Jaydra Discusses ‘Lightning Returns’, Part 02 – Storytelling & Direction

Lightning Returns is a brilliant story, often told poorly. In fact, that’s the XIII trilogy in a nutshell. The story has a core that is rock solid, but more layers than it should. XIII* is a love it/ hate it affair. Combine this with the poor direction of a pivotal cutscene, and you have a story which can be really obtuse.  If the story speaks to you, and you’re willing to sift through a lot of unnecessary and/or strange concepts and ideas (much like you do reading this blog), then you’re going to have a great time (much like you do reading this blog… right?). If you just aren’t into it, then the layers are just going to obfuscate things further, and I totally understand if you leave the series frustrated.

* I think I’m just going to call the series XIII as it’s easier, and no one’s likely to confuse it with a mediocre shooter from 2003 anyways.

>>> Storytelling

> What Doesn’t Work

In my thematic analysis, I ignored the static and focused completely on what was important. This shouldn’t give you the impression everything worked. A lot of elements made no sense, and the open world structure of the narrative means that character growth is going to be stunted so that cutscenes never feel out of order. Despite this, some scenes still managed to make later ones make no sense.

Lumina is the best example of the flaws in storytelling. The story wants to tease she’s Claire Farron, but Lightning can’t figure this out until after the final boss fight. Unable to figure out the connection until the very end when it’s shoved in her face. Lightning solving the mystery earlier on, even if she’s not able to reach Lumina at that point, would have shown some real character development. Along with the satisfaction of seeing Lightning grow to the point where she can recognize how she needs Claire and her friends.

The problem with that is if Lightning figured it out on anything but the final day, it would have muddled many cutscenes with Lumina, because you may not have finished all the side-quests where she appears. Even if you had finished all five main quests, there’s still a few side-quests where Lumina’s involved. It would have been weird to have Lightning know Lumina’s identity, while having no idea in those scenes. If this were a linear game, then they wouldn’t have to worry about this, but with a open world they had to hold back. Doing otherwise would have made no sense, or necessitated writing/ directing/ voicing most scenes with Lumina twice. This did avoid the problems of say Skyrim, where you can be a demi-god and some villagers will still treat you like crap, because there’s no trigger for them to recognize you’re literally wearing a dragon for armour. But when you’re going for character growth, to hold so much back for so long is equally unsatisfying.

Particularly because it necessitated a cutscene after the final battle where it’s explained hastily that Lumina is Claire. While I’ve said that I’m glad they explored this, this revelation came too late to have the impact it deserved. Lightning has spent thirty hours or so of playtime knowing a part of her is missing, and only has about fifteen minutes where she realizes what that part was. Nevermind that Lightning having lived a completely different identity has been a major part of her character since the start of the trilogy. It’s frustrating because this realization is what gives her the strength to finally defeat Bhunivelze, in a climax that should have been the final boss. I know that JRPGs (and games in general) have a habit of taking control out of your hands while characters do something awesome, but that doesn’t excuse this poor example of storytelling.

Have a look at this:

This scene takes place towards the end of the game. You have Lumina outright challenging Lightning on her belief that she doesn’t need anyone. Lumina says that Light’s friends want to help, but are too far away. Lightning doesn’t need to realize it then, but while Lumina’s ideas have gotten through to Lightning before, this one never takes. Not until the very, very last moment. As we’ll see about the ‘fake people’ concept, Lightning is already starting to come around to Lumina’s thinking even without emotions. It’s reasonable to assume that she’d be able to figure this one out, considering Lumina did everything but say, “You need to accept that you need help, you need to reach out to your friends!” Then as the scene is ending, she literally spells it out! You don’t need emotions or introspection to realize something this obvious! After the final boss Lumina literally has to tie Light to a chair and explain what’s going on.

