Final Fantasy XIII-2 was surprisingly excellent, considering how much I disliked Final Fantasy XIII. Another surprise was realizing just how much I wanted to enjoy Final Fantasy games, like a jilted lover who secretly desires a reunion.
Which is all to say that I was fully back on board the Final Fantasy fan-train by the time Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII was announced. Sure, there were reasons for trepidation, the biggest being that the game featured, well, Lightning, and seemed more like a direct continuation of Final Fantasy XIII rather than Final Fantasy XIII-2.
Still, as I said - I wanted to enjoy the Final Fantasy series, and thus found it very easy to ignore my misgivings. And thus I ensured that Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII was in my hands on the very day it was released.
It's true that the opening cinematic has its flaws.
Like the other games in the Final Fantasy XIII series, it doesn't provide much explanation about what's going on. Lightning was last seen frozen in crystal; Snow has seemingly changed from a good-natured brawler to a cynical gang boss; there's no sign of Noel or Serah from Final Fantasy XIII-2; and who the hell is Lumina?
That being said, my confusion wasn't as thorough as when I sat through the beginning of Final Fantasy XIII. Why? One simple reason: this is clearly Lightning's story. Having a character to follow is reassuring to the audience, engendering confidence that a guide that will lead us through the twists of plot up ahead.
Is it ideal that I came out of this opening in a state of befuddled optimism? Probably not, but there are worse feelings to endure.
The Rest of the Story
The basic story of Lightning Returns is this: far off in the future the earth is dying. Lightning is contracted by the god Bhunivelze to "save" human souls so that they can be used to re-populate a new world. And so Lightning travels from place to place, solving problems and setting minds at ease so that they're in the proper state for this upcoming transcendence.
In this manner Lightning encounters former friends and allies - Snow, Noel, Sazh, Vanille, and Fang - and returns hope into their lives. Just as in Final Fantasy XIII-2, this journey has the feel of a series of inter-connected short stories, and it's just as welcome here as it was there.
There is some disappointment, however; the true ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2 revealed that every event in the game was carefully manipulated by Caius, setting him up to be a grandmaster villain. Lightning Returns shows him as just another patsy, and even though he maintains his arrogance, he somehow seems lesser because of it.
Fortunately, the true villain of Lightning Returns is a worthy one.
The events of Lightning Returns causes Lightning to realize just how much of mankind's history is manipulated by Bhunivelze, god of light and existence. And in the re-making of the world, she sees an opportunity to free all of humanity from the gods' terrible influence.
The conversation before their final fight does an excellent job of portraying both of their points of view.
Bhunivelze isn't a traditional villain; he sees himself as a shepherd with mankind as his sheep. He knows what's best for us, and the idea of being opposed is literally incomprehensible to him. His attitude as Lightning rants and spews threats is that of parental indulgence, willing to bear miniscule abuse with the understanding that all will ultimately bow to his will.
This attitude is carried through in a final battle which is truly awe-inspiring in nature and scope.
Some highlights include:
- 4:20: Bhunivelze ascends to the skies in truly bizarre fashion, allowing the audience to see just how truly connected he is with the world. And what does he do? His attack is called "Genethiliac Hymn": he is literally weaving a star with his hands, all so that he can drop it upon your head.
- 6:30: "Resist no more. Come to your god. A new goddess is born!" There is true joy in his voice; Lightning has passed his trials and now, surely, she must accept her place in his pantheon.
- 10:55: His will defied, Bhunivelze warps the fabric of reality to destroy the impertinent.
Lightning Returns is not a perfect game, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Its story is direct and, at its heart, uncomplicated, allowing the writers to crescendo to an impressive finish with the minimum of needless distraction. Does it redeem the Final Fantasy XIII series as a whole? Who knows, but in the end, I'll endure a bum game like Final Fantasy XIII if that's the cost for games like Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns.