What is Lightning Returns? (Part 5)

Day Five

Well, I think this will be our last update for a while. As with Day Four, I managed to squeeze a considerable amount of the story missions into this day with careful EP management. I say "careful management" as if I really had to make an effort. There were hundreds of enemy encounters in the Dead Dunes, which regularly kept my EP topped up faster than the constant Chronostasis casts could deplete it.

On the theme of not being entirely straight with you all, I didn't just complete a considerable amount of the story missions. I completed them all. This puts me in a somewhat awkward position of waiting eight days for the actual end of the world to come before the game's story can continue, which I intend to spend doing side-missions and very little else. I won't bother going into detail about that stuff, so instead we'll be picking this feature up around Day Thirteen after I finally the game to its conclusion.

For now, though, I've still got a lot to say about this weird-ass game.

Mechanics

The Canvas of Prayers: Despite the somewhat pious and important sounding title, the Canvas of Prayers is simply the dumping ground for all the side-missions that aren't important or interesting enough to have wandering NPCs attached to them. They are invariably fetch quests, and most require monster drops (thankfully, monsters always drop their "spoil" item. Abilities and other item drop types are a bit less frequent) or objects strewn about the landscape in chests or as sparkles on the ground. Supervising the Canvas of Prayers is the bubbly Chocolina, the time-travelling vendor from Final Fantasy XIII-2, who factors into Sazh's mission line, which we discussed in the last update.

The Canvas is an unessential non-entity in a lot of ways, but at the same time it's an easy means to get a few stat boosts with little effort. Unless you're running away from everything, which isn't recommended if you're low on EP since it powers a lot of useful skills and can't easily be refilled any other way, you'll come away from any exploration or the game's story missions with handfuls of pointless trinkets from monsters. And pointless trinkets is precisely what these people want, for whatever spurious reasons they provide.

Honestly, if the Canvas is proof of anything, it's that Lightning Returns really wants to be Xenoblade Chronicles, or Final Fantasy XII. The sort of open-world RPG that tries to merge elements of contemporary MMOs with a traditional single-player RPG experience, complete with enormous, strategically-placed bulletin boards that always have a dozen fetch quests to do if you're bored. I'd probably be safe in saying that the great majority of RPG innovations in the past decade have come from MMOs, whether it's the lingo (tank, proc, mob, etc.) or concepts that have been tweaked and reconfigured many times over. A successful MMO developer has money to fritter away on additional features that take their fancy, and their game(s) are constantly being improved with the combination of the feedback of an ardent and perceptive userbase and a persistent team of engineers and designers who continue to work on it for months, or even years. It's why early WoW would be almost completely unrecognizable to its present-day players. Hell, those things can continue to take up this weird R&D role in modern RPG design with my blessing, as long as I don't have to play 'em. Let me reap those innovations without the monthly fee instead, I'm down for that.

The Outerworld: The Outerworld is simply the game's fancy name for its (apparently requisite these days) online elements. Demon's Souls set a precedent for this sort of incidental not-really-multiplayer. (It was in FFXIII-2 too, to an extent). Rather than seeing ghost versions of other Lightnings running around, you can create and send messages that appear in other players's worlds as background NPCs. These can be either screenshots or "Lightning's Thoughts": overly serious recounts of the mission/side-mission you just completed. You can also attach items, which is the sole reason you'd ever want to turn Outerworld on, unless you're way into the idea of a less personal and less creative version of Miiverse. Any attached item has a fixed cost, but there's a few you can't easily get anywhere else besides through this Outerworld system (which kind of prompts the question as to how all these online goobers found these items, or why they would be willing to part with them. I haven't figured that out yet.) Importantly, you can get the all-powerful Elixir for a paltry 360,000 Gil, which on top of being a tremendous healing item also has an achievement attached to it, and plenty of Ethers and Turbo-Ethers, which instantly refill your EP. Having a stock of Ethers is how you beat the tougher optional bosses in the game, as any boss strategy essentially boils down to "stagger them, then spam the freeze time/infinite ATB skill Overclock and whack away until there's nothing left". Having a means to keep on Overclocking until the Chocobos come home is very handy indeed.

Story

When we left off, I'd just unlocked the Dead Dunes as a teleport node. The Dead Dunes is a fairly sizeable desert close to Yusnaan, littered with the occasional ruin and not a whole lot else. In the center is the bandit settlement, which they called Ruffian. I cannot conceive of a reason why they would call it that, but then I'm not a desert bandit. But Lightning is, or rather, she will have to be if she's to figure out how to get deeper into the desert ruins or meet the bandit leader, who is revealed to be an entirely new character which the game spends a considerable amount of time developing their perso- nah, just kidding, it's just Fang from the first game again.

Fang's there to find the Holy Clavis, an artifact that Vanille needs to appease the souls of the dead, before the Order gets to it first. Lightning questions this, as Vanille is supposedly the head of the Order, but doesn't really pry too much. After which, Fang actually joins Lightning and becomes the second guest character of the game (after the Angel of Valhalla), helping in battles and such. She isn't exactly stomping everything into the sand like Lightning, as Fang's still human after all, but she's useful because she spams all the debuffs I couldn't be bothered equipping on a schemata somewhere. Seriously, the game has at least seven or eight debuffs and I only have so much room for abilities on these schematas. Most of the rest of the Dead Dunes chapter is spent purloining the tiny satellite ruins for special tablets, and then exploring a really quite deep and multi-layered dungeon of the sort that I haven't really seen any of the FFXIII games do before. This place has timed doors (there's two sets that alternately open/close every hour), switches for doors in completely different areas of the dungeon, pits and ladders that send you up and down and around a circuitous route and lots of treasures and skeletons. I was quite impressed.

