lightning-returnsTrilogies can be opportunities to tell large, over-arching stories with more depth then a single installment over could. Continuity between each film/book/game/etc is one of the things that keep people coming back. This is something that Square Enix has largely missed in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, the final installment in the XIII trilogy. The stories themselves, while having threads that tie them together, seem to come together incoherently, plus core gameplay mechanics have been overhauled yet again in an attempt to end the XIII series with a bang. Despite some flaws, Lightning Returns is an enjoyable game that delivers closure to the Lightning story arc.

Whereas you could leisurely stroll through the previous two games, this time around time is of the essence. Literally. Set 500 years after XIII-2, the world is about to end and there’s nothing Lightning can do about it. So it’s up to her to save as many souls as possible before the Chaos unleashed at the end of the last game consumes the world. Said world is completely different due to the Chaos and consists of four main areas that she must traverse in order to uncover quests and advance the storyline. This time concept is a total departure from previous Final Fantasy games and more akin to what is found in Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. It’s also different in that the game gives you very little guidance and throws you into this massive world, unlike in the first XIII.

lightning-returns-environmentThe quest system is what drives Lightning to explore and are one of the core gameplay mechanics. There are 5 main storyline ones that must be completed, but there are dozens of side quests to fill the void between the main ones. However, in an added twist completing them is what helps you increase your stats, not traditional experience points, so finishing them is essential to getting strong enough to face later bosses. With this leveling system, it tends to decrease the importance of normal battles and make the boss ones more difficult since there’s really no way to directly influence Lightning’s development. So you’re often forced to face bosses when you might not be fully ready. The main quests often force you to wait until a certain time of day to progress, so you can kill time by finishing them. Some get you invested, but more often then not, they’re of the ‘fetch’ variety. However, don’t think you get 100% completion on a single playthrough since the in-game clock that counts down serves as a constant reminder that time is running out.

Things aren’t totally new as characters from the previous two games figure into the plot, the most important of which is Hope, who acts as a guide as he provides support and advice from The Ark, which acts as a sort of home base. Though not as annoying as he was in the XIII, his constant reminders about time and where you need to go can be grating. Even more so is the fact that he automatically transports you lumina-lightning-returnsback to the Ark at 6am, regardless of whether you’re in the middle of a quest. Lightning herself isn’t that endearing as she remains single-minded in her quest and can be a bit too stoic at times while not undergoing that much character development. Perhaps the best character in the game is Lumina, a black-clad Gothic Lolita-ish doppelganger of Serah, who taunts and goads Lightning at several points during the game.

Alongside the finite amount of time to complete the game, the biggest addition is the Schemata system, which replaces the Paradigm one from the previous two releases. Lightning is the only playable character, but don’t worry about having one instead of three to tackle enemies. She can equip three costumes, or ‘Garb’, and they are fully customizable from weapons and abilities right down to color. They can be geared more towards specialized roles or given a bit of several, meaning battle options are numerous. The player can switch between each of the set 3 lightning-returns-schemataseamlessly in battle, which is necessary since each Garb has an ATB gauge that decreaes as you you abilites and must be given time to recharge. While this may not matter that much against regular enemies, the boss encounters are where the system shines as it keeps you lightning-returns-schemataon your toes and forces you to be strategic as you build up Staggers and try to keep pace. It does take some time to get used to this, which can cause some early problems and make the game seem harder at first. While there are some special Garbs that let Lightning dress up as Cloud, Yuna or even one that’s inspired by Locke, a number of them tend to be on the skimpy side which seems at odds when she’s fighting enemies.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII brings the Lightning story arc to a conslusion, though at times it’s not always done smoothly. The time mechanic adds a sense of urgency, but at times leaves you feeling rushed and series veterans will find the leveling system bizarre. The story fits in well with the other convoluted plots of the XIII sub-series. This may all sound like a jumbled mess, but there’s plenty to do amidst the wide variety of locales, with a number of quests being fun and rare items to discover. Plus the boss battles are a highlight and much better then in previous XIIIs. The game won’t please everyone and some may harp on certain shortcomings, but that would miss out on the full experience Lightning Returns has to offer.