Lightning Returns Final Fantasy XIII is the third and final installment in the a 5-year journey.  What has always impressed me the most is how the developers have taken each game in its own direction mechanically while maintaining its thematic approach.  Lightning Returns is no different.

I will fully admit that I had a difficult time adjusting to the new style of how the game approaches you.  One of the criticisms of the first Final Fantasy XIII was that it held your hand too long in its linear beginning taking up to 20 hours before you get out into an open-world atmosphere.  Lightning Returns takes such a hands-off approach to guiding you that I wasted most of the second day trying to figure out what I was supposed to do next.  After the Prologue in Yusnaan, you are dropped off in Luxerion at the beginning of day two to begin the main quest line there.  A short time later, I could not progress the main story or any side quest further and wasn’t sure what to do. I do recall one-time suggestion to explore either the Wildlands or the Dead Dunes.  As a veteran of the franchise, I thought that I needed to finish the main quest in Luxerion before moving on.  I was wrong.  Once I started bouncing from area to area slowly bringing all the quest lines along at the same time did I begin the “leveling up” process to proceed further.  It was frustrating for me and I feel the game could have done a better job of bringing me to that conclusion.

Once I got into this groove, my frustrations melted away as I jumped from one area to another enjoying all each area had to offer.  Each of the four areas: Yusnaan (the party city), Luxerion (the holy city), The Wildlands (lush forests and hills) and the Dead Dunes (open expansive desert) provides its own sights and little quirks that make them unique.  Those idiosyncrasies played into each area’s main quest, side quest and canvas of prayers.  The main quests are your overarching story lines. Side quests are short stories carried by the people in the world and the canvas of prayers encompasses more of the collection and exploration aspects.  There was enough variety in the size and scope of all the quests to keep me interested.  What I really admired is the game tells you straight out at the beginning that it will be extremely difficult to complete all the side quests and canvas of prayers and that with the restrictions on your time, you must carefully pick and choose who you decide to save.  Though, by the end, I had completed all main quest lines and roughly 58-60 of the 66 side quests.

Square Enix made a significant change when it came to the battle system, but it wasn’t necessarily for the better.  Gone are the party and paradigm systems of the first two Final Fantasy XIIIs.  For the most part, playing as Lightning, you fly solo.  You do have the schemata system, which allows you to have three different set ups – each with its own garb, weapons and attributes.  This does allow for some semblance of strategy, but nothing like I felt I had in the previous two games.  In the past, I had to play to the strengths of my current party and as battles pitched back and forth, I had to adapt.  In Lightning Returns, once I had my preferred approach, I stuck to it non-stop, almost regardless of my opponent.  The main component to any schemata is the garb Lightning is wearing.  While playing dress-up isn’t usually my thing, I can appreciate there are a lot of choices.  The problem is that by the end of the game, I probably had 40 different garbs, but if I used more than a fifth of those, I’d be shocked.  There was plenty of customization, but sometimes, just not when it counted.

Overall, Lightning Returns Final Fantasy XIII is a solid end cap to this trilogy.  While I wished the battle system was a little more strategic and a little less frenetic, it does detract from all the other great mechanics and story delivery built into the game.  The time management, questing structure and diverse quest areas provide plenty of unique open-world experiences that will keep you enthralled throughout each in-game day.  The FFXIII-Nova Crystallis story itself may be ridiculous, but Square Enix did an admirable job in tying up the loose ends by the end and the cut scenes, as always, are splendid.  Fans of Final Fantasy may have a little trouble as I did getting my bearings, but the end result will be worth it.  Those unfamiliar to the franchise may have even more difficulty adjusting as this game does not fall directly into a genre-defined category.  Even with all these thoughts in mind, Lightning Returns is the only game of the three I have felt compelled to venture into “New Game+” after completing the game.

Lightning Returns Final Fantasy XIII is out now on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.  For the purposes of this review, I played on the Xbox 360 and completed the game in approximately 55 hours.

Lightning Returns Final Fantasy XIII Trailer