After a whole lot of nonsense concerning the activation of murals depicting the creation of the gods and humanity and yadda yadda yadda (all the gods besides Etro are dicks, is the crux), we find the Clavis (it's the Ark of the Covenant, if you're wondering what a "clavis" is) and are then subsequently jumped by Order goons who sic a boss on us. It's the first boss in a while that wasn't just a previous game's playable character, though I'm so ridiculously overpowered at this point (NB: this is what inevitably happens with any RPG that lets you handle a bunch of story missions in any order) that I just completely wreck its day regardless. The Clavis gets surreptitiously spirited away in the confusion, and Fang chases after it. Turns out that the ritual the Clavis is for will kill Vanille, and she's down with it because of her intense guilt over an attack on Cocoon way back before the events of the first game. This ritual isn't meant to occur until the actual final day, however, which is something of a reprieve. We'll just defer that whole "attack the world's largest organized religion" thing until later then, shall we?

While running around the desert, I did happen to come across a cactuar with an afro. Needless to say, this was where the last soul fragment for Dajh was to be found, and after the Dead Dunes were done with I traveled back to the Wildlands to reunite a father with his son. Thanks for showing up to whine about your son some more, Sazh. Still, I got an extra point of EP out of it, so alls well that ends well. Speaking of which, that leads us to the final story mission of the game: the Temple of Etro. This ominous place is the reason we got the Angel of Valhalla all healed up, as it's unreachable without him. The Temple is interesting but rather brief; it's filled with the largest concentration of "unseen chaos", the force that kickstarted all of this apocalyptic business, and we finally discover what the deal is with two characters from the previous game and what the unseen chaos actually is.

So Caius Ballad and Paddra Nus-Yeul were the other two new characters besides Noel Kriess (and that moogle, I guess) that got any major screen time in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Caius is Noel's mentor and weapons trainer, while Yeul is the latest in a long line of prophetic seeresses who die young and reincarnate as an identical person. While Caius is blamed for causing the death of Etro and inviting the chaos unto the world, it's actually all Yeul's doing. Yeul's a mass of identical souls, though they don't all act with a single voice and purpose. A specific Yeul infused Caius with chaotic energy to make him immortal some time ago so he could always be there every time she is reborn; some Yeuls realize that keeping Caius alive for so long is cruel, while others can't bear to let him die. Caius has been at the bidding of a hundred different Yeuls for over a thousand years as a result. The multiple Yeuls are also what created the unseen chaos, as the same soul became splintered and warped after so many reincarnations. It's all extremely dubious Final Fantasy philosophical poppycock of the highest order, but at least the game made a stab at explaining its nebulous force of (perhaps) evil. No explanation as to who or what Lumina is just yet, though. I'm guessing they're saving that one for sweeps.

Anyway, Lightning has to pass through the temple to where Caius is waiting. Unfortunately, she got jumped at the entrance and is hit with a curse: her health constantly depletes while inside the temple, meaning the player has to keep careful eye on the HP bar as time and monster encounters wear it down. At least, that's the idea for the harder difficulties where HP doesn't automatically regenerate outside of battle. Ah well, it seemed like a neat idea at least, albeit the kind of obnoxious one that usually pops up in a Final Fantasy one way or another. Remember that upside-down castle in FFIX? (Also, there's no way I'm giving up 1 EP Chronostasis, relative lack of challenge be damned.) Caius himself is a tough fight, as he switches from multiple attack forms like Lightning does, and is insanely quick. Even with Lightning's general overpoweredness and the lower difficulty, I barely managed to stay alive. Caius decides afterwards he cannot be saved, as his presence in the new world would invite in the churning mass of distilled chaos that is the Yeul collective and cause the same thing to happen, and both fade away into the chaos miasma permeating the Temple. Well, can't win 'em all. However, I did save the soul of one particular character...

My Chocobo! The strength it lent me to get me here shines through, and it's revealed that the reason he feels so familiar to Lightning is because the Chocobo is actually Odin. As in, Lightning's eidolon from the first game. He disappeared after Lightning became Etro's Champion, but apparently eidolons can be reborn as giant chickens. Good to know. I'd say it was the most ignoble thing that ever happened to the erstwhile All-Father, but the dude did get split in half by Seifer once and needed Gilgamesh to bail him out. Man, you want to talk about weird Final Fantasy games...

Anyway, with all story missions done, we can essentially just chill in Inns and on the Ark for the foreseeable future. All our meddling pushed the end of the world until Day Thirteen (actually Day Fourteen, but we'll leave that one as a surprise as I happen to know that a completely bullshit optional super dungeon opens up that day) which gives us a week of vacation time. I doubt anything of note will happen, but I'll be sure to preface the next update's Story section if I'm proven wrong.

The Bit At the End

That's it for this episode of "What Is Lightning Returns", and the last one for a while. I'll probably fly through this next week of not-a-whole-bunch in the next couple of days, but who can say for sure. I let myself get invested in silly optional end-game content in RPGs more often than I care to admit. I hope I've done a fair job in elucidating what this game is about and how it continues to pique my interest in unexpected ways, even if the total package might be a little too schizophrenic for its own good and completely inaccessible to the 99% of gamers who couldn't get through the first two games in this trilogy. It's way too damn serious too, except for when it's completely stupid. Yep, I realize that's the dictionary definition of a JRPG, but darn it if the one thing I don't miss from PS1/PS2 era JRPGs are long speeches about how religion is bad every five minutes (and I say that as an entirely non-religious person). That reminds me, I gotta get around to Xenogears one of these days...

Oh right, the end of the blog. Eh, I'll just leave you all with Death Game again. Music's so damn good in this game, in spite of everything.

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