Author's Note: This is part three of a three part retrospective on my experiences and thoughts pertaining to Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. If you missed the previous parts, here are the links:
- Finishing Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII [Part 1] - Honestly, This Game Isn't As Bad As The Internet Says!
- Finishing Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII [Part 2] - Who Do We All Have At Least One "Messy Game" We Love?
Also, if you enjoyed this episode, here's a directory to the first episodes of every Final Fantasy game I have covered on this site thus far:
- Part 1 of Final Fantasy I series
- Part 1 of Final Fantasy II series
- Part 1 of Final Fantasy V series
- Part 1 of Final Fantasy VI series
- Part 1 of Final Fantasy VII series
- Part 1 of Final Fantasy VIII series
- Part 1 of Final Fantasy IX series
- Part 1 of Final Fantasy X series
- Part 1 of Final Fantasy X-2 series
- Part 1 of Final Fantasy XI series
- Part 1 of Final Fantasy XII series
- Part 1 of Final Fantasy XIII series
- Part 1 of Final Fantasy XIII-2 series
Part 11: The Dead Dunes Is The Best Level Because Of Its Brutalist, Straightforward Design
It's been a while since I last wrote about Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, and that's entirely my fault. Bouts of procrastination and work getting the better of me did not help my growing concern about how worthwhile these exhaustive closed readings on the Final Fantasy franchise are with declining viewership and paltry comment attachment rates constantly rearing their ugly head. That said, before thoroughly throwing in the towel, I promised I would at least complete retrospectives for Lightning Returns,Final Fantasy IV, and Final Fantasy: Unlimited. And before you ask, yes, I am mentally prioritizing Unlimited higher than I am for Final Fantasy XIV; bite me. However, the nagging source of writer's block I had with this particular write-up stemmed from, as we will review shortly, the bizarre and insane leaps Lightning Returns takes in its final hours. I would hazard to say I think the game's ending is a goddamn work of art, but HOT DAMN, are there other segments worth praising as well. What I would do to have the audience and viewership I had two years ago, but for this game, is a mountain of treasures stacked to the moon.
The odd thing is that the back half of the game does a pretty good job of playing things "straight." For most, the Dead Dunes represent the final new level you explore from beginning to end before attempting the late-game content or final boss. And to the game's credit, the Dead Dunes do an admirable job of communicating the sense of your time with Fang being "the last good adventure" you'll have in Nova Chrysalia with the end of the world perilously drawing nigh. The narrative underpinning of the level is about as straightforward as it gets. When you enter the region, everyone warns that it is a place of piracy and ner do wells, but when you find one of the few remaining cities in the desolate wasteland, you discover Fang leads the motley crew of bandits and thieves that live there and enforces a strict code of conduct. However, knowing that Lightning has some connection to the religious order that "stole" Vanille, Fang is not immediately open or welcoming to her former compatriot. While Fang accepts Lightning's assistance in her quest to explore a series of ruins for a relic called the "Holy Clavis," she is not immediately forthcoming about why or what the artifact accomplishes.
There's a brutal simplicity to the Dead Dunes I found refreshing compared to the rest of the game. The story lays out the premise of the level right from the rip, with you needing to complete a series of quests to regain Fang's trust, and the level structure is equally straightforward. The linearity of the dungeons, with a few lever puzzles thrown in here and there, reminded me of OG Final Fantasy XIII. The story premise here isn't something miraculous by any stretch of the word, with the big reveal that the relic Fang is attempting to steal being part of a ceremony that will lead to Vanille's sacrifice, at best low-rent Final Fantasy X and, at worst the anime schmaltz of Tales of Symphonia. Still, with the characters interacting with each other in earned moments of sentimentality and Fang being an effective keystone in grounding your activities with the surrounding world, the effect is that the Dead Dunes accomplishes in one to two hours what Final Fantasy XIII struggled to do in forty.
There's something about the Dead Dunes that "works" for me that I cannot decisively put my finger on, even as I write and review this blog one last time. The teleport-based fast travel system makes the sprawling size of the Dead Dunes more manageable than even smaller environments like Luxerion or Yusnaan. This environment also hits you with fewer side quests than the other environments, allowing its mainline plot thread to not become muddled with filler. Speaking of the breezy nature of the Dead Dunes, Fang is the best companion in Lightning Returns. She draws the attention of enemies away from you, and you don't need to worry about keeping her health points at parity. Me liking Fang more than any of the other Final Fantasy XIII stalwarts also helps. Even if Fang's gimmick isn't groundbreaking, I already have buy-in with her relationship with Vanille, so I tend to overlook some of the storytelling shortcomings with this chapter. The Dead Dunes gets its shit in and out in record time, and if the rest of the game functioned on that same timescale, I would have a much easier time recommending Lightning Returns to even Final Fantasy XIII skeptics.
