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To each and every one of you reading this; be kind, earnest, and nice to those around you.

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Finishing Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII [Part 1] - Honestly, This Game Isn't As Bad As The Internet Says!

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: You Might Be Asking, "ZP, Why Are You Playing This Game?"

I look forward to close reading the plot twist with Chocolina at some point in 2023.
I look forward to close reading the plot twist with Chocolina at some point in 2023.

Don't ask me why, but I have been thinking about Final Fantasy XIII again. We are coming up on the game's thirteenth anniversary, and with it already in the "classic" games category in most video game databases, I could not help but think about it. As I said at the start of my thorough examination of Final Fantasy XIII-2, no game in the world plays, looks, and feels like Final Fantasy XIII with even half of its production values. Suppose you have found a game that merges tales of Norse Mythology with Hot Wheels-like Michael Bay Transformers and bosses that resemble Victorian-era chandeliers. In that case, I encourage you to drop a comment. Just be aware my first reaction is to call it "bullshit." I respect the game's hutzpah, even if I cannot in a thousand years imagine a universe where I proactively recommend people try it. I, on no uncertain terms, find it a narrative clusterfuck and an abominably dull playing experience. Unless this website opened up its wallet and paid me gobs of money, I do not have the gastrointestinal fortitude to go through endless linear corridors with streams of pointless trash mobs ever again. And I will go to my grave that everyone who says, "But Gran Pulse is where the game gets good!" is high on their supply.

And yet, I cannot deny the legacy of Final Fantasy XIII. As I mentioned, the game is coming up on its thirteenth birthday, and there's no denying a non-zero number of people on this Earth say XIII is the game that sold them on the franchise. Lightning, Vanille, Fang, and Serah are gaming icons for many people, especially in LGBTQ+ circles. I know at least two people who told me that Vanille and Lightning were characters that led them to discover or cement their current orientations and more power to them. However, another "legacy" of Final Fantasy XIII often gets unreported that we need to discuss before I get into the weeds of Lightning Returns. Square-Enix was in a technological bottleneck in the aftermath of Final Fantasy XIII. Against the advice of virtually every single developer at the time, they built a new in-house game engine, Crystal Tools, specifically for Final Fantasy XIII. While this engine allowed for stunning cinematics and still unheard-of production values, the initial investment was enormous and only partially paid off. The only titles to use Crystal Tools were the Final Fantasy XIII games, Dragon Quest X (i.e., the MMO), and the bad version of Final Fantasy XIV. Speaking of which, the "catastrophic meltdown" for Final Fantasy XIV at launch was revealed later in an internal review as primarily the fault of Crystal Tools. You might recall when Final Fantasy XV was known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII. The game's hard pivot was mainly due to the game's open-world structure being a complete pain in the ass to design using Crystal Tools. As a result, the internal team working on the game shit-canned their initial Crystal Tools-based prototype and transitioned the game into a different engine (i.e., the Luminous Engine).

Oh man... this game sure is NOT a looker! Remember how the cutscenes in Final Fantasy XIII still hold up?
Oh man... this game sure is NOT a looker! Remember how the cutscenes in Final Fantasy XIII still hold up?

RPGFan's Derek Heemsbergen describes Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII as "a desperate attempt to squeeze one last game out of the aging [Crystal Tools] graphical engine." That's correct on paper, but a handful of nuances are worth reviewing as well. First, it would be wrong to call Lightning Returns entirely a Creative Business Unit 1 production, even if that is what Square-Enix wants you to believe. Well-known JRPG developer tri-Ace assisted with XIII-2, and Square-Enix expanded their role with Lightning Returns to include working on the game's design, art, and programming. As we will review in a different section, you can feel and see tri-Ace's influence as many of their hallmarks take center stage and are more prominent than in XIII-2. Second, Lightning Return's production time was one and a half years. When I harp on the game's SHODDY graphical rough edges, that fact is reason numero uno as to why! Lightning Returns' empty or partially realized environments make a lot more sense when you recognize the people behind it had less than TWO YEARS to make it and were using an aging, flawed game engine on top of that. Third, Square-Enix wanted the game to react directly to many criticisms directed at XIII-2. Lightning Returns deemphasizes the episodic format of the previous game but doubles down on its widely praised bubblier sensibilities. It was obligated from the get-go to tear down all the mechanical work its predecessors had accomplished and, instead, went back to the drawing board.

