Sequels are commonplace in the gaming industry, with many new releases spanning into their own trilogies and earning themselves a multitude of instalments. The problem is, jumping into a series from the second or third game means the player may be out of their element regarding the story plot details and other mechanics fans of the series will know and love.
The Final Fantasy series is highly regarded for providing some of the best stories in the industry, which may make the release of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII seem overwhelming for new players. Last year I experienced my first batch of JRPG titles and have now experienced my first Final Fantasy adventure, with that being said was my experience hampered by the lack of knowledge of the series or the absence of experiencing the first two entries in the Final Fantasy XIII sub-series?
Over the following editorial I will express my opinion on Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII based on the experience of a newcomer to the series. Is the narrative easy to understand? Does the writing do a good job at expressing past events? And most importantly, is this an experience a newcomer to the series will appreciate?
The most important aspect when jumping into a series near its conclusion is the narrative, is it possible to truly understand the plot that is unfolding in front of you? Lightning Returns does a fairly decent job at explaining the events of the first two entries in this Final Fantasy sub-series, clearly stating the biggest moments that have affected our protagonist, Lightning. With that being said, Lightning Returns bears a striking resemblance to Mass Effect 3’s introduction of past characters. In both games the player revisits old characters that have been pivotal throughout the story. Lightning Returns contains an extended class of acquaintances throughout the 35 plus hour adventure, with most appearances falling flat for new players.
These characters are introduced briefly, giving newcomers a general outline of who this character is and how they affected Lightning. Due to the lack of knowledge of these characters and the brief description of their connections, I found embracing these characters to be a tough experience. Not only do some of Lightning’s previous friends look to battle with Lightning, but some appear for such a short amount of time that their presence becomes forgettable. It is up to the player to fill in the blanks and assume how Lightning is connected to these individuals, but aside from the first introductions these moments featuring old characters are all pushing the plot forwards, rather than focusing on the past.
The main narrative thread is one many can relate to, at its crux it is a tale of loss and the measures one must go to in order to bring that person back. Though these circumstances are above anything reality can provide, the thought of losing someone and the length of which one would go to save them is something we can all understand. Lightning has been given a chance to bring back her younger sister Serah, which has been given by God himself. He has entrusted Lightning to use her new found abilities to ‘save’ the souls of as many people as possible before the end of the world takes place in 13 days. In exchange for completing this task, Lightning will have her sister returned from the afterlife.
The loss of Lightning’s sister affects her deeply, but the loss of Serah has greatly affected each individual in different ways. Many people deal with loss in different ways, some becoming bitter towards the world, some seeking seclusion, and some hoping to move forward. Experiencing how each character is dealing with these events from the past was one of my favourite aspects of Lightning’s story. Though my connection may have suffered due to each character’s short appearance, showcasing their emotions towards the situation at hand helped humanise their character. Although the lack of knowledge may hinder Lightning Returns’ success at hitting home the emotional resonance of the plight at hand, the simple idea of loss allowed myself to quickly understand what was at stake. Though the story definitely includes in-depth aspects that will benefit past players, newcomers are able to resonate with this tale and get behind Lightning’s endeavour to return those she has lost.
Although understanding the story is definitely the strongest hindrance of jumping late into a series, there are still some simple factors to consider. Is this series worth experiencing? Will it satisfy my expectations of the genre? And perhaps even more important, is this a good game?
JRPG aficionados will notice some vast changes to the usual battle experience, one of those aspects is the lack of experience altogether. Battling the extensive array of beasts in Lightning Returns will not provide experience that will increase your characters abilities; the idea of grinding enemies to become stronger is a thing of the past. Instead, Lightning Returns emphasises the idea of completing side quests, which will provide an increase in health, attack and magic abilities. If grinding enemies for countless hours was one of your main loves of the Final Fantasy series, you will definitely find this new concept foreign. These new features do work well though. Coupled with the emphasis on time, players must manage their time accordingly in order to utilise each moment to complete as many side quests as possible; which will provide a stronger Lightning in the process.
This new emphasis does have its drawbacks, since most of these side missions are quite repetitive. These quests are your typical fetch, collectathon, escort, and kill a certain number of an enemy type missions. They are not groundbreaking, and for the most part they are forgettable. To defeat the main story quest bosses throughout Lightning Returns, completing side quests is a must. It is simply too difficult to defeat these enemies without clearing these tasks, which is something to be considered for those expecting your typical JRPG design.
The departure of experience from battles is disappointing, since the battle system in Lightning Returns is enjoyable, fast-paced and in-depth. Battles throughout Lightning Returns are some of the greatest moments within the experience. The more battles you face and the tougher enemies you encounter continue to slowly peel away the multiple layers of depth this battle system includes. Players are able to customise three Schemata’s for Lightning to use in each battle, which are simply different costumes that contain different abilities and stat increases which can be switched during battles. Utilising the correct magic and attacks moves, alongside adornments that can increase various aspects of your Schemata can result in some deadly loadouts.
I lost countless hours customising my Schemata to make sure I was getting the most out of Lightning’s abilities, which allowed each different Schemata to feel unique. One of your Schemata may focus on physical damage, while another debuffing your enemy, and another centered around magic use. Each beast you encounter has their own strengths and weaknesses, which means making sure your Schemata’s on hand can tackle each situation is extremely important. Enter a huge battle with the wrong set-up and you will encounter an embarrassing defeat, which in-turn will force you to waste an hour of precious time that could have been used to complete more side quests. Though Lightning has the ability to stop time for a certain period using EP earned from battles, losing against enemies will see that time lost forever.
The reliance on time and the emphasis on making sure each moment is used to increase Lightning’s power means losing battles can hurt your character in the long run. The absence of experience may seem strange to begin with, but once you have truly understood the consequences of the new system, it becomes apparent that it has been designed well. There is a never ending cycle of utilising time for side quests, while battling to increase your EP meter, which will in-turn allow you to stop time in order to do more side quests. It is an overwhelming system to comprehend at first, but once understood it becomes one of Lightning Returns’ biggest selling points. Throwing away the typical JRPG formula was a risk, which gratefully provided a unique experience that differentiated itself from the norm.
After this extensive report, I must finally answer the question: Is Lightning Returns a good experience for a newcomer to the Final Fantasy XIII series? Yes, I think it is.
These new battle systems are brilliant and the emphasis on time management an intriguing concept, though the side quests themselves are less than entertaining. The Lightning Returns narrative itself provides an experience new players can relate to and understand. Lightning Returns may not eclipse some of the memorable JRPG tales from 2013 (Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, Tales of Xillia), but it provides closure for those players who have followed the Final Fantasy XIII story and an entertaining standalone adventure for those new to the sub-series itself.