There’s often a part in storytelling at the climax where all seems lost. Where despite the ordeals the hero has endured, they’re still unable to finish their task. In Lightning Returns, this moment comes after the player defeats Bhunivelze, and Lightning prepares to sacrifice herself before Lumina shows her the light. What if this happened before then, during the showdown over the ritual involving the Clavis? You have the perfect set-up for Lightning to fight the big bad (Bhunivelze’s comes back at that time anyways), but for her to lose. What if Light fought Bhunivelze and lost, at which point he takes the souls of those she loves and withdraws (as he does anyways). I swore this was going to happen, because shortly before that scene Lightning starts wondering how she can save her own soul. Since she needs to save the souls of all of the principle characters, it makes sense that to succeed she needs to save herself. If she’s so strong, and so confident at that point and still loses, it would have forced her to be introspective. Maybe she decides to sacrifice herself at that point and desperately take Bhunivelze with her, which she fails to do (in this and the canon case), before realizing how alone she is. At which point Lumina (who shows up anyways) could have had her scene with Lightning where the truth comes out. Lightning could have accepted Claire as a part of her, become a whole person again, had her friends come and save her, and gone off to fight Bhunivelze together. You could have also made a thing about Lumina rejoining Lightning which mends her sword and shield because SYMBOLISM! (I don’t do video, but imagine me pumping my arms up in the air a la Mathew Buck) At that point you have a fully realized Lightning, having reclaimed what was taken from her, who then proceeds to kick Bhunivelze’s ass. What if during the final boss, Lightning calls on her friends and family to help defeat Bhunivelze like in the cutscene; similar to how Fang joined up earlier. The final battle is done in phases anyways, the last of which is a throwaway ‘Orphan 2.0’ fight that would have been the perfect time to have everyone come back and help Light land the killing blow.

"What could Lumina have meant when she said I needed my friends and family?"

“What could Lumina have meant when she said I need my friends and family?”

The mystery is solved, why drag it out any longer? Why have Light overcome Bhunivelze without solving it? I know it saves her from sacrificing herself to take him down in the end, but Lumina has to spell it out three times to make it happen. Why couldn’t Light have figured it out, right here!

The scene where Lumina’s nature is revealed also has an unnecessary layer, the “Fake-Serah” created by Bhunivelze. Shortly before the climax, the idea that the people Lightning sees are fake persons created by God has come up a couple times. At one point Lightning wonders if she was ‘fake’, but that doesn’t make any sense. Sure, she was altered by Bhunivelze, but that doesn’t make her a falsity. She doesn’t go about wondering if she’s just a copy of Lightning, instead of the real one that might have been cast off or something. What they could mean is that she’s ‘fake’ in the sense that since she’s been altered she’s no longer herself, but that’s not consistent with Fake-Serah. Then you have this scene:

Literally within the space of one minute you have Serah saying she’s a fake made by God. Then Lightning acknowledging that God cut a part of her out. Then Serah saying that it wasn’t God that created her… This only works if ‘God’ means ‘Lightning’ instead of ‘Bhunivelze’, but that still doesn’t make sense given the line, “No. It wasn’t God’s doing. Do you want to know who it was? You.” Effectively a concept is introduced, then immediately abandoned, which only complicates things.

This confusion is compounded by Lightning interacting with both Lumina, and Fake-Serah and back, while Lumina explains she’s Claire. Maybe I’m missing something, but even after Lightning knows Lumina’s identity, and rejoins with her, she thanks Serah for helping her see the light… Even if that Serah was never real, and it was embracing Lumina/ Claire and reaching out to Hope and the others that saved her.

The whole Fake-Serah concept doesn’t work. Just look at this scene which happens shortly before the above:

Fake-Serah appears briefly, after Lumina tells Lightning that “The only fake you know is Serah”. Which, is true… But what does that accomplish? Lightning doesn’t believe she saw Serah at first, saying that the real Serah never gave up like the one she saw. Then believes it was just Lumina trying to sow distrust about Fake-Serah, but also says that the she couldn’t get the idea that Lumina was telling the truth out of her head. I still don’t fully understand the point of Fake-Serah. I get that Bhunivelze must have had to show a Serah as ‘proof’ he could bring her back, and Light becoming suspicious of that makes sense. Still, it’s where they go with Fake-Serah in the end that doesn’t.

