Welcome back one and all to yet another installment of Vry desperately tries to convince the world that Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t completely suck. Today we’re going to be tackling the main story and the characters of Lightning Returns, since the two are pretty much interwoven. Much like the Final Fantasy XIII prime, much of the story is driven by Lightning, her personal mission, and her interactions with her friends and enemies. Which is important to note, because as you find out as soon as the short prologue mission you’ll find out that who falls on which side of that distinction may have shifted in the intervening 500 years that Lightning was snoozing in crystal. This will also cover a good chunk of the story for the game, as most of the main story missions for Lightning are tied directly to her friends. Fair warning, beyond this point there be SPOILERS for the entire trilogy.
We should probably start with our main protagonist: Claire ‘Lightning’ Farron. A lot has happened to Lightning over the course of the trilogy. She was branded a l’Cie, changed her destiny and defied the will of god-like beings known as fal’Cie, was sucked into the Unseen Realm of the Dead, became the knight guardian of the Goddess of Death, got out-chessmastered by a near immortal mad man, and sealed herself away in crystal slumber to avoid the apocalypse. That was before this game starts. At the beginning of this game, Lightning was drawn out of her crystal slumber by Bhunivelze, the ‘true’ god of the world and the being that created the first fal’Cie (Lindzei, Pulse, and Etro) and the world. Bhunivelze tasks her with becoming the savior and to secure as many souls as she can before his arrival to erase existence. In exchange for providing this service Bhunivelze will resurrect Serah, Lightning’s sister who the catalyst for the first game and the hero of the second game that met with a tragic end. Lightning agrees and sets out on her mission, but as things progress she begins to note things are amiss. Like the fact that while she knows she should and normally WOULD be outraged at God using her sister as a bargaining chip, she feels utter indifference towards it. She is driven solely by the goal she made for herself when she entered the crystal slumber – be reunited with Serah at any cost.
Helping Lightning in her mission is Hope Estheim. Hope was Lightning’s travelling partner and pseudo-student in the first game who later would start an organization to help save the world by building a new world for everyone to avoid the apocalypse in called New Cocoon and later just The Ark (Hint: It didn’t work!) Hope’s appearance in this game is that of his younger self as shown in the first game. No one knows why. Not even Hope. He vanished some 169 (Get it? 13 x 13 = 169. HA!) years prior to the game, and when he returned he was regressed to the young boy that Lightning last saw him as and filled with all the knowledge he would need to help Lightning complete her mission. Hope is weird. He routinely tries to push Lightning to focus on her mission and to ignore all the questions she has about her changed behavior. He speaks like he is ancient but with the body of a child, something to be expected when no one has aged in 500 years but here’s the kicker – NO ONE ELSE DOES. In fact, no one ages or matures or anything in that time. Children still act like children, despite being so for hundreds of years. So what’s up with Hope? Well, that is explained later and we’ll get to that.
Next up is Snow. Snow is now the “ruler” of the City of Yusnaan, which considering the last we saw was him continuously beating up a giant Flan monster like Sisyphus in XIII-2, I’d say that’s a step up. Snow has had a depressing turn since his fiance, ‘SERAH!’, died 500 years prior. He’s taken up the habit of becoming the protector of the city and thus its ruler mainly because he feels so much regret that he couldn’t save anything else. He failed to find Lightning for Serah, he failed to protect Serah, and then he failed to protect the world from the Chaos – so now he feels he’s making up for that. It’s also interesting to note that Snow is a l’Cie – a servant bound to a fal’Cie – and no, it’s never explained how he got re-l’Cie-ed after having the brand removed from him by Etro at the end of XIII. Well, it technically is but only in an external light novel that was never published outside of Japan. I really wish Square Enix would stop doing that. These games can be confusing enough as it is without them putting out plot info in other books that I can’t get my hands on. It’s like if the Hobbit movies only made sense if you were familiar with the Lost Tales books… oh wait… Oh! And they were only published in Germany. That’s more like it.
