Okay. Yes. I'm Cautiously Excited For Lightning Returns: FFXIII.S

Square Enix has a lot of work to do. With Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII—the third game in what has become the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy—the folks at Square not only have to conclude Lightning's story in a satisfactory way, they have to figure out how to appeal to RPG fans who were turned off by the melodrama and mediocrity of the last two games.

Fortunately, from what I've seen so far, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII seems like a really interesting game in a lot of different ways, and while Random Encounters readers know I'm no fan of either FFXIII or FFXIII-2, I am cautiously optimistic about Lightning's third adventure, which comes out in February 2014 for current-gen consoles.

That's because I've played it. I've felt the combat—which is best described as a cross between Final Fantasy X-2 and Kingdom Hearts—and I've wandered through one of the dungeons during a 20-minute demo at E3 last week.

Let me tell you a bit about what I saw. First, some things you should know about the combat:

  • You play as Lightning—and only Lightning as far as we know right now—so get used to spending more time with the moody femme fatale.
  • Monsters are visible on the world map. You can run up to them and hit first for a preemptive strike (that reduces the monster's HP by 10%). When you make contact, you enter a battle screen.
  • Attacking feels like Kingdom Hearts: you can move around the battlefield, and when you press a button to perform an attack or spell, you execute it instantly. Each attack/spell costs action points, which gradually recharge over time.
  • You can also hold a button to block attacks. This drains your action points too. Slowly and gradually.
  • Then there's the Final Fantasy X-2 element: Lightning can change costumes in battle, which essentially changes her class. The three costumes I saw in this demo were called Divinity, Dark Muse, and Sorceress. Each class had its own blocking ability and its own moves, all assigned to the colored buttons.
  • Each class also has its own bar of action points, and each of those bars charges on an individual basis. In other words, you can switch to Divinity, fire off a bunch of attacks, switch to Sorceress, cast a bunch of spells, switch to Dark Muse, blast baddies some more, and then switch back to Divinity, where you'll find that a bunch of action points have recharged. So you're encouraged to stay versatile.
  • The Stagger system is back, with some tweaks: this time, you Stagger enemies (read: make them weaker) by damaging their weak points. If an enemy is vulnerable to ice, you can Stagger them by casting a lot of ice spells. Old school!
  • Pressing "start" in battle brings up an inventory screen, which in this demo led me to find a bunch of Bravery and Faith potions—perhaps a reference to Final Fantasy Tactics?
  • There's also a system called Overclock, which is basically the new limit break: when you activate it, the screen freezes and you can attack enemies
  • Battle music still features a rockin' violin, but not the same rockin' violin as the last two games.
  • The last thing I wrote in my notebook during the demo: "Wow!"

See, it's actually a really fun, interesting system, and it's gotten me psyched for Lightning Returns. Not that you should run out and pre-order the game right now—this is a snap judgement based on a 20-minute demo, and really we shouldn't pre-order games at all—but I'm now excited for the next Final Fantasy. I wasn't kidding when I said that Square Enix seems to be stepping up their game.

Some other random thoughts:

  • One line of dialogue I scribbled down in my notebook: "I'm getting powerful Chaos readings from inside the palace." In case you were worried that this game isn't going to be a bit ridiculous.
  • Another thing I scribbled: "This is like the anti-Final Fantasy XIII." That's because instead of just walking down a straight path, you actually interact with the environment: Lightning climbs ladders, jumps obstacles, twirls down poles... It's no Assassin's Creed, as Stephen has pointed out, but it's pleasant.
  • That said, this isn't an action-RPG: you can jump and move around more than you can in most traditional Japanese RPGs, but the world doesn't have a lot of friction. There's not a ton of weight.
  • A lot of people don't like Lightning, but she's actually kind of grown on me. I'd certainly pick her over FFXIII-2's Serah and Noel.
  • Snow, who you may remember from the last two games, is called the Patron and he's in charge of the city or something like that. Lightning is trying to chase him down. I'm not sure why.
  • Oh and there's a bunch of stuff about the world ending in 13 days and all that jazz. I didn't see much that explains the story, but Final Fantasy producer Yoshinori Kitase told the website Nova Crystallis that you don't really need to know what happened in FFXIII and FFXIII-2 to get this one, which is a very good sign.
  • Here's part of the E3 demo, so you can see a chunk of what I saw:

I thought the last two games were blunders, but I'm approaching this one with an open mind. So far, I like what I've seen. Hopefully Lightning can keep it up.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET. You can reach the author at jason@kotaku.com or follow him on Twitter at @jasonschreier.