I will say that this scene where Lightning is completely emotionless, to the point where she’s acknowledging Serah’s emotional trauma with words like “Right.”, works really well. It shows just how much of Lightning is gone, and this is something consistent throughout. It’s weird and creepy, which works in the story’s favour.

During the ending, Fake-Serah explains to Lightning that Bhunivelze created her, but that she tried to remember the real Serah to the point where “the feelings became real.” Which is in keeping with how Lightning was able to reclaim the parts that were taken from her as well, but the whole thing doesn’t go anywhere. It ends as quickly as it began, with Fake-Serah fading away. So aside from a few minutes of screen time, she had no part in the story. What was the point of Fake-Serah developing those emotions? To show herself to Lightning? But isn’t that in Bhunivelze’s interests, so Light will keep fighting? Why didn’t Fake-Serah tell Lightning what she was earlier? It’s clear she’s self-aware and knows she’s a fake, so what good does Lightning believing she’s real do? It only makes finding the real Serah more difficult. Was it because Fake-Serah grew to love Lightning? But then why confuse her? And isn’t there enough going on in Lightning’s character arc for her to be wound up in a minor character’s too? I still don’t understand why Lightning thanked Fake-Serah for saving her, as Lumina was the one to help Light, before Hope pulled Light’s hand and led her out of the Chaos… Wow, Hope doesn’t get credit for shit.

Then the real Serah returns and while it’s super emotional, and they twirl around and hug and I cry like a bitch, it makes the preceding time with Fake-Serah even less relevant!

The whole ‘fake person’ concept feels like it was important in an earlier draft, but was sidelined by Lumina, and Bhunivelze ripping parts of Light’s identity out of her. I think I can see what they’re getting at, but its place in the end product only distracts from what’s really going on. It mostly happens towards the end, when we don’t need another layer to distract us, and ultimately go nowhere. They’re going to start spilling all the secrets, so why try to build up and explain another mystery so hastily?

Moving on. Despite their efforts, you still get scenarios where Light is given information several times over. While working with Fang in the Dead Dunes, Fang explains that the Soulsong (the ritual Vanille’s going to do) will kill her, and destroy all the souls of the dead. What’s strange is that there is another long scene where the souls of the dead manifest and tell Light the same thing:

The difference being that that scene is triggered based on how many days have passed, while the bit with Fang in the Dead Dunes can happen as early as Day Two.

Stray observation: At first what seems like an arbitrary image for the dead to take makes a lot of sense. If you’re going to use anyone as a puppet, it may as well be Cid Raines. Poor bastard can’t escape being someone’s tool even in death…

Also note how Cid pretty much explains what Light needs to do to save her own soul again, and she’s still clueless. There’s not having all the pieces, and then there’s being unwilling to put them together until the plot says so. Lightning’s unemotional, not a moron.

This is still the problem of a open world. You either delay developments, or run into this scenario where things don’t quite make sense. In my playthrough, I did the Dead Dunes early on and hadn’t talked to Vanille yet. You get the same dialogue options with Vanille whether Light knows the truth about the Soulsong or not, and no way to talk Vanille out of it. The scene with Raines occurs late in the game, but as far as I know you still have time to run into the cathedral and tell Vanille what she’s capable of.

The dead don’t want to be destroyed, they need Vanille to realize that she can lead them to the new world. Even if Light is barred from acting on that information immediately, I guess it’s a good thing that the dead told her at least. Maybe Lightning can eventually figure out a way to tell Vanille what’s really going on, or interrupt the ceremony. Lightning’s probably their best hope, I mean she is the saviour…

It's not like they could talk to her themselves!!

It’s not like they could tell Vanille themselves!!

