Well, where to begin. Few games are less worthy of two direct sequels than the original Final Fantasy XIII. Time has dampened my distaste somewhat, but seldom have I felt like my time was robbed quite so much as trundling through its endless corridors. The payoff was supposed to be Gran Pulse, or at least that’s what I was insistently told. After 30 or so hours I got there, saw how dull it was and finished my Final Fantasy XIII adventure forever. But about six years later I’m staring down the barrel of its second sequel - Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Having finally made it to the PC, surely the only way was up for this once great franchise?
I’ve had to do a bit of research before stepping foot in here. Final Fantasy games aren’t typically light on story, and usually throw out enough dense terminology to befuddle even the most ardent fanatics. fal'Cie, l'Cie, Nova Chrysalia, Cocoon, Gran Pulse, Manadrives, Purge, War of Transgression. It’s relentless.
As it turns out, I needn’t have bothered. Concluding chapter Lightning Returns is so far removed from the events of the previous two games, it may as well have been standalone. It’s set 500 years after the XIII-2’s ending, and protagonist Lightning has woken up from a self-imposed nap, waking up just in time to save the planet from imminent destruction.
Lightning has just 13 days to prevent the apocalypse. A ticking clock counts down on screen, serving as a constant reminder of what’s at stake. The only time it isn’t ticking is while on menu screens or fighting. Your time, then, is finite, and as such you’re only going to be able to see or do a certain number of things. Mess up too many times and there is a saving grace however - rescue enough citizen’s souls and you can add another day to the clock. As such it becomes a question of prioritising your limited time and resources. Many of the inhabitants of this world also work to their own schedules, so certain things can only be done at certain times. In this respect it calls to mind Nintendo’s at the time hugely ambitious The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
Aside from the obvious gameplay considerations, where the countdown succeeds is in lending an urgency to proceedings. Too often in RPGs we’ve been told the planet is going to end, before spending 800 hours collecting the skulls of our foes and cramming them in cupboards, buying armour for a horse that can’t even engage in combat, or catching stray chickens for a lazy farmer. In Lighting Returns you have an end-game in sight from the off, and it’s up to you to organise your time effectively to get there.
Make no mistake though, despite the over-arching end-of-the-world scenario, the plot is still every bit the gibberish-laden fare we’ve unfortunately become accustomed to. Perhaps there’s a little more to love for those who admittedly played the second game, but standing on its own two feet it can be a bit chore, delving into pseudo-religious territory that didn’t grab me in any conceivable way.
Like Final Fantasy XIII before it, Lightning Returns’ combat is a high point. I wouldn’t say saving grace because there’s still plenty else for long-time fans to like, but for newcomers it makes for entertaining fare. The Style-Change Active Time Battle system used is less of a garbled mess than its name would have you believe. It’s a fusion of turn-based and real-time, with skillful play forcing constant tactical reshuffles and costume changes depending on the ebb and flow of battle. Costume changes, you see, because Lightning has access to a number of different outfits, each of which confer various special abilities, buffs and debuffs.
For a Final Fantasy game the action is very hands-on, with constant micromanagement the key to success. I played the original two games last year and a lot of it came down to grinding levels and spamming the same attacks. Not so here. Let your mind wander and you’ll be toast, particularly during some of the devious boss battles. To my mind, this, couple with the strict time limit, makes Lightning Returns one of the most challenging Final Fantasy titles yet.
As a PC port Lightning Returns is pretty barebones, but it’s still going to be the best version of this game out there. On my 970 I ran it at 1080//60fps without any hitches, so it’s definitely serviceable enough.
If you’re reading this then I’m going to assumed you have, as a very brave soul, already played through the original pair of games. As such you sort of know what you’re getting here. In comparison to XIII it’s certainly a stronger experience, but it’s a case of whether you can stomach yet another adventure in that vein.