Lightning Returns Deserves a Second Look Before It Leaves Game Pass
Running out the clock.
Final Fantasy XIII stands out as a black sheep in Square Enix’s long-running franchise. For many, it is seen as the breaking point of the franchise, where it deviated too far from the norm. Part of this is due to the original intention of making the world of FF13 its own franchise of sorts — the Fabula Nova Crystallis — which included turning the numbered entry into a trilogy. None of these ideas would go to plan due to the less-than-stellar response of the original Final Fantasy XIII.
While time has been kind to FF13, and critics are starting to come around to its charms and important contributions to the franchise, the final chapter in this period of Square Enix’s history continues to be derided. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is an even further departure from what would be considered normal for Final Fantasy but acts as a poignant finale for the Fabula Nova Crystallis, and you only have till February 28th to play it before it leaves Xbox Game Pass.
In acknowledgment of the metatextual state of the franchise, Lightning Returns is a story about the end of the world. Awoken from a slumber that kept her from starring in the second entry in the trilogy, protagonist Lightning is told by this world’s creator deity that the world must end in thirteen (too on the nose?) days and she must save the souls of its inhabitants.
What follows is Final Fantasy’s take on Majora’s Mask, in which Lightning will go through the world taking quests in hopes of bringing souls to salvation as the ever-present clock ticks down every day until the world ends. What is so striking is that in many ways this world feels more alive than those that came before it, due to the real-world time that ticks down as you try to do as much as you can.
Walking around the world and accepting quests will bring you closer to the end, with each day equating to roughly one hour of playtime. Just like the clock, the world and its inhabitants are constantly moving. Some quests can only start at certain times of day in certain locations, so a large part of playing Lightning Returns becomes understanding how to navigate the world effectively to not miss these timed events. When the clock finally reaches the last day Lightning has the ability to set time back and do it all over again, hopefully saving more people this time around.
Combat is also a departure from previous entries, almost like the developers decided in their last hurrah to do as many new things as they could since they didn’t have much else to lose. While there are random encounters, rather than turn-based, these play out in real-time in what is more akin to Kingdom Hearts. With no constant party system, Lightning fights alone in this game, there is a void to be filled. Where party members would typically fulfill many different roles (healer, damage dealing, buffing) there is only Lightning. The solution to this problem is outfit changes!
Much like the dressphere system of Final Fantasy X-2, Lightning Returns allows Lightning to take on new skills and attributes in battle by equipping different outfits. Only a handful of outfits can be equipped at a time and switched between during combat so battles require planning out the best possible combination of outfits to give Lightning a kit of skills for a vast array of possible problems. This also reinforces the game’s narrative that Lightning is alone in her mission.
As the last entry in a daring but ultimately unsuccessful endeavor from Square Enix, Lightning Returns is brave enough to not end the story with a whimper — It ends boldly. Its design, narrative, and absolutely wild finale are dripping with style and inventive ideas. At a time when Square Enix acknowledges the struggling state of its iconic franchise, and seems to be pursuing larger industry trends, Lightning Returns is special for how unique it is.
With less than 13 days (too on the nose?) to play Lightning Returns on Game Pass, now is the perfect time to enjoy one of the hidden gems of the Final Fantasy franchise.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is available on Xbox Game Pass until February 28. It is available to purchase for PC on Steam.