Lightning Returns had a lot (A LOT) going against it. The Nova Chrysalia series has not been warmly received, and it seemed that every time fans just wanted to wipe the slate clean, Square Enix would announce another sequel. While I don’t count myself among the pitchfork ready masses, I do admit to a great deal of disappointment at what Final Fantasy XIII ultimately was, and that was a game full of unrealized potential. Outside of a few bright spots the world seemed hollow, a shell of what it could've been. Final Fantasy XIII-2 sought to right some of the wrongs of its predecessor, and in many ways it succeeded. Towns were lively again, the leads were easy to get behind, and the time travel element allowed the player to bounce around to different worlds at will, much different than the extraordinarily long corridor that was XIII. While there were still some issues, it was a solid step forward for the franchise.
Which brings us to Lightning Returns, the third and final game in the series. While some may be celebrating that fact, I find myself a bit melancholy about the whole thing. Why, you ask? Well, after three games it's all finally come together, and it has me wishing this were just the first game in Lightning’s journey, and not the last.
Yeah, that last statement was probably a bit on the dramatic side. I think the cutscenes from Final Fantasy in general are starting to seep into my writing. When I give myself a papercut, I now make grunting noises and clench my fist, swearing that I’ll never feel the blow of a cut of paper AGAIN! Melodramatic dialogue abounds in this game, but that’s not necessarily a negative, as I tend to eat that stuff with a spoon. Chosen by God to be the savior, Lightning is responsible for saving as many souls as she can before the world ends 13 days from now. The reward for all her trouble is a chance to see Serah again, but Lumina would have you think differently, and she might be right. You'll encounter Lumina alot throughout your journey, and for a character who initially was drifting into annyoing stereotype territory, she surprised me quite a bit over time. Along for the ride as well is Hope, who takes on the role of Lightning's Otacon, or Oracle if you will, monitoring everything from his cool Ikea furnished Ark up in the sky, and giving her tips along the way. The cameos don’t stop there though, as you’ll meet up with pretty much everyone from XIII at some point or another, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well the cast was implemented into the story. Speaking of that, the story is actually easy to follow, unlike some past Final Fantasies. This should be commended, as some of my favorite FF's are near unexplainable to someone who's not familiar with them. It does contain some heavy religious overtones, but I don't shy away from that kind of thing, so I enjoyed the savior’s journey quite a bit.
At its heart Lightning Returns is an action rpg, one with a deep upgrade system that allows you to customize Lightning to your heart's content. The action revolves around schema, which are your customized outfits, weapons and shields, abilities, spells, etc, etc, put into one big set. Each garb contains unique abilities specific to that costume, so make sure to try them all out. You can have 3 schema active at any time, and its a pretty quick and painless process to customize them to your liking. Being able to personalize Lightning in this way really just enhanced my investment that much more, and having free reign over the button layout for my spells and attacks was much appreciated as well. The sheer number of schema options open to you help the combat stay fresh, which is important since there are way too many fetch quests in Nova Chrysalia. Turns out most people who live there are quite useless, and constantly need you to bring them their lost belongings, flowers, dogs, etc.
Normally that would be extremely grating, but because of the multiple classes and constant variables to combat, I ended up not minding so much. Combat is stellar, and the collectible rat in me (just call me Templeton) picks up everything I run across anyway, so it's all good. Combat is played out in real time, with each schema having its own ATB gauge. Depending on what you have equipped, the bars are longer, shorter, recharge quicker, start full, etc, so in battle you are constantly shifting between schema that suit your situation at the moment. Switch to vengeance to get your heavy fire spell, then switch to Huntress (yes, I renamed it, and before you ask, yes, I made her look like huntress, purple and all. Even found a mask. Truly proud of that.) to hit with blitz and deprotect, and finally switch to Quiet Rebellion to finish with a guard that can take the impact of the enemy. That is your typical battle, and there isn’t time to sit and think, only time to use your instincts and adapt to what’s in front of you. I truly enjoyed this system and hope to see it implemented in future games.
I did have some grievances with the game, for instance, no one ever tells you how to actually make money. I found that out a bit later into my run, and it would’ve helped me afford some better gear and made some battles a bit easier in the beginning. Also, while I’m not typically an opponent of random battles, they are a bit egregious here. You will never have a shortage of stuff to fight, but when trying to save your potions and get to a boss fight, it’s a real pain to have to run away from countless enemies when you're just about there, especially when in narrow and small hallways, which in some cases is just about impossible. Enemies are easier to avoid when you're on a chocobo, but that isn’t always available. Also, those damn cats! Inside thing, but you’ll see.
Alright, enough about mechanics, is the game worth buying? The answer is yes. For the first time, Lightning is the star she was supposed to be in the first place. You knew you wanted to like her, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on why you didn’t. Now you empathize with her. You always knew why she did what she did, but you didn’t necessarily care. She wants to see Serah again, and you want her to as well. Her constant back and forth with Hope is mostly about the task at hand, but for a world that is about to die, there is much more levity than I expected, and that’s a good thing. Sure, the game takes itself extremely seriously, but it's not afraid to poke fun at itself either. Lightning, slick look and huge sword in hand, having to say meow meow choco chow to get some fireworks evokes a nice laugh, and it's not the only time things get a bit jovial. She’s sarcastic, dry, occasionally funny, and gets to business when called upon. She’s more than a look now, she’s a person, and all it took was the world ending to get there. If this is Lightning's final bow, then I say the return was worth it.