It used to be the case that you knew exactly what you were getting from a Final Fantasy game. Square’s flagship franchise played the same tune for almost 20 years, deviating only for the odd misguided spin-off just like every popular franchise does. But these days, with the name applied to strategy games, adventures, rhythm action games, beat-‘em-ups and everything else besides, it’s hard to know what you’re getting without first doing your homework. Hell, in the space of this trilogy alone, Square has gone from linear yet mostly traditional RPG to overwhelmingly open time-hopping Pokémon protege to this, the closest thing you’re likely to play to a Devil May Cry RPG.
With Capcom’s hardcore action game by far the best in its class, it’s not a name or indeed a comparison that we’d throw around recklessly. And sure, it might not seem at first that Lightning Returns deserves to even share the same page as the most hallowed name in action gaming – as in Lollipop Chainsaw, the initial move set seems simplistic at best. But give it time, learn the mechanics rather than lazily holding and slapping buttons and the depth quickly becomes apparent – there are parries, cancels, combos, ‘just frame’ commands (where perfectly timed inputs are rewarded) and just about every other hardcore action staple, all tied together by the kind of RPG basics that the series, after nearly 30 years, sort of has down already. There’s no traditional levelling system here, meaning that it’s only through better gear and new skills that Lightning’s stats improve.
Well, that’s not strictly true. Stat boosts also come as quest rewards, but that’s all tied into the game’s wonderfully stressful time management system. The world is on its last few days and while saving enough souls can push back the deadline slightly, the clock is still a more terrifying enemy than any of the over-designed monstrosities that have wandered in from XIII and XIII-2. So while some missions might see you tracking all over the land across a number of days for a big payoff at the end, others offer smaller boosts but can be completed in minutes. And so the juggling begins, as you desperately try to make the most efficient use of what little time you have.
The pressure is immense but the rewards – particularly those from the five main story missions, which you can tackle in any order you like – make it all worthwhile. And if it doesn’t work out, you can simply go back to the start once you reach the end of days, Dead Rising-style, with all your skills and stats intact. Being hit with a Game Over screen after 30 hours is never fun but this is a system that works and, with the game designed around it, works well, like it or not.
That same attitude can be applied to most aspects of Lightning Returns, actually – there will be those who hate the game based on the characters, the lineage, the previous games or the bold new approach but like it or not, it works. Square can clearly do action and while we’re not talking DMC levels of technicality, it’s a deeper and more interesting action-RPG than some of the big names that have been doing the rounds for decades. As the third game in the trilogy, the story won’t make a great deal of sense to anyone who hasn’t already decoded the fal’cie/l’cie/cie’th mumbo jumbo but to be fair, it does as good a job as possible at tying up the millions of loose ends presented by two games of plot holes, jargon and ludicrous unlikelihoods and some of the revelations are, if you’re au fait with XIII and XIII-2 at least, actually pretty neat.
Similar to how the story is almost pure fan service; mechanics too take their cues from the last two games even though this one sits in almost an entirely different genre. The Garb system is an interesting, high-octane twist on the Paradigm mechanic, for instance. Each outfit comes with its own skills and buffs, but it’s up to you to augment these fancy costumes with new skills and accessories to make three outfits you can cycle between in battle.
While earlier battles might let you get away with having three offensive Garbs on the go at once, later ones (and the surprisingly tricky boss battles) aren’t so forgiving – you’ll need a trio that works well together, and you’ll need to know when to switch between them. It requires a lot more dexterity than you might have expected. The Stagger system returns too, but it’s more than just a way of granting bonus damage for wailing on one particular foe now. Here, you need to exploit weaknesses and use certain types of attack to earn a Stagger, although the damage boosts and lingering debuffs these cause make doing so even more worthwhile than ever.
While those that disliked XIII and its sequel might not find anything here to convert them – or at least not allow themselves to be converted by a strong action-RPG due to its cast or past – fans will find an entertaining and surprisingly innovative full stop to this chapter of the Final Fantasy franchise. Next stop, FFXV. Which, from what we’ve seen so far, looks to be taking this action emphasis to the next level. Hope you weren’t too attached to waiting around looking at menus…