To start with, I haven't played any of the other games in the Final Fantasy XIII series, including the two direct prequels to Lightning Returns. Why play the last and most poorly regarded game in a trilogy without having any experience with or understanding of the others? I don't know and I don't feel like asking questions about myself that might have undesirable, personality-shattering answers.
I played the PC re-release of Lightning Returns. One of the major issues with the original console releases was their terrible performance, with a framerate middling at around 15-20fps. The PC version performs much better, but it's not issue free. My hardware should be more than enough to handle this game, but walking around the city areas has a near-constant stuttering. Judging from the 'feel' of these stutters, it's likely that they are an effect of the engine awkwardly streaming data in as Lightning moves around, meaning that it's unlikely that any currently available hardware will be able to mitigate them.
So let's talk about the premise. God, where to begin with the premise. Okay. At some point in the previous games Lightning became trapped in a crystal or something and her sister Serah died. Now it's 500 years later and the god of creation, Bhunivelze, has woken Lightning up. In her absence, the world began a process of ending in a way that has disrupted reality. The entire population of the planet now resides on one island, nobody has aged or died of old age for half a century, there are no babies being born, and monsters are spilling out of 'chaos' which is... some kind of other dimension or something. The current status of the world at the beginning of the game is that it is going to end completely in 13 days. God can't stop the apocalypse, so instead he's creating a new world. It's Lightning's job to take on the mantle of "The Savior" by going down to the human realm and saving souls-- more or less backing them up to her spare hard drive so they can be replenished on the new planet. If Lightning performs her mission to God's satisfaction, he will bring her sister back from the dead. That's where things start out, but they get far more complicated by the end. So complicated that I doubt I could explain it.
That's the basic idea of the game. You have 13 in-game days to go around and complete quests in order to save souls. It's fairly open-ended. Any of the four major areas are accessible at any time, and quests can be done out of their suggested order. There are about 60+ side quests to complete and 5 main quest-lines that further the story. These main quests always have you interacting with a returning member of the Final Fantasy 13 cast. It's tempting to compare this game to Majora's Mask, but it's much closer to something like Dead Rising. The clock is (almost) always ticking with no way to reverse it, and certain side quests are only available at certain times. Additionally, some areas are locked behind time-release gates. For example, the slums in one of the cities is only open past midnight. The time limit is quite forgiving, however. I completed all of the main quests and all but two of the side quests (those being super boss fights and collection quests I had no desire to complete) by Day 9, leaving me with 4 days of literally nothing to do. In my play-through, Lightning spent the last 48 hours before the Apocalypse sleeping in a hotel. I imagine she wasn't sweating the room service bill.
Since I'm still talking about the premise, I think the game deserves some credit when it comes to the basic ideas behind its world. It almost always botches the execution of those ideas, but it has some really interesting concepts under the hood. Three of the four areas of the game are orientated around that citizenry's reaction to the impending apocalypse. You start the game in Luxerion, a holy city that obsesses over religion and prophecy as a means of coping. From there is Yusnaan, whose people have decided to turn the final days into a big 24-hour binge party, and the rural Wildlands, whose simple farmers welcome a relief from their 500 years of toil. This is all well and good, but at the same time I couldn't help but be confused by the smaller details. Like how the children in this game still act like children despite having the life experience of 500 year-olds. It just seems like they dropped the ball on part of their own world-building with stuff like that. Lightning Returns also has a nasty habit of introducing the same idea 40 times in a row. They'll just keep re-re-re-explaining stuff that was already explained 3 minutes ago in the same cutscene. There's a lot of pseudo-philosophical navel-gazing and ridiculous posturing, but I feel that might be expected from the Final Fantasy series by now. I can't speak for anyone else, but at a point it becomes charming to me so I can't complain. Well, until the ending, that is. The ending is just a mess of nonsense. To be perfectly honest, I can't even break down why the ending is stupid because I have no idea what actually happened in it.
