Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is out today, the third and final game in what we never would have expected to become a trilogy. Jumping in could be daunting even for those who played the prior games, so I've outlined a few things you might want to know before you get started. For more detail on what I thought of Lightning Returns, check out the Shacknews review.
You Don't Really Need to Know the Story
As covered in previous reviews, the plot of the Final Fantasy 13 series is absolute nonsense. It would frequently throw out meaningless religious-sci-fi jargon to fill plot gaps, and character motivations were all over the map. The story in Lightning Returns is relatively straight-forward compared to the last few games, and doesn't really require that you be familiar with them. For the most part this story is disconnected from the others and stands on its own. Long-time fans will get the most out of seeing returning characters in this newly apocalyptic plot, but the game has enough brief interludes to keep newbies as familiar as they need to be for any new developments. However…
Best to Know the Combat Basics
Oddly, as much work as Lighting Returns does to catch up new players in its story, it more-or-less throws you in the deep end of combat. You get a few brief tutorial screens, but the battles start on the difficult end and stay at that level throughout. Veterans who have seen the combat evolve through three iterations will take to it like a fish to water, but new players might have a harder time adapting to the fast-paced approach. Equipment descriptions even occasionally refer to combat roles like "Ravager" or "Commando" from prior games, even though Lightning Returns doesn't use those terms.
Set Your Default Schemata Accordingly
It's tempting to let the coolest-looking outfit be your default Schemata, especially since it will be the one used in cutscenes. But that default setting plays an important role in combat, since it defines your starting skills. A buff- or debuff-focused Schemata can be a great help to start out a battle, while one focused more on healing would be utterly useless. Especially in the case of tough bosses, let function win over fashion.
You Can Escape... For a Price
If you find yourself in a particularly tough battle, you can use a special skill to Escape. However, each time you use it, you'll burn an hour of time in the game clock, so excessive running away will cost you precious time to complete missions. The time penalty is removed in Easy Mode, but I found some benefit to having it around. Sometimes if I needed to pass an hour or two quickly to access time-sensitive quests, I could get into some battles and Escape rather than waiting around.
You Might Not Finish, and That's Okay
If my playthrough was any indication, this isn't a game that's very easy to finish in a single run. I spent so much time exploring and familiarizing myself with the world that my game clock ran out with only one of the five Main quests completed, and the others in various stages of completion or roped behind bosses I couldn't beat. Square Enix seems aware of this, and lets you start a New Game Plus even if your first playthrough was a failure. You'll keep your stat boosts and most equipment, making the second run much easier. That structure does mean you'll repeat some content, though, so if you want to finish in one run you might want to access a strategy guide or FAQ to keep you properly on-track.
Change Your Schemata Often
Though the Stagger element is less emphasized here than in previous games, you'll need to know how to weaken enemies and render them staggered to deal serious damage--especially against tougher enemies and bosses. That will mean finding their weak spots, either by purchasing field guides or simply trying different spells and attacks until the weak points are added to your database. Once you know their weaknesses, engineer your Schemata to exploit them. If an enemy is very weak to a particular type of magic, just have that spell assigned to all three of your Schemata so you can swap between them and continue to using it while the other two recharge. Even the strongest enemies in the game are pussycats once you've staggered them, so stay focused on that aspect.
Don't Expect to "Level Up"
Traditional Final Fantasy fans might find themselves surprised, but Lightning Returns has no experience bar or points, no victory fanfare when you level up, no equipment gated behind high levels. It throws all that away in favor of mission-based stat boosts. Completing a side-quest, for example, might gain you 10 extra HP or +5 to strength. Those boosts are permanent, even if you start a New Game Plus after failing to save the world. They also stack atop each other, so completing as many missions as possible will make you very powerful--albeit through a series of incremental steps.
Take Some Time to Read the Side Quest Prompts
In a game overflowing with side quests and loot-gathering "Canvas of Prayers" missions, it's easy to succumb to the temptation to speed through the quest dialogue and just look for your mission goals. That would be a shame, though, as Square has hidden fun little nuggets inside the quests. From references to past Final Fantasy games to a wink at the short story, The Gift of the Magi, there's a lot of enjoyment to be found in the strange little tales Square cooked up.
But Remember, Main Quests Yield the Best Rewards
If you're pressed for time and need to choose between progressing in the main quest and completing side missions, always prioritize the main quests. Not only do they gain you more days--which means more time to complete side quests before the final confrontation--but they also carry much bigger stat boosts than the side quests. Some of them even give you extra slots for recovery items or special abilities. It's best to plan out your "days" by prioritizing one story mission, and peppering in side quests here and there as you find them.