So we’ve talked gameplay and we’ve talked plot & characters – I think it’s time we wrap up the Lightning Trilogy with discussing probably my favorite part of Lightning Returns: the ending. Not because it’s finally over oh sweet Noel Kreiss it’s over, but because I found it to be a satisfying conclusion to the overarching themes of the trilogy, even when the explicit details of the plot got a bit weird from game to game. Let’s just go ahead and say that since we are talking the ending of a trilogy and then discussing said trilogy, there will be SPOILERS.
Alright, so as we previously discussed: God is gathering up souls of the chosen using Lightning as his ‘Savior’, he will then usher those new souls to a New World and remove their hearts/chaos/emotions, then he will let the old world and all the souls of the dead there perish so that no one remembers any of them – the world or the people who died there – all so he can have HIS perfect world. I don’t think it needs to be said, but Lightning and her friends do not exactly like that idea.
The ending to the game and the trilogy as a whole is done essentially in four parts. There is the final dungeon, the final boss battle, the cutscene where you actually beat the final boss, and then the final final cutscene. To get to the final dungeon on the last day (that’s Day 13 – or if you ran around and did 60+ side quests it will be Day 14), you show up at the church in Luxerion to bust up the ritual with Fang. Lightning holds back the guards while Fang talks down Vanille from doing the deed. Luckily back up arrives in the form of Snow who proves that despite being a dummy at times is still able to deliver an epic smackdown. Snow is joined by Lightning’s other friends as it becomes one last stand as Vanille and Fang come together to guide all the lost souls – not to their destruction as the Church wanted but to Hope’s Ark to go be reborn on the New World with all the others.
Lightning’s job is not done however. There is after all a god to deal with. She enters the final dungeon which to be fair is essentially four monster filled corridors and a door leading to the final fight. I’m not even sure you have to do the corridors – or ‘Trials’ – but I always do because they reward you with the Ultima Weapon and Ultima Shield, the two items that will not carry over to a new game+ because they are “story specific” to Bhunivelze’s temple. Unfortunately, they don’t get any kind of cool unique appearance. The Ultima items are pretty much just your starting sword and shield upgraded to have INSANE stats and abilities that will help immensely in the final boss fight.
Speaking of which, it’s time to show down with Bhuni-boy who is in an otherworldly realm dubbed ‘Cosmogenesis’ where he is putting the finishing touches on his New World and you finally get to see what this guy looks like:
Oh… oh wow. For the record, that checker pattern ‘skirt’? Yea, that’s the ground. He’s literally wrapped the world around himself. It’s at this confrontation that the truth emerges to reinforce the theory: Bhunivelze wishes to remove all the old souls and the bits of chaos that make up people’s hearts and emotions so that the New Humans on his New World will have euphoric peaceful lives without the burdens of sadness or pain. They’ll be boring emotionless drones, but hey that’s the cost of never having to feel bad: never feeling at all. I honestly don’t know if I would take that offer. I can imagine some who would argue that it’s a good thing and that God is kind to give us such a blessing. Then again free will is nice. Like SUPER nice. He also reveals his plan to establish Lightning as the ‘New Etro’ to guard over the Unseen Realm and keep it in harmony with the Seen Realm. Again, Lightning being someone he has a leash on as compared to his mother or Etro, both of which kind of had reasons to hold a grudge and good old Bhunie just loves to assume the worst. Finally, it’s revealed that the Serah ‘soul’ that Bhunie has been dangling on a hook in front of Lightning this whole time is just a mocked up simulacrum. Since God has no way of seeing into the Chaos, he legitimately has no idea where Serah’s soul actually is but is perfectly willing to offer the soulless copy of Lightning’s sister for her to dote on. This pretty much where Lightning draws the line.
