Final Fantasy has gotten a little strange of late. Genocide on the planet Cocoon, fal’Cie from Pulse, l’Cie from Cocoon, the twisted Cie’th, people sacrificing themselves to save the world by turning into crystals and holding up planets, then a bizarre spin backwards and forwards through space and time rife with paradox and an admittedly dizzying plot. But just wait…we are just getting started.
**Heads up – spoilers on previous plot points.** After Serah squared off and defeated Caius, he revealed that he has slain Lightning before perishing himself, allowing a new Cocoon world to rise from the ashes of the older one. Before the credits roll we see that Lightning was actually in stasis trapped somewhere in the future in a place called Valhalla.
Lightning Returns begins on far stranger footing than the two previous titles. The world has been abandoned by the God of light, Bhunivelze, and after 500 years in stasis, Lightning has awoken with just thirteen days left on the clock. Surprisingly her job is not to save the world but to act as savior to as many souls as she can guide to a new world. It’s penance for allowing Serah to die, and our one chance to bring her back – a far worse fate than you can imagine. **End Spoilers**
Thus begins another bizarre story
In the 500 years that Lightning has spent in stasis, time has stood completely still for the world. Chaos has eaten away at the very souls of the inhabitants, leaving them bitter, shackled by despair, or downright spiteful about their situation. Lightning can save them, but only if she spends what little bit of time there is left to earn their trust, perform quests for them, or satisfy whatever else is required to free their souls. As time is short, the solemn and awful task of deciding who is saved is yours and yours alone, and you don’t have nearly enough time to save them all.
If you’ve not already picked up on it, time is a very big part of this title. Not dashing back and forth through it as you did in the previous game, but the stark realization that you have far too little of it. Saving souls will provide Eradia, or life force. You give that Eradia to the life tree and extend the amount of time you have left to complete your objectives by a small amount. You’ll need all the time you can get, because like in a certain Zelda game, the impending destruction of the world always provides incredible pressure, only now any time spent roaming is one less soul you can rescue.
The story holds itself together moderately well, though with 500 years of anger under their hats everyone is a little sour. It makes encounters with old friends melancholy as you feel for their situation, but by the time you are done beating sense back into them you’ll likely have long forgotten why they were friends in the first place.
The Paradigm Shift engine of the two previous games was very well received, pressuring players with its Active Time Battle gauge and asynchronous combat. Monsters could only be bested with careful planning of what skills you bring to battle, as well as the people who wield them. Here, Lightning is entirely on her own; no minions beyond a friendly Chocobo, no monsters, and no friends. It’s this solitude that drives what amounts to an entire combat engine rebuild.
When talking about Lightning Returns with friends I’ve been affectionately referring to the combat system in Lightning Returns as “Dolly Dress Up Time” as on the surface it appeard to be entirely based on what she was wearing. As she is the only character in combat, you can position her anywhere in the battle space while she squares off against monsters. Lightning’s powers are determined entirely by the more than 80 outfits used to create “Schemata”. These Schemata are comprised of a list too numerous to quantify of accessories, weapons, and shields as well. One outfit, shield, and weapon combination can provide mage powers, another might give you vastly improved physical combat traits. It’s as if all of the base parts of the previous few games exploded, opening themselves up to the player to remix as they see fit. A daunting and ultimately rewarding mechanic, but here’s where it gets strange again – Lightning never levels up, and she can’t heal.
In almost any game you have the option to heal yourself at any point. In Lightning Returns you have but two options – use some of the EP (energy points – you earn this extremely slowly as you engage in multiple battles) to heal your wounds, or buy potions that you can use for the same purpose. As you only have six slots to carry recovery items initially (you can eventually get up to ten), you can see how strategy and resource planning is important. Furthering that concept, SquareEnix threw in that dying costs you either a trip to your previous save file or an hour of your limited time.
An interesting, if flawed engine
Any traditional RPG would have you squaring off against enemies in a bid to raise your level and to spend points on various skills and powers. In Lightning Returns, the protagonist never levels up. Instead, she gains power and strength through rescued souls, via equipment, and more frequently through combining spells. You’ll earn the franchise staple spells like Blizzard and Fira, and in large numbers as rewards for battle. Taking them to a Sorcery shop allows you to combine the duplicates to make a stronger version of that spell. Polishing off the first boss will give you access to Level 2 spells or finding the right outfit that already has it equipped, so don’t run yourself ragged like I did trying to get them to drop in combat. Finishing side quests gives you additional time before the clock runs out, but it also gives you stat increases and equipment. It is in these upgrades that the tail wags the dog.
Quests in Final Fantasy have always been fairly linear. Lightning Returns takes the reins off and allows you to essentially go anywhere after a short tutorial section. The side quests amount to helping people overcome their despair due to their 500 years of time stasis, or finding/delivering things. Uninspiring to be sure, but serving as one of the primary mechanics to gain strength, I found myself feeling less empathy for the people I was saving and being more interested in what sort of stat boost I’d receive for their task completion. But you can’t save them all.
There are over 50 hours of gameplay, but the twist is that you cannot experience it all in one playthrough. Put simply, you cannot rescue everyone as there is just not enough time on the clock, even using time extending mechanics in the game. Picking one person with a large burden and saving them might take longer than saving five easy souls. In total there are 66 side missions and 83 “Canvas of Prayers” subquests (read: fetch or collect) in addition to the main thread. Realistically you’ll likely spend about 25 hours on a single run and on these side areas, but I didn’t feel particularly compelled to save the last 25 hours worth of people – I never felt like I connected enough with them to care about their fate or what they wanted.
Combat can be infuriatingly hard at times, but that’s only half the story. You’ll encounter creatures with strengths and weakness that you can discover via swatting them with fire, lightning, etc., with information delivered on the right trigger pull for a Libra view. In typical Final Fantasy fashion I tried to complete one entire area, which led me to fight the first boss for literally hours of retries and reconfigurations as he has 320,000 hitpoints to my 1400, but the error was actually mine. The game offhandedly remarks that you can go anywhere at any time, but it never presses you to to it. As a result I found myself backed into a corner with no way to beat this boss, leaving me with nothing but an angry pit in my stomach for Lightning Returns. Once I left this first city and started exploring the world, I found that I was enjoying the game once again…until the next boss – he has 400,000 hitpoints. You can expect to fight each boss half a dozen times before you succeed…or quit in frustration. With limited healing options and no healing magic, it makes you wonder what sort of sadist thought that this was “balanced”. Simply making Guard skills cost 0 ATB would have gone a long way, but instead you will hear the obnoxious “honking” of being out of ATB and having your character eat a face full of claw more often than the the clang of a successful block. It took something tactical and made it into something very different. I applaud the alternative approach, but it feels a bit more action oriented when what I really wanted was a pure RPG.
The Ticking Clock
Time. It’s the concept that this game hangs its hat on, and is also the very thing that hamstrings it and can make it annoying. The pressure to complete the title in a limited number of in-game days is a positive as it drives the player to advance the story, but there are tacked-on time elements that are sure to frustrate. Want a special item to move a quest to completion? Better check your watch and a walkthrough – certain vendors will only appear and sell you that item during specific times. This goes for completing goals as well, as gates within the city are only open during certain times of day. When most players don’t finish the games they start, restricting players in this fashion feels arbitrary. Factor in the ticking clock and it almost becomes punitive in nature.