Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, the third and final(?) chapter of the Final Fantasy XIII saga, came out in Japan last November, and what do you know, it's pretty good. At least Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai thinks so.
I think at this point, saying Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is the best instalment of the Final Fantasy XIII saga is like saying Revenge of the Sith was the best one of the prequels. Not that FFXIII-2 or even FFXIII are "bad" games -- but after the hype and excitement of seeing the first Final Fantasy on the PS3 and having it not measure up, I think the collective disappointment was such that the subsequent games felt more like damage control than their own competent installments of the franchise.
The ATB system has been an integral part of the Final Fantasy series since 1991's Final Fantasy IV (Older western gamers will remember it as Final Fantasy II). However, as Sakurai notes, over the past 20 years Square Enix has been experimenting and refining the system with each game in the series. "I was amazed at how, even under the limitations of there being only one party member [in Lightning Returns], [the ATB system] has evolved."
While the original ATB system may not have been "perfect", it was still a well-designed system and while its latest incarnation in Lightning Returns is quite refined, that doesn't mean there's no room for improvement. Sakurai noted that, as a developer, Lightning Returns made him reacknowledge the importance of never being satisfied.
"It's easy to pick up an already released game and simply enjoy it, but in order to generate entertainment, you need to keep your eyes peeled." Sakurai writes. "I was reminded that if you take what seems natural for granted, nothing will evolve or change for the better."
Sure, you can play Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII for the story, or the costume customisation, or the flashy visuals, or just to have closure to the FFXIII saga, but also remember that it's one step in the evolutionary ladder of game development -- and like it or hate it, that's kind of cool.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is out in Japan and is scheduled for release on February 11th in North America, and February 14th in Europe for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.