Lightning flat out declares her intent to kill God. To perform one suicidal action to throw them both into the Chaos and free the souls to live in the New World without gods or fal’Cie masters. Since Bhunivelze made her the savior with the intent to become a replacement for Etro, she may not have the power to kill Bhunivelze but she is finally strong enough to do this one desperation act. But the Serah Simulacrum speaks to her and tells her that the real Serah IS still out there, and does still need her. So thus begins the final battle, as Lightning abandons her suicide run in favor of just flat out trying to murder God. Oh boy. When was the last time in Final Fantasy we actually killed God? Not like a god-like being, but the actual creator of the universe capital-G God? We’d have to go back a ways I think. I know we did in Final Fantasy Legends. Kefka is debatable whether he was god like or actually ascended to become God proper but you do fight and kill the actual Gods of Magic. Dissidia has you fighting Gods. But yea, it’s been a while since we did this.
The fight is massive and spans four different phases, each with a unique strategy to them. Easily up there with Barthandelus and Orphan from XIII as the toughest non-Super Bosses fights in the Trilogy. Not only that, but his fight has a ton of references to previous Final Fantasy games such as some of his attacks referencing the Emperor’s Starfall from Final Fantasy II, Almagest as used by Neo-ExDeath in Final Fantasy V, Hypernova based on Safer Sephiroth’s Supernova from Final Fantasy VII, several attacks including ‘Dancing Mad’, ‘Wings of Destruction’, and ‘Heartless Angel’ are inspired by either the abilities or even theme song of Kefka from Final Fantasy VI, and finally Bhunivelze’s pose in the final phase is based on the pose struck by the Cloud of Darkness in Final Fantasy III. He also draws several abilities and strategies from other bosses in the Lightning Trilogy. He’s immune to every status effect including poison, so forget using the poison and defend strategy from Orphan in the first game. Finally, he has several abilities that will drop you to either one or close to one HP regardless of your defense. And all that is just on the normal version. Oh yes, there’s a hard mode incarnation of this guy named Bhunivelze+. I haven’t even tried that one yet.
So after four whole phases on intense fights is God finally dead? Oh heck no. Bhunivelze created the universe (well along with his Mom), do you think four measly back to back fights will stop him? It will knock him on his ass, but he crawls back ready to kill Lightning for the sheer insolence she has shown. Luckily, Lightning has the one thing that Bhuni-boy doesn’t: Buddies. Yes, this pen-ultimate cut scene has the entire assembled cast of the entire trilogy: Snow, Sazh, Dajh, Hope, Vanille, Fang, Noel, Caius, Yuel, and even Serah appear to help Lightning strike down God while utilizing all of the Souls of the Living gathered by Lightning and the Souls of the Dead gathered by Vanille as a giant sword of light to strike down Bhunivelze once and for all in an epic final blow worthy of Dragon Ball Z levels of sheer ridiculous epicness.
Bhunivelze’s death chimes in the death of the old universe however as the Unseen Realm and its tides of chaos begin to consume all that is left. Caius and Yuel, both tired of their eternal struggle and cycle of life and death have agreed to stay behind and together serve the role that Etro once served. But because Noel also wants a happy ending, Yuel gives him the last of her line – the final incarnation of Yuel in her cycle of Rebirth to take with him to the new universe. With a new keeper of the Unseen Realm appointed, all that’s left is for the remaining team and all the souls to go to the new world in a brilliant stream of green lights and streaks that sort of looks like something that once helped stop a meteor from crushing a city (Yet another homage to an earlier game found here. They really seem to enjoy the send ups.)
This brings us to the real ending of the series. Claire Farron, the women once known as Lightning in another time and place, riding a train through what appears to be modern day France to go meet up with her friends once again. It’s never flat out stated what this new world is, but theories have been as far flung as Gaia from Final Fantasy VII (Which considering there’s already a theory about Gaia is futuristic Spira from FFX, how does that work?) to Our Real Earth to the more modern and realistic setting of Final Fantasy XV. Any and all are somewhat valid ways of viewing things, but the Real Earth seems to be the most likely since they do establish this as a world with No God, and No fal’Cie. The FF7 connection is really reaching because all that connects them is the vaguely lifestream-y looking stream of souls, which has less traction then FF7 == FFX because Spheres are Materia idea. We know that XV will have its own ties to the Fabula Nova Crystalis legend and that Etro will play some role in the story, so the No gods/fal’cie thing makes that one hard. Plus… the signs are in French. Like actual French. Not even French sounding gibberish. So that’s my best bet for where the ending takes place.
