Final Fantasy Lightning Returns: It’s the End of the World on PS3 and Xbox 360
When it was announced, Final Fantasy XIII was to be the first in a three-part saga called Fabula Nova Crystallis. This translates roughly to Fabulous Exploding Star Crystal and sounds a lot like a Sailor Moon reference. Excitement was high. Then the world ended.
Immediately after its release, XIII was criticized for being too confining and too cinematic. We know now that the second and third games, Versus XIII and Agito, evolved into XV and Type-0 as development went on. That left the future of XIII unclear.
The decision was made to develop two more games, keeping their promise of a three-part saga, and last year we got the cheery XIII-2. Now, after much speculation, we get Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
What does Lightning Returns mean to the Final Fantasy franchise? To answer that, one has to understand the merits of the game. As you may have guessed from the title, or the trailers, or the Facebook ads, or even crossover events in different games, you play as Lightning as she awakes from a 500-year sleep at the end of the world. Well, not quite.
There’s 13 days left to go, and the world is so far gone that even God has given up on it.
This god, Bhunivelze, has appointed Lightning as the world’s Savior, and has given her the unenviable task of saving the souls of as many people as she can before he implodes the universe and starts over.
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Lightning saves souls by making people happy. This means she’ll be running around doing things like examining clocks, finding lost Moogles, and fetching a kid’s ball from a roof (seriously). Why do all of these? Because in a fascinating reversal of most games, completing side quests increases your stats and fighting monsters gives you extra benefits, instead of the other way around.
In this context, every quest, big or small, is worth doing. Compare that to the strict leveling system in the first game, which didn’t allow you to level up until after passing certain story checkpoints. It’s a refreshing twist on a classic setup, yet it also echoes XIII‘s past.
The biggest twist, however, is your time limit. Lightning Returns does not kid around with the end of the world.
A clock is constantly ticking towards the end, and although the game gives you plenty of time to complete your tasks, it really doesn’t feel like it.
Time was a major element in XIII-2, giving you the freedom to jump around timelines in an endearing, Chrono Trigger type of way.
Going from wide open possibilities to just a crumbling thirteen days is jarring.
It’s a much more elegant method of making players feel confined than the “corridor syndrome” of the first game, and I wonder if that was intentional. Breaking the chains of fate and defying destiny are strong themes throughout the series.
The battle system has progressed to make single-character combat challenging. Like in XIII and XIII-2, you can change from tank to healer to damage dealer at the drop of a dime. It’s much more streamlined and easier to customize in Lightning Returns, and the designers use this to force players to think tactically.
Monsters can’t be beat easily with one attack, so spamming one button is out of the question.
You don’t want fight too much anyway, because if you defeat a breed of monster enough times, you can actually make them go extinct! It’s the end of the world for monsters, too. That’s slick design.
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All together, XIII, XIII-2, and Lightning Returns each feel like a fragment of the whole story, rather than a single game and two sequels. XIII, with its extended tutorial and restricted exploration, was Act I. That primed us for XIII-2’s time-travel shenanigans, ending Act II with tragedy. Act III is driven by that tragedy, and plows the rest of the way to the conclusion, wrapping up loose ends along the way.
Seen in this light, the Fabula Nova Crystallis saga is a better representation of the classic three-act drama than most popular games today. Taken together, the Final Fantasy XIII saga feels like a complete story, and a much more interesting one than I thought it was going to be.