As an aside: I’m assuming that since Vanille dies during the ceremony, her soul is destroyed as well. It would be strange to only have one soul floating about afterwards. If she knows this, it’s a really cruel thing to do to Fang. Vanille is her entire world, and Fang has dedicated her life to protecting Vanille. Even if Fang wouldn’t know Vanille ever existed, it’s still a cruel thing to; taking someone so important away from her. Even if Vanille didn’t know the extent of things, she’s still choosing to die. I know the cries of the dead, and the guilt of having killed so many is crushing her. That doesn’t change the fact that Vanille is constantly looking into a stone to catch even a glimpse of Fang, and it doesn’t change the emotional trauma Fang will experience. Normally I’d never call wanting to die because you’re suffering a selfish act, but didn’t Vanille give a speech to Orphan about how she’d rather “fight, and lose, than never try at all”? Weren’t they united in a conviction that even if things look hopeless, they’ll keep searching until they find a way through? Is there no way Fang can help her? It’s obvious Fang would do anything for Vanille.

The benefit of a linear storyline is that you don’t have to worry about these details, because you always know where the player will be, and exactly how much they know. The open world necessitated scenes where Lightning is pulled out of the world to have exposition told to her, and delaying character development because it may give away the mystery too soon. Lumina appears multiple times to Lightning, but you can’t develop her in any way because if Light catches on to who she is… Then it’s going to make the other scenes where she hasn’t a clue because (for example) you did 4-3 before 2-2, make no sense.

It’s a little frustrating, especially since Final Fantasy XIII was able to gradually develop the characters, their inner conflicts, their interpersonal dynamics step by step. It made the whole thing character-driven, and information came to light organically as the characters journeyed together. That kind of character-driven storyline just doesn’t work in this format.

You also have all the elements that needlessly complicate matters. XIII as a whole has a lot of these, but I never felt confused before playing Lightning Returns. In the end you can see past them, or ignore them entirely, and things make sense. That only begs the question of why they’re there in the first place. It’s why I say that this script feels like it’s a ‘second to last draft’ and not a final one.

To a lesser extent, I think Odin could have been handled a little differently. Chalk this one up to a missed opportunity, but I doubt anyone was guessing the identity of the ‘Angel of Valhalla’ for long. Given that there’s only a couple characters that could have that title, and it’s obviously not Lightning. Given that the Chocobo is white. Given that it only responds to Lightning, who then rides it as a mount and has it fight alongside her. We know from Final Fantasy XIII-2 that Lightning still had Odin at her side, so it wasn’t like the two had parted ways after Light lost her l’Cie brand. When given the chance to name the Angel of Valhalla, I immediately named it Odin. Regardless, the game made it so that Lightning didn’t know it was him until you wrap up Caius’ sub-plot. I thought that the option to give Odin a name was a test to see if you could figure it out, and it felt silly to have Light name him Odin and carry on exactly as if she had named him Fluffy. A small cutscene where Lightning figures it out beforehand, or even some dialogue between the two (similar to when Light chooses to talk to him) would have been nice. It seems they could have edited or cut the scene at the end of that sub-plot if Lightning figured it out beforehand without much trouble. This is a small complaint, but it felt a little weird.

These elements stick out so much because quite honestly, there’s not a whole lot of story outside of Lightning’s character study. At least in the main plotlines. There’s plenty of Lightning doing things, but hardly any character development or interactions. The problem with Lightning Returns is that when recurring characters do show up, Lightning hardly travels, or develops her relationship with any of them. Strangely, Lightning rescuing Odin, nursing him back to health, having him become a comrade, and ultimately realizing the true extent of their bond… Was far, far more than she had with Sazh, Caius, Noel, Fang, Vanille, and Snow.

Caius especially. The first half of his quest chain is spent with Odin. The rest is Lightning scaling that temple where her health is being drained as various Yeuls talk to her at certain intervals. For the record, gameplay wise I loved that temple. Storywise… Light reaches the top, fight Caius, and after defeating him he basically brushes her off. The whole scene feels like he’s bored of playing around with Lightning, won’t listen to her, and tells her to fuck off home. I did like how the boss fight with him is one of the most interesting ones in the game. It recaptured the feeling of FFXIII-2’s excellent DLC where all you do is fight Caius as Lightning. The setting and his battle mechanics being nigh identical, and the music being the same probably helped with this. Requem of a Goddess was pretty damn good; one day I’ll down Dark Bahamut at level zero.