And we must talk about what inspired this game because it might be my favorite underappreciated detail about Lightning Returns. In subsequent interviews, director Motomu Toriyama, who would go on to co-direct Final Fantasy VII Remake, cited three primary sources of inspiration for Lightning Returns. The first, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, should come as no surprise as Lightning Return's open world seems like a shameless attempt to get on the open-world conga line that existed in the mid to late 2010s. The second source of inspiration is the Doomsday Clock. For those who have played Lightning Returns, you know the game has a time limit that breaths down your neck every second you play it. The idea of the characters veering closer to an apocalyptic event that will level the world they know and love stems from Toriyama reading about this obscure attempt by scientists to graph how close we are to a man-made global catastrophe. Now, speaking of the game having a timer looming over you like a proverbial Sword of Damocles, that too has a direct provocation, and it's not too hard to identify if you have been playing games for more than a handful of years. Just think about famous video games that provide players with limited hours and days to avoid a worldwide disaster. Did Chrono Trigger come to mind? How about Majora's Mask? Well, both of those answers are wrong. Lightning Returns' story is the way it is because Motomu Toriyama saw 2011's "In Time," starring Amanda Seyfried and Justin Timberlake.

This is not a drill. This is real. Honestly, when was the last time you thought of this game?
This is not a drill. This is real. Honestly, when was the last time you thought of this game?

The film resonated so strongly with him that he thought its story could be the crux of an entire Final Fantasy game. I'm not joking. Why am I playing this game? Because this game is a fucking mess, and I love it. It should not exist, yet, it does.

And did I say that Hope is back? Buckle up. This game is going to be a wild ride!
And did I say that Hope is back? Buckle up. This game is going to be a wild ride!

Part 2: The Complete And Total Shit-Canning Of Final Fantasy XIII Is Undeniable But A Net Positive

In my preamble, I previously spoke of fans of Final Fantasy XIII, and I have it on good authority that Lightning Returns does not enthuse a portion of those fans. I have a pretty easy time imagining why that might be the case. Starting with Final Fantasy XIII-2, the core conceits and spirit of Final Fantasy XIII became largely deemphasized. In the first game, we had heady themes of large state-run entities stripping away humanity's destiny and a large pantheon of deities. Gameplay-wise, plenty of people like the Paradigm System, view it as a pseudo-rhythm game, and enjoy toying around with party compositions to add variety to the game. With Lightning Returns, we have three gods, one playable character, and the Paradigm System is a complete afterthought. The only named characters that get any love are the main party members (i.e., Snow, Hope, Vanille, etc.) from the previous two games, and Lightning Returns cares fuck all about any other ancillary characters. Barthandelus, and whatever the name was for his religious organization, might as well not exist on this timeline because the only place you will find them is in the in-game codex.

Because people are still ripped up about this scene.
Because people are still ripped up about this scene.

Some might call this a "rude awakening," but you should be aware there's some post-game DLC for XIII-2 that does a decent enough job of scaffolding the franchise's transition to Lightning Returns. In the Lightning DLC for XIII-2, you take control of Lightning without any companions, and your only way to change up her abilities is to swap out different garbs or dresses. It's also entirely built around a single boss fight, much like the combat arenas in Lightning Returns. It provides cinematics based on your ability to tackle the looming threat, in this case, Caius, in front of her. This format is basically what Lightning Returns employs across its four significant environments (i.e., Luxerion, Yusnaan, the Dead Dunes, and the Wildlands). I agree it is complete bullshit that Square-Enix locks their primary vehicle to on-ramp players on what to expect in the third Final Fantasy XIII game behind DLC. Worse, that DLC is no longer available on some digital marketplaces like PSN, but it's there. It exists and does a decent enough job of priming the pump.

