With Lightning Returns, Square Enix has proven a theory that series fans have been kicking around for the past two years: the less Lightning, the better. The titular heroine has garnered a reputation as an excessively crabby female version of Final Fantasy VII's Buster Sword-wielding Cloud Strife, aesthetically appealing but difficult to become emotionally attached to because of a perpetual bad attitude propelled by extended lamentations and uncalled-for angst. Don't let her spotless features and shimmering pink locks fool you; this broody character doesn't care if she's likable, and opposite similar protagonists whose disgraceful bedside manners tend to make them all the more intriguing (DmC: Devil May Cry's Dante immediately comes to mind), Lightning's closing quest, one flanked by political incorrectness and fueled by a self-centered, lone-she-wolf mentality, is a thematically incongruous yarn that's difficult to digest. It's the least impressive of the FFXIII chapters by a fair margin. Yet, in contempt of its character flaws and narrative debacles, there's, surprisingly, plenty of exciting gameplay enhancements in Lightning Returns to warrant a dedicated playthrough, even for those who cautiously skipped the previous entries.
Taking place 500 years after the conclusion of Final Fantasy XIII-2, Lightning Returns focuses on Lightning's reawakening as an alternative universal savior, jarred from protracted heavenly slumber by the god Bhunivelze. Whereas FFXIII-2's eon-hopping structure draws inspiration from Chrono Trigger, Lightning Returns dips its bucket in the well drained nearly dry by The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, a game with a lingering always-on-the-clock urgency that has never been sufficiently replicated or built on. The world will meet its supreme destruction in 13 days time, and Lightning, aided by loyal ally Hope Estheim (depicted in his 14-year-old form), must save the rapidly darkening souls of humanity while simultaneously securing the revival of her sister Serah Farron's divine spirit. Along the way she reunites with fellow acquaintances from past FFXIII games (Vanille, Snow Villiers, Sazh Katzroy, Noel Kreiss, etc.) and, in one of the script's numerous blunders, awkwardly moves toward an everything-gets-wrapped-up-neatly denouement with each of them.
Plot messiness has consistently been one of FFXIII's unorthodox charms, so it's ironic that when the writers finally attempt to create a sense of true resolution, the whole arc comes crashing down in an expressionless heap. The biggest problem the game has is that, unlike the most memorable Final Fantasy episodes, it refuses to allow players the opportunity to compassionately connect with Lightning or her mission objective. She's all business and impassive poses until the bitter end—a muted curtain call that's made even more discomforting by a clumsy fairy-tale epilogue that feels entirely out of sync.
To dwell on the debacle that is Lightning Returns's ghastly storytelling is to deprive oneself of a rather fantastically constructed battle system, one that sporadically elevates the game from disastrous lows to dizzying heights. As Lightning is going it alone, her paradigm-shifting party is replaced by a rotating threesome of outfits, dubbed Schemata, that act as various forms of distinctive fighting styles. Switching between the Schema is an effortless, free-flowing routine that quickly becomes second nature. Customizing these garbs outside of combat to ultra-powerful levels (via finding items and completing objectives) is a process that rarely grows tedious; playing dress-up with Lightning masquerades as a pleasant chaser to the game's more insufferable passages. The previously implemented Active Time Battle (ATB) setup has been renamed the Style-Change ATB, reworked to link separate ATB gauges to corresponding Schema. When a Schema's meter is expended, Lightning automatically equips the next; mastering the art of maintaining all three Schema during the increasingly fast-paced, multi-staged battles keeps a rather lifeless chronological endeavor from totally flatlining. The singular fault here lies within the advancement of levels and gaining of XP: It's all done by way of assignment fulfillment instead of unrestricted field grinding. As someone who doesn't mind putting in a few extra hours of labor in order to massacre oncoming monsters with ease, this was the one drawback in an otherwise excellent arrangement.
In addition to its ever-growing wardrobe of upgradable Schemata, Lightning Returns boasts some spectacular visuals that alleviate the headaches brought on by storyline weaknesses. The game's universe is an eclectic mixture of environments that's a great deal more open-ended than both FFXIII and its sequel. Very few lag or texture issues arise, and what blandness exists in the many sidequest-granting NPCs is made tolerable by the creative designs of both the main characters and the game's comprehensive bestiary. It's a disproportionate, dramatically klutzy desistance of the unholy FFXIII trinity, but Lightning Returns remains bizarrely, amply playable in spite of its myriad goofs. As the page turns on Lightning's story, one can't help but slam the book shut. It's time to move on. Let the PS4 era of Final Fantasy commence forthwith.