Saviour or sinner? It’s the question at the core of Lightning Returns, which brings to an end the divisive XIII trilogy, and is as relevant to the game itself as to its rose-haired heroine. Square Enix’s trailblazing brand of JRPG visibly lost its way during the previous generation of hardware. There was the rocky launch and successful relaunch of FFXIV, intermittent showings of Versus and, not least, the polarising Final Fantasy XIII and its sequel. Lightning Returns is a magpie offering of elements picked from all of the above and is further evidence that Final Fantasy is mired in an identity crisis.
In structure, Lightning Returns is a hybrid of RPG and time-attack challenge, reminiscent of Dead Rising, of all things, as you race against the clock to tick off objectives before each day ends. The elaborate, convoluted premise is that Lightning is now on a mission from God with just days to save the world’s inhabitants. To do so, she must perform as many good deeds – and batter as many randomly generated foes – as possible to both feed Yggdrasil, the tree of life, in order to briefly delay the end of days, and to ensure as many souls as possible ascend to the next life.
In gameplay terms this translates to an in-game clock which counts down as you to and fro across the main regions of the map. Saving souls is merely an extravagant way of asking you to complete traditional fetch quests, and while there’s a heaving portfolio to choose from it’s a setup that demands both time and patience, neither of which are accommodated by those ticking hands in the corner of the screen. The big countdown was presumably conceived to encourage strict time-management – perhaps a solution to complaints about all that time-wasting in the original FFXIII – but it ultimately creates a sense of panic as you scramble through your first playthrough, balancing the main story with your own private gigs.
Though the map is varied and expansive, with a rail system linking each location, it never feels convincingly open or organic in its design. You enter each area greeted by NPCs itching to tell you what to do next and with returning character Hope – just as blandly one-dimensional as he ever was – incessantly chatting in your ear about where to go and why. It’s an oppressive level of narrative hand-holding that echoes the sense of a walled-in, faux-open world that mired the previous two titles in this series. Though never as linear as XIII’s exhausting opening hours, nor as stylistically disjointed as XIII-2’s time-hopping shenanigans, there’s still a sense that you’re being funnelled and fenced in by Lightning Returns’ designers, with gated, time-sensitive areas blocking off routes in many locations. The story is as inconsistent and baffling as the map design, with expository scenes attempting to make sense of the game’s heady mash-up of science fiction, Judeo-Christian themes and Greek mythology, and the burden of the previous titles’ muddled lore setting a daunting barrier to entry for newcomers.
Fortunately, the moment-to-moment gameplay is far more successful in its amalgamation of different styles, and is where Lightning Returns shines. The revised Active Time Battle system has been accelerated to the point where the game’s random battles almost feel fully realtime as Lightning, now the sole playable character, spouts one-liners that wouldn’t be out of place in Soul Calibur, bobbing and weaving on the battlefield like she’s wandered into a Power Stone stage.
This revised system is the beating heart of the game, introducing a dynamic style-swapping mechanic which entirely justifies the controversial removal of teammates and squads. This is ATB streamlined and strengthened, not dumbed down or reductive as many had feared. Your three core styles are dictated by Lightning’s customisable outfits, dubbed Garbs, and there are hundreds to formulate as you choose everything from sword and shield to hat and tail. You’ll spend hours mixing and matching, looking for that sweet spot of aggressive, defensive and magic Garb to rifle through as you take down your typically bizarre roster of opponents. When you’ve amassed a strong knowledge of the enemies found in each region (through trial-and-error and studying your enemy log book), Lightning Returns can feel more like Monster Hunter with trendier outfits, which makes it even more of a shame that the gameworld is so restrictive and cordoned off.
Sadly, that fresh new take on combat is hamstrung by a camera that can’t keep up with the elaborate effects, animations and blistering speed. Combat tends to be multi-directional, and as a result you’ll frequently receive cheap shots from offscreen foes. Ultimately the pros of ATB outweigh the cons, giving players an unprecedented sense of authorship over their character and involvement in the flow of a duel. But it also offers something grander and more important in its immediacy and accessibility: a glimmer of hope for the future of the franchise.
Across three separate games the XIII trilogy has delivered three diverse experiences. None have felt coherent or consistent in their vision, and none have managed to unite the holy trinity of story, systems and style which the very best of this series has achieved in generations past. Final Fantasy remains trapped in limbo, then, but at least it now has all the right moves to fight its way out.