And as someone who felt the main story of Final Fantasy XIII was glorified technobabble and impossible to follow, I am entirely okay with Square-Enix scrapping the game and committing to more character-based stuff in Lightning Returns. Final Fantasy XIII-2, despite all of the timeline bullshit, was a more straightforward story to process because, at its core, it was a character drama focused on two player characters (i.e., Serah and Noel). Lightning Returns is one giant step easier because, outside of the god shit, which I am not saying does not exist, all you need to do is follow Lightning and register her reactions to the world around her. This version of Lightning, by the way, while significantly different from her two previous performances, is more impressionable. That's because she's the center of the game's stage, and you don't have to worry about the out-of-place character or party transitions muddying the waters as you did in Final Fantasy XIII. I enjoyed the brutal simplicity of the narrative giving you Lightning's perspective, and just her perspective, because you can better see her character transformation throughout the story. She starts as a naive but pessimistic discipline of a god and slowly becomes more invested with the people around her and is more earnest in her interactions with the NPCs.

I mean... JUST LOOK AT THIS GUY! How can you hate a game with THIS GUY!
I mean... JUST LOOK AT THIS GUY! How can you hate a game with THIS GUY!

I also wonder why people get upset that the last two games in the Final Fantasy XIII series get campy. There were no fruitful plot threads to explore after the end of Final Fantasy XIII. If you wanted to re-enact Snow and Serah's wedding and honeymoon, MAYBE there was something there, but raise your hand if you think that would justify a whole game. If you enjoy the pie-in-the-sky worldbuilding of Final Fantasy XIII, you can view the game as existing in a microcosm. However, it says A LOT that Lightning Returns is more comfortable honoring and fulfilling the narrative plot threads of Final Fantasy XIII-2 than the original game. At no point does Rygdea or Hope's father pop out of the woodwork and say, "Hey, remember me!" because no one fucking remembers those characters in the first place. Noel is an anime shit boy, but he's memorable, and Lightning Returns is aware of that and has an entire set piece devoted to him instead of any of the named Sanctum characters. Caius is barely in a third of Final Fantasy XIII-2, and he gets more air time in Lightning Returns than 80% of the non-Lightning party members. These are good creative choices because the writing of Lightning Returns provides a more welcoming and trimmed-down set of named characters without the nobodies from the past two games, and that helps in dealing with the series' long-standing "Proper Noun Problem."

Part 3: The Format And Pacing Of The Game Is Its Greatest Attribute And Its Greatest Weakness

The maps in this game are only a marginal improvement over Final Fantasy XIII.
The maps in this game are only a marginal improvement over Final Fantasy XIII.

But how does Lightning Returns play when in motion? To the game's defense, it makes a stunning first impression. The opening level for Lightning Returns is shockingly blow-for-blow, the same as the opening concert of Final Fantasy X-2. Like Final Fantasy X-2, Lightning Returns invites players into a backdrop they have never seen before, even though it takes place in an established universe whose rules are already known. The new location is tonally unlike anything they have seen or felt. The recurring theme of Final Fantasy XIII was new-age space technology, and Final Fantasy XIII-2 went one step further by going into a distant alternate reality. Lightning Return plops Lightning, in a form unlike we have ever seen, into a medieval masquerade populated by Egyptian Anubis-looking monsters. If you accept that the game is silly nonsense, I can see this introduction working for you, and that was the case with me. Much like X-2's initial concert, everything you see and hear during this masquerade is glorified anime-ass horseshit, and just like the preceding example, it put a big dumb grin on my face. It's hard to get angry at video games that are as eager to please your senses as X-2 or Lightning Returns. Still, as I highlighted before, this introduction is infuriating if you are holding out on the Final Fantasy XIII series bearing to ANY of the deft severe tones of the previous titles.

While the game waits until the next set piece to spew its lore, the characters that populate this starting world are more than happy to shout the proper nouns you might remember. Lightning is on a quest to save her sister, Serah, yet again, and her target during the tutorial level is none other than Snow. Both characters are alien enough in their behaviors that they might as well be new characters, but that's a point we will discuss shortly. Right now, the important thing is what happens when you finish the tutorial and begin wrapping your brain around Lightning Returns' equipment-based combat. After Lightning fails to reach out to Snow, anime shit boy Hope (circa Final Fantasy XIII) warps Lightning back to what we discover is god's starship hovering over the world. Hope identifies four locations on the planet that contain significant sources of chaos that need to be dealt with and marks those locations on Lightning's map. And so, Lightning Returns reveals its format. For all intents and purposes, it is an open-world action roleplaying game with four explorable environments, each culminating in a final boss battle. These worlds are Luxerion, Yusnaan, The Dead Dunes, and The Wildlands.

