We've finally reached that pivotal moment in the ongoing saga of Claire Farron, codenamed Lightning, and by extension,  the entire Nova Crysalis mythos of Final Fantasy XIII. I think that I can say with absolute certainty that this entry in the storied Final Fantasy franchise of Square Enix has been their most experimental and polarizing. Despite a stellar debut, the first entry received criticism for its often abrasive linearity and complete departure from all of the series' staple traditions. Its lukewarm cast also was a major point of contention. The second improved on the first in virtually every way possible, including an inventive monster collection battle system, a plethora of alternate endings, and a surprising twist in otherwise typical jrpg plot conventions. 

However, both games have shared one common weakness: a story so convoluted and haphazardly told that even those who read the entire backstory - conveyed through in-game datalogs- had problems piecing together certain events. The capstone to this series thus stands in a position very similar to the premise of Lightning Returns: can this entry salvage what's left of Final Fantasy XIII's story? The long-anticipated FF XV looms around the corner; will this final entry lay all doubts to rest, or will Square Enix go through the motions with the bookend to Lightning's journey as Bhunivelze's champion? The result is one that no reviewer can successfully answer for everyone, if anyone.

It all began with a prophecy, in a mythos where two worlds existed in conflict: the extravagant world of Cocoon, populated by an advanced society of xenophobic humans, and Pulse, an unrestrained world filled with untamed perils. At the center of this conflict existed Fal'Cie, nearly godlike beings that also existed in conflict. They, however, never fought directly, choosing instead to operate through their own vassals, humans forcefully chosen to do their bidding, named L'Cie. Cocoon's inhabitants constantly lived in fear of invasion by Pulse and thus sought to stamp out any chance of threat, only to find that its greatest threat was already working against them in ways they couldn't have imagined.

Enter Lightning, inadvertently "chosen" by the Fal'Cie to fulfill that prophecy: that she, along with a ragtag group of individuals all linked to each other somehow, were to bring about the destruction of Cocoon. They defied this and we experienced a journey marred only by an unevenly told story. Then came FF XIII-2, a sequel starring Lightning's sister Serah, that seemed to retcon everything we thought we knew about the first's conclusion in favor of a time traveling expedition that explained virtually every problem through one overarching and poorly understood plot device: paradoxes inadvertently caused by Etro, one of the series' deities, when she aided Lightning and her crew during the events of the first game by granting them eidolons. While the game's hidden endings, known as "paradox endings", open-ended gameplay, addictive monster collection battles, and surprise twists improved upon the faults of the first, its story failed to rectify many of the previous narrative issues it presented to most of its audience. With the final entry beginning hundreds of years in the future, in a realm where time has collapsed due to unhindered chaos, the franchise's third act has a lot of unresolved questions along with poorly explained answers to rectify.

Lightning Returns begins with Lightning, now awake after a centuries-spanning sleep, chosen by the god Bhunivelze to save the remaining souls of the inhabitants that are left. The "world", now composed of only four realms in a time where people are ageless and sterile, is about to end in thirteen days. Lightning's charged with saving as many souls as possible so they can be reborn when a new world is created, but she can't save them all. This much is clear, and as a clock slowly winds down, players are forced to make their decisions wisely.

True to form, Lightning's journey is a difficult one. The expansive world operates with a night/day cycle where some people and events are only accessible during certain times of day. Time is constantly passing in all but a few circumstances, and traveling to different places can take an hour or more of your time. Fleeing from battles can also incur a time penalty, and she can only carry six recovery items at a time. In addition to being the only person players will face enemies with - except in a few circumstances- Lightning Returns may just be the most challenging entry in the series, in addition to one that surprisingly adheres to much of its classical roots.