Lightning Returns stars Lightning only. Shockingly for a Final Fantasy, there is no party to amass-- it's all Lightning all the time. You are sometimes given an AI-controlled partner, but it's rare and oftentimes brief. To make up for this, the game has what it calls the 'schemata' system. It's sort of similar to the dress spheres from Final Fantasy X-2, which itself was a branch off of the classic Job system. Throughout the game you collect outfits that are called 'Garbs'. Lightning can equip three garbs at a time and instantly swap between them in battle at the press of a button. Each of your three active garbs can be paired with a weapon, shield, and accessory. For each garb you must also equip up to four attacks or spells. That's one for each of the controller's face buttons. Each garb has different properties and abilities. For example, the "Violet Twilight" is a lovely periwinkle evening gown that grants the use of Blizzaga lvl 5 and gives you a +50 boost to your ATB bar, with the trade-off being that your ATB bar starts each battle half-drained and you're stuck with Blizzaga lvl 5 as one of your 4 moves. Garbs can boost your strength or magic, or automatically give you buffs. The apparent intention of this schemata system is to replace the the traditional party of three characters who specialize in different things with one central character who can swap between three self-created specializations at will. It's a system with lots of potential that I found did not live up to its promises. The garbs themselves are just too balanced, if you get my meaning. Even comparing early-game garbs with late-game ones, I rarely felt like I was trading up when I made a change-- it always felt like a compromise. "This one has Deshellga, but it drops my magic stat by 200. This one increases my magic by 500 but it has Fire lvl 2 locked on it and the one I'm already using has Fira lvl 3." Whenever I found a set-up to my liking it would be at least 5 hours of playtime before I ever felt motivated to make a change, and I went out of my way to find and purchase as many garbs as possible.
Combat is yet another iteration on Square tying to merge their classic Active Turn Based system with the real-time thrills of a character action game and ending up with the worst of both worlds. You have three separate ATB (or "stamina") meters, one for each schemata, and using any ability equipped to that schemata drains its regenerating pool of ATB. If you do not have enough ATB bar to perform an ability, you cannot do it. Period. This wouldn't be a bad system, except that the game counts blocking as an ability. If you've run out of meter you cannot block or dodge. This is pretty devastating for the character action side of the combat. Enemies generally have their HP oriented more towards the j-RPG side of things as well, meaning that it can take a very long time to kill even non-boss monsters. The combat's lock-on feature fails when you're fighting more than one enemy, since it requires using the D-Pad to manually select which monster you want to attack (or defend against). This is fiddly to try to do under duress, since the switching of your focus isn't based on context (ie: press right to go to a monster on the right) but is instead based on the enemy's set order. If you're fighting Cactuar A, pressing right will target Cactuar B regardless of whether Cactuar B is to your immediate right or five miles away and to your left.
What will take up most of your time in combat is the staggering mechanic. Every enemy has different parameters that are required to put it into a staggered state. Staggering can leave it stunned, inflict status ailments onto it, and temporarily lower its defenses. For some monsters causing a stagger might be as simple as hitting it with lots of ice-based attacks, while another might require a few perfectly timed blocks. The result is that learning an enemy's weakness is a test of trial and error, and fighting an enemy whose process you've already learned is a paint-by-numbers affair. There's also the issue that many of the monsters' stagger weaknesses involve quickly spamming attacks they are weak against, thus encouraging you to drain your ATB meters as often and as quickly as possible. The combat's difficulty can spike dramatically-- and not necessarily in climactic moments like boss fights. If you play this game I highly recommend playing on Easy mode. I don't think Square really got the hang of designing a difficulty curve around an open-ended environment, least of all with an action-based real-time combat system so full of holes like this one is.
Luckily, getting into fights isn't quite so important here because this game has no experience points to earn. Winning battles only nets you money, vendor trash, new abilities, and EP. EP is a commodity that almost works as a cheat function. Its most basic use enables a sort of 'Devil Trigger' mechanic in combat, but it can also be spent to freeze the in-game clock for a short time, to cast Curaga on yourself for a free full healing, or to fast travel around the game world. Most battles will only give you a fraction of 1 EP, while tough battles will give you up to 4 EP at a time. It's a strange system. Stranger still is that if your EP is maxed out you have little incentive to fight battles at all. No incentive besides another, even stranger system whereupon fighting enough of a single monster will actually make it extinct and its final heir will drop a powerful ability.