Think about the rest. Sazh needs help with Dajh, to five fragments of Dajh’s soul in order to wake him up. He’s understandably depressed and isolated when Light first meets him, and then he sends her away. Light gets more interaction with Chocolina while she’s gathering all these pieces, than she gets with Sazh. During my second playthrough, I noticed that while this quest is open Sazh can be found wandering around Luxerion. Despite having the same goal, the two of them never join forces, and he doesn’t say much to Lightning. At the end of his plotline, Lightning mostly watches Sazh play with Dajh. It’s a really sweet scene, but does very little to expand their relationship.

Finally, there’s Lightning’s time with Fang. Who does team up with her, but the writers fall into the trap of banking more on nostalgia than building anything new. Sure, it’s great to have Fang follow Light around spouting witty dialogue, but their bond is never tested. Fang’s on a mission, Lightning helps on this mission, and while Fang does question why Lightning is working for a god when they should be fighting them, things never progress past that. It was a great nostalgic kick to have Fang reference the time she spent with Lightning as a l’Cie, but they hardly have a new adventure.

I have enjoyed that in FFXIII and Lightning Returns, Fang is shown to be an archaeology nerd, but it’s never made obvious. In the original, if you have Fang in your party while exploring parts of Gran Pulse (notably Mah’habara and Taejin’s Tower) she’ll express a lot of interest in her surroundings. The same goes for excavating tombs in the Dead Dunes. She shows a genuine interest in exploring these places and appreciating their design and history. It’s never something that impacts the story in any way, but helps make the character feel that much more real.

The most interaction you get with the main cast is at the end of their storylines. These are pretty good, but way too fleeting. Lightning’s battle of brain and brawn to help Snow rediscover his sanity was fantastic. The bit where Snow left his pendant behind, and says that when Lightning thought to use it to unlock the door to his chamber, he knew she was the real Lightning was a great touch! The part where Lightning tells Fang that she’s the only one who can get through to Vanille, because Lightning knows their bond is so strong, was really sweet (along with the pat on the shoulder and little wink Light gives her). You can talk to both Snow and Fang after it’s over, but like I’ve said many times, it feels more like exposition and chit chat than meaningful character development. Arguably Snow and Lightning grow closer because Light’s able to get through to him, and because she’s someone who shares Snow’s pain of losing Serah. I still maintain that it doesn’t hold a candle to the development you got while watching them travel in pairs or threes.

There is also a great element that is implemented strangely. After Lightning completes any quest, the next loading screen you see will be Lightning’s thoughts on that quest. Scrolling text where she muses on everything from the importance of friendly rivalry, to her thoughts on seeing certain people again, to even hinting at what her life was like before becoming Lightning. It’s all written in first-person, and has some fantastic insights! Except, if you complete another quest (and you’ll likely complete many before seeing a loading screen), her thoughts are only on the most recent quest completed in its respective zone. Furthermore, the datalog synopsis of quests when you complete them only summarizes the events, without Lightning’s thoughts. The datalog doesn’t have those anywhere. It’s a little frustrating if you miss one, which you almost certainly will, especially since some give us information about Light that isn’t found anywhere else. It was a great idea that makes the loading screens more interesting, but I have no idea why they didn’t record them in the datalog. That damn thing records everything! In my game right now, the loading screen reads:

My Favorite Rival –
Some competition is necessary in life, especially in a world where no one ages and time stretches relentlessly on. When you strive to outdo a rival, you can reach heights that you never would reach on your own. But most of us never realize the value of our rivals until we lose them. It seems strange to admit it now, but Snow played that role in my own life. When I first met him, and realized that Serah had chosen him over me, I felt a powerful need to best him, in everything we did.