So with the story now finished, was it really worth it to play some 180 hours of game to reach that conclusion? Well… yea. For me it was. For all the game play issues, which really were improved on heavily after the feedback and criticisms of the first game (and even then most of those were – in my opinion – excusable to the nature of the story being told but admittedly flew in the face of what many people would expect from a Final Fantasy title), I found the story to be an incredible interesting and character driven narrative. To the point where it utterly baffles me when I hear people say the characters are boring or bland. There’s a difference between bland and subtle. This is very subtle. Not to mention the characters and their development is incredibly well rounded compared to many of the more popular Final Fantasy entries where the characters were almost defined by a single personality trait. Optimisitc! Bad ass loner! Angry! Moron! Where as in the XIII trilogy, there were a lot of nuanced performances built around knowing these characters back stories and motivations. Vanille is not a ditsy airhead. She puts on a ditsy act as an act of denial about the immense guilt she feels, something that is quite noticeable if you contrast how she behaves around the others versus when she’s by herself. The scene where it begins to dawn on her that her traveling companion, Sazh, has lost his son because of her actions and very existence, that she goes out and stands in the rain under the excuse to feel it on her skin but if you look, she’s trying to mask the tears coming down her face was a real punch in the feels. Even Snow, the king of bravado, is dealing with the tragedy of his curse and the loss of his fiance by blindly marching forward like a hero to save the day, running from his problems. But eventually, when he has lost Serah completely and the world is dying around him, he succumbs to depression and begins to slowly kill himself with a final silent noble act of absorbing the Chaos into his own body to try and give the people of Yusnaan another day of happiness before the end. Something he couldn’t do for Serah, despite all his trying. The characters are THE reason to play through these games. Just remember that the subtext is just as important, if not more, than what they are actually saying and doing.
The trilogy also has a great overarching theme of the desire for free will and fighting against your fate, and the need to preserve it even if free will means doing something stupid, or getting hurt by your choices or actions. In the first game, the message is very direct. The fal’Cie have literally stripped the main six from having any autonomy in their actions. It’s complete the focus or be doomed to be a cie’th for eternity. Even if you complete the focus, all it means is getting stored in crystal until the fal’Cie want you to do something again. You become a slave to these god-like creatures for all eternity, or suffer a fate worse than death. The reaction to this is each character walking their own path to try and preserve their free will – be it by running away to do whatever they want to actively trying to kill their new ‘masters’. Ultimately, the sheer strength of their freedom overcomes the chains. Something that seems weird but makes perfect sense in the context of the mythology: humans are the only creatures capable of Free Will thanks to Etro. It’s an X factor that the fal’Cie literally can’t comprehend and only out of fear, myth, faith, and sheer power have managed to control their thralls to this point. There are thousands of years of stories about the fal’Cie and their l’Cie and what happens. Your promised eternal life and happiness in a crystal dream for completing your focus. To many it’s consider a downright honor to be chosen. Why? Because that’s the belief the fal’Cie have worked to create in humans so they obey. When these six broke that control and killed Orphan, they proved that the fal’Cie only have as much power over the human spirit as we let them. That in the end, our focus and our destiny is for us to decide.
In the second game, the nature of free will and even more so the concept of fighting destiny is explored through the idea of time and the question of is the future set in stone? Serah and Noel each want to change something. Serah wants to change the past, and Noel the future to get what they want. However, it’s shown that their actions do have a very real cost in the end. Changing the future, striking out and making your own path, is what is killing Yuel and ultimately Serah as well. Serah chooses to risk death to get a future where everyone can be happy. However, with each life of Yuel’s reincarnation that gets extinguished the Chaos also grows and threatens everything. It becomes a question of risk vs. reward. Are you willing to put it all on the line to get what you really want? You have free will to make your own destiny, but that can come back and bite you.
