Final Fantasy is a series that has spent many years appeasing its long-serving fanbases idea of what a Final Fantasy game should be. That all changed with Final Fantasy XIII, however, which made a bold attempt to revitalise the creaking formula with a more action-orientated campaign. The move was rewarded with vitriol from franchise purists and Lightning Returns is unlikely to make remedy that, taking an even larger step away from the traditional FF playbook.
Shucking traditional experience point systems and turn-based combat in favour of a straight-up action approach, Lightning Returns (FF XIII-3, if you will) introduces a surprisingly thoughtful and engaging battle system. Its simple enough for easy entry but successfully stringing together attack combos requires skill and timing, while juggling the switchable outfits mixes up abilities. Its a far cry from the menu-based melees of Fantasies past but will stand as one of the series most gratifying combat systems for those willing to learn its intricacies.
The world itself is vast and explorable, enabling players to venture into each of its districts in any order they like despite some obvious signposting. And what a captivating world it is. Each area is roughly the same size as some of XIIIs biggest locations, boasting some of the series most arresting scenery and packed with a variety of interesting objects and people to uncover. But theres a delightfully cruel twist to prevent players from finding every secret the world has to offer. The story takes place in the fortnight leading up to the end of the world and things react to the passage of time in different ways as the apocalypse nears. Nintendo fans may remember a similar temporal conceit in The Legend of Zelda: Majoras Mask, but while Link in the 90s adventure had the luxury of time travel to complete a series of contextual objectives, here the clock is more foreboding: characters disappear and die, enemies grow stronger and quests have added urgency as the end draws near.
Temporal progress impacts the local wildlife as well. There are a finite number of monsters within the world and youre able to hunt each of them to extinction. Its an interesting mechanic, not least because the last remaining creature is a relentlessly tough beast to slaughter, but it also establishes the consequences of a world on the brink of destruction better than the story does by rehashing XIII and XIII-2s baffling plot threads.
Narrative has always been one of Final Fantasys more inconsistent elements and in that regard Lightning Returns offers a wholly forgettable addition. Ignore the overarching story though and this is a far more enjoyable experience. It may not gel as cohesively as it should and the necessity of multiple playthroughs is frustrating, but as a decisive step into more interesting territory this is a welcome change of pace for the series.