Light’s antagonism towards Snow was a very important part of Final Fantasy XIII, you think they’d put this insight in a place where people have more than a fleeting chance to read it. If you’re into Farroncest, then that tidbit would have made your day.

But who needs insights into people's motivations in a character-driven story anyways?

But who needs insight into people’s motivations in a character-driven story anyways?

Also the constant alternating between ‘God’ and ‘Bhunivelze’ keeps suggesting that they’re different people, but that isn’t the case. Which makes doing so a bit strange. They are the same person, right? After two playthroughs (and watching various cutscenes about fifteen times while writing this article), it’s still not 100% clear.

> What Does Work

If there is one way an open world game is great at telling a story, it’s when it gives you a multitude of vignettes all looking at the same topic but from different angles. You can construct a world around a solid theme or identity, and then have the player explore every facet of it.

It has been five-hundred years since the Chaos was released, since then life as the survivors know it has ended. The cycle of birth and death is effectively gone, in that no one can give birth, and people have stopped aging. The great thing about Lightning Returns, is that the people of Nova Chrystalia can still die. Through injury, illness, starvation; any non-age related problem, basically.

What this means is that people still need to eat, be weary of their surroundings, and can still threaten others with violence. It also means that people still need to hold down jobs. It solves the potential plot hole of “Why are you charging me money when the world is ending? Why are you asking for money at all?!” You can explore what happens to people after they’ve been alive for five-hundred years, and the madness that comes with it. Something that Lightning Returns does very well.

The standout example is the side-quest ‘The Avid Reader’. In Luxerion, Lightning meets a man at a cafe who is reading through a stack of his old journals. Being over five-hundred years old, and having written in a journal every day, you can imagine how many he has. His problem is that he lost his earliest journal, and wants to re-read it because he’s forgotten what happened during that time. What makes this quest unique is that he asks Lightning not to read it if she does find it, he may keep a journal but they’re for his eyes only. So naturally the moment we find it and are given the option, we crack that sucker open! To discover that his entire family was brutally murdered by a man he now considers a friend. That entries begin with his reactions, then turn to thoughts of revenge, before the same line about getting justice repeats day, after day, after day. Eventually he couldn’t take it anymore and blocked the entire thing from his mind, and now you’re about to bring everything back. If you chose not to read the journal then the quest chain ends when Light hands it over, because she’s not there for the revelation. If you do read it, you’re given another chain where this man grapples with his resurfaced trauma and begs Lightning to get revenge on the man who hurt him.

Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.

Because no one ages, children are stuck in a perceptual childhood. One side-quest involves nothing but finding a little girl’s lost toy. Despite this girl likely being five-hundred and seven years old. Life has gone on for so long, that many children have lost their parents, but are unable to develop into adults because their brains can’t develop/ mature. Often you see children trying to make sense of the world in their own way, or hold onto the last memories they have of their parents, who could give them direction. One kid challenges Lightning to a footrace; when she beats him handily because she’s a combat hardened demi-goddess and he’s a nine-year old, he says his reason for challenging her (and others) was to help cheer people up. To add some whimsy to the world.

The world has gone on for so long that depression gripped so many. The world is tiny and dangerous, and even life’s great pleasures get old after centuries. While many wait for the end of the world, and even celebrate it, many more decide to commit suicide. In Yusnaan, Lightning is challenged to two arena matches where she’s challenged to kill a certain number of monsters. The arenas are littered with bones, and it dawns on her that people don’t enter these to win, but for one last chance at excitement before being torn apart.

Even people celebrating the end have had enough. During the main quest, to break into Snow’s palace, Lightning needs to destroy a statue that’s part of a performance in order to knock down one of its outer walls. The director catches on to what you’re doing, but lets you do it anyways. For all of his enthusiasm for putting on this great show, he’s been doing it every night for so long that he’s almost glad to see it burn (so long as only Light’s at risk). People indulge in excess because it’s the only thing left, even if they’ve become numb to it.

