing Lightning’s stats or abilities, which was the opposite of the improvements in the fantastic system from XIII-2. Lastly, there is a single party member at a very limited number of points, which ultimately felt really random and somewhat pointless. Overall, this entire aspect felt very rough.
In terms of exploration it’s essentially open world, though the only opportunity to move between areas is through trains at first, but eventually you gain the ability to teleport and move by foot which makes things much easier. Less loading times was definitely a major plus after XIII-2. While each of the areas are thematically connected, they mostly have a good amount of variety to them in terms of environment and don’t feel repetitive. Despite this openness, the game flowed pretty well and felt less haphazard than previous games.
In terms of content there are six main quests that you can do in any order as well as a long set of story oriented side quests and less so canvas of prayer quests, which is a good amount of content. However, there’s this issue about how everything is timed and running on a real clock, which was a major nag at first and made me feel constrained for the majority of the main story of the game, constantly using abilities that would halt the clock down, but as I progressed I realized that it really isn’t that much of an issue. I had completed everything in the game I wished to way early and killed a lot of time pointlessly even though I did all the side content except some Canvas of Prayer quests. I should note that while the total time itself isn’t an issue, there are quests that can only be done at certain times of the day, and hence you need to keep track of it and plan around it, though that’s somewhat fun in a way as well. Ultimately, the time constraint without any quantifiers of how long you should be taking made me feel rushed pointlessly, but that’s not too much of an issue.
I liked the style of the world and characters the most out of all of the FFXIII games. It had an undercurrent that was somewhat dreary and depressing even when it was cheerful or celebratory which made it very unique. The story was also the best out of the entire series. All of the games in the series have the issue that they’re completely and utterly ridiculous, but they seem to make some attempt at grounding in reality and making some sense along those lines. Lightning Returns doesn’t even try, being set in a world that couldn’t possibly engender any comparisons to anything realistic other than highlighting how its massively different and making no attempt at trying to create a coherent self contained system for the worlds events to take place in, but also taking the epic moments to a whole other level, which makes the ridiculousness and cheesy dialogue a lot easier to bear and less awkward. The ending tied up a most of the loose ends in a pretty satisfying manner, though in just as a ridiculous if not more so manner than the previous games, but by far the most epic with best CG.
The soundtrack was the worst of them. It wasn’t bad but it was really forgettable, with the best parts being appearances of the main tracks from the previous games. The graphics were good at points, but also terrible in others. In a way I feel that every entry got lower and lower budget, and though that doesn’t mean that the production values fall to the point that they’re bad, it is very noticeable.
A much faster paced and open entry than the previous games in the saga, feeling tremendously different but also sticking to the same concepts, and while rough around the edges a decently solid experience.
Each of the games feels really different and somewhat disconnected in terms of story and game play, though with repeating themes, concepts and mechanics. Its a solid ending to the saga: not on a high note, but not on a low note. I’m satisfied with the ending and though I certainly think they could have done a better job for the time I put into it I’m satisfied with the entirety of XIII at the end of the day. Next stop FFXV… at some point.