Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII review: Dress to impress

The journey through Final Fantasy XIII's trilogy of games has been a dizzying one, with each game hopping between gameplay styles, lead characters and narrative arcs, seemingly on a whim. Lightning Returns manages to bring the entire messy saga to a satisfying conclusion, breaking off in a totally new direction, chucking a lot of the series' extraneous pontification and getting down to the core simplicities. Whether or not it's a "real" Final Fantasy game is up for debate, but it's a consistently entertaining, beautiful adventure that places as much importance on the mundane as it does the ostentatious: a fitting farewell for the final chapter of XIII's saga.

Lightning Returns picks up 500 years after the events of XIII-2, with the end of the world – the literal end of everything – a mere 13 days away. Lightning has been sent by the God of Light, Bhunivelze, to save as many souls as possible so that they can be reborn when he creates a brand new world on day 14. You only have a handful of days to work with when the game begins, but collect enough Eradia – the energy of souls – and God will do you a solid and give you another day. A soul is saved by providing its owner with what they need most – hope, closure, a last grasp at happiness, whatever. There are five souls in particular that Lightning needs to bring to salvation, and she'll run into plenty of familiar faces as she strives to complete her mission from God.
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Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (E3 2013)

First things first: You don't need to have played either of the other two games in the trilogy to understand or enjoy Lightning Returns. (Cheeky members of the audience will undoubtedly suggest that your pleasure will actually be increased if you skip them completely, but let's not digress.) Some of the nuance of relationships and historical events will be lost on you if you're a complete newcomer, but you'll be more than able to get the gist of who did what to whom just by paying attention to the main storyline. The majority of Lightning Returns stands on its own as the citizens of the world struggle to come to terms with the end of days, making it very accessible for newcomers. The ending won't be quite as poignant or moving if you don't know Lightning's past, of course, but your overall enjoyment won't be terribly diminished.

Your mission to save as many souls as possible will take you through four regions of Nova Chrysalia, which you are free to visit in any order once you've gotten the Main Quest rolling in the city of Luxerion. Each region has its own pieces of the Main Quest, as well as numerous side quests waiting to be found. Although you're racing the clock – which looms large in the upper corner of your screen, lest you forget that you're on borrowed time – completing quests, even small ones, is vital to your success in Lightning Returns, because they are what increase your stats. In a twist on the typical RPG model, killing monsters is only indirectly responsible for improving Lightning's capabilities. Killing monsters nets you stuff like skin, teeth, and eyes, which you'll turn in to complete quests that will increase your health, strength, or magic as reward. There is no leveling up in the traditional sense, but rather a loop of accepting quests, killing monsters and turning in items. The more you do, the more formidable Lightning becomes, but there's a slight catch: There are more quests available than you can probably complete in the time at your disposal, especially as some can only be completed during certain times of day, which means you'll have to have a somewhat selective eye when choosing what to pursue.

The combat of Lightning Returns takes a completely different approach than the previous two games in the trilogy, sending Lightning onto the field of battle totally alone. That's not to say she doesn't have options, however; Lightning can access three different combat styles – called Schemata – at any time during a fight. Each schemata is tied to a specific costume (called "garb") that not only has a distinct visual style, but also has different boosts or abilities. One might be particularly well-suited for fire attacks, while another favors debuffs or increased strength. Some of the most powerful attacks are only available via a specific piece of garb, so choosing how to outfit Lightning is more than just an aesthetic choice. That said, if you don't appreciate having your heroine run around in some of the more revealing options (that girl must use plenty of double-stick tape), you can almost always find another costume that will provide similar abilities and stats.

There are something like 80 different pieces of garb, not to mention slots for accessories that provide even more stat buffs, and one more for something purely cosmetic like a top hat. The different pieces of garb provide loads of flexibility, allowing you to create exactly the right trio of combat styles for any given situation, but more than that, it's just plain fun to tinker with each set up, mixing and matching weapons, shields, costumes and accessories. Prepare to spend a lot of time obsessing over what Lightning is wearing. I mean, a LOT.

Though it takes a little while to get used to, the combat of Lightning Returns is immensely satisfying, allowing you to switch between schemata so quickly that you can swing an upstroke with your sword in one costume and come down in another. Switching between costumes is instant, effortless, and important: Each garb has its own ATB meter, which diminishes as Lightning performs actions like casting spells or attacking. Once the meter is empty, she's helpless, but so long as the garb isn't active, its meter will recharge. Successful combat, especially the arduous boss fights, will require strategic switching between garb, allowing meters to refill while you press your attack. Staggering an enemy by continually pummeling at its particular weakness is key to swift success, and in some cases crucial to doing any damage at all.

At first, the ebb and flow of Lightning Returns' fast-paced combat is difficult to parse, but a few hours' trial and error will expose the nuances and reveal its depth. This is not a game that allows you to just hammer away on a single button in the hopes of bulling your way through to victory. The complexity of the fights keeps them interesting throughout the duration of the game, even when you're felling your umpteenth gremlin.

Lightning Returns is crushingly difficult at times, but never unfair, and its story is just the right amount of restrained, starting with a simple mission that becomes more complex the more Lightning learns. It's a well-balanced mix, but the constant shadow of the ticking clock creates a sense of urgency that some might find frustrating. Of course, that's the entire point – no time for lollygagging at the end of the world – but anyone afflicted with Quest OCD may chafe at the restrictions. Once time runs out, you're off to the final boss no matter what loose ends you've left lying around, though New Game Plus offers a chance to try again. (A notable exception is if you fail to complete the Main Quest, in which case it's back to Day 1.)

Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 had some serious missteps, but Lightning Returns ends on a strong note by sticking to what really matters: great combat and a story you want to see through. No gimmicks, no tricks, no convoluted treks through time, no cliffhangers, no tunnels – just one last trip around the world with a pink-haired heroine, and then a fond farewell.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, provided by Square Enix. Images: Square Enix.

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