I’ll just tell you though. During Snow’s Most Excellent Adventure through time and space during XIII-2, he found himself struggling to accomplish… well anything. After all, at that juncture Snow was just a normal dude with a super-powered trenchcoat (Yes, that’s still a thing in these games). He can’t jump through time and space willie nilly. But luckily he comes across an actually friendly fal’Cie called Cactuar. They make a pact that Snow would help Cactuar, and Cactuar would make him a l’Cie so he could carry out his mission. That’s why Snow has the l’Cie brand in XIII-2 and Lightning Returns. Back to the actual plot!
Snow has decided that the best way to protect Yusnaan from the Chaos is to absorb all the Chaos into his own body. Hey, he’s a noble protecting of the people. Just not a SMART noble protecting of the people. Actually it seems more like his own personal honorable form of suicide since he’s pretty much lost everything he cares about. Even when Lightning returns (See what I did there?) he makes it perfectly clear that she is NOT the Lightning he knows. Which raises the question, who is she? Snow has a cool mechanic in the game in that the longer you put off fighting him, the more and more he turns into this crystal monster and becomes MUCH more dangerous. So first time players, fight Snow BEFORE Day 7 ends. You’ll be glad you did. Save Monster Snow for your New Game+ or New Game++ playthrough.
Now with Snow out of the way, what about Vanille and Fang? Well aren’t they still trapped in the crystal pillar? NO! For some reason (the will of God? Who knows…) they both thawed out of the pillar thirteen years ago. Vanille also came out of the pillar with the strange ability to hear the dead. All of them. Like everyone who has died since the chaos swept through the world. So 500 years of dead people constantly screaming at her. This has turned her into something of a religious icon for the church in Luxerion. They plan on having her perform a giant ritual to ‘send’ the souls and ‘free them’ as per God’s will. Turns out the truth is a bit less Disney-esque: She is literally purging the souls from the universe. People will forget that the souls and the individuals that once possessed them ever existed. Oh, and it will kill Vanille too. This is all part of Bhunivelze’s big plot to save only the souls HE deems worthy and as chosen by HIS savior. Dude’s a control freak (Not shocking from the ‘diety’ who literally destroyed time itself to find out if his dead mommy was plotting against him.) Enter Fang – who does NOT want Vanille to die. She’s been in the desert trying to find the “Holy Clavice” which is a relic from ancient times needed to perform the ritual. Her idea is to beat the Church to the relic and then destroy it so Vanille can’t perform the ritual. Vanille refuses to listen to Fang about how the ritual is going to kill her, because she feels this is a higher calling and that sacrificing herself to save all these poor souls is worth it. Vanille has had this self-sacrificing guilt thing going on since the first game, and it’s finally coming to a head here. So Fang’s storyline is essentially a Indiana Jones vs the Nazis style race to the huge religious artifact. But at least not before we get some Les Yay laced dialogue between Fang and Lightning (No, this isn’t fan service. It’s CANONICAL fan service. Remember, Fang did use the “Let’s see how far your mark is progressing” excuse to scope Lightning’s breasts in the first game. Fang also has a relationship with Vanille that – to paraphrase the developers – ‘transcends friendship and sisterhood’.)
Rounding out the first game’s crew there’s Sazh. Last we saw of ol’ Sazh was that he was trapped in an outside-of-time Casino playing cards for his son’s life, and then he appears 500 years in the damn future to help during doomsday with no explanation how he got there. Oookay, I was unfair when I said that. It is somewhat explained in the Sazh DLC for XIII-2 when he asks the Casino owner to send him somewhere that he can make a difference. However, it seems that all of that card playing was for not because in the post-chaos world of Nova Chrysalia, Dajh’s soul is missing! His body is fine, just sleeping away in Sazh’s bed, but the soul is gone to who knows where. Thus Sazh’s quest for Lightning is to get Dajh’s soul back. The kid’s soul is split into five pieces scattered across the world. However the easiest to get is the one from Chocolina, who for those who don’t recall is essentially The Doctor from Doctor Who if he decided to open up a store where he landed and dress like a giant chicken. Chocolina is also the baby chocobo that Sazh bought for Dajh in the first game given the power to change into human form by Etro. In this instance, Etro may have been too nice. Chocolina loves to tease Lightning about this and constantly remind Light that Chocolina knows who she is, but Lightning has NO CLUE who Chocolina is.