However, I can't pipe my Lightning Returns evangelism on this blog without at least a few concessions about its weaknesses. First, while the fast-travel system is miles better than the Chocobo in The Wildlands, the fact you need to unlock the warp points by aimlessly wandering the dunes is a massive bummer. The lack of level and enemy variety means that most of your exploratory efforts, especially the ones involving the side quests, feel incredibly monotonous. When you enter your first dungeon, you might initially be excited at the prospect of fighting Egyptian mummies and skeletons as they appear to be an enemy type exclusive to the Dead Dunes. However, as time passes, you discover they are the ONLY enemies you fight in the tombs, and their novelty wears thin by the halfway point of the second dungeon. However, the gravest sin of the Dead Dunes is its lack of commitment to Vanille and Fang's story arcs. As I have said countless times prior, the fact Vanille is locked away in an optional cutscene that you can miss or even witness AFTER starting your adventure with Fang is a MASSIVE miscalculation. Everything you do with Fang, and even the concluding moments wherein religious zealots steal the Holy Clavis at the last minute, mean much more when you have the context of Vanille being tortured by this shitty religious cult. Watching Fang fall into a depressive state, knowing she has failed, lacks much of its impact if you don't fully appreciate what is at stake. That and Square-Enix's inability to pull the trigger and have the two be lesbian lovers continues to weird me out.
Part 12: Lather, Rinse, Repeat - The Sazh Formula (Also, We Need To Talk About The Chocolina Plot Twist)
My frustrations with Square-Enix's wishy-washy attitude with Vanille and Fang are compounded by the fact that, after you beat Grendel, it does two character throwbacks that feel like a waste of time. First, Lightning speaks to the specter of Cid Raines, who warns the church of Bhunivelze has deceived both her and Vanille into thinking they can avert the end of the world. Also, he lectures on how Vanille's sacrifice will essentially destroy the dead and cause everyone to forget about their lost loved ones before Bhunivelze resets the universe, and knowing this would result in Lightning losing all memories of her sister, she vows to stop the ritual even if it means defying the god she has pledged to obey. I have no idea how many Final Fantasy XIII defenders are still on this website these days. Nonetheless, I want a roll call of how many of you put Final Fantasy XIII's Cid Raines on the top of your list of characters you wanted to make a recovery in Lightning Returns. I would have set Rygdea, Jihl Nabaat, or even Yaag Rosch above Cid Raines in terms of character throwbacks to the original game worth exploring. And it says so much about how little planning Square-Enix put into the story and worldbuilding of Final Fantasy XIII that they felt more comfortable about going with Cid instead of Galenth Dysley, who was the WHOLE POINT OF THAT GAME, in terms of peeling off the veneer of Lightning Returns.
The second source of frustration stems from the game's final pre-conclusion sequence centering entirely on Sazh. Now, don't get me wrong. I like Sazh and thought his character moments with Vanille, especially when you got to the casino level, were the best parts of Final Fantasy XIII. However, the issue with Sazh in Lightning Returns is that what we get from him is a soft reboot of the same story arc we have seen twice. YET AGAIN, his son, Dajh, is stuck in a frozen slumber, and your protagonist needs to give him the willpower to fight through his grief to resurrect his son after he's failed countless times prior. That's what happened in the first game; it's what happens in this game, and if you bought the Sazh DLC for XIII-2, you got a slight deviation from this formula, but it's close enough that you still get déjà vu. And I've been avoiding the frequent criticism some levy at this game about it being incredibly convenient that all of the characters in the world have these solvable problems and issues they have been struggling with for HUNDREDS OF YEARS that Lightning can remedy in minutes. This quibble is incredibly petty for side quests, given that it's a by-product of needing to cram in the expected amount of content anticipated of an RPG. With Sazh, I'm a little less forgiving, considering the story implications are that, as the world teeters closer to the end, all he's been doing is moping about how sad he is he can't play with his son. There's also some shit involving Lumina, and her connection to Sazh remains a convoluted mess from beginning to end, but you could say that about Lumina in general.
