Few sequels are as different as Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is from the other titles in the FFXIII series. It has a new world and a battle system so highly modified as to be nearly unrecognisable. But when it comes down to it, these changes are all for the good as they make for a game that is simply fun to play.
The Time Limit
From the outset of the game, Lightning has a very strict time limit till the end of the world: six days. By completing the main story quests, you are able to increase this to thirteen days. As each minute in the game is about three seconds in our world, a single day lasts about 72 minutes. That's not to say the game ends after a measly 15.5 hours, however. This is because the clock is constantly stopping. Anytime you enter battle, it stops. Anytime you start a conversation, it stops. Anytime you are in a menu, it stops.
But even more than that, by spending a single EP (a special kind of point you receive as a reward after each battle), you can stop the clock for a minute of real world time. If you are in an enemy-filled area, you should be able to make that EP back before time unfreezes — allowing you to perpetually stop time.
By freezing time often (though far from as often as I could have), I was able to complete every main quest and all but one side quest by the end of day 10. So, as far as I can tell, it's perfectly possible to do it all if you are careful.
But even if you aren't careful, there's no need to worry. The game has a New Game Plus feature which allows you to take all your weapons and costumes into the next playthrough — all but ensuring you'll fly through the game on a second try.
Aside from watching the clock in general, the other key point of time management comes in the form of the game's missions. In Lightning Returns, there are three types of quests: main quests (which involve the main characters from the past two games), side quests (where Lightning agrees to help out strangers so as to gather their souls), and prayer board quests (which have no story and simply require certain monster drops to complete). Many of the missions also have a time element — either they can only be completed at certain times or will be failed if not completed within a certain time limit. Because the game is a non-linear RPG and you are able to do the vast majority of quests in any order you choose, it is up to you to manage your time correctly and race the clock. If you are like me, you'll spend the start of each day looking through the quest log and planning in advance where to go and when.
Of course, the biggest reason doing quests is important isn't simply for the sake of being a completionist. In Lightning Returns, completing quests is the only way to level up. Completing story quests gives you a massive boost in power. Side and prayer board quests, however, tend to only net you a meager single digit stat increase — though these most certainly add up over time.
But even more than the need to grow stronger, there was another need that drove me to complete every quest I possibly could: Every mission gets you at least an accessory or costume for Lightning to wear.
Playing Dress Up
When it comes down to it, it's safe to say I spent hours of my time messing around in Lightning Returns' costume customisation screen. There are dozens of costumes and nearly a hundred decorations to mix and match. Moreover, each weapon and shield has its own unique look. If you simply min-max your outfit for the best stats, you will likely look hideous. Luckily, you are able to mitigate this somewhat as the customisation screen allows you to alter the colours on every costume — though not on shields or weapons. Thus, you are usually able to match your outfit to the colours of your weapon and shield. But, I'm not going to lie. There were several times I chose a weaker shield or weapon just because I really liked how it matched the ensemble.
Moreover, as nearly all cutscenes use the in-game engine, you will be seeing your costume a lot — so it's nice to spend a little extra effort to make it look awesome.
Of course, from a gameplay perspective, the most important thing about the costumes is how they affect battle. Before heading into a fight, you equip three costumes to become your three forms in battle. To each of these you are able to equip up to four spells or attacks — though many costumes come with special attacks that you cannot unequip. Then when you go into battle, you can switch among these three costumes and their attacks on the fly. Each attack takes up a certain amount of AP. When you use up all your AP, you'll have to wait for your AP pool to refill. While it does so naturally if you do nothing, it will refill much faster if you switch to another costume. Thus, most battles are an endless chain of blocks and attacks as you cycle through your costumes.