Well, that’s the original team but how about the XIII-2 characters? Well, you’ll be happy to know that the fates of Noel, Yuel, and Caius are discussed here and oh boy is this one a doozy. Strap in kids. First we’ll get Noel out of the way. Noel is actually the mysterious leader of the Children of Etro that have been killing off anyone who looks like Lightning in Luxerion in hopes of stopping the Savior. Noel wants to kill Lightning not because of her jerking him around like a puppet in the previous game but because Noel has spent 500 years losing his mind obsessing over how to save ‘his’ Yuel, or the last of the Yuels that died in his arms. He was given a Prophecy Drive (an old device used to record the prophecies of the Seeress Yuel) that shows him killing Lightning and being reunited with Yuel. Who gave him this drive? We’ll get to that. Anyway, Lightning and Noel end up butting heads across Luxerion until she finally beats him and leaves him a broken man pretty much.
Caius and Yuel on the other hand? They’re having a much worse time. Caius succeeded in his plan to break open Etro’s Gate and destroy time, and even somehow lived to tell about it. But now 500 years later, his life is a living hell. Why? Because of Yuel. Yuel the girl he fought so hard to save. Yuel, the girl he destroyed time itself so she wouldn’t have to suffer. Yuel, the first human and blessed by Etro to be reborn each time she died because her heart did not fade into the chaos like everyone elses. Wait. Does that mean? Yes siree. When the Unseen World poured out into the Seen World, every single incarnation of Yuel came with it. Now Caius is stuck with them all. The Yuel who loved Poetry, the Yuel who liked Flowers, ALL OF THEM. And worse, they can’t decide what to do with Caius. Some pity him and want him to die so he can at last have peace, but some adore him and want him to live forever with him. Now Caius is trapped and wants to be put out of his misery by Lightning. The irony is not lost on him. However, the more important thing we learn is that the Chaos, this stuff that seems to eat away at reality itself – that’s Yuel’s fault. As she puts it, the Chaos is her ‘love for Caius’ but what that actually means is that her constant resurrections to be with her guardian was the reason that the Chaos was growing and bleeding through into the Seen World. Her very nature of being reborn whenever she died was damaging reality and thus was responsible for pretty much everything that went wrong from the ending of XIII to now. Again, the pity of Etro has messed things up. Then again, that’s the way with fal’Cie isn’t it?
For the final stragglers of the series: Serah is dead, her soul being the first one absorbed by Lightning while she was in Crystal Slumber to “protect it”. Odin, Lightning’s eidolon and ally, was turned into a majestic white chocobo by the Chaos (the Chaos is weird like that and transforms things a lot. Humans don’t get affected because they already have a touch of Chaos in them in the forms of “Hearts” that Etro gave them.) and Mog the Moogle is now the ruler of a village of moogle which is oddly hinted at being where he was from originally in XIII-2 making Mog’s very existence a weird time loop paradox, but since that’s an optional side quest in both XIII-2 and Lightning Returns, it never really gets addressed.
