What Is Lightning Returns? (Finale)

Day Six-Fourteen

Lightning in her war corset, or
Lightning in her war corset, or "warset".

Here it is, the final part of my unexpectedly (by me most of all) thorough analysis of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, a game that should by all rights not exist. A second sequel for a game that didn't seem well-received enough to warrant the one? As we've discovered, however, there's many more unusual facets to the game beyond its being, as the cast and world of Final Fantasy XIII's Nova Chrysalia faces its ultimate demise. Very much the Final Fantasy's series equivalent of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, right down to the strict time limit, the unusual connections to its predecessor(s) and the overall dour and macabre tone of a world facing its imminent extinction from a menace all too apparent.

But hey, we all had fun, right? Let's just get this over with. I had other games I wanted to play this year.

Story

So let me tell you what the days leading up to Day Thirteen were like. The week following Day Six was designed to be a buffer in case you weren't efficiently going through the story missions at the ridiculous pace I took. However, the game does a wry thing here to punish slowpokes by boosting the strength of several story bosses after Day Six. There's also stronger weapons and equipment to buy, monsters start dropping more powerful abilities and you're far more likely to start bumping into Last Ones, all of which drop malistones (needed for upgrading abilities) and usually a powerful weapon, garb or accessory. The fairly tough Behemoth-esque Reaver enemies of the Wildlands, for instance, drop an extremely powerful sword upon going extinct. Because there are only ever 30 encounters each for the large-scale enemies, it doesn't take a whole lot of effort to wipe those species out, and you get some powerful equipment out of it. Of course, the big enemies are also the best source of EP in the game (four points per encounter!) so there's a downside to being a genocidal maniac too. Who'd have guessed? Then again, it's not that you really need to worry about Chronostasis any more, so exterminate away.

The game also recognizes that players are wont to do everything as quickly as possible, so during the second week they roll out a few additional Canvas of Prayers challenges, giving them more fetch quests to do if they've run out of story missions. There's also a late-game set of missions that lets you re-open the roads between each region of the game, allowing you to take long walks across dilapidated freeways to different areas of Nova Chrysalia in lieu of teleporting or the monorail. These areas have a lot of chaos seeds and large enemies, so they're great sources for Last One superweapons and the rewards chaos seeds provide - usually a lot of money, needed for the expensive weapons/garb/upgrades that appear in the late game, but there's also some excellent curatives you can earn from hitting milestones, including the all-powerful Elixir.

Either way, the game's very leisurely paced at this juncture; it's like the weekend for those who do all their homework on a Friday night, so to speak. The player can either opt to go full OCD and start wiping out species left and right (and the game's happy to accommodate those weirdos, increasing the number of monsters within encounters as the days roll on) for every reward the game can offer, or they can choose to sleep through the next few days and wake up in time for the end of the world.

Day Thirteen is something special, in contrast. Rather than spending the day languidly rolling through the four regions, checking the Canvas of Prayers and seeing what monsters are still left to curb stomp, we are immediately taken to the Cathedral of the Order for that dangling plot thread regarding Vanille's self-immolating ritual to appease the suffering of the souls of the dead, and Lightning and Fang's attempts to prevent it. At least, that's what's supposed to happen on the thirteenth day. Instead, completing a certain number of side-missions creates an extra day, during which the game's optional dungeon opens up.

Imaginatively called the Ultimate Lair, this place is essentially a boss rush against every Last One in the game. If, like me, you didn't go too overboard with the OCD monster extinctions previously, you can find every Last One here for your bestiary and grab their valuable item drops without the tedious process of thinning their numbers beforehand. If a monster's already been exterminated they won't show up again here, so those floors count as freebies. You can also skip ahead if you don't feel like taking on the advanced forms of the game's more dangerous enemies. At the very bottom is Ereshkigal, the game's superboss. (Well, other superboss, I should say. There's a certain interdimensional dragon in the desert that's a major pain to deal with.) The game pulls an Ozma on me here, making this boss one that flies out of reach. This means the devastating Artemis's Arrows skill can't hit it, forcing me to depend on my normal attacks and spells. It's not an easy fight, especially as it starts spamming instant-kill attacks towards the end, but one can cheese it right back by wailing on it while its guard is temporarily down with the time-freezing Overclock. As much as I tend to lift up the FFXIII trilogy for its fast-paced strategic combat, it's easy to fall into a routine with this one. Maybe I'm just bored of trying to come up with strategies that aren't going to be anywhere near as effective as "stagger the enemy, then spam Overclock and one's strongest attacks until it finally keels over".

One thing I did like about the Ultimate Lair is the way they tried to tie it into the story. Hope and Lightning theorize that the place was built to create forms of life that would be more pliable to Bhunivelze's (aka God's) demands, rather than the fickle and chaos-steeped human race. The entire dungeon is filled with God's experiments in creating a superior mortal being, each more terrible and destructive than the last. All it needs to complete the Neon Genesis Evangelion connection is a teenager whining about his dad (hey Hope) and Goofy covering its main theme.

Day Fourteen follows immediately after, and railroads us to the Luxerion Cathedral, just before Vanille is to perform the Soulsong ritual that will destroy the souls of all the deceased. I'm a little reluctant to get any deeper into the actual ending, in case there are folk who still want to see it for themselves. Needless to say it involves a huge boss fight with Bhunivelze and everyone uniting together to spirit bomb the eff out of their creator deity, so rather than focus on that showy but somewhat generic anime ending I'll go into the characterization of Lightning and how it culminates towards the end, with what feels like an opportunity to vindicate a character that has been problematic to a lot of series fans for various reasons.