Those repercussions are fully explored in Lightning Returns, which feature’s the titular character faced with the decision of asking which is preferable: Euphoria with no free will or free will with suffering? You are constantly bombarded with stories of loss and misery through the side quests and main story, but are told that this can be avoided by simply casting aside your emotions and freedom and living in peace for all eternity. But you also see stories of love, compassion, and those who despite facing the end of all things choose to keep pressing on and living their lives to the fullest. There’s a kid who just wants to pass his hunting trials and become a man of his clan before the end comes. What does it matter? In the grand scheme it doesn’t but to him it’s everything. Fang is fighting to save her friend, Sazh to save his son, Snow to protect the people – all knowing that there are only 13 days left, they still choose to fight to live. Lightning’s ultimate choice is that freedom is more important than a guaranteed happiness. To that end, she kills God and frees everyone to have whatever life they choose to have. Even Caius who was given no choice in becoming a guardian, no agency in whether he lives or dies thanks to the Heart of Etro or the Yuels, finally gets to choose to stay in the Unseen Realm. Really, there was no need for him to go, but he didn’t want the Yuels to be alone.
The only thing I do wish they had done was keep the song from the first game going through the whole trilogy. While only included in the western release, Leona Lewis’ “My Hands” is a song that strongly resonates with both Lightning and Serah that only strengthens as the trilogy goes on. The song’s solemn lyrics of longing and missing another person while having to go on without them becomes even more poignant by the third game when you start coming face to face with just how many people are now trapped in time, forced to live eternally, after losing loved ones to the slowly dying monster ravaged world and expanding chaos. Sadly, the song is only featured on the first game where it sort of resonates with Lightning’s quest to get her sister back but doesn’t live up to its full potential.
So is the Trilogy a flawless masterpiece? Hardly. The story is confusing and told is a jarring all-over-the-place style that requires copious amounts of reading extra content to follow any of the over arching narrative. The gameplay – especially for the first game – can be boring and tedious and will definitely be a huge turn off to fans of the previous games (even though I’ll admit that the ‘run a straight path and fight monsters’ is pretty much the exact same style as the critically and fan adored Final Fantasy X). It is a flawed trilogy of games and I will admit that. But that doesn’t mean I think it should be tossed aside and forgotten to the annals of history. There is a lot of great content here: Wonderful stories, brilliantly well rounded characters, and a fascinating mythology behind it all. The second game explores a lot of the same ideas that Chrono Trigger fans would find very much right at home and the third game has a truly engaging time-based system and active combat system that has a ton of optional stuff to explore and is short enough to encourage multiple playthroughs with a new game+ feature.
My recommendation is while I can’t wholly endorse these games at $60 a pop, if you can nab them used or new at a decent price (I only paid $15 for the first two, and got Lightning Returns new at release) I would recommend nabbing them. If you really want to skip the first one, I can’t blame you. There’s a decent enough recap in the Extras menu of XIII-2 that will bring you up to speed but you will miss some excellent character writing that comes later in the first game. These games also serve as a firm full exploration of the Fabula Nova Crystalis mythology and covers everything from Bhunivelze to his fal’Cie, Pulse, Lindzei and Etro, the concepts of the Seen and Unseen realms, and of course the idea of the l’Cie that plays a big role in Final Fantasy Type-0 and assuredly in the upcoming Final Fantasy XV. Remember, the mythology is the only thing shared between the three and you’ll get no better crash course in that than from the XIII trilogy.
So that’s the end of my look at the hated XIII trilogy. I don’t know if I changed anyone’s minds but hopefully I showed that there’s a bit more to these three games than what appears on the surface. I know I discounted the games pretty harshly at first when I first rented the first one to give it a go back in the day, but after a second look was quite impressed with what I found. I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank all my readers and oddly enough Noah ‘The Spoony One’ Antwiler whose incredibly biased albeit hilariously entertaining reviews of the Final Fantasy games he doesn’t like inspired me to look deeper into these games and see if they were truly that bad. They’re not in my opinion. Hell, not even Final Fantasy X. I mean, I didn’t like X as much, but it wasn’t garbage by any means. Anyway, if you want a chuckle with someone ripping apart the games and riffing a lot of the admittedly silly parts, check it out. I’ll be here finishing up class reviews for SWTOR, replaying Metal Gear while waiting for my PS4 to get repaired and trying to finish out Type-0 HD.
Stay weird, folks.