AND HOLY SHIT, the mission design with the Sazh stuff is the most vanilla-ass shit imaginable. It doesn't help that he's tucked away on the furthest right-most corner of The Wildlands, and you can only get there in the first place AFTER you fully heal the Angel of Valhalla, a point the game does not at all make clear to you and necessitates the completion of at least a half-dozen side quests. When you discover Sazh and watch his sob story, you learn that Sazh's anger during Final Fantasy XIII-2 broke Dajh's soul into fragments, and you need to re-assemble them. Like the rest of Lightning Returns, there's no correct order to acquire these fragments. Likewise, your mission log only provides the most basic details on where to look for them. Worse, you can even find Sazh in different parts of the world, but his presence is almost always a sign the correct location is on the opposite side of the map from where you find him. What ensues next is a LOT, and I mean A LOT, of aimless wandering around and waiting for pips on your map to appear. It does not help not all of the fragments are in The Wildlands, with one in Yusnaan and another in the Dead Dunes. The in-game mini-map sucking complete shit and the lack of quest markers in Lightning Returns make almost all of the side quests an absolute boor if you are not using a guide, and that's very much the case with Sazh's missions. This sequence plays like a glorified hidden object game, which is innately shitty, considering it's necessary for you to get the good ending. There are plenty of platforming sequences and two boss battles to tackle. The first, against a dragon in the battle arena in Yusnaan, goes down quickly enough, but the Cactuar in the Dead Dunes is a real fucker that can be a pain if you fail to prepare for them.
The missions and quests during this mini-chapter all feel like busy work, and the fact the culminating cinematic, after you get all of the fragments, hits all of the expected notes without an ounce of creativity or ambition was disappointing. Sure, it's heartwarming to see Sazh play with his child. Still, considering he's exactly where he was at the end of Final Fantasy XIII, and completing this questline doesn't result in Sazh prominently coming into the fold of the main story, it feels like a complete waste of time. However, Sazh isn't the part of this chapter people on the internet talk about incessantly. No, everyone wants to discuss the big "plot twist" involving Chocolina. Now, I want to clarify a bit of revisionist history associated with this reveal before we get into the crucial details. Foremost, you can outright miss Chocolina telling you her big secret if, after completing this mission, you fail to talk to her at any point before starting the end game. Additionally, what she says to Lightning is a one-off line, and the game doesn't let her words marinate in any way, shape, or form. She says what she says and then immediately greets you to check out her bulletin board for mini-quests. The people who made this game did not adequately understand what the revelation with Chocolina would mean to ANYONE playing this game.
So... Chocolina is the tiny Chocobo that lived in Sazh's afro during the first game. This statement is entirely factual, and no one will dispute it. When Chocolina first graced us in Final Fantasy XIII-2, and everyone's first reaction to her was one of horror at her proportions and outfit, I don't think anyone foresaw this being the ultimate conclusion of her character arc. As I said, it's lamentable that the writing doesn't revel in the insanity that this plot twist presents. It fobs off any reflection before it marches forward toward its incredible ending. However, GOOD GOD is it something extraordinary! To the game's defense, if you complete a side quest in Yusnaan, you will encounter a woman resembling Chocolina who asks Lightning to find her lost Chocobo friends. When you locate these companions, she transforms into a bird and joins her friends in a plaza where they dance perpetually. However, right before she switches back to her bird form, she mentions one more person like her that Lightning might meet if she continues performing good deeds in the world. Correspondingly, one of the earliest missions you complete to reawaken Dajh involves Lightning talking to Chocolina and getting hints that she is interested in seeing Sazh happy before the world's end. That's all fine and dandy, but STILL, WHAT BLACK SORCERY ALLOWS BIRDS TO BECOME HUMAN-BIRD HYBRIDS LIKE CHOCOLINA?! WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?!
Part 13: The Dearth Of End-Game Content (And Most Of It Is Bad)
There isn't any denying that Lightning Returns overstays its welcome. You can alleviate that problem by opting into as little end-game content as you'd like, but be aware there's an associated risk in doing that. Regardless, I'm getting ahead of myself. Your adventure with Sazh represents the final quest you MUST COMPLETE before Day 13 unless you want to unlock the game's bad ending. As mentioned in the previous episode, Noel, Snow, Caius, and Grendel/Parandus MUST be defeated before the game reaches its final day. If you pussyfoot too much in this game, entering a fail state is a genuine possibility. Therefore, setting a relatively conservative goal of beating the mainline quest of each environment every two days, which leaves enough time for Sazh and side questing, is my recommendation for newcomers. However, during my playthrough, I did not do that and even tried to finish certain levels, like Luxerion and the Dead Dunes, in a single in-game day.
