When Final Fantasy XIII was still in development, Square Enix had grand plans for something called Fabula Nova Crystallis, an original fictional mythology and deific hierarchy to be shared among a collection of otherwise unrelated games. There were no plans for Final Fantasy XIII itself to receive direct sequels, but after a tepid critical reaction at release and the various delays and changes that impacted the other FNC projects (the games now known as Final Fantasy Type-0 and Final Fantasy XV), two sequels came to be; Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, both of which were developed with help from longtime Square Enix collaborator tri-Ace. Of the three games, Lightning Returns is the oddest and the most experimental. Where XIII-2 was an attempt at refining the gameplay of XIII, with largely the same combat system tied to a more explorable game world, Lightning Returns goes for broke. A new combat system with mere fragments of the original left in, an open-world design with non-linear objectives, and a clock constantly ticking down to the end of the world.
It's in Lightning Returns that the tri-Ace pedigree truly stands out. Aspects throughout are very reminiscent of the developer's PS1 RPG Valkyrie Profile; a game in which a Valkyrie has a limited amount of time to prepare for Ragnarok by sending the souls of deceased mortals to Valhalla. The premise of Lightning Returns is structurally very similar, as Lightning, who had spent five hundred years sleeping in crystal stasis as a self-imposed punishment for failing in her mission and allowing her sister Serah to die in XIII-2, is awakened by the almighty god Bhunivelze and told that due to the events of five centuries ago, the world has fallen into complete disrepair and is about to end. However, he intends to create a new world, and if Lightning does as he says, he'll resurrect Serah and allow them to be together again.
The world, or what's left of it, is in a sad state when Lightning awakens from her long sleep. Most of what was once Pulse has become engulfed by a destructive, chaotic force, leaving few regions habitable. Even worse is that, with the death of the goddess Etro in XIII-2, the cycle of death and rebirth has been halted; humans stopped aging, babies can no longer be born, but sickness and injury can still cause death. The world is filled with people that have been alive for over half a millennium, grinding through their lives as the world withers around them.
Lightning's mission in this decayed world is in essence to play Valkyrie. Having been imbued with a sort of divine power at the cost of her emotions, she must aid as many people as she can and bring them peace before the world ends. With each soul she helps, she collects Eradia, and the more Eradia that is gathered, the more days she'll have to do her work. This is important, as the game will come to a premature end if the player can't complete the main quests and gather the Eradia required to add more days to the clock. If Lightning can make it all the way to day thirteen, her mission will be complete. (And the world will end.)
Oh, but only if Lightning's mission really was that simple. Also like Valkyrie Profile, the devil is in the details. In this case, a little devil of a girl named Lumina that resembles Serah and taunts and goads her at every turn. She hints that there's something Lightning doesn't understand, something important. What that something is, however, she leaves Lightning to figure out for herself.
Lightning's story is one of mixed emotions. There's hope that she can see her sister again, but she can't feel the joy that such a reunion would bring. She can bring hope, relief, and joy to others through her actions, but these feelings are doomed to be short-lived. She wants to fulfill her mission and receive her reward, but can she even be sure that Bhunivelze will make good on his promise once she's no longer needed? Or is she needed for something else?
The constant sense of gloom, melancholy, and uncertainty permeating throughout the story and world can threaten to be overwhelming at times. It's good, then, that there are those brighter, goofier moments, whether it be Lightning's interactions with the more eccentric people she encounters or the few moments she gets playful herself. Mixed in here and there are callbacks aplenty, from the odd references to characters and events from the earlier XIII games to the Final Fantasy series in general, rarely feeling gratuitous and always welcome.
As for the actual act of playing the game, it is, again, very divorced from its predecessors. Lightning Returns uses a battle system that carries over the stagger mechanic from XIII/XIII-2, but there are no paradigms, and parties are limited to the occasional NPC helper that tags along with Lightning at select points. For the most part, it's just Lightning against the world. There's a class-changing mechanic that has her swap between different costumes that affect her abilities on the fly, each with different attacks, spells, and defensive abilities mapped to the controller's face buttons. A key to success in the game is figuring out the right garbs for the right situations. But a bigger shift, compared not just with the other XIII games but the genre in general, is the elimination of experience point-based levels.
Lightning's stat growth is tied entirely to the completion of quests. The more quests she completes, the higher her base stats for health, strength, and magic will rise. Completing the game's main quests will also expand her Energy Point gauge, which is tied to useful skills both in and out of battle, like restoring health, teleporting to waypoints, or temporarily slowing down the game's clock. It's an inventive way to handle growth, both eliminating the need to grind for experience while providing that extra incentive to do as many quests as possible within the time limit.
Speaking of which, the game's time limit is a major factor in its pacing. Each day in the game begins and ends at 6A.M. At that point, Lightning returns to her home base, dubbed the Ark, to deliver the Eradia gathered before heading back down to face the next day. The only times that the game clock isn't ticking are when Lightning is on the Ark, during battle, cutscenes, bantering with NPCs, and while in menus. This might sound stressful, but there is the aforementioned clock pausing skill Chronostasis, its Energy Point cost is low enough to spam with ease. Indeed, in a New Game +, it's easily possible to complete the game's main quests within the first seven days of game time by constantly using Chronostasis, leaving the player with plenty of time to tackle sidequests and optional activities. It's game-breaking in some ways, but that it offers that level of flexibility lets players enjoy Lightning Returns at their own pace within the defined time constraints.
Almost right from the very start, the player is given the freedom to proceed however they like. There's very little handholding, and at first the prospect of tackling what the game wants can seem daunting, but the tools are there to help the player succeed. And in the event that the player somehow makes it all the way to the final boss too underpowered to win, the game does provide an out that allows time to reset to the start, but with all of the previously acquired stat boosts retained. So long as the main quests and sidequests are completed at an even pace, the threat of triggering the premature end is minimal, at best.
If there's one technical flaw that Lightning Returns suffers from, it's the frame rate. The game's engine simply wasn't built with this sort of clockwork open world structure in mind, and it shows. I never found it truly terrible or bothersome, but people that are sensitive to framerates will likely find it more noticeable than me.
In all honesty, I can't bring myself to say much more that's negative about Lightning Returns. It is a game that I've beaten twice in quick succession; I started a New Game + mere days after finishing it the first time. Both times took me roughly 45-50 hours from start to finish according to the save file clock. It's rare enough that I jump right back into a game fresh off of beating it the first time these days, but to play the game all the way through twice, and to find it just as enjoyable the second time through? It's something truly special. Something I could easily discuss a lot more in minute detail, were I not keen on not spoiling the entirety of the game for people in this review.
And that's really how I feel about Lightning Returns. The game is special to me in ways that few are. I've already noted its similarities to another favorite of mine in Valkyrie Profile, but to simply say that this game is like that can't do it justice on its own. As much as Lightning Returns is at heart an end-of-the-world scenario, it's also her own personal journey filled with story beats that are alternate heartwrenching and heartwarming. It's the sort of game and the sort of story that speaks to me on a personal level, and I don't hesitate to call it one of my all-time favorite games, even if it hasn't been all that long since its release.
That's probably the greatest praise I can give it right there.