This is still definitely bound to stress some people out.
This is still definitely bound to stress some people out.

You can tackle these environments in whatever order you want, and you are encouraged to leave an environment when you butt against enemies or bosses that pose too much of a problem. Each story local has a smattering of side quests that unlock depending on the time and whatever day it is in the game. This point reminds me that this game is similar to Majora's Mask in several regards. Every time you warp into the explorable worlds of Lightning Returns, a timer starts and counts down the hours, minutes, and seconds you have left for that day. The bosses in the game's four environments represent "hard targets" for any playthrough, and the eventual twelve days it poses start to become more tangible. Theoretically, a modest goal of beating a boss every three days with a handful of side quests to boot seems reasonable. Unfortunately, unlike Majora's Mask, whose pacing and structure fit its timeline-based storyline with almost surgical precision, Lightning Returns is a fucking mess. Depending on your playstyle, you will either end up with gobs of time with nothing to do or be frantically panicking on the final day. There is no middle ground.

There's no denying that the game's day and time limit might be off-putting for many people. If you scan GameFAQs circa 2013, you'll read about dozens of people reaching Caius or Snow and needing to restart their playthroughs because they ran out of time. However, this situation will only happen if you experience significant struggles with the game's combat and equipment system or dedicate too much time to side quests. If you want my advice on eliminating this risk, I recommend playing the game on its easiest difficulty setting. The blocking mechanic, which I will discuss next episode, is no fucking fun, and the two to three bosses that require you to execute this mechanic with pixel perfection suck ass. You get nothing from playing the game on its standard or more challenging difficulty setting. If you want an experience that melds better with its silly and over-the-top story, the lowest difficulty setting best accomplishes that. That said, if the very notion of a game limiting your completionist sensibilities even the slightest bit makes you uncomfortable, this game is not for you.

Also, the star rating system is one of the only carry overs across all three games and I don't know why.
Also, the star rating system is one of the only carry overs across all three games and I don't know why.

However, there's another common foible cited with this game's structure. Swapping between the prominent locals is more challenging than you'd think, and the different conflicting fast travel systems don't overlap. The fast travel system in the Dead Dunes doesn't communicate with the train system in Luxerion, and neither melds with the Chocobo in The Wildlands. Worse, the game presents itself as an open world, but it has a preferred order in which you tackle the environments and bosses. For example, in Luxerion, there's a side quest involving Vanille, and completing it sheds a decent amount of light on Fang's motivations in the Dead Dune. Yet, you can miss this entirely or experience it out of order. The bigger problem comes from the boss evolution system, which I praise as an exciting concept worth utilizing in the future. As you progress days, three out of the four bosses in the game (i.e., Snow, Noel, and Grendel) advance and become harder versions of themselves. The best example of this mechanic is Snow, whose Cieth corruption gets increasingly worse and his attacks more damaging as you near the end of the game. It's a novel idea sabotaged by the fact that it can completely fuck over players that end up saving the bosses in favor of side quest completion or other tasks. Likewise, the number of evolutions each boss has is all over the place. Snow has three forms, Noel and Grendel two, and Caius one. As a result, saving Snow for the end results in one of the most challenging bosses in the game if you don't know what you are doing, and that is wholly FUCKED!

Part 4: The Gameplay And Mechanics Are Flashy But Fiddly As All Fuck

Yet again, the worst part of a Final Fantasy XIII game is playing it.
Yet again, the worst part of a Final Fantasy XIII game is playing it.

I ended up coming around to the mechanics and gameplay of Lightning Returns more than I thought I would. I'm not going to stand here and pontificate about how it is the best playing 3D Final Fantasy short of VII Remake. Nonetheless, something must be said about its DNA's massive influence on VII Remake and how it is not as wretched as its critics might have you believe. Honestly, I find limiting players to a single playable character laudable. I always found managing Paradigms and party compositions in Final Fantasy XIII overwhelming. That's especially when the game calls you to utilize them with near perfection, and XIII-2 is only a marginal improvement. Lightning Returns uses the same stagger system as its predecessors but elevates it above paradigms. The mechanic is far more critical than it ever has been, and when you pull off a stagger, it feels far more rewarding. And if there's something I challenge even the most ardent Final Fantasy XIII critics to concede, it would be this same stagger system. The fact that it works so well in VII Remake proves that Square-Enix's insistence on sticking with it after decades of criticism was worth it. There's also more weight put on status effects (i.e., buffs and debuffs), and they even last longer. As a result, the "plate-spinning" usually innate to the previous Final Fantasy XIII games feels far less potent. And in terms of making Lightning feel like a complete badass disciple of god seeking to waste heathens and sources of corruption, it leaves you with that feeling, more often than not, with most of the combat resolving in seconds.