I have a sickness when it comes to games like these. When an RPG provides me with a limited amount of time to experience the richness of its story, I min-max my shit in the worst possible way. For example, since Persona 3, I have been in the camp of always trying to complete the storyline dungeons in the Persona franchise in a single in-game day, so I have more time to interact with the social link stuff. That includes Person 5, and yes, I even did this with the Memento shit and pulled it off outside of one. It was not a fun experience, but that's how my brain works, and I retracted my ability to criticize the Persona franchise's dungeon design years ago. When the going got tough with Lightning Returns, I used cheese tactics and balance exploits to get past roadblocks meant to signal I needed to turn around and level up Lightning through side quests. You can't get too angry at me because my bad habits paid off, and I had completed all of the requirements to initiate the "good" ending by day nine. And let me tell you, that was WAY TOO MUCH FREE TIME for the side quests that remained before me.
With so much of the core gameplay relying on completing optional missions, it is INSANE to me how thoroughly antiquated the structure and signposting of these missions are at times. The vast majority of the side quests are only tricky because the game lacks helpful UI/UX or quality-of-life features to make even the simplest tasks not laborious and time-consuming. I have harped on the game needing quest markers or symbols to differentiate quest givers from random NPCs or a mission log that marks essential information on your map or highlights vital terms or names in different font colors before, but it is worth bringing up again. The time-sensitive nature of the tasks is also more often a source of frustration than a clever way to co-opt every part of the world into the story's themes on time. There is no more frustrating feeling than picking up a mission from a quest giver only to discover you need to sit on getting it done for a handful of hours until the next target spawns, do your business with them, and then need to wait until the next day to cash-in the quest because the quest giver is gone and will not spawn until the subsequent morning. But that's not all; the difficulty spikes with these missions are all over the place. The simple fetch quests rarely present any difficulty, and then sometimes there are missions like when the main village in The Wildlands gets attacked by a monster, and you find out it's a boss encounter designed for a New Game+ playthrough.
However, there are plenty of diamonds in the rough worth praising. In Luxerion, there's a mission called "The Girl Who Cried Wolf," and I not only liked how you cause the source of the quest to cease with their pranks, but you can also fail the mission if you do not complete it in time and that person ends up murdered in the streets. I already mentioned the optional task involving Vanille. Still, it's a genuine shocker when you discover that she's in agreement with the religious order she adheres to because she is struggling to block out the voices of everyone who has ever died in the universe. Speaking of plotlines that take a dramatic turn, how could I forget about "Buried Passion" and "To Save The Sinless." When you pick up the former quest, it presents itself as being no more than a simple fetch quest for a book lover, and the first two missions encapsulate that vibe. You learn more about Ranulph, the petitioner of the mission, and his fondness for a young baker. However, at the last leg of his bibliophilic excursions, you are presented with the option of opening one of his diaries. If you do, you discover he's been suppressing his memories of his wife and child's murder. When you elect to present this information to Ranulph, he demands you find out who did this, only to find out it is the wayward father of the young baker that he's been raising like his own son. Ranulph wrangles with his options but elects to pretend he never knew the truth and even wipes his memories again as if he'd never met Lightning. This game fucking GOES PLACES, and when it cuts the bullshit, you get the sense the writing team wanted to tell some exciting stories. The problem is they had to write hundreds of stories to keep this game loaded with content. Otherwise, people would have realized it doesn't have enough range to fill the gaps between its handful of storyline set pieces.
Nonetheless, there is one aspect to the side quests and main missions that I must call into question. Considering the ultimate narrative goals for Lightning Returns and where and how it culminates, it's bonkers how little of the game serves its end goal. NOTHING from the start of the game until Day 13 honestly prepares you for the rollercoaster ride that is the final battle against Bhunivelze and the cinematic that ensues after that conflict. Also, we need to talk about Lumina. She might be one of the clunkiest and worst-used foreshadowing devices in a modern Square-Enix game. She also has zero personality. Say what you will about Final Fantasy XV, but Ardyn chews up the scenery in every scene he's in and has that shit-eating grin that makes you want to punch him in the face whenever you hear him cackle away. He has a role, and he fits that role perfectly until Episode Ardyn completely fucks everything up; more on that another day. Lumina is a plot device that pops into every scene where it is convenient for a lore dump and obliges. When you discover what her whole deal is, it's astounding that of the game's thirty to forty-hour playtime, less than five percent of her dialogue has anything to pertain to her and why she's so invested in watching Lightning progress down a very linear path towards figuring out the god she's taking orders from is shitty. Instead, she serves up flashbacks to Serah or long lectures about lore no one, but she knows.