Of course, this means, in total, you have only twelve possible attacks. And as you'll want some version of guard on all of them, that really means you have nine — although all won't be of your choosing since some will be locked to the costumes themselves. Then you have to remember that each monster has an elemental weakness or two; so you're going to want to be sure you have a variety of elemental spells equipped — or so you'd think. Instead of each monster type having its own weakness, all creatures in your current area of the world tend to share the same weakness so you don't have to switch your commands in and out after every battle. By exploiting their weaknesses, you are able to break the monsters' defences — though this is where good planning and customisation comes in. When the enemies break, each type breaks in a different way. Some lose physical or magical defence while others become increasingly weak to one single element or to status debuffs. Still, with the exception of a few random enemies, it's usually not too difficult pick a good set of attacks and have them work for the whole area.
Bosses And "Last Ones"
Where the difficulty kicks up a giant notch is with the game's bosses. To start with, there aren't many of them and they are reserved for finishing up the main quest in each of the game's four areas. They are unlike any of the other fights you will have in the game. They have devastating attacks that can take off large chunks of health even while blocking, and they love to use buffs on themselves (and debuffs on you). Lightning Returns is the kind of game where you do each boss battle (at least) twice: once unprepared where you get your arse kicked and once where you've specifically equipped Lightning based on what you learned the first time. On top of the bosses, there are the "Last Ones." These mini-bosses appear whenever you have fought a type of monster so many times they are extinct except for this "last one." (And yes. By extinct I mean once you kill the last one, monsters of that species no longer appear in that area). While these battles tend to go much faster, they are no less difficult than many of the main bosses.
What makes the bosses and last ones so hard is two-fold. First is the amount of damage they do coupled with the fact that Lightning Returns is quite stingy when it comes to healing. The only healing spell runs on EP (meaning you can only use it 2 or 3 times max) and the amount of healing items you can hold are limited (you start with five but gain a few more slots as you progress). The game gets dramatically easier the moment you get the Regen Guard ability (which turns AP into HP as you block), but even then it is far from a certain victory in these big battles.
The second reason for the bosses' difficulty is that the game works hard to level cap you at a challenging level. The game does not allow you to overlevel for the most part as quests are the only way to level up; and the ability to increase the stats on your weapons and costumes doesn't unlock till New Game Plus.
And really, the inability to upgrade equipment meant that there were loads of shields, weapons, and costumes that I never touched. Many look cool but were just too weak stat-wise to be practical.
Random Thoughts — Preorder for the Cloud Costume
I have one piece of advice for those of you planning to buy Lightning Returns: Make sure you preorder to get the Cloud Strife FFVII costume. Now, I have no doubt that many of you will be doing this anyway for your own Buster Sword and FFVII victory music. Hell, for nearly three-fourths of the game, the Buster Sword was the best weapon I had. However, why I say the Cloud costume is a must buy is because, while I have many costumes that are stronger "on paper," Cloud's costume is the single most useful costume I have found in the game. This is thanks to the fact that it has a limit break. When you break an enemy's defence, the heavy attack that is attached to the Cloud costume becomes Cross Slash. The damage increase is staggering: I went from doing 3,000 damage per hit to over 25,000 damage per hit. From pretty much the moment I discovered this, I built my costume selection entirely around this attack — and it worked quite well most of the time. In other words, this is not a costume you want to be without.
I really enjoyed my time with Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. While not a perfect game, it is definitely one that is just fun to play. Its open world and myriad of quests will likely appeal to those who felt slighted by FFXIII's previous linear design; and the battle system will no doubt make those who like their fights fast-paced and action-packed more than a bit happy. And for those of you interested in Lightning Returns but who haven't played XIII or XIII-2, I feel confident in saying that even if you don't know the backstory going in, Lightning Returns does a good enough job of filling in the backstory that it is perfectly understandable. (Of course those who have played both previous titles will no doubt get more out of it.)
In the end, Lightning Returns is by far the best of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy in terms of gameplay, and it has a story good enough to carry it from start to finish.
For more on Lightning Returns, be sure to check out the picture diary of my first few hours with the game, the game's quirky way of playing around with music, or our video where we walk you through what it is like to play the game.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII was released on November 21, 2013, for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in Japan. It will be released in Australia on February 13, 2014.