Lightning is the star of this story,  but she has a helping hand to guide her along the way in long-running pal Hope Estheim, a spoiled brat who grew into an accomplished young man but is now trapped in his former adolescence thanks to the merger of time with the chaos of the universe. The less you think about it, the more it will make sense. Nonetheless,  he monitors Lightning from a special ship known as the Ark, which exists outside of time and serves as the hub Lightning must return to at the end of each day. If you think this is too much to swallow, I doubt you'll like the rest of the cast, which includes a former ally turned emo governor/Patron, a ditzy young girl who is now a Saint, and an irritating demonic sprite that conspicuously resembles Lightning's sister. Chocolina is also regrettably present.

Moving on,  Lightning's story primarily consists of her encounters with this colorful and eccentric cast while she attempts to save as many souls as possible in exchange for a promise made to her by God that she'd be reunited with her now-deceased sister. It's not remarkable by any means, but it is an improvement that ties loose ends and finally provides a certainty that this saga is finished. The locations, from the gothic and futuristic metropolis of Luxerion to the sprawling and untamed plains of the Wildlands, each have their own unique aesthetic and personality, but will likely not be very memorable to audiences,  thanks to occasionally jarring frame rate issues and -especially in cities- Playstation-era textures- often visible within in-game cutscenes- and pop ups.

The production value is a noticeable step down from previous entries, but its heavily pop-influenced score remains as crisp as ever, although it repackages a few themes in interesting ways. The cities and towns have their staple locales Lightning can buy and sell resources at, from a Forge to a general store. Special notes on various monsters can also be purchased at some places and even new costumes. The NPCs lack the sense of presence found in other open world games but do add to the atmosphere and will sometimes comment on Lightning or various events recently passed. The addition of an Outworld network that allows you to share screenshots, gift items, and even send messages adds an impressive social element to the experience.

Now, on to the meat of this adventure: the side quests. One would imagine, being the Savior of the world and all, that Lightning would constantly be involved in epic clashes with titanic monsters and supervillains. Not so here. Most of what Lightning will be doing consists of the mundane, whether it's giving struggling performers fashion advice by "donating" dozens of accessories, finding missing dolls for young girls, or competing in fighting contests for outfits. Yes, you actually fight monsters to earn a dress, and this is part of a mandatory quest. While some might be turned off by the plethora of side quests you'll need to complete to gain experience -none is gained through battle and there isn't a leveling system- it conveys an undeniably human side to the often stoic and reserved heroine, especially in the little moments she reflects on herself after completing them. It holds a surprising nuance that not only conveys a sense of urgency in her quest to be reunited with Serah, but also her duty in spite of great odds. As Lightning once said: "It's not a question of can or can't; you just do it."

Although time is literally against the player, the time management system is given some leeway through Eradia, the life force of Lightning that she draws from the souls she saves in order to stave off Armageddon. By completing quests- especially primary ones- Lightning can reset the clock back one day and grant her more time to complete missions. She also possesses unique powers thanks to this skill, which include warping to different places, healing her -health doesn't recover on Normal outside of battle- and most efficient of all, Chronostasis, a skill which can temporarily suspend time and grant Lightning extra hours during each day. It will prove to be a nifty if not essential tool. Even with this skill however, the player must be careful when deciding which tasks to take part in, since they each will ultimately affect them as well. I have to say that given the limitations, it lends your choices a surprising weight that unfortunately is not capitalized on the story.

Eradia Points, or EP, are what Lightning uses to perform special feats and can only be replenished in battle or upon return to the Ark. Since players have a limited amount- which increases as Lightning gains experience- moderation is key. Players may find it hard to resist in battle though, with the Overclock skill that slows time and allows them to land crucial extra hits or an opportunity to strategize. The battle system is perhaps the most impressive feature of Lightning Returns



The final entry marks a substantial diversion from the battle system of the previous entries,  with Lightning being the sole player you control. It sounds like a recipe for disaster and is especially challenging, but an impressive  class-based role system allows players to customize Lightning as they see fit with countless abilities to choose from. Lightning enters battle with three schemata, the costumes that reflect different roles she can attain, and is able to alternate on the fly. She'll have to in fact, since each comes with a separate ATB bar that is depleted each time a skill is used. They recharge, allowing Lightning to alternate different combinations of defensive and offensive skills, from Fira to Counter attack. Special adornments players can equip, in addition to a variety of unique weapons, also add to the complexity.