The first significant mechanic I want to review separately is the dress and equipment-based ability system. In Lightning Returns, jobs and classes are assigned to Lightning, not through the Crystarium, but through outfits you can don on her. Every suit or dress has specific affinities and stats that it increases or compliments; some even come with a move or two locked in one of four slots associated with that outfit. You can fill empty slots with any unused actions or commands you have gained from completing quests or downing enemies. For example, when you put a maroon dress on Lightning, she earns extra points to her MP bar and has a level-three fire spell. Right from the rip, this system is far more flexible and interactive than either version of the Crystarium. The most prominent downside to this system is immediately apparent. With only three outfits at your disposal in any given battle, and four possible moves to configure, you have a total of TWELVE options to select from on a good day. That's a far cry from the treasure trove of possibilities and moves you had at your disposal in the previous two games, and it conflicts with the sense of creative "dress up" the game seems to be scaffolding. Worse, the game's loot drops of better moves and commands are all over the place, and Lightning Returns' upgrade system is a carbon copy of the incremental upgrade system of Final Fantasy XIII.

Making outfits takes way too long thanks to the menus staying the same.
Making outfits takes way too long thanks to the menus staying the same.

I'm not going to lie and say I didn't discern any modicum of joy in dressing Lightning up with silly outfits and having her spew her lore-heavy lines while looking like a doofus. I enjoy how the accessories are purely cosmetic and add nothing to her stats, and they are there for pure roleplaying purposes. More games with character creation systems should consider having decorations be untied to the levels and abilities of player characters. However, this equipment-based combat system could be better. The first issue is that the game's menu system is the same as Final Fantasy XIII's, and editing and playing around with Schemata is no fun and feels fiddly. There are also many balance issues with this mechanic, but this is often an issue with any class-based RPG. However, there's no more frustrating feeling than, upon completing a long-winded side quest, Lightning nabs a new dress, and it turns out to be worthless compared to others in her possession. There are also a handful of outfits you get at the start and mid-point of the game, which feel incredibly overpowered and eviscerate any sense of difficulty for hours upon end.

This point leads me to a massive "make or break" aspect with this system that I consider neither a "pro" nor a "con." It is merely a fact of the game to be aware of if you end up playing it after reading this post. When the game eventually ratchets up its difficulty, it does so no differently than the odd difficulty spikes in Final Fantasy XIII or XIII-2. You'll often wander a random wasteland wearing the same three outfits that have done you solid for the last two to three hours until the game plops a new enemy, and none of these outfits do a lick of damage on them. In this case, the game requires you to pick up on the moves employed by this enemy, including their possible elemental affinities, and retool your outfits accordingly. On the one hand, having this in place keeps you on your toes and forces you to try out new wardrobes you might not have considered before. Additionally, the climates you are in provide subtle hints about what elements you can expect to encounter. On the other hand, getting KO-ed in Lightning Returns sucks, and there's a trial-and-error element to its random encounters that is incredibly frustrating. Sometimes, I would be in the mid-point of a dungeon, run into a new enemy type, get my ass handed to myself, and need to retool Lightning's shit from scratch to move three paces forward. These difficulty spikes happen out of nowhere, by the way, and pose massive impediments to any given playthrough. Also, this is incredibly selfish, but I HATED it when the game forced me to trash outfits I had spent a considerable amount of time customizing for min-maxed costumes I sloppily made in a few minutes.

This incremental crafting system still sucks and is a waste of your time.
This incremental crafting system still sucks and is a waste of your time.

