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 unrecognizable. 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 fifteen and-a-half 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 ten. 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.
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
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 customization screen allows you to alter the colors on every costume—though not on shields or weapons. Thus, you are usually able to match your outfit to the colors 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.
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.
By exploiting their weaknesses, you are able to break the monsters’ defenses—though this is where good planning and customization comes in. When the enemies break, each type breaks in a different way. Some lose physical or magical defense 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"
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
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 North America on February 11, 2014, and in Europe on February 14, 2014.
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