The heroine of Final Fantasy XIII, Lightning, has faced insurmountable odds to fight for what she believes in. She’s challenged the power of the divine, sailed across time, and now stands on the brink of the apocalypse, overlooking a decaying world with lingering memories urging her onward. In Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, the developers at Square Enix prepare to conclude Lightning’s story with an RPG that, more often than not, defies expectations.
Lightning Returns is a radically different quest than its two predecessors. Both its story and its play mechanics stride forward with little regard for the constraints binding the games before them, and the tropes that govern other Japanese RPGs.
When we first meet Lightning, our rose-haired warrior has been granted the title of “Savior” by the god of light, Bhunivelze, about 500 years after the end of Final Fantasy XIII-2. The world is crumbling under the seething weight of Chaos, and an ageless suffering has plagued its people. Bhunivelze has decided to fashion a new world and populate it with souls. Lightning must save these souls from the dying world so they might be reborn into the new.
Familiar faces, strange locales, and old threats will haunt Lightning as she strikes out into what remains of the world. And if saving humanity wasn’t enough of a burden, she only has a handful of days to fulfill her task. Lightning Returns operates on a timer, which ticks away in the corner of the screen and warns of the looming devastation enveloping the planet. Almost every action, from exploration to questing, will eat away at the amount of time Lightning has left.
This management of in-game time is a rare challenge imposed on RPG players, who generally have dozens upon dozens of hours to spend gaining levels and mastering their party. But in Lightning Returns, time is a precious resource. In fact, everything is. At the beginning of Lightning’s quest, items are expensive and tough to stockpile. Even enemies themselves are a finite resource with a limited number of each type. Lightning grows by completing quests and saving souls — not from prowling alleys for an unlimited supply of disposable critters.
The battle system is just as refreshing as these limited resources. Lightning storms into combat alone, but does so with a variety of player-built “Schemata” equipped. These Schema are like customizable job classes that Lightning can switch to mid-battle. By selecting a garb — which acts as a job template — and then choosing an accompanying sword and shield, players can build Lightning into different types of warriors. Even her four skills can be customized, including basic attacks, guards, tremendous spells, and various buffs/debuffs.
The Cold Rebellion outfit, for example, increases Lightning’s magic and total HP, and bestows her with a formidable Blizzard spell. From there, players can select a sword, shield, and accompanying powers.
Lightning can equip three Schema at a time. In combat, each Schema operates on its own ATB (Active Time Battle) gauge, and every action depletes a portion of this gauge. By switching between the three Schema, players can string attacks together and adopt different strategies in the thick of battle. It makes for a much more involved process than just “press X to attack.”
The amount of customization in Lightning Returns is staggering, to say the least. Each garb has an adjustable color pallette, and can be complemented with a host of cosmetic items for flavor. This bestows players with immense control over how they approach each and every battle. Even better: this customized clothing is also reflected on the field and in cutscenes, which can lead to both cool and comical results.
Lightning Returns emphasizes player choice much more than its predecessors, and imposes a number of intriguing limitations on the resources available to Lightning. This, without a doubt, will lead to vastly different playthroughs from player to player, and even more reason to return to the quest after its completion.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII launches on February 11th for PS3, and will conclude a story that began more than four years ago with one ill-fated girl and a train ride through Cocoon.