Part 14: The Final Level Difficulty Spike
As I have said countless times prior, I LOVE Lightning Returns' story but merely tolerate its gameplay. Nonetheless, I completed around 85% of the side quests and even unlocked the optional dungeon. I tried that dungeon, and upon discovering it was nothing but a series of linear corridors leading to the omega versions of every possible encounter, I noped right out of there and initiated the game's conclusion. The immediate consequence of my decision was that I ended up missing out on the game's best equipment and weapons, and those items would have greatly assisted in my late-game struggles as some of them give you ridiculous buffs like "Resistance to Physical Damage +100%" and "Increase ATB Refresh Rate By 10%." I mention all this because, going into the game's final act, I thought I was more than ready for anything the game would unleash. The preceding side quests gave me that sense as every enemy evaporated within seconds of me spamming no less than three to four moves. And yet, the last two levels of the game absolutely kicked my ass, and upon reviewing GameFAQs at the time of the game's release, I was not alone.
The good news is that the start of the conclusion is one of the better-done action set pieces short of the ending cinematic. Lightning endeavors to stop Vanille from performing the "Soul Song," knowing it would further Bhunivelze's goals of resetting the universe and erasing her sister from existence. She then runs towards the massive cathedral in Luxerion only to find it overrun by monsters. As she attempts to fight off a wave of enemies, she watches Noel, Snow, Sazh, and eventually, Fang join her effort to stop Vanille from sacrificing herself. When each character enters the stage, they perform fun and flashy finishing moves that we remember from the last time we saw them, and it is one of the few times when the game's fanservice felt entirely justified. There's even a fun bit when Fang temporarily tags along as an ally, and it is immediately noticeable how much faster you can progress through the church while she's there. Though you stop Vanille, the Apocalypse still happens thanks to a fake Hope descending from the heavens and transforming into Bhunivelze. That might sound crazy, but it doesn't even crack the top ten list of craziest things in this game. However, the best part about this revelation is Lightning's reaction. When presented with a battle against the god of creation, she shrugs it off and says something along the lines of "Well, if I have to kill God, then I guess I have to kill God."
While the subsequent boss encounter looks AMAZING, the battle itself is a colossal pain in the ass. Luckily, the game gives you a slight gimmie in the form of an optional dungeon right next to the entryway to Bhunivelze. It also spawns Mog, who sells restorative items at a massive discount. Unfortunately, unless you have memorized how to take advantage of the execution-based gameplay, that optional dungeon becomes not so optional as it provides Ultima Weapon. The problem is that you acquire this weapon by completing four sequential, similar-looking linear mini-dungeons that all play the same. While here, you run through stairs and narrow corridors that reek of OG Final Fantasy XIII's level design. Likewise, you constantly interact with the fiddly equipment menus because there are four dungeons. You have to create a set of three ideal set-ups for one journey and then tear them apart and start from scratch for the next dungeon because each level has a distinct quirk or element you need to utilize to get through it efficiently. It's a complete slog and downright malicious considering that the enemy encounters in front of you are virtually unavoidable because the corridors provide no wiggle room to sneak around them. Everything culminates with a mini-boss that either goes down very quickly if you mastered the Stagger System and have the appropriate abilities equipped, or it beats the ever-loving shit out of you. It isn't a great playing experience, but I recommend it if you are not playing the game on "Easy."
Then you have Bhunivelze. I mentioned how Bhunivelze and Caius are the two bosses that almost led to me quitting Lightning Returns, and there's a good reason for that. With Bhunivelze, you have another boss battle that boils down to picking up on uncommunicated windows of opportunity to block giant laser beams or floor-sweeping attacks. While that was undoubtedly frustrating with Caius, it's much worse with Bhunivelze because he has multiple forms. Each form sports a different cornucopia of attacks with additional frames of animation you need to note if you want to beat him and not meet an untimely demise. For some, that is easier said than done, but I am someone with vision issues, and as a result, I barely was able to get past Caius, and it took me HOURS to finally get Bhunivelze to go down for the count. The emphasis on execution-based gameplay and pattern recognition honestly frustrated me to no end because I took the time to invest in almost every side quest the game had to offer. Here, all that effort was virtually pointless because the crux of the battle relied more on me needing to double down on staggering and pattern recognition rather than exploring new trinkets from my exploratory adventures.