Speaking of mechanics that I should mention but do not have strong opinions about, let's review how items work in Lightning Returns. At the start of the game, you can only carry five items, including potions, ethers, and Pheonix Downs. There are only a handful of item merchants in the game, with Hope being one of them, and as you complete side quests, you can increase Lightning's pockets to carry up to NINE items. As a result, this game forces you to either reconcile its execution-based gameplay sensibilities or accept that you will need more time to finish it. And by that, your playthrough will likely jump by five to ten hours. The fact that the game caps the number of potions and Phoenix Downs you can carry means that you can't just slop through its final bosses or levels like any other Final Fantasy game. If you fail to grasp the subtle blocking mechanic or never nail the stagger system, you might not be able to finish this game in the first place. As frustrating as that might seem, I have to tip my hat to the people behind this game for finally resolving a common complaint with the Final Fantasy games. Everyone likes to complain that the final levels of modern Final Fantasy games feel like a cakewalk. I wouldn't have gone the brutal route this title went with, but I have to give it to them; it is a solution.

Tangent: The DLC Is FUCKING BUSTED!

DLC that is busted in the meta? SAY IT AIN'T SO!
DLC that is busted in the meta? SAY IT AIN'T SO!

I want to classify this as a side tangent because I want to discuss this point only in a few paragraphs. In Lightning Returns, there are only two ways to increase Lightning's base stats. Unlike in most RPGs, you level up Lightning not through experience point assemblage but through upgrading and collecting new outfits and completing side quests. For now, I want to discuss the former of these two options. Lightning can improve or worsen her ATB meter, HP, MP, or core stats when she dons a new dress. It's a highly unorthodox system but think of it as an odd marriage between the junction system of Final Fantasy VIII with the Dressphere system of Final Fantasy X-2. For the most part, the game does a fine job of making sure the progression of the more advanced and capable outfits coincides with your story progression, but with one MASSIVE exception. If you have any DLC or pre-order bonuses, this gets thrown out of the window. The two most BUSTED outfits include the Cloud Strife First Class SOLDIER armor and the Yuna Summoner dress. For those of you playing the game on an Xbox platform, all of this is still available, and for those that buy the Steam version, it comes packaged in for free. Unfortunately, due to the shutdown of legacy digital marketplaces, PS3 owners are shit out of luck.

DLC and pre-order bonuses being broken is nothing new. Still, in this case, it is worth reviewing because the two outfits I listed above can get anyone through two-thirds of the game without even grappling with some of its core mechanics. The Yuna outfit has an "Elementa" ability that shoots out four orbs, each representing the elements, and hits all targets in a battle with every tier three elemental spell. This is usually a late-tier ability and one that requires a lot of questing to acquire, and you can have it at the start of the game. The Cloud Strife outfit is even more busted because of its unique ability if used when an enemy or boss is staggered. Its "Slayer" ability essentially one-shots all non-boss enemies or, in the case of bosses, halves their HP. The best way I can describe how big a deal these two garbs are is to compare them to the Drake Sword in OG Dark Souls. Like the Drake Sword, you can slop through to about the game's mid-point if you get these outfits early. However, in doing so, you avoid interacting with enemies and levels as intended and skipping possible on-ramps to core mechanics.

At least this outfit looks cool.
At least this outfit looks cool.

Part 5: I Love The Story In This Game?

Up to this point, you might suspect I am anemic on Lightning Returns. I have mostly been unenthused by its mechanics and other gameplay embellishments. That all becomes secondary when talking about the game's story because, on that front, the game is modern Square-Enix in its most potent form, and I mean that as a warning and compliment. This game is the most buck-fucking-wild story they have ever penned short of Final Fantasy VIII, Chrono Cross, or "peak" Kingdom Hearts. It was a fucking rush, and I think I loved it? After things settle following Lightning's attempt to reach out to Snow, Hope summarizes everything that has happened since the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2. With the death of Etro, the goddess of death, everyone in the world of Final Fantasy XIII is now immortal and can't die unless they starve or have some nasty magical shit hit them. All of the NPCs we have seen in the game? Yeah, they're all five hundred years old, including the children!

Oh, word?! THEN WHAT ARE WE DOING HELPING OUT USELESS RANDOS?!
Oh, word?! THEN WHAT ARE WE DOING HELPING OUT USELESS RANDOS?!

