3rd and last episode of a polemic trilogy, Lightning Returns has to make an impression to conclude effectively the Lightning Saga. This newest game does indeed a U-turn in many aspects, although without avoiding skidding in others.
The progression system is as unique as unforgiving : the end of the world happens in 6 days, and Lightning has to free as many souls as she can before the apocalypse to send those in the world that will be created after. Yep, that’s 6 and not 13. When starting the game, you have only 6 days. But after you accomplish a certain number of quests (main or secondary), a day will be added after the current one.
The system is really disturbing at first, because you naturally want concrete results, which is impossible because the main objectives (and numerous secondary objectives) are achieved in the long term ( 2 or 3 days for a main quest for example). In Lightning, you have to think completely out of the box : it is no longer level 1 → boss 1 → level 2 etc. Trains take you whenever you want as soon as you arrive on town. You can start Luxerio’s main quest from 10 pm to midnight, taking on Yanusaan’s for the rest of the night, and resume Luxerio’s the following morning while completing sidequests when under way. You are totally free, not to say left on your own.
Quests are extremely demanding in terms of search. You have very little help from the game, you are no longer guided like in the previous episodes. Lighting Returns thus avoids this questionable tendancy modern games have to put you on rails. And believe me, that feels extremely good, because nothing is more satisfying than achieving something with your own efforts. You’ll also need a rock-solid organisation, because every single quest depends on the time of the day. You will infiltrate a palace at 6 pm, chase Noel from 0 to 6 am, be at the chemist’s by 5 pm, etc. Lightning Returns’s largest aspect is therefore time management. Like in an Atelier game but in REAL TIME : you have to think fast. The four environments are dense and quite large : cities are full of little secrets and wild areas are so huge that it’s easy to get lost. Quests are extremely varied : many will involve hunting monsters, but in numerous occasions you will be asked to to accomplish weird tasks like a race into town, checking clocks, healing a chocobo, trying medicine… In short, the game feels as rich as Xenoblade, maybe even more.
This approach is so opposite to what has been done before that long-term fans of the series might be taken aback. It’s a long series of tries and error, you’ll have to reload your save many times… but it’s equally rewarding at the end.
From a technical point of view, the 3D engine is clrealy getting a little old 4 years after FFXIII. Textures are not as good as in FFXIII-2, aliasing is rife, but the level of details turned out to be satisfying. The general design is original and fascinating. The architecture is crazy and impressive, the night atmosphere is downright scary and towns are busier than ever in Final Fantasy. Like always, character modeling is superb, even for secondary characters. The problem with all that is that you come across some framerate drops time to time (not that bad). The OST is good but quite less than the one of FFXIII-2. Background music is especially effecient, and I was truly happy to welcome back the traditional victory fanfare.
Unexpectedly, the battle system is much different from what I experienced in th demo at the Japan Expo (light spoiler above). The Break system is gone. Instead, you’ll perform «KOs» that leaves the opponent unbalanced for a second. Spamming magic is one of the way to trigger the KO, but not only. Attacking and guarding at a given time will also do it. Up to you to observe the behaviour of the enemy and find out. But there’s a snag : KO doesn’t necessarily mean you deal more damage, which makes some battles ridiculously looooooong and tiring. Not not mention that the ATB bar is veeeeery slow. It’s so bad that you often only have one action after each role switch when the battle gets long. The guard is even worse because it consumes a great deal of the bar, so you’re sitting ducks when at the end of a series of actions. I’ll let you imagine how irritating this can get when affected by slow (I don’t want to remember). In normal mode, each defeat costs one (precious) hour, which would be OK if super-powerful monsters couldn’t suddenly pop from nowhere and OHKO you.
Fighting is pretty tough in Lightning Returns : Lightning’s HP no longer recover after battle, and healing is very limited. You’re only allowed to carry 6 (later 9) healing objects! Apart from that, you can replenish your HP in hotels and restaurants, or use your GP. But the latter can be used to alter time, so you definitely don’t want to use them for cure. Bosses in main quests are pretty intense fights, great gaming moments. I’m pretty sure it would have been far less interesting in easy mode.
Even more unexpectedly, you do not earn experience points in battles! Lightning’s stats increase each time you achieve a quest. It’s also possible to grow stronger by buying new outfits, which roughly correspond to the paradigms in the previous episodes. However, really powerful garbs are well hidden, only available at certain hours in certain places. Here lies the big problem of this game. I can’t beat the final boss, and I struggle like mad to clear the «trials» supposed to double my stats. After a dozen of utter defeats, I decided to throw the towel. OK maybe I’m just a noob, but in any other JRPG I would just go back in the previous dungeon to get some more XP. Not here : it’s the final hour and I can’t leave to final room. True, there’s a cristal that allows me to start a new game + with all my stats, by which at should be OK in a second run. But I do reckon I shouldn’t be forced to restart everything in order to finish my game. I have a fu** pile of JRPGs in my backlog and I can’t afford to redo 50h.
A quick word about the story : the XIII series is alreay upside down on that aspect, and Lightning Returns at least does a good job in doing the connection with the DLC «The Requiem of the Goddess». Outside of that, the scenario isn’t really exciting, whereas FFXIII-2 was quite effective in its rythm, suspense and emotional aspect. Ironically, the sidequests told better stories. As a sidenote, let’s stress that you can post screenshots via twitter. The resolution is pretty dumb, but it’s still quite nice.
Lightning Returns is representative of th XIII series : a very good JRPG whose (great) qualities aren’t enough to forget its (annoying) drawbacks. Its progression system is unique and exciting, its environments are rich and fascinating. I do believe it is really worth a shot despite the ailing battle system and the apathetic story. Final Fantasy will have definitely missed something this generation, let’s hope it finds it in the next.