So that covers all the previous characters and most of the story but we’re missing something. Something to unite all this disparate stories into a cohesive whole and the game has given us that in the form of Lumina. Lumina is a brand new character for Lightning Returns who appears as early as the opening cutscene. She is inexplicable woven into almost every main story quest in the game. Who gave Noel the Prophecy Drive? Lumina. Who gives Sazh the box to store and recombine Dajh’s soul fragments? Lumina. Who is constantly pestering Snow? Yup. Who tipped off Fang about the Holy Clavice and the Church’s plot? You bet. So who the heck is she? Well, the long story short is and this is a BIG spoiler: She’s Claire Farron. She’s Lightning’s “heart” for the lack of a better term, given form by the Chaos. When Bhunivelze resurrected Lightning from Crystal Slumber and raised her to the status of ‘Savior’, he cast away her emotions and her heart, leaving her with nothing but her memories and her last goal: be reunited with Serah. She has no real emotional attachment to this goal other than it being ‘The Goal’ so when Bhunivelze uses it as a carrot on a stick to Lightning, she’s sees not someone using her dear sister as bait but as an opportunity to complete the goal. Her discarded emotions, her heart as it were, were discarded and took shape in the Chaos manifesting as Lumina who has a combination of Serah’s looks and Lightning’s snark and compassion for her friends. Throughout the game, Lumina pushes Lightning to realize what Bhunivelze took from her and to try to steer her back on the path to being reunited with her heart, her friends and ultimately her sister – who Bhunivelze never had any intention to return to life. Serah’s soul was to be flushed away with all the others during Vanille’s ritual and then since no one would have any memory of the souls, Lightning would be none the wiser.
Which brings us to the final piece of this puzzle. The grand architect of the Fabula Nova Crystalis himself: Bhunivelze, God of Light and yes, you actually get to meet him in this one. Actually you meet him a lot but you wouldn’t know it because it turns out that the Hope that is inexplicably younger to match Lightning’s last memories of him (She never met older Hope in XIII-2) is actually just a puppet for Bhunivelze himself to speak through. Oh, Hope has his memories buried somewhere, but Bhuni-boy won’t let him touch them unless needed. Hope is just there to help manipulate Lightning into being the Savior, to round up the ‘chosen souls’ and help usher them to his ‘New Perfect World’. Which brings us to Bhuni’s plan. A quick recap: Bhunivelze kills his Mom Mwynn so he can rule the universe himself. He worries that his mother is plotting against him in the Unseen Realm but doesn’t know because as the God of the Seen Realm, his eyes can see all except through the Chaos of the Unseen Realm. He tasks two fal’Cie – Pulse and Lindzei – with trying to break into the Unseen Realm to find out and then goes to sleep until the job is done. He wakes up to find the chaos EVERYWHERE. Yea, that crap he can’t see through? EVERYWHERE. Including in all these humans’ “Hearts”. So he says ‘Screw this, I’m starting over with my own universe where there is no Chaos, no hearts, and no Mom.’ Gets Lightning to do the dirty work and then plans to flush the old universe, dead not-gathered souls and all away so he can play with his brand new shiny universe with his perfect emotionless humans and his Mom won’t be able to stop him despite her being destroyed by the Chaos and turning over her guardianship of the Unseen Realm to Etro for ages already at the time all of this happens but since the Unseen Realm is still a thing where dead stuff goes, use the emotionless-and-has-no-memory-of-Serah Lightning to become the ‘New Etro’ and stand watch over the land of the dead. That’s his plan in a nutshell. I said it before: control freak.
I think that pretty much covers the characters and about 85% of the plot of the game. It’s a bit weird to go about it this way, but the game is extremely non-linear so the only really way to talk about it is by discussing the characters’ roles in each of the quest lines. Next time in our final installment we will discuss the ending of Lightning Returns and look back at the entirety of the XIII trilogy and the first chapter of the Fabula Nova Crystalis. Thanks for reading!
So with Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 now firmly in the ‘dealt with’ drawer, and Type-0 HD along with the Final Fantasy XV demo knocking on the door, it’s time now to look at the final installment of the “Lightning Trilogy” of the Fabula Nova Crystallis – Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Which is kind of a backwards title to be honest. That always confused me. Surely it would make more sense as Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns. But maybe they wanted it to be viewed as more of a standalone game. Which is both odd and completely makes sense because this installment is about 90% references to people and events of the previous two games, and the other 10% is the where and how, and THOSE are completely brand new. Yes, in a weird change of pace, the entire combat system of Lightning Returns is completely different than anything seen in the previous two games and almost seems built as a weird RPG/Fighting game hybrid that somehow manages to actually work really well. As for the places, well… that’s best explained by getting into the set up of the story for this installment.