The first mode of Bhunivelze was never an issue beyond needing to pop a potion if I got too careless. However, starting with the second form, the game stacks the deck too much against the player. The second form would spawn damage-dealing goons and swap elemental forms that occasionally made my magical build utterly pointless. I know it's a sore point I keep bringing up, but it is wholly unacceptable you can only have four abilities attached to any given garb, and block commands need to occupy one of those ability slots. With the magical version of Bhunivelze, because I felt as if I was better off with one tank build, one DPS build, and one magic build, I never felt like I was able to have every element represented in my offensive arsenal. The third version, which is the proverbial physical attacking form, was equally annoying thanks in part to him having an "I'm charging up a 'Fuck You' laser beam attack, and you better learn how to block this shit, or else you are not going to finish the game," attack. In this case, because it is the third stage of a four-part boss battle, needing to go through TWO PHASES to get to this one form so I could learn the pattern sucked complete and total shit. And for the final version, it's a gimmick battle. Your attacks do virtually no damage until you stagger Bhunivelze, but it is unclear which abilities are optimal in making that happen.
And FUCK ME, but there's so much shit you need to look at and process on your screen when tackling the flashier bosses in this game! Every magical spell Bhunivelze summons fills the screen with indecipherable bullshit, leading to me taking more damage because I couldn't see shit and did not notice other enemies were fucking me up. You combine that with needing to look at Paradigms and the shitty oscillating wave-based Stagger Meter, and it simply is a cacophony of visual bullshit. Likewise, there's something about the Dragon Quest franchise's mantra, primarily led by Yuji Horii, that getting to the end of a game is not a matter of "if" but "when" that I desperately wish Square-Enix would cease viewing as a gameplay detriment. I know this will sound like "sour grapes," but I hope Square-Enix never returns to the boss design of the Final Fantasy XIII series. Every single one of these games has had some completely fucked final bosses that felt entirely unfair to the player. The Orphan boss in XIII and the Bahamut boss in XIII-2 all jump to mind, but I might as well mention the first battle against Barthandelus. You shouldn't have to fiddle with your party compositions, or character builds if you have reached the final boss. If you expect players to sink hours of their lives into a video game, you should have their well-being in mind in what you put in your video game.
Part 15: GOD BLESS SQUARE-ENIX! THOSE MANIACS STILL GOT IT!
Now, we have eaten our vegetables and can finally eat some cake. To double back to a previous talking point, when Cid Raines shows up in the magical spaceship Lightning lives in with Hope, shit starts to get weird. First, upon reaching the final in-game day, when Lightning arrives in the spaceship, she discovers Hope missing. When he re-appears, he reveals that he wasn't actually Hope and instead a "collection of memories" Bhunivelze cobbled together while she wasn't looking to give her false confidence that this mysterious god-like figure that IS OBVIOUSLY PLOTTING SOMETHING might be alright. He later becomes a conduit for the final summoning of Bhunivelze, but then the "real" Hope appears after you defeat him as Lightning ascends into the vacuum of space. Oh, right, did I mention that the ending cinematic of Lightning Returns takes place in space, and all of the action involves Lightning SUMMONING THE SOULS OF ALL WHO HAVE EVER LIVED TO CREATE A SPACE SWORD TO KILL GOD?! I also can't forget that Lightning's whole team is there to help her fight the god of creation. It's the ending of Gurren Lagann, but even crazier!
Before we get to that, I cannot emphasize enough that while the ending revels in the most excessive CG ridiculousness one would expect from the Kingdom Hearts franchise, it also extolls no less than THREE separate lectures about the banality of human nature. Right when Lightning defeats Bhunivelze, he bemoans Lightning's actions and justifies his by claiming he was trying to create a new universe free from hate and wickedness. Lightning rebukes him by saying humans are those negative emotions and tells him off for "not understanding the soul of humanity," as if this is a Persona game. She then stabs whatever weapon you are wielding in the ground and then attempts to drag Bhunivelze into the void of chaos. Lightning then becomes the reincarnation of Etro, the Goddess of Death, and exclaims that sacrificing herself to rid the world of Bhunivelze will be her last act. While shouting, "I will bring you salvation!" she summons balls of light and shoots a giant laser beam of white energy to throttle Bhunivelze into the abyss. But before the god of creation gets sealed away, Lightning also STABS HIM IN THE FACE so she can free Hope's soul to live in the new universe that got created.
