Review: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

The Final Fantasy XIII series tends to enjoy an unabashed, smacking penchant for the melodramatic. Though I can’t necessarily pinpoint why this is, I suspect it’s a sad story of nostalgia, hope, and what some players perceive as betrayal. It’s almost like the Zelda cycle—you know, the idea that any new Zelda game will be fiercely castigated by a particular subset of fans, only to be heralded as a classic years later? Yeah, that Zelda cycle.

With Zelda, the saving grace of change is that despite people’s fear of it, they will eventually come around if the modifications made are objectively good, helpful, or otherwise progressive. The trouble with Final Fantasy is that, despite honest intentions, “objectively good” is just about the last phrase you’d use to describe its numerous and often drastic transformations. Because of this, I suspect that some folks are just too darn exhausted to try and enjoy yet another game in XIII’s overtaxed chronology. It’s a shame too, because Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is the best Final Fantasy in a long time, and easily my favorite RPG of the past six months.

Lightning Returns picks up where the last game left off, except 500 years later. No biggie, though. Lightning has awakened from her multi-century slumber as something more than human, tasked by the god Bhunivelze to save as many mortal souls as possible before the destruction of the world and migration to a new one. It’s fairly interesting, but frankly the nitty-gritty of the plot isn’t where the game shines. Rather, it’s the realization of Nova Crystallis and the potent themes that saturate its every nook and cranny that really make Lightning Returns sing. But I’ll come back to that later.

One of the game’s more publicized additions is its new battle system, and I’m pleased to report that despite early frustrations, combat is easily Returns’ crowning asset. Taking down enemies essentially revolves around three mechanics: schemata, management of ATB, and management of EP. Without going too in-depth, schemata are customized gear-sets with varying stat benefits and built-in buffs, while ATB is like stamina for both magical and physical abilities.

As the game progresses and more abilities are acquired, strategy deepens. Questions will be raised such as: should I use all of my best gear on one powerhouse schemata, designating the others as weaker, ATB-regenerating sets? Or do I make a balanced trio of physical, defensive, and magic schemata? Those are just two options, but there are countless strategies one could employ, from a focus on health regeneration to schemata that aim to stagger enemies as quickly as possible.