Following four years and a pair of sprawling role-playing adventures, the Final Fantasy XIII series comes to an appropriately epic conclusion with Lightning Returns. Tying up a winding tale that began with 2010’s Final Fantasy XIII, this trilogy-capper picks up 500 years after 2012’s sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2.
After assuming more of a supporting role in XIII-2, Lightning, the titular time-traveling heroine, takes center stage for the series’ closing chapter. As the pink-haired protagonist, however, players are tasked with much more than just looking good while slaying all manner of meanies in cinematic style. Sure, fans will have ample opportunity to hack, slash and spell-cast their way through pulse-pounding, screen-swallowing enemy encounters, but Lightning Returns will test their fragile psyches as much as their sharp reflexes.
For starters, the story sees Lightning saddled with the burden of saving a plague-ridden world; more specifically, she’s tasked with ushering its helpless souls into a new world before they’re crushed by Chaos in their current one. Oh yeah, and she has just 13 days to do this—no pressure or anything, though.
The title’s ticking clock isn’t just a clever narrative conceit but a constant reminder that the weight of the world—or at least its peoples’ salvation—rests on Lightning’s leather-armored shoulders. While most actions chip away at the precious minutes and time management is always on your mind, the mechanic never feels particularly punishing. Energy Points, which are abundantly accumulated while tangoing with big bads, can be invested in a time-halting Chronostasis ability, while Eradia energy—obtained through soul-saving and quest-completing—buys even more minutes on the clock.
Of course, leveraging these literal time-savers isn’t as simple as hitting a button; it’s integral, especially on the battlefield, that players create a protagonist capable of laying waste to all kinds of unholy uglies. Lightning Returns’ combat—which adopts a more action-fueled, fast-paced approach than its predecessors—isn’t partner-based, so crafting a killer army of one is key to littering the land with enemy corpses. Thankfully, the Schemata system provides all the tools needed to build the ultimate badass. While Final Fantasy entries are known for their character-customizing depth, this feature significantly ups the ante, allowing players to personalize Lightning like no previous series’ protagonist.
Combining garb—which also adds some slick cosmetic touches—with weapons, shield and other performance-ratcheting accessories creates a Schemata, essentially a super-customized skill set. Depending on player preference, these ass-kicking outfits—of which three can be brought into battle— can be fine-tuned for offense, defense or any strategy in between. Building your character as you progress is a blast, but the real rewards come from crafting varied Schemata and swapping between them during especially taxing bouts. The system is super deep and a bit daunting to grasp initially, but mastering its many nuances is half the fun.
When not tweaking your wicked wardrobe or testing it in the field, you can plan on engaging in the expected genre staples; from exploring the game’s quartet of diverse, stretching locales and tackling side quests to chatting up non-playable characters and simply soaking in the flood of fanservice, there’s absolutely no shortage of activities to keep your brain engaged and your thumbs blistered. Oh, and your eyes will enjoy the ride, too, as Lightning Returns is a gorgeous game, drenched in detail and sporting the sort of eye-popping presentation that wouldn’t look out of place on next-gen consoles.
While the beat-the-clock element and revamped combat go a long way toward defining the experience, Lightning Returns is packed with many more surprises—both significant and subtle—that longtime fans should appreciate. In fact, given the game’s depth and history, it’s probably best suited to series vets; those who haven’t sunk a hundred or so hours into the two previous games should—at the very least—take a YouTube or Wikipedia crash course to get caught up.
Lightning Returns’ narrative is a bit out there—even by the series’ wacky standards—and the pacing yields a few more lulls than I’d like. Still, supported by fantastic gameplay innovation, breathtaking production values and a massive quest that kept me up way past the wee hours, this final chapter is easily on par with its predecessors and may even represent a new favorite among fans who’ve been anxiously waiting to find out how this epic trilogy ends.
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