I want to start by plainly stating that I loved Lightning Returns. I played it through twice, and that’s an extreme rarity for me nowadays. I loved the combat, I loved the world (we’ll get into that), and it was still probably the most pure “fun” I’ve had with a JRPG in a while. That said, let’s look at the good and the bad of Lightning Returns.
BAD: The World is Stupid
The conceit of Lightning Returns is that all of time and space got totally fubared over the course of Final Fantasy 13-2: Serah’s Big Adventure. Thanks to a pair of nitwits and an army of monsters that are somehow the good guys, time got broken, because you can apparently only toss a moogle at a problem so many times before all of reality shatters. As a result, the world(s)(?) was reduced to a collection of easily segmented “areas”, and, with grandfather time out of the picture, people do not age. What brave new world is this!?
Only the tiniest bit of lip service is paid to the “everyone is an immortal” thing. Despite living for 500 years, the majority of Nova Chrysalia’s population is pretty indistinguishable from the average Final Fantasy population. They fritter about their days, provide sidequests, and occasionally fight monsters. Every single person is at least 500 years old, and the best anyone seems to be able to accomplish is opening a bakery. As an easy example of this nonsense, there’s a sidequest where you reunite an estranged father with his son. In 500 years, they apparently couldn’t get over their issues, but, yay, sidequest heroine Lightning is here to patch up any stormy relationships in a thirty second cutscene. I think the reward for that quest was unlimited meatballs or something. Centuries of life and potential progress, and all we got are new recipes for side dishes.
But the biggest issue here is the whole “end of humanity” thing. There’s supposed to be this overpowering feeling of melancholy to a world that is on the cusp of destruction. Lightning has thirteen or so days to save every soul she can find, and her first “case” is a serial killer in a grimy town filled with sorrow. It’s basically Final Fantasy meets Jack the Ripper (except ol’ Jack is hunting women with fluorescent pink hair), and every NPC you encounter is lamenting their sorry, immortal life and how nothing has any meaning anymore without procreation or aging. Boo-hoo. This contrasts poorly with…
GOOD: I want to live there
Seriously, if I could live in any Final Fantasy world, I’d pick Lightning Returns.
The first city, Luxerion, is a lame knockoff of Dickensian England, but the other big city, Yusnaan is a city dedicated to “we’re all immortal, so let’s have a damn party until the end of time”. It’s my kind of place. There are street merchants selling every kind of food you can imagine, monster battle arenas for entertainment, some kind of deadly version of Nickelodeon Guts, and fireworks every night. There are random musicians wandering around, so I assume the rad in-game music can be heard by the residents, and, added bonus, it’s very easy to avoid monsters in this area if you need a rest. The whole place seems like some kind of beautiful dream of an endless Mardi Gras, and the only drawback is that the drama club puts on the same stupid play every night. Get some new material, nerds!
And the rest of the world is just beautiful. I don’t mean from a “fancy HD graphics” perspective, I’m talking about how I’d genuinely want to enjoy the Wildlands if they were locally available. Probably a great place to play Pokémon Go. I figure that, sometime in the last 500 years, some immortal landscaper decided the rolling planes needed to have the lawn mowed every few days, so everything looks surprisingly hospitable for monster hunting grounds. And there is a lush and verdant ecosystem, with floating eyeball creatures and lizards the size of dogs and twelve chocobos for every chocobo eater. The concept of Nova Chrysalia is that what was salvageable from the “old world” all got recklessly smooshed together, but here it looks like such a move might improve a good deal of real estate. If anybody wants to destroy time and space in the real world to see how that works out, let me know, I’m game.
Oh, and the Dead Dunes sound like a place to avoid, but, should you own a fedora and whip, it’s totally the best place to grab ancient relics. And when you’ve got a timeline that somehow includes millennia of destroyed civilizations, that might be a fun way to while away the centuries.
GOOD: The world respects its heroes
Let’s run down what the cast of Final Fantasy 13s has been up to…
Snow founded nonstop party town, and then retired to his private fortress to sulk for the rest of eternity. Thus, Snow has become the saddest boy in a town of happiness. This seems like an appropriate punishment for being Snow.
Vanille feels that she’s responsible for the current fate of the world because she made some poor life choices approximately a billion years before Final Fantasy 13, and turned into a colossal chaos demon, like, once. Despite being instrumental in then saving the world (twice!), she’s still down on herself, so she turned to religion. And that religion made her the new Blessed Mother. Of course, they’re going to sacrifice her on judgment day to appease some angry god or something, but she’s marginally aware of that, and seems to be okay with a few centuries of being worshipped as a living goddess. And she got a new hat, too! Score!
Fang is less than okay with the whole “my secret lover is going to sacrifice herself for the world” thing, so she’s decided to hunt around the dessert for relics that will save dear Vanille. While she was doing that, she kinda incidentally started an entire society of archeologists/bandits, so she maybe sorta rules a complete continent. Wasn’t really her intention, she did have other things on the agenda, but I think finding magical treasure is a little easier when you’ve got an army at your disposal. Also, as she points out, thanks to cryostasis and time traveling and more cryostasis, she’s 1,621 years old, but still looks to be physically in her 20s. Not bad.
Noel, the last hunter of 13-2, has somehow also become the leader of a death cult, though unwillingly. He tries to fight our main heroine thanks to a random misunderstanding involving fake oracles, and, upon seeing the error of his ways, decides to become a vigilante in a city of misery. This basically makes him Batman (albeit AzBats). Becoming Batman is what most people aspire to, so good for him.