So many side-quests explore how people have gone mad, committed suicide, become numb or forgetful over the past five-hundred years. There’s quests where Light helps distant loved ones reconnect. Many more explore the people holding onto memories of loved ones, trying to make others smile, trying to find purpose in a life that never ends. A lot of these have better emotional payoffs than the main story-quests!  Coupled with the fact that the five-hundred year lifespan is a fucked up eugenics program devised by Bhunivelze (seriously, dude…), makes the world of Nova Chrystalia (‘Gran Nova Chrystalia’?) even more twisted and fascinating.

>>> Direction

There are obvious problems with the direction of many cutscenes, with weird camera angles that get obstructed easily, and awkward/ glitchy character movements. For the most part, these are likely because the cutscenes are for side-quests and didn’t get the time and attention they needed. It’s not an excuse for an  to NPC block your view of Lightning and whoever she’s talking to, but I can understand that fixing that likely wasn’t a priority. This isn’t what I’m going to be focusing on anyways.

What bothered me is that there were a couple cutscenes which were part of the main storyline, that were shot and paced in a way that made whatever emotion they were trying to evoke ineffective. The best example is Fang’s reunion with Vanille towards the end of the game.

First thing’s first, Lumina appears to Lightning again and throws out even more hints about who she is. It has all the makings of a scene where Lightning finally figures it out, but she’s still clueless and nothing comes of it again. This is right before the final boss, when calling on Claire, her friends, and family to help her defeat Bhunivelze would have been a great climax… Instead it takes another cutscene for Light to figure it out, after the fact. Listen to that music, look at what’s happening. Bhunivelze takes her friend’s souls right after Lumina asks Lightning if she knows who she is. Why did they stretch it out this long? It also conflates Lumina with Fake-Serah again, as well as going back and forth between Lumina existing because of Bhunivelze, and because of Lightning. Fake-Serah also says that she’s holding onto Serah’s soul, which is proven to be false and Fake-Serah knows this. This element makes no sense. I see what they were trying to do, but it distracts from Lightning and Lumina which is far more important.

The scene also feels very uneven in terms of its emotional charge. What worked is the bit where Fang is begging Vanille not to go through with the Soulsong, but Vanille is breaking down under the guilt and agony she feels; convinced that she has to atone for what she’s done. She’s crying, shaking, strained, and all of this has the makings of a great scene.

I am confused as to why the guards didn’t fire on Fang and Lightning as they started climbing up the stairs. They’re not trembling in fear or anything, and they have a straight shot. I’m chalking this one up to “it’s fiction” though. Still, it’s a bit strange how any immediate threats are cast aside while the characters talk. Although given how Lightning and Noel’s encounter before this scene poked fun at this fact, maybe this wasn’t an oversight. Then again the guards later yell “Kill her!” without firing either, so maybe they’re just idiots.

However, what really kills the tension is when Vanille is struck down. Fang reacts, eventually. Everything we know about Fang says that she’s willing to tear people apart to prevent Vanille from being hurt, so why does she stand there only looking vaguely concerned? Vanille is struck, falls down the stairs, and is clearly in pain while her soul is being taken. Fang was already running up the stairs (which aren’t very long) to save her at that point, but it’s not until a considerable amount of time passes that Fang cries out her name. Not that it matters, Vanille’s only a little injured. Being struck point blank with an energy blast, tumbling down a flight of stairs, before almost having your soul ripped out is something anyone can walk right off. Nevermind that it’s Lightning who reaches Vanille first. Which is strange given Fang had a head start.

I did like how the Clavis was destroyed, if only for the exchange, “Nice entrance, hero.” “Well it only took five centuries.” Fang tossing Snow her lance was a brief glimpse of the party working together that severely lacked in the sequels. It’s a moment where it felt like we had the cast together again; instead of having them brooding, or worrying about far less interesting concerns.

"We'll be together in life and death... in a strictly platonic non-romantic sorta way."

“We’ll be together in life, and death… in a strictly platonic non-romantic sorta way.”