Lightning's mission is to perform tasks for the god of creation, Bhunivelze, to abate the incoming end of the world, which is set to start in thirteen days. She does this by completing tasks for NPCs, resulting in them giving their souls to Lightning so she can feed them to the godly flower of Yggdrasil. All of this happens in a big white spaceship in the stars called "the Ark," and whenever the characters talk about god and "salvation," you feel like they are one step away from knocking on people's doors and handing out pamphlets about Jesus Christ. However, as the story progresses, two complications develop. First, Lightning's role as the "Savior" is revealed to be oriented more towards shepherding humanity to a new world rather than altogether averting the destruction of the known universe. Certain characters, like Fang and Snow, call foul to this, which is why they are hesitant to assist Lightning when she reunites with them. Second, a specter named Lumina taunts her along her journey and encourages her to stop her quest to save humanity and give up on ever seeing Serah again. The game presents Lumina as this big mystery, which would have worked if the foreshadowing of her ulterior motives weren't so thick I thought I was being slimed in a live-action Nickelodeon game show circa 1999.

The schlock continues when you start the "real" story in Luxerion. When Lightning arrives, she walks into a murder scene. She discovers an apocalyptic cult is sacrificing women that look like her in the belief they can appease the god of creation to make a new universe where death returns. Next is a whacky series of hijinx to track down the headquarters of these cultists and identify who their leader might be. That leader is dramatically revealed to be none other than Noel, and I thought that was the funniest shit in the world. Noel has had hundreds of years to move on from the death of Serah and process his failure to protect Yeul, and instead, he started a death cult. He wants to end the world because the only two sets of tits he has ever seen are dead. That's his story arc. It's the dumbest shit imaginable, yet the game has Noel say all of this directly into the camera with deadpan seriousness. It's the best. And after Lightning beats Noel in a battle, she slaps him in the face and knocks some sense into him that there must be another way to bring Serah back, and then all of the cultists disappear without any pomp or circumstance.

This is also an AMAZING putdown from Lightning to Noel.
This is also an AMAZING putdown from Lightning to Noel.

It's worth noting that all the characters have the same motivations as they did in Final Fantasy XIII. Snow is sad that Serah is gone, and Lightning needs to punch him in the face to not be a sorry sack of shit. Fang is gay for Vanille but only in a PG-13 hand-holding way and needs to convince her not to perform a ritual to end the world so they can continue holding hands. Noel, Yeul, and Caius are thrown in to remind you Final Fantasy XIII-2 exists, but even they have been soft-rebooted to revert them to their original states. Caius is pissy because Yeul is stuck in a loop where she always dies, and Noel refuses to do anything about it because he's failed one too many times to have it in him to try again. It's the same shit you have seen before, and in some cases, this is the third time you have seen these character arcs. However, it works this time because the characters FINALLY have distinctive personalities beyond mad, sad, and happy. Caius has an impeccable shit-eating grin when he gets the last laugh, and Fang has a fun moment where she throws her hands in the air when she realizes all she's been doing for the past five hundred years is searching for MacGuffins. With this game not giving a shit about taking itself seriously, the characters and voice actors finally get to let their hair down. That makes the story miles better than any of the previous games set in the Final Fantasy XIII universe.

Right... at some point I do need to talk about Lumina.
Right... at some point I do need to talk about Lumina.

However, the greatest beneficiary of Lightning Returns' rampant silliness is its namesake: Lightning. While I could moan about how this is Square-Enix's third soft-reboot of the character with the same parts they have used TWICE PRIOR, it's hard to get that angry when things work as well as they do. From the onset, Lightning is the same stone-faced stoic she was in Final Fantasy XIII. However, as you interact more and more with the NPCs and the main quests of any given environment or level, you start to experience her recurring storyline. The initially gruff and spartan soldier becomes invested in the people she talks to and helps, making her "turn" at the end of the game highly believable. There are plenty of times when Lightning has this sense of "Oh, GOD, I hate this mission and don't want to be here listening to this guy talk about his problems!" but that slowly gives way to missions where Lightning sounds increasingly more earnest and even joins in on the fun from time to time. I have played the XIII games with English and Japanese voice acting, but Ali Hillis is better than her Japanese counterpart this time. I always felt that with a better script, she could have done wonders to elevate Lightning as a character in Final Fantasy XIII, and luckily she got to do that here. During the infamous "Meow Meow Choco Chow" scene, she does a far better job conveying a sense of "God, I hate my life and everyone around me right now."

