Lightning Returns is a really strange game. If you remember my “Final Fantasy as Cakes” blog, this game is definitely not a cake. It’s a Final Fantasy game where you don’t have levels, you don’t have experience, there are no party members, and you are on a time limit. It doesn’t sound remotely like Final Fantasy, and I think that if the same game was a new IP, people would be talking about how amazing it was for years. Spoilers will be unmarked and abundant from this point forward.
The game takes place at the end of the world. Not in a ‘looming threat’ sort of way, God has literally decreed that the world will end in 13 days, and you are chosen as the savior of the people, and given the ability to absorb their souls to transfer them into the new paradise. Any soul that you don’t save in the next 13 days will be forever lost. Since the God of Death has (ironically) died, the last remaining souls have been living for hundreds of years. Some are in an eternal party, some are rejecting the new world. Besides being oddly theistic in the whole presentation of the game (the most I have heard ‘God’ being used in a Final Fantasy game), it is a really unique plot. It continues with a theme for me of the games in XIII having real cool stories and themes.
The gameplay is pretty weak, with combat being a pretty major downfall. I respect that it is trying something unique with the combat, and the whole trilogy really tries to mix things up in the RPG formula which is commendable. But let’s just say that there is a reason why Quest 64 didn’t catch on. Everything else about the game is kind of cool. There is no experience and no levels as mentioned above, instead you level up by doing side quests, and fortunately those are pretty stellar. They range from the bizarre of rounding up sheep while riding your chocobo who is actually your summon who was actually a motorcycle, to the kind of Majora’s Mask style of finding out how people are coping with the literal end of the world. Each quest gives you a smattering of health and attributes, effectively leveling you up. The main quests all involve a character from the trilogy, and you figuring out how to save their soul, but instead of being a linear affair, it is much more non-traditional. There are 4 areas, 5 main quests, 66 side quests, and 13 days. The game guides you through quest one, but you can tackle them in any order across any number of days. If you do wait to complete quests then the enemies level up from the different days (providing an inherent difficulty curve), but some bosses also evolve into new forms, with different drops. I hate to say it because I loathe being put on a strict, game ending time limit, but it is really good design.
As with most games as you play you really learn the surrounding areas (how long did it take before you knew where to go on your own ship in Mass Effect?), and this game’s svelte 4 areas really helps you to get that feeling. At the start each world feels enormous, but eventually when you hear of an NPC in the commercial district you know exactly where to go. Not only that, but each NPC has their own schedule when they will be around which at many times forced me to get out a notepad to make notes of how I wanted to plan my day. Even the main characters whose soul you are saving can be seen wandering through the town after their quests are over, giving each area the feel of a living, breathing, world. It’s great!
So if you don’t get experience from fighting enemies, why fight at all? This question is at its harshest in the last dungeon of the game where you can literally ignore all of the enemies and run through to the last boss. Being God’s chosen gives you the ability to pause time by spending EP, a currency that refills each day, and refills whenever you beat an enemy. So instead of fighting enemies for exp, you fight them for time. Another ability lets you teleport to different areas instead of taking public transit (which also eats your time), so it becomes a legitimate strategy to farm up enemies to get more time to complete the game. And for people like me, the time limit is very generous on Easy mode - I completed the game to my satisfaction on day 6 of 13, just wrapping up a few multi day side quests and resting in the hotel until the final day. Another fun reason to fight enemies is because there is a limited amount of them in the game. Remember how Undertale had the mechanic on the genocide run where you fight the same area until no more enemies came? Yeah, this game did that first two years earlier. If you fight a certain number of the same enemy a pink version will spawn that is slightly stronger. Kill that one, and that enemy will never appear in the game again (and drop some sweet loot). After all, it’s the end of the world, and practically there has to be a limit to the number of monsters. I love this system, and it really adds a cool bit of narrative to the game.
This is also used in the game’s bonus dungeon, which is just 30 floors of monster lovin’. Each floor has 1 of the ‘omega’ monsters (the last of their kind) that you fight on the 14th day - so at their strongest. Usually, combat pauses the timer of the day, but in this dungeon not only does time keep rolling as you fight, you also aren’t allowed to pause time. It might not make sense if you never played the game, but it is this really adds to the feeling of a special dungeon where you are trying to rush through before you time out.
So as much as this isn’t a traditional Final Fantasy experience, it's still…pretty good? There is also a bunch of cool fanservice in it. The DLC costumes are all unlocked on the PC port, so you can dress Lightning up in different costumes from across the series, and some of them change the victory theme at the end of battle, or even unlock new attacks that are locked to that costume piece. Biggs and Wedge show up, there are bands playing themes from various games, and if you win in the arena, the crowd chants the traditional victory theme. The final boss (who has an absolutely dope design) uses a move called “Dancing Mad”. It is clear when playing the game that the people who worked on the game love the series.
All of that being said, some of my favorite parts of the game are when Lightning is allowed to be human because it happens so damn rarely in the trilogy. She always has that feeling of being a stoic protagonist who is too badass to smile, and feeling emotions will only ever hold her back, and for most of the game that’s how she is presented…in dialogue. In the menus you get to choose her costumes, as well as her accessories, she might be wearing fairy wings, or have bunny ears, a cat tail, or a moogle on her head. The gravity of many cutscenes is cut down when the game is focusing on her snakeskin cowboy hat, in a way that is very reminiscent of Saints Row 2. Outside of that, there are a few moments where the game forces her to break character, with one of them being acquiring fireworks. You find posters or talk to children that tell you the secret password for getting fireworks from chocobo girls which is something like ‘co co choco-chow’. At first, Lightning absolutely refuses to say it, but as she is forced to for side quests she quickly spits it out from the side of her mouth. Hope lambasts her for being embarrassed about it, and its really cute! She is human! Towards the tail end of the game, the walls come completely down and she shows herself as being completely vulnerable, and makes a call out to her sister and her friends that is a fantastic moment of solidifying her character, and kind of removing the ruse of who she pretends or projects herself as being. In the final (optional) cutscene, after you emerge victorious, the world is reconstructed Lightning is seen on a train. No battles left, no conflicts to get involved in, in casual clothes. And she actually fucking smiles. It is so strange to see her with a genuine happy smile on her face, but it also works as a great send off for the trilogy. Also, for what it's worth, the whole last cutscene is drop dead gorgeous, and is incredible for the time it was released. Not to be a downer, but some of the textures in game are pretty dogshit, the facial rigging is stiff, and there aren’t great transition animations between walking/running/sprinting, so the game looks pretty wonky at times, so when they pull out this movie quality FMV it's like ‘oh yeah, these games are known for being really good looking aren’t they’.
I’ll be honest: I played the game on easy because I heard it was really hard. I don’t regret it. There is enough challenge, and the story and the mechanics are worth seeing. The FF13 trilogy has always been a black sheep, and I will go to bat for any of the games any day of the week, but I wasn’t expecting to actually like this game. What’s more, like 10-2 the game asks you to do multiple playthroughs to get all the content. There are mechanics exclusive to NG+, ultrabosses that are impractical to take on the first playthrough, and even item drops that are exclusive to a new game. I don’t think I will get back into it any time soon, but down the road I could easily see coming back to the world and playing it through again.