For those who recall my recap of Final Fantasy XIII-2, the game ended with Caius claiming victory from beyond the grave and the heart of the goddess Etro destroyed, allowing the chaos to pour out of the Unseen Realm and into the Seen Realm destroying the space/time continuum pretty much. Then our main protagonist, Serah, dies and Lightning seals herself in crystal in hopes to ride out the storm for a chance to be reunited with her dead sister someday somehow. Lightning Returns begins 500 years later. Yea. You did not read that wrong. Five hundred years later. Yea, it’s quite the time leap. In that time, the world has completely changed. No recycled areas this time. No, as the sea of chaos slowly consumes the world, the remaining land is divided up into 4 regions: Luxerion – the city of the faithful, Yusnaan – the city of the never ending party, The Dead Dunes – a savage desert, and The Wildlands – a wilderness where folks try to live with nature. Across these four regions, the remnants of humanity try to live out the remaining few days of the world. Humanity too has changed a bit. Remember that bit about the space/time continuum going boom? Yea, no one ages anymore. Seriously! People can still die from things like murder, getting ripped to shreds by monsters, disease, etc but no one has aged in 500 years. Hence how pretty much every character from the series comes back in some fashion. The chaos has also had some strange side effects now that Etro is dead. People and creatures have had drastic changes to their shapes in some cases, or other things like a certain pair of Gran Pulse residents being woken from crystal slumber.
So with no aging and a brand new world, what is the basic plot? Well, with the Unseen Realm opened up, Bhunivelze the God of Light, Creator of All, Giant Ass Who Killed His Mom, has returned to his creation to find it all broken beyond repair. He has awoken and tasked Lightning with saving the souls of humanity and preserving them in the Ark (that giant ball that Hope built in XIII-2 which was supposed to be a replacement Cocoon for when the Crystal Pillar broke, which is now just considered a big second moon to the world at large.) before the world is destroyed in 13 days. Yea, you get woken up and given the task of saving as many souls as you can in 13 days. All the while you’ll meet up with old friends and enemies, meet new friends and enemies, and Lightning will learn an important lesson. More on that later. The whole saving souls thing is done in the form of completing quests. Quests are the life blood of Lightning Returns. Completing quests will give you access to equipment, cosmetic customizations, stat increases (no more levels or crystarium), and most importantly: TIME. Oh yea, time is not on your side. At the start of the game, you have 7 days of game time before game over. Wait! Didn’t I say 13 earlier? Well, yes. See, the world will be destroyed in 13 days. If it makes it that long. You start with only 7 days left, but by helping others and completing quests you will gain more time which will ultimately give you 13 total (technically if you complete all 5 main story quests and enough side quests you can gain access to a special 14th day created from all the lost time after the Chaos flooded and days went from being on a 13 hour clock to a 12 hour one… Just go with it. All it really does is unlock the bonus dungeon, I’m surprised they tried to give it a lore based reason for existing at all.) Any time you are not inside the Ark that serves as a safe haven and base of operations, the clock will be continuously counting down. You can slow it down using bonus abilities that you’ll unlocked through out the game, but honestly I abused the hell out of them and ended up with 5 whole days of nothing to do but ride the train around. So they’re not crucial to burn unless you are close to missing a window to complete something since certain quests are only available at certain times each day or give you so much time to complete the task.