The scene then juxtaposes to Hope, who beckons for Lightning in the dark abyss. However, Lightning attempts to ferry him to his new life, thus leaving her behind, by saying, I SHIT YOU NOT, "Go. It's a new world. A world of hope." The cutscene then shows us Hope's mother and father, whom we have not seen since the first game! Lightning explains that someone has to stay behind to prevent Bhunivelze from breaking free from his shackles, and she prepares herself to live in a realm where she is perpetually at war with him. This idea is incredibly fresh because, last I checked, there was a colossal dickhead who had no value for his life and was perfectly fine living a life away from modern society while fighting demons in perpetuity (i.e., Caius). The story can't have things end with Lightning living a life without happiness. Therefore, we see Serah on the throne of Etro, but this Serah reveals herself to be a fake. The doppelganger Serah lectures about "missing something" inside her, and the two have a one-minute conversation about soul theory and why emotions and feelings of pain are essential. This conversation is only two minutes removed from Lightning stabbing god in the forehead.
But that's not all! No, it's time for us to learn about the identity of Lumina! You see, Lightning had to raise Serah all by herself after their parents tragically died, as is usually the case for Final Fantasy protagonists. However, for Lightning to develop a newfound sense of independence, she rejected her true feelings and emotions many years ago, and this act caused a part of her soul to leave her. That part of her soul is Lumina, and when Lightning accepts Lumina back into her body, she becomes whole again and can exit the abyss of chaos. They do this by Lumina hugging Lightning as they cry magical tears of unfathomable sadness and combine to form a single person in a pseudo-Magical Girl transformation sequence. Think of when Kami fused with Piccolo but more anime. Also, Lightning's real name is Claire Farron, and Hope drags her out of the abyss, and they begin to explore the new universe created after the battle against Bhunivelze. We discover that Vanille and Fang have led the souls of the dead to be reborn, and Yeul is still alive. However, just as the characters start to chum it up while in space, Bhunivelze returns. Knowing that there is only one way to defeat him, Lightning calls upon the power of friendship and the souls of all of humanity and forges a sword that shoots a laser beam that kills god once and for all. This scene happened, and I'm so glad I saw it before my death.
In some ways, Lightning becomes beatified into a new god of creation, but there are other loose ends to address before Lightning can restart the universe. First, there's the issue of chaos, which Lightning allows, stating that it makes humans "human." Second, to prevent chaos from spreading or getting too out of control, Caius, now the god of death, and all but one Yeul, are tasked with fighting it back for eternity. Don't worry, Caius hand-picks one Yeul to act as Noel's squeeze after he promises to keep her happy for the rest of her new life. Then, everyone dies.Seriously. All the characters you know from the Final Fantasy XIII universe burst into balls of energy and, with smiles on their faces, they up and die. However, Lightning begins lecturing about all she's learned about life and human nature since the first game's events. As this speech happens, the screen shows some oddly familiar-looking celestial bodies. Eventually, that culminates with the camera panning over Jupiter's Great Red Spot before the camera shifts to Mars. Then, as the Sun rises, we see planet Earth. That's right. Lightning seeded Earth with life. She made it happen. She used a Super Sentai space sword to kill god to make Panspermia happen. And her final lecture? That dialogue isn't just for shits and giggles. That shit is directed at you as a reminder that the world of Final Fantasy XIII sacrificed itself so you could live your best possible life. Ancient Aliens are a bit of a JRPG trope, what with Xenoblade Chronicles using it as the crux of its worldbuilding since the onset, but this revelation somehow one-ups that. It's one of the most incredible things I have seen from modern Square-Enix, and I loved every minute.
I want to posit this question to those who hate Lightning or Final Fantasy XIII. What does it feel like knowing you are canonically a part of the Final Fantasy XIII universe? Final Fantasy XIII is inside you. How do you feel knowing Lightning sacrificed everything she knew and loved for you to live the life you live? Also, I can't help but think back to everyone that gave Square-Enix shit for the Lightning x Louis Vuitton promotion as a horrible example of selling out or shilling. THEY GOT YOU; it was a long con, and THAT SHIT IS IN-UNIVERSE! Lightning in that advertisement was just the game reminding you that she's real and we exist thanks to her! And we cannot forget the final epilogue where we see Lightning exit a train while carrying that same Louis Vuitton bag as she darts off into the sunset to live her new life in France! IT'S INCREDIBLE NONSENSE, AND IT'S THE BEST THING! Even if you hated Final Fantasy XIII and everything it represented in terms of the direction it took the Final Fantasy series or Square-Enix, you owe it to yourself to watch the ending of this game. It's that good.
Part 16: Should You Play Lightning Returns?