Note that each skill Lightning equips -up to four at once- can be ugraded and each comes with special bonuses, whether it's increased magic or strength, even increased health. Each role can also use virtually any skill available to the player, with the exclusion of special abilities tailored only to that role. Lightning's setup thus can be incredibly diverse, with Commandos that know Saboteur skills or even Medics with a few offensive spells at their disposal. The possibilities are literally limitless when it comes to managing Lightning's roles, which allows players to flawlessly tailor their character to their playing style. The ability to customise Lightning's outfits and wear all manner of adornments sweetens the deal.

Staggering an opponent is still a crucial feature of combat, and instead of being indicated by a large bar, a meter that shows a rhythmic wavelength replaces it. When successful chains or powerful attacks are used, the wavelength increases in intensity, becoming red and finally yellow while violently fluctuating until the enemy is staggered. It suits the new system perfectly. Different skills and weapons have varying Stagger rates, encouraging players to experiment rather than confine themselves to one formula. Since players have an extremely limited number of items they can use, choices in battle require foresight, given the consequences if one has to escape. Since players can travel to stores to replenish their items, players hopefully won't find this to be much of a hassle... unless they're in a field of tough enemies.

The bestiary features a diverse plethora of monsters, some returning favorites like the Flan, and newer targets like Zomoks. There are no random battles and all enemies are visible and have a limited field of vision, akin to XIII-2's encounter system. A few unique twists make it distinct: if Lightning successfully strikes a monster first, those monsters will start with anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent less health; the latter if Lightning catches them off guard. A penalty is given if they attack first: Lightning begins the battle with 5 percent less health. This can seem miniscule initially,  but it begins to pile up with repeated failures. At night, enemies  are stronger, and, at any time of day, players can run into special zones rife with chaos that enhances the monsters inhabiting it. However, victory will come with bonuses to EP and rarer items. Players can be relieved that battles will not consume time - except in one area- and neither will cutscenes.

Overall, Lightning Returns is an accessible game, but a challenging one, even on Easy, which offers a few valuable concessions like regenerating health. Time cannot be wasted and decisions must be made with foresight to effectively utilize the opportunities available, or Lightning may fail. Don't be surprised if you do the first time you play. The game removes the tedium that this would cause by implementing a New Game+ system that allows you to begin without losing your character's experience. All of Lightning Returns' strengths and weaknesses add to a relatively solid and entertaining experience, that will be the year's most polarizing entry due to the risks Square Enix has taken.

Some have argued that Lightning Returns is an unfortunately underwhelming experience, whose only strength lies in its combat system. Others have praised it and even called it the closest entry to its JRPG roots in the Nova Crysalis trilogy of FF XIII. Both consider it a breath of fresh air, although for different reasons: some for it being the end of the franchise's most controversial entries, and others for successfully salvaging most of what was lost and embracing unrestrained exploration and customization with the challenge often lacking in RPGs. Ultimately, all that I can say is that if you liked the previous two, you'll probably enjoy the end of Lightning's saga. Others can chalk this up to being a relatively average JRPG whose faults outweigh its benefits and represents another blemish on a once invincible brand. It's a completely personal decision that no reviewer can satisfy audiences with without personal experience.

I however, enjoyed it. I loved seeing how drastically old friends had changed, the thrill of racing against time to carefully make decisions, an ingenious schemata system that eclipsed nearly every combat system I've had the privilege of playing in the series, and a character who never needed anyone's permission to be the BAMF that she is. And no, it's not because I can twirl her Buster Sword like Cloud Strife while a classic victory theme plays in the background.

In conclusion, Lightning Returns is a game you'll either love or hate. With the extreme risks it takes and mixed  reception this series in the Final Fantasy franchise has received, there's little room for middle ground. Those skeptical may want to be wary; those interested may just be surprised. While it isn't a grande finale, it is an end nonetheless. Take that how you will.