Hope, Lightning, and Serah all become unwilling pawns in a mad god’s plan, but it could be worse, they could be…
BAD: Inadvertent Racism
Lightning and Hope might be pawns, but they’re also literally the most powerful people on the planet. Hope is a conduit for a literal god, and Lightning has been granted insane Valkyrie power to complete her task of killing literally every monster in existence. Every other main character is in a vaunted position in their respective faction (whether they like it or not), and, save the fact that Odin seems to have been demoted from “transformer” to “bird”, anybody that helped out in an earlier Final Fantasy 13 game is doing pretty well.
Sazh is still worried about his son, who had his soul fragmented into random bits because who cares. Sazh decided to solve this problem by hiding in a broken airship in the middle of nowhere. After 500 years of sitting in a rocking chair and creepily muttering to himself, Sazh has become a legendary hermit, and his only interaction with the outside world is when those damn kids TP his hovel every Halloween. And this isn’t a Yoda situation, where he has ancient wisdom to impart to anyone that will listen; no, this is more along the lines of “if we had a bigger budget, his new model would be a naked man covered only by his beard and an afro that is hiding an entire family of bats”. When his son’s soul is finally recovered, Dajh is afraid to wake up, because Sazh has become that scary.
Couple this with his initial characterization being half totally awesome and half a lazy retread (gee, where have I seen a Final Fantasy character known for firearms and being extremely protective of his child before?), and his 13-2 role being “stuck in the neon claws of Gamblor”, I want to say that the African American community is not well represented in this Japanese RPG. Okay, maybe I’m seeing too much here, but when the entire rest of the (white) cast gets to become kings and queens, and the black guy becomes a crazy go nuts recluse… it kind of sticks out.
And, Christ, the bird that lives in his afro gets more of a role in the story than Sazh!
GOOD: Lightning kicks ass
After spending a few centuries in the timeout chamber, Lightning is back and kicking ass. Of all the Final Fantasy “main heroines”, Lightning indisputably is the most likely to slay an angry god. Granted, her only competition is Terra (whom Dissidia pigeonholed forever as “whiny mage”) and Yuna (“I’m sad my boyfriend is a ghost”), but, still, I can probably count the number of strong-in-the-real-way female characters coming out of Japan on one hand. Well, “strong” and also “doesn’t appear in a game featuring tear-away clothing or twelve year olds wearing butt floss”. Lightning is determined, powerful, and absolutely does not spend any of her time fawning over boys or worrying about her hair.
And, by virtue of the gameplay, she’s also kinda the most powerful character ever in a Final Fantasy game. Lightning is finally a true army of one, and is completely alone on her adventure to save the world. No party, no monster companions, no omniscient player dropping off magical abilities or whatever: it’s just Lightning against every monster left on the planet. And there’s never any “oh no you’re not man enough” nonsense, either. Right from the get go, Lightning is tasked with saving every last soul on this husk, and there’s no doubt she’s going to succeed. Lightning wholly and totally kicks ass, and doesn’t need so much as a moogle to help her.
BAD: Lightning is a robot
Unfortunately, “Unstoppable Lightning” comes at the expense of… ya know… Lightning.
I’ve mentioned this before, but all Final Fantasy main characters (and most of the supporting cast) are built exclusively for their one-and-done stories. This is a good thing! But it also means most Final Fantasy characters may be boiled down to a simple mad lib. Terra is magically unbeatable, but unloved. Squall is accomplished, but plays poorly with others. Tidus is an all-star, but can’t dress himself. The basic point of every Final Fantasy game is to save the world, but to also shade in whatever blank is afflicting the hero. Cloud is going to kill Sephiroth and stop Meteor, but along the way, he’ll learn the real meaning of freedom and, dare I say it, friendship. I believe it was Kurt Goldstein that first theorized that it would only be possible for a fully actualized person to summon a dragon that can shoot laser beams.
I mention this because Lightning had a pretty clear arc through Final Fantasy 13. Amongst… everything… happening in that labyrinthine plot, Lightning does pick up on the whole “letting people in” moral that is hiding somewhere behind the space pope. Consider that the inciting incident for 1,000 years of strife in the Final Fantasy 13 universe is the simple scuffle that Lightning won’t accept Snow as an invited member of the family. This problem quickly cascades to Macbethian proportions, and that thread kind of gets lost somewhere around Snow earning a motorcycle made out of subservient sisters, but, still, it’s there! Lightning changes and grows over the course of Final Fantasy 13, and, while she’s not some emotionally perfect being by the finale, Lightning does become a better person by the end of Final Fantasy 13.
So, naturally, they had to strip out that Lightning in time for her titular game.
This, of course, is not by accident. Like Cloud before her, Lightning had to be reduced back to her core components in order to be “recognizable” as the same badass from Final Fantasy 13 promotional materials. In this case, the story uses the bluntest tool in its arsenal (okay, second bluntest, an outright retcon would be worst), and basically says “a wizard did it” to the now overly stoic Lightning. Lightning had her emotional core/heart/Claire torn out by a vengeful god, and now she’s super sad about not having emotions anymore. But just because the story offers a reason for a character’s regression doesn’t make it forgivable. The Lightning that was capable of making good intentioned poor decisions (like, say, giving a knife to a vengeful teenager) is gone now, and all we’ve got is a mechanical war machine that occasionally comes around to “Hey, something seems off.”
So, basically, Lightning is turned up to eleven, but we lose Lightning in the process.
Here comes the wardrobe!