Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII review: striking distance
After two games of a beautifully designed battle system buried underneath poor level design and an incomprehensible plot, Lightning Returns feels like the game this series was always meant to be. It refines what worked in those previous installments, and sheds nearly everything that was weighing it down. It's fast-paced, action-focused, and to my pleasant surprise, offers relatable character motivations and a digestible story. The result doesn't always hit its mark, but it comes closer than the series has in years.
Following the events of Final Fantasy 13-2, Lightning awakes to find a world in which everyone is immortal but unable to produce new offspring. People can still be killed, so the population is slowly dwindling, and world is going to end from a heavenly cataclysm within a matter of days. The omnipotent being Bhunivelze (but referred to frequently as simply “God”) has recruited Lightning as "The Savior," to redeem as many souls as she can in order to populate a new world. As part of the deal, he's promised to revive Lightning's sister Serah, and Lightning approaches the de facto ransom with no small amount of trepidation and mistrust.
It's a simple enough premise, and gives us all the information we need to know about our hero's goals. Though the plot twists and turns around her, we always know exactly what she's fighting for--a vast improvement over prior games in which characters seemed to serve as mere props with shifting motivations of convenience. The story as a whole remains much more simple and understandable, and only dips into the convoluted or overwrought when it’s forced to acknowledge some dangling plot point from the previous games.
As a conceit to the plot, the bulk of Lightning Returns involves fighting a constantly ticking clock. One day equals only an hour of game time. The number of days can be extended by doing five story-based Main quests. Side-quests and loot-gathering “Canvas of Prayers” missions complement the Main quests, and every completed mission grants a small stat boost. Rather than leveling up in a traditional manner, the stat boosts stack atop each other, a smart design choice that emphasizes how important it is to complete as many missions as possible.
I found the pacing awkward at first, especially since the game threw me into the deep end. The wealth of options meant I had to find my bearings, and it took me a few "days" of game time to get a steady rhythm between the main missions and side-quests. The sense of urgency spurred on the by the ticking clock had the unfortunate side-effect of discouraging exploration, since I felt the days bearing down on me.
Though the main story only consists of five missions, each of them are fairly lengthy and usually come with a difficult battle or two. I was unable to finish the game on my first playthrough, thanks to being stymied by various bosses. The days ran out and the world ended--I'm an awful Savior. Square seems to have accounted for this eventuality by providing a New Game Plus option, which can be used even after abject failure. That let me retain my existing stat upgrades for a second run, which proved much easier with the leg up.
It's a smart workaround, but it also means Square must have known that finishing on the first try is difficult. I'm sure it's possible, but would probably require some level of foreknowledge about what to do and when. That means players might, like myself, find themselves failing the first playthrough to bring their stats into a second, and repeating some of the quests as a result. I found myself annoyed at that particular design decision, even if the feeling quickly faded as I sped through the missions I had already completed and felt much more empowered for the ones that had tripped me up.
It's easy to forgive problems like that when the combat has always been and remains such a strength for this series. After refining the battle system for 13-2, it's gone through yet another slim-down. Lightning herself is now the only combatant throughout most of the adventure. She's responsible for each battle role herself, making combat an even more frenetic exercise in juggling roles to stagger an enemy. Attacks can be queued, but issuing commands one at a time makes it feel like a uniquely RPG-inspired action game.
These roles are defined by her "Schemata," a more flexible version of FFX-2's Dress Sphere system. Outfits might lend themselves more to one role or another, but all of them have slots free to plug in whatever skills you might want. Only three Schemata can be equipped at a time, and combat consists of swapping from one to the other quickly while the unused ones refill. It's a remarkably robust system that makes use of both its RPG roots and newfound action chops.
Square has imbued the wide variety of outfits with some creative applications of their own. Some give benefits you might expect, like boosts to magic or strength. But with dozens of outfits available, some really reward catering your strategy around them. One restores your battle gauge with each enemy defeated making it ideal for crowd control, another restores HP health if you attack enemies that have status ailments, and a handful of others give special buffs if you swap them after draining their gauge almost completely.
The environments are just as varied. Though most of the game takes place across only four areas, all of them are large in their own ways. The Wildlands and Dead Dunes are each expansive pieces of land teeming with wildlife, while the cities of Luxerion and Yusnaan are densely populated with quest-givers and hidden nooks around every corner. All of them give great reason to explore, seemingly a direct answer to criticisms of the first installment’s narrow corridors.
In effect, that's what Lightning Returns is as a whole. Square seems to have taken critiques of the first two games to heart and corrected them. Gone are the oppressively limited environments and the convoluted stories. In their place are a large world, clear story, and the latest refinement of what was already among the most radically inventive combat systems to hit JRPGs in years.
Though the new emphasis on time management raised some of its own unforeseen hurdles, those are easily overshadowed by the high points. The first two games were defined by missed opportunities that overshadowed their strengths. I was relieved to find that Lightning Returns, at long last, lets its great qualities outshine the weak spots. 
The Savior takes down a ferocious beast
This review is based on retail PS3 code provided by the publisher. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is now available on PS3 and Xbox 360 for $59.99. The game is rated T.