Yikes. I have presented this exact question with every one of my retrospectives on the Final Fantasy series, but this is the first time I dreaded needing to answer it. First, let's address the elephant in the room. This game is the conclusion of a trilogy, and that alone might prevent most from giving it a shot. If that's the sole reason you're hesitant to take any of my praises of this game to heart, then consider this "Machete Order" I have been stewing in my brain since I finished Lightning Returns. That order involves starting with XIII-2 and then going to Lightning Returns and treating the original Final Fantasy XIII like an optional spin-off prequel. When you stop and look at all of the twists and turns with how this sub-series ends, we can safely agree that Lightning Returns is where Square's heart always was regarding the story they wanted to tell with these characters. Still, the initial result was an unmitigated tire fire because it took them forever to generate the art assets for Final Fantasy XIII.
However, even if you go into Lightning Returns expecting a wacky anime adventure, it does not provide enough of that on a regular interval to make it your best option. If you want that from Square, your best options remain Final Fantasy VIII, Chrono Cross, and MAYBE Xenogears. Everything it fills in between its significant set pieces and story moments is filler. The nigh fifty fetch quests you can complete are filler. The out-of-place context-building missions when you first enter new levels are filler. The historical lectures you have with Lumina are filler. The slow walk and talk sequences where Hope barks at Lightning through an earpiece are filler. There's a lot of fluff in this game, and it does not help that vast swaths of it are technically uneven and outright unsound. The NPCs might as well be autogenerated assets you can buy in bulk from Epic, and the monotonous environments rarely pop out to the viewer. Often, Lightning Returns fails to meet the level of technical excellence expected of anything with its namesake by a thousand leagues. The rough technical edges and its use of the same menu-based equipment and battle systems as its predecessors, while significantly deviating from them in terms of its combat, make it feel like a game with an identity crisis.
Likewise, I must affirm that the way the game plays and controls will not be to everyone's liking. I came around to the game's fanservice-heavy notion of "dress up," but I must warn any potential buyers you can't do that as freely as you'd like. With so many of the game's more prominent roadblocks requiring you to be fully invested in its execution-based combat, outfits that allow you to engage in fun roleplaying often fall to the wayside in favor of min-maxed abominations. And that execution-based gameplay presents a massive barrier for those of you that struggle with dexterity games that require quick wits and even faster reflexes. Simply mistiming a single buff or debuff could spell immediate failure when you least expect it, and if that sounds like a bad time to you, think again about giving this game a shot. It will require you to develop plans to take advantage of specific elements or abilities to get to its end. Finally, if you don't like tearing apart everything you've painstakingly made in terms of character builds, this is not the game for you.
And yet, I loved this game. It tries its best to emulate the series' high points with half the time and half the budget. "Workmen-like" is the best way to describe Lightning Returns, but I don't feel it correctly gives the game or its creators enough credit. This game should not work. It's held together with duct tape and features the same characters in the same world that, up to the point of its release, had become a punchline on the internet. Despite that, it is the best game in the Final Fantasy XIII sub-series by a country mile. It is more fun than Final Fantasy XIII and revels in its sheer audacity leaps and bounds better than Final Fantasy XIII-2. It does more with less than its predecessors and even some mainline entries in the series. Never in a thousand years would I have imagined a universe where I felt some connection to Lightning or Snow after moaning about them being the worst-written characters in Final Fantasy XIII. However, here we are now, and I can safely say those stupid goofballs mean something to me. Besides a few examples, everyone feels more fleshed out and better than ever!
The peaks it achieves are worth seeking, even if you have no plans to play Lightning Returns. Watch the final cinematic and epilogue and just be gobsmacked at the sheer brass balls on the people that still have clout at Square-Enix and how they use it. Everyone who says Square-Enix has "Lost their touch!" or suggests, "They don't make games with stories like they used to," needs to be tied to a chair and forced to play this game. This game pines for and manages to reach the wackiness of Final Fantasy VIII's orphanage scene or Final Fantasy VII's moment at The Crater. The game is a tightrope act perched atop two skyscrapers trying to balance the risk-taking nature of Squaresoft's "Golden Age" with the free-wheeling sensibilities of modern Square-Enix. And I've got to be honest with you; it pulls that off. Some of you reading this blog have yet to play Lightning Returns, and I can honestly say your life would benefit from it being a part of your gaming lexicon. And as people on the internet like to say, if you play it, Lightning Returns will live rent-free in your head for the rest of your life. There's no possible way to forget Lightning Returns, and there are only a few games that can have that impact on people. So, fuck it, play Lightning Returns. If you do, your quality of life will improve, but I refuse to be held liable if that doesn't happen. And it is on that note another series draws to a close. Will I write another one of these retrospectives ever again? WHO KNOWS! Life is short. For my sake, try to have a good laugh once in a while!