Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Character over combat

Fighting takes a backseat to unique quests and investigations in final game of trilogy

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Try to follow along: Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XII is the second sequel to the 13th instalment of the Final Fantasy series. It closes off a trilogy of games centred around a world known as Gran Pulse and the city of Cocoon, which hovers above it. The world is inhabited by humans and a race of immortal creatures known as the Fal'Cie, not to be confused with the L'Cie, who are humans cursed to fulfil...

Scratch that. There's not enough time in the world to explain what is going on in these games.

The first two games took a familiar plot -- a group of heroes coming together to save a world from destruction -- and rooted it so deep in its own convoluted mythology that it was impenetrable to anyone who didn't take notes.

It's a mountain of gobbledegook that Lightning Returns is built upon, but it wisely chooses to set most of that convoluted backstory aside to instead tell its own stand-alone tale of apocalyptic dread.

Set 500 years after the previous two games, Lightning Returns sees you playing as the titular Lightning, one of the world-saving heroes from the first two games who is awakened from a deep sleep on the eve of the world's destruction to save as many souls as possible before it all goes black.

The game bears more than a passing resemblance to The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, another bleak anomaly in a long-running series of games that had you racing against time to stop an imminent apocalypse. With only 13 days to get your affairs in order, there's a palpable sense of dread in every passing minute of Lightning Returns, each decision you make all the more difficult, knowing it could have real ramifications down the line.

To say there's a grim, sombre undercurrent to the game might be the understatement of the year.

That tone is set when your first major quest in this dying world isn't a typical fantastical adventure but instead an investigation into a series of ritualistic murders. This might be the first Final Fantasy game that requires you to canvass neighbourhoods and search for forensic evidence at the scene of a brutal crime. Quests remains as unique as that to the end, foregoing the usual go-here-and-kill-this-monster missions to instead send you on more personal errands that might have you reuniting a restaurant owner with his estranged son or tracking down a man's long-lost fiancée.

The game is so focused on these character-building quests that they take precedent over the combat; levelling up comes not from battling monsters but from saving the souls of these citizens left in the world. As good as the fighting system is -- and it's the perfect distillation of the previous two games -- it takes a backseat to character and atmosphere.

For a trilogy that has been so steeped in dense mythology, what a relief that simplicity wins out in the end.


Mel Stefaniuk is a freelance writer whose love of both video games and writing have been intertwined since growing up with the text adventures of the '80s. He can be found on Twitter as @DisgracedCop.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2014 C16

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