Without XP or level-ups, the only way to make Lightning stronger is to complete quests. Each side-quest offers a set-in-stone stat increase upon completion. For example, completing the side-quest "Treasured Ball" will net you 100 gil, +3 strength, +30 max HP, and a little useless visual trinket you can use to decorate your Lightning. It is therefore greatly encouraged and expected of you to complete as many side-quests as you possibly can. Of course, these side-quests are tied into the larger plot about Lightning becoming The Savior. You see, helping an NPC in need will free them of their worldly burdens and allow Lightning to save their soul to her hard drive. For example, in the aforementioned side-quest "Treasured Ball," a child has thrown his ball onto a roof and asks Lightning to fetch it for him. When she does he is filled with hope, which saves his soul. Another side-quest has a woman ask Lightning to check all of the clocks in town to make sure they're still working. When it is confirmed that all of the clocks are working, the woman is so happy about clocks that it saves her soul. Something I'd like to stop and point out regarding the side-quests is that they are insane. You may have noticed this on your own from my descriptions. They are also tedious fetch quests like out of a third-rate MMO. Every single one of them is just an excuse to waste your time trundling from one end of the map to the other in order to add tension to your 13-day time limit. While I'm not a huge advocate for hand-holding or anything, when it comes to the side-quests Lightning Returns leaves you hanging out to dry. Available side-quests are not marked on your map and their availability comes and goes based on the time of day. There are no quest markers for these fetch quests and you are not given directions. Unless you read a FAQ, which I recommend, your side-quest experience is spent wandering around until you find an NPC with blue stars over their head, whereupon they ask you to find their doll or whatever. You then you wander around the city aimlessly until you happen to stumble upon said doll. If you're lucky you might have been given a hint as to which quadrant of the city the doll is in, but that's a big "if." You pick up the doll, walk back to the NPC, and another soul is saved. I would like to remind you at this point that these side-quests are your primary method of increasing your character's stats beyond what the mandatory story beats give you. Further still, I would like to state for the record that completing these side-quests is how you save souls, which is how you keep the world alive through the entire 13-day cycle. Also worth bringing up again is that this 13-day limit is far too forgiving, which might explain why the designers saw fit to constantly waste your time with these tedious errands.
That being said, I kind of love the side-quests. Some of them are so trite that it's amusing, such as getting a child's ball from a roof to save his soul. Some are insanely convoluted, such as the story of Lightning hunting a girl known for playing pranks who has been caught in a "cried wolf," scenario with some cultists who intend to make her a human sacrifice. But the twist ends up being that she willingly allowed herself to be their sacrifice, because if someone rescues her despite her pranks, then it confirms that there's hope left in the world. And if there's no hope left in the world, she'd rather be murdered by a cult... or... something?
Look, just... here's a list of some of the sidequests I did in Lightning Returns:
- A young (508 year old) boy tried to bring his dead cat back to life, but accidentally trapped his own soul inside of his cat's body. Lightning had to deliver an antidote to his human body while dodging stray cats that wanted to steal it from her pockets. After returning the boy's soul the voice of his dead cat comes from heaven and tells him not to be sad, as she lived a 'purrfect' life. His soul is saved.
- A little girl is outside of the train station selling her own tears to people. She used to be an actress and can therefore cry on command. People buy her tears because after 500 years of apocalypse they can no longer know what it feels like to cry. It turns out that the little girl is smothering some deep-seated issues regarding her dead acting coach, who she was in love with. Even though he was an adult and she is a little girl. I mean, I guess they'd both be 500+ years old. It raises some uncomfortable questions about how the world functions that are never adequately answered. After several lectures, Lightning finally convinces her to stop selling her tears and teaches her to cry for herself. This saves her soul.
- Going on a date with a guy. You have to equip a pretty dress to go on the date. At the end of the date he tells you that the reason he asked you out is that his real girlfriend died. Ding, that's a soul.
- A farmgirl's father went missing in the woods. You go to the woods and a man there tells you that he saw the father die. Later you meet an old man who tells you that the guy you saw WAS the father and that he must have faked his own death. The old man knows this because he's the father's father and he faked his own death when the father was a boy. You need to set up a meeting so that the father is caught by his daughter, but then the grandfather is also caught by the father. Many souls saved.
- A biologist wants to study the mating habits of the local sheep but it's too dangerous. You follow the sheep and find out that the sheep lay eggs. This is by far my favorite moment in the entire game.
I think these stories, despite the fact that they are all asinine, time-wasting fetch quests, were what kept me playing. Either they were bizarre morality plays writ in moon logic, or they were just weird non-sequitor. And the main story-line had its charms too. The way characters would say something like, "The age of Gods and crystals is now behind us," or, "God is using my dead sister as a bargaining chip. And that should upset me, but it doesn't," with their deathly serious intonations just tickles me. It's just got that certain magic. I don't recommend playing this game, but I didn't hate the time I spent with it. And the ending... I've never felt so out of my depth while playing a video game before. It was like one of those social immersion experiments where I was forced to adapt on the fly.
Lightning Returns is a "mixed bag," let's say.