Nobody really wanted “Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII” (Rated T; $59.99).
There were already two “Final Fantasy XIII” games, and the public and critical reactions to both were mixed at best. The stories of those games failed to grab the imagination even of fans of the series, and overly long, linear stretches of gameplay (particularly in the first game) turned off a generation of gamers accustomed to more freedom. Nobody would have blamed Square Enix for cutting their losses and moving on to the next game in the celebrated franchise.
But they didn’t, so here we are. Third time’s the charm, as it turns out.
The first thing you notice about “Lightning Returns” is the battle system. It’s still turn-based at heart, but to succeed in a difficult battle takes timing and quick thinking. While some of the battles do eventually turn into the “hammer the attack button until it’s dead” experiences of role-playing games past, there’s a surprising number of battles that will provide a serious challenge to the player, particularly in the early going.
Challenges are a nice surprise
In fact, the challenge of the game is another surprise. “Lightning Returns” is an open-world game as much as it is an RPG, and as such, there is very little to stop you from wandering into a battle that you have no business being a part of. To the game’s credit, this is counteracted somewhat by the fact that battles generally are not randomly encountered. You typically choose to engage with an enemy, and the more difficult encounters tend to be more easily avoided.
One of the great thrills of the game is finally engaging in a battle you’ve been avoiding for days.
A word of caution, however: If you are not prepared for the challenge to quickly become overwhelming, playing the game on “Easy Mode” is recommended. There is a time limit that constantly weighs on the player – even easy battles can chip away at your health, and recovery items can be surprisingly scarce. “Easy Mode” allows the player to escape without a time penalty and recharges the player’s health after each battle.
A welcome focus on Lightning
Perhaps the best decision the developers at Square Enix made in “Lightning Returns” is to focus on Lightning herself. She is the player-character and the center of the story. By homing in on Lightning, the gameplay is more accessible and a narrative that previously bordered on incomprehensible becomes more grounded in humanity and emotion.
That’s not to say that the narrative is perfect, though. As has become common for this series of games, exposition is done in drawn-out conversations and cut scenes. Characters from the other games are inserted in ways that sort of make sense, but still come off as a bit of a stretch. The game also appears to be taking a stance on organized religion and blind faith, which could be an interesting direction if it weren’t quite so graceless in its execution.
So while it would be a stretch to put “Lightning Returns” in the company of past fondly remembered “Final Fantasy” games, it’s no stretch at all to call it the best of the “XIII” series. “Lightning Returns” is a return to form for a series that badly needed one.
“Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII” is now available for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
New this week: Action games rule the week: “Earth Defense Force 2025” (PS3/X360) is the fifth installment in the series and promises more of the insect-mashing excitement of previous games. “Rayman Legends” (PS4/XONE) brings the celebrated platformer to the current generation, while the download-only “Strider” (PS4/XONE) attempts to update a classic franchise for a new audience.