So along with the new world and time mechanic, what else does Lightning Returns bring to the table? Well, there’s the new combat system I mentioned. Since Lightning is the only playable character this time around, how do you handle the myriad of enemies being tossed at you? Well, besides being an agent of God (cue the Blues Brothers music please!) you have the ability of rotating through a myriad of abilities divided into the ‘roles’ established in FF13: Sentinel (Tank), Commando (Stagger Retention DPS), Ravager (Stagger Building DPS), Medic (Heals), Saboteur (Debuffs), and Synergist (Buffs). You change your set of abilities, by changing outfits. Yes, you play dress up and as a modern 30-something year old man in the 21st century, I will tell you… it’s pretty damn fun. The outfits consist of your clothes that dictate your abilities, your weapon that determines your attack power, and a shield that determines your defense. There are insane amounts of each that allow you to mix and match to your hearts content to build the perfect outfit for combat or just to run around in. On top of the stat and ability customization, you can change the color of outfits and add cosmetic accessories that do nothing (hats, glasses, plushies on your shoulder, badges, tattoos, etc) but add some aesthetic fun and other things to collect in the game. In combat, each outfit has its own ATB bar (think of it as energy or mana) to use that outfits abilities. It will refill as you fight but usually not fast enough that you won’t have to switch between your three outfit slots during the fight to continue the battle. Each ability is assigned to one of the four main buttons (ABXY on Xbox 360, Square/Circle/X/Triangle on PS3) so you just hit buttons to do the attacks. During combat (which occurs in a separate little universe like any other Final Fantasy combat), you actual control Lightning’s position, movement and blocking with the shield using the other buttons and joysticks. So you can move out of a blast, or move to the side of the enemy, or get up close and personal. Beyond that, the trilogy mechanic of ‘build stagger meter up till staggered then unleash hell for massive damage’ remains par for the course.
The whole combat system is much faster and attention holding than the traditional Final Fantasy turn based method. As I said, it feels a bit like they tossed in some Fighting game into the mix and it really makes all the repetitive combats fun. The only down side is that without the slower turn based system, strategizing is usually done with trial and error with lots of dying and restarting the combat, especially on bosses and the heavy hitting enemies. You can usually load up right back to the start of combat or right before the combat was initiated for a chance to run away, so it’s not a huge loss of time but it can wear on you a bit after dying 5-10 times on a single encounter. Still, I personally feel the change is a net win.
Moving around the game is fairly the same but with the addition of being able to actually jump whenever you want instead of just certain spots. The moving around actually feels very similar to SquareEnix’s other series Kingdom Hearts where the movement is really fluid and you get used to jumping up and grabbing onto ladders or snatching poles to slide down on as you run around. I actually found it perfectly entertaining to just run around Luxerion, climbing up on things and diving off high spots.
The last new mechanic in Lightning Returns is the ability to upgrade your stuff. The main one is upgrading your abilities. You will routinely encounter enemies that drop unattached abilities that can be slotted into the blank spots in outfits. These unattached abilities can often be combined at a shop into more powerful versions of itself, creating higher level versions of the ability and gaining things like the ‘+’ suffix that gives it a bonus to its effects. (If you end up with a ton of them, you can also sell these abilities for cash. Helpful when you have 30 Blizzard Lv. 1’s sitting around.) It also seems clear that Lightning Returns was made to be a quick, enjoyable game that you can and should play through multiple times. Not only do you get more stat boosts for redoing quests on a second, third or even fourth playthrough (it has diminishing returns and eventually just becomes extra cash instead of stat growth), the New Game+ option also opens up the ability to upgrade your weapons and shields, making them more and more powerful. Thus you can almost treat the game like Diablo, where you can play through it on the lower difficulties to build up stats and gear to take on the higher difficulties (which also has exclusive gear for all you collectors out there).
Overall, I’ve always felt like the mechanical changes in Lightning Returns were a mixed back. It felt like, much like the rest of the game, a radical departure not only from Final Fantasy as a whole, but the 13 trilogy as well. On the other hand, the changes by no means detract from the game. They are still fun and work with what this game in particular is trying to do. It just feels odd calling it a Final Fantasy game, or as part of the Lightning Trilogy since its such a radical departure from the established status quo. It kinda feels more like a spin off than a main entry in the series at the moment. I supposed the best way to describe the feeling is like being an American trying to pronounce something with the British English pronunciation (think ‘aluminum’). You recognize it as a valid way of saying the word, and it may even make more sense then how you usually say it, but it still sits funny in your mouth. That’s Lightning Returns on a mechanical level. Fun, but different.
Anyway, next time I’ll crack deeper into the storyline and characters and we’ll see exactly what the deal with Bhunivelze is after all this time.