Bonus: The Great Valkyrie Profile Conspiracy Theory

Let's return to how you level up Lightning. As mentioned earlier, there are no traditional levels in this game, and Lightning improves her stats by collecting newer and better outfits or completing side quests. When it comes to side quests when you complete one, a "Misson Accomplished" screen pops up and displays which stats that particular mission boosted, and the rewards are all over the place with little rhyme or reason. For example, at Luxerion, there's a mission titled "Suspicious Spheres," and it requires Lightning to run around the world, find three mysterious orbs floating around the city, and return to the quest giver after she has found them. Conversely, the "Girl Who Cried Wolf" quest requires Lightning to track multiple phone booths, talk to an NPC, and find a girl in a different location HOURS after you theoretically start the mission. The first mission, a short fetch quest, rewards HP +40, Strength +4, and Magic +2, and the second quest, a multi-part and even time-sensitive process, nets Lightning HP +40, Strength +2, and Magic +4. In this case, and endlessly throughout the game, the shorter side quests are better or on par with the longer ones that can take multiple in-game days to complete.

That's certainly one way to approach stat growth. I'm still unsure if I like it.
That's certainly one way to approach stat growth. I'm still unsure if I like it.

There are other issues to discuss regarding the game's side quest system, such as the lack of NPC quest markers, the mini-map sucking complete ass, and the utter lack of sign-posting for these missions, but that's a topic for the next episode. Overall, I enjoyed the side quests because they are cheaply made but emotionally honest. As I played the game, I couldn't help but respect what the game was trying to do. I don't know if assisting Bhakti to deal with the inevitability of death or conferring with Gordon Gourmet to reconcile his differences with his father will stick with me forever. Still, for now, I cherish them like they are otherworldly possessions that give me the spiritual strength to defeat Satan. The writers tried incredibly hard to put these big goofy-looking people and objects alongside the main plot, and while the result is bewildering, you have to respect their hustle. Outside of the game's ending, the side quests provide some of the best laughs you'll get and some of its most memorable moments. Every time I initiated a mission and saw a different Unreal Engine autogenerated NPC clad in the same shitty accessories I could don on Lightning, it made my heart flutter. When I noticed how the hats on the NPCs aren't even touching their heads, and there's a line of space the developers didn't manage to catch, I fucking whooped, I tell you, I whooped.

However, completing these side quests and interacting with NPCs to make Lightning stronger is a friendly reminder of a curious "conspiracy theory" associated with Lightning Returns that many have forgotten. Completing missions to increase your character's stats is not a novel idea. One such game that employs a similar concept to Lightning Returns is Valkyrie Profile, a classic game in tri-Ace's back catalog. In Valkyrie Profile, experience points are obtained from exploring dungeons and completing tasks either identified in the dungeon or prior. After completing a task or mission, these event-oriented experience points are divided among party members however the player sees fit. Also like Lightning Returns, Valkyrie Profile is divided into short arenas and chapters, with each chapter and day bestowing different items and pieces of equipment. The similarities between the two games are so uncanny that there's been a fan theory that Lightning Returns is a scrapped or rejected prototype for a Valkyrie Profile game.

And some of the environments feel like fancier versions of Valkyrie Profile levels.
And some of the environments feel like fancier versions of Valkyrie Profile levels.

As the theory goes, tri-Ace wanted to make a new game in the franchise after Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, but Square-Enix wasn't interested and needed the studio to tag along and assist with Final Fantasy XIII-2. Again, all of this is hearsay, but as the theory claims, when the time came to make Lightning Returns, tri-Ace offered up their prototype to serve as the game's skeleton. It is essential to say that Square-Enix maintains Lightning Returns is a Square Enix 1st Production Department project through and through, and tri-Ace assisted with visuals, cinematics, and engine-oriented programming. I prefer to give Square-Enix the benefit of the doubt. Also, this theory overbills the cache of Valkyrie Profile and how much tri-Ace even values it as an IP. There are as many similarities between Resonance of Fate and Lightning Returns as there are between it and Valkyrie Profile, but no one seems to be putting on their tin foil hats for that one. Still, I would also not discount them putting out feelers when they started working on the game and a tri-Ace employee describing Valkyrie Profile bleeding into the game we now call Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. No matter; it's a fun debate topic I wanted to bring up before I closed out this first outing. When we meet next time, I plan to get into the structure of missions, boss battles, and the wonderful time I had with Noel, Snow, and Vanille.

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