Lightning's meant to evoke the sort of tortured protagonist that Final Fantasy began to trade in back with Final Fantasy VII onwards. A protagonist that the player ostensibly was in full control of, but had no real sense of what the character had been through or who they were or what they were thinking until the game's plot had progressed further and developed them. Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is a great example of a game that took this concept of an unreliable-narrator-as-playable-character and did something extreme with it. Lightning's a bit less impactful though; she's so reminiscent of those characters that came before, in particular Final Fantasy VII's taciturn Cloud and Final Fantasy VIII's reticent Squall. She's been derisively referred to as a clone albeit a female clone that Tetsuya Nomura could dress in crazy stripper costumes. There's some truth to that, but Lightning's been given her own distinct arc over the three Final Fantasy XIII games and it feels as if the narrative of Lightning Returns is a last-ditch attempt to address the concerns folk have with her and exonerate her derivative origins to some extent by breathing more life into her personality and background. Whether anyone actually asked for this or not is another question entirely, but Lightning is Nomura and Motomu Toriyama's Pygmalion and they won't be stopped by any pleas for rationality, consarnit.

It's no coincidence that Lightning begins Lightning Returns devoid of her soul, having been taken from her by Bhunivelze to keep her compliant in her mission as the Savior. She's even more emotionless and stoic than usual, as if to suggest that her original characterization could've been a lot worse. Most of the more self-reflective cutscenes talk about her lack of a soul, the task she has been press-ganged into and how she could possibly face Serah again knowing that a crucial part of her is missing. The game eventually goes into how Claire Farron, the rebellious teenager who would be Lightning, scorned her selfishness, her innocence and her femininity to be a suitable guardian for her younger sister, becoming the hardened and emotionally repressed Guardian Corps soldier we're introduced to in the first game. Bhunivelze didn't actually take Lightning's soul; she herself sealed it away and discarded it at a young age. We discover that the enigmatic Lumina, a mischievous and spirited pre-teen that looks a lot like Serah, is actually the part of Lightning's soul that she abandoned long ago. She only resembles Serah because so did Lightning at that age.

When the game comes to a head, before and after the climactic boss fight, Lightning comes to terms with the part of her that she repressed, reforms with Lumina and joins the rest of the cast in the new world Bhunivelze created as said deity's corpse is discarded amongst the chaos (that's some gratitude). A world that looks astonishingly like Earth, in fact. I guess that figures.

Mechanics

New Game+: Before we wrap this up, I want to talk about the NG+. Unlike most RPGs that simply throw in NG+ bonuses to encourage people to play through the game again, only having a way easier time at it with all the boons they now have, Lightning Returns is deliberately configured in such a way to introduce a whole heap of new features for its New Game Plus mode. This is because, as a game with a strict time limit, it's very possible for the player to permanently screw up their first playthrough and need to start over.

New Game Plus lets you keep Lightning's stats, garbs, weapons, shields and items. It, of course, removes key items, and replenishes all the monsters in the world if you wiped any of them out, but you're otherwise going back to the beginning with a huge advantage. Add to this the fact that all the missions, side-missions and Canvas of Prayers missions will still gift you bonus stats on top of the ones you've already earned, and you can see how the game might get considerably easier if you couldn't quite handle it the first time. However, there's more.

NG+ is the only time you can upgrade weapons, shields and accessories. Shops now sell and accept building materials with which to make weapons and shields stronger, with higher-priced items needed for bigger upgrades (or to upgrade already powerful equipment). With the accessories, you simply have to find them again. Most are in chests, but some can be obtained by defeating Last Ones. Each one you find upgrades the equivalent accessory you already own, rather than giving you a duplicate.

The NG+ never stops throwing bones your way, even giving you an item right off the bat that lifts the damage limit and lets you power through anything the game has to offer, though it disables the online sharing component of the "battle rank" score you receive after bosses (are people really competing over that sort of thing? Seems odd to have high scores in a single-player JRPG). There's something similar to Saints Row 3's philosophy going on here: the idea that games need to start being more accessible and easier for a broader audience without necessarily eliminating the challenge for those who seek it.

The Bit at the End

Anyway, I am seriously done talking about Lightning Returns now. Every Final Fantasy is always packed to the gills with impressive visual and audio design, as well as ideas and features out the wazoo. It's why I keep coming back, despite some diminishing returns in certain areas of its worldbuilding. I'm certainly looking forward to Final Fantasy XV, should it ever ship, or that HD release of Final Fantasy Type-0. I guess my point is, that Lightning Returns has something to offer even if you have zero interest in the continued adventures of Claire Farron and her inconceivable fashion sense. I also think it has the best Final Fantasy soundtrack since VIII, for whatever that's worth, and it's wonderfully weird in the same way that something like Cavia's Nier or the aforementioned Majora's Mask are. The world's end is inevitable and unstoppable! Everyone's 500 years old! You kill God! (Okay, maybe that last one isn't unusual for a JRPG...)

Obviously, I'm not going to put out an unequivocal endorsement of this game, especially to those of you who really couldn't stand its two predecessors, but it's certainly odd enough to deserve a glance.

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