In this third and final entry to Square-Enix's Final Fantasy XIII video game series, players once again take control of original FFXIII protagonist Lightning in the role of "The Savior."
Tasked by God to lead as many souls to salvation as possible before the world ends, not even she can save this mildly unsatisfactory title.
However, the game is not exclusively disappointing. In fact, some of the franchise-unconventional leaps and risks make it, at minimum, a game worth checking out. These elements are especially highlighted during combat. Unlike the party-based system that the franchise has employed since day one, players exclusively control Lightning, executing abilities and defending against enemy attacks in real time. Because of this intense change to traditional turn-based combat, players need not only be alert, but also must pay special attention to timing and positioning. It adds an extra challenge, but also unintentionally promotes button mashing - a tactic that will leave Lightning vulnerable to anything that comes her way and can lead to a premature game over for players.
Taking obvious inspiration from Final Fantasy X-2 (a.k.a. "Pretty Yuna's Dress-Up Game"), Lightning Returns alters character roles as established in the original FF XIII game with "schemata". Schemata is, for better or for worse, a series of customizable outfits that Lightning can wear that affect not only her stats, but also her available abilities. Swapping from one to the next (to a max of three active schemata) is done quickly and at the tap of a button, making for some high-strung, active combat. Unfortunately, it can also get confusing and it's easy to become overzealous with making changes on the fly.
Another leap the game takes is how it emphasizes time. Literally a race against the clock, players are only given so many in-game hours to complete tasks that are both required and optional. While this does mean that every second spent counts, it also limits what players can do. Exploration and side questing, while rewarding, is done so at the detriment of the clock. The game's five main quests can be completed comfortably by day 10 (of 13) with light side questing done on the side. Whether or not the game can be satisfactorily completed with anything more than moderate side-questing is a big question.
Visually, Lightning Returns sits right along side Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 with its in-game graphics and presentation. This includes the vast difference between pre-rendered CG sequences and actual in-game visuals. In terms of audio, the soundtrack is mostly forgettable (though there is some FF fan service that can be found). Voice acting seems sometimes forced, but overall is not too shabby. It's just too bad that the story itself is a bit of a joke.
While an alright end to the FF XIII story arc, the plot of this third game is convoluted and feels more like a spin-off than a canon sequel. Thanks to transparent storytelling, weak leaps in logic and a poor choice of supporting main cast (Hope), the story of Lightning Returns will kill whatever investment players have in the arc's tale. It's a shame.
Like that "C" student at school who does just well enough to pass, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII simply doesn't post high enough grades to be anything worth noting. There was a lot that could have been done with this title. While the experimental leaps Square-Enix made are appreciated as a one-time thing, none of the half-baked implemented ideas are worth exploring further - at least not as they were executed this time around.
Those who are looking to experience the end of the Final Fantasy XIII story might as well check out Lightning Returns. Those who are not quite so invested in the series might want to save themselves from this game. After all, there are only so many hours in the day.
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Rating: "T for Teen"
Score: 2.5 out of 4
Game software provided by Square-Enix.