Tthe scene where Fang and Vanille give themselves up to guide the souls of the dead is undermined by a rather odd decision. Fang wraps herself around Vanille and says that they’ll be together even in death, before they perform the ritual together. Vanille’s soul leaves her and she dies in Fang’s arms, before Fang gives up hers and dies beside Vanille. That’s how it should be. They give up their lives as one last sacrifice, but knowing that they can be reborn someday… Except that’s not what happens. You have this emotional death scene of two major characters, that’s undermined inside of a few minutes. After Lumina and Yeul’s scene, Fang and Vanille get back up. I know that people don’t die when Light saves their souls (or else after completing a few side-quests the world would be a ghost town), but this was part of a ritual to guide the dead to the Ark. It was a sacrifice, and a beautiful way to show how Fang and Vanille will not be apart even in death. To have them stand up afterwards cheapens that beautiful scene. At which point Bhunivelze (possessing Hope, because he wasn’t creepy enough already) appears and takes them away from Lightning anyways. Bhunivelze could have taken Fang and Vanille’s souls then, whether it was in their bodies or not. Lightning calls all of them back at the end to help her anyways, so it’s not like we would have lost the two in either scenario.

This is nitpicking to the extreme, but they got Vanille’s little hand sign wrong. I thought it was going to be a nice little detail, as Vanille seemed to turn to it and pray in times of need. Here’s her sign in FFXIII, and here’s her sign in Lightning Returns. Nothing I’ve written in this series of articles has made me feel more like a complete nerd than this paragraph.

This was good. I like this.

This is good. I like this.

To the writer’s credit, the line “The sound of true despair is silence.” makes total sense in context, is a really good reason for Vanille to realize she’s wrong, and is dead on in general. This is why people are often surprised when someone they know commits suicide, because they didn’t see any signs. This is why loneliness and isolation can become so crushing that you’re paralyzed to ask for help. When you’re howling and crying and yelling, a part of you is still fighting against whatever physical or mental anguish you’re experiencing. When you’re silent, it’s because you’ve succumbed to it completely. I’m fear becoming numb more than fear itself. I really like this line!

The blocking issues for side-quests are annoying, but I can understand them. The decisions taken during major story events (and conclusions to character arcs), I don’t. Whenever tension rises, or sacrifice is made, you’re often brought out of it by a strange direction decision, and sometimes character movement between one shot and the next doesn’t add up. In Fang & Vanille’s scene especially, it really detracted from the great moment their sacrifice doesn’t appear to be one at all. Other major cutscenes aren’t as strangely produced as this one, but do suffer from some of the problems outlined above.

>>> Concluding Thoughts

Final Fantasy XIII always had the potential to get really weird, but the talk of gods and goddesses, and the “Maker” was largely kept in the background. The heart and soul was the characters, and how a group of people who didn’t know each other, or didn’t like each other (Fang & Vanille excluded), were forced together to survive and ultimately forged unshakable bonds. If you had asked me what I wanted in a sequel, I would have told you to focus on that. I know many others share this sentiment.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 got really weird really fast, and sorta retconned FFXIII‘s ending (in that it still happened, but only Serah, Fang, and Vanille saw it). There’s a reason why I’ve barely mentioned this sequel; while not bad, it lacked substance. I never quite adjusted to how bizarre things got, considering that FFXIII managed to stay so grounded. Ideally it wan’t what I was looking for, but it was good enough to follow along and it had its moments. Serah really grew on me during FFXIII-2. You shouldn’t only pursue things that you’re certain you’re going to like, or else you’ll never experience anything new. Although that doesn’t mean you can’t criticize them, and FFXIII-2 lacked so much of what made the original great while being unable to bring much to love in its stead.

Lightning Returns attempts to bring back some of that character interaction, even if it’s fleeting. It does make a great character piece for Lightning though. I still wish we got to explore the others some more. Instead of Light merely helping Fang out, I would have liked to see their relationship tested and strained, maybe even change (romantically…). Technically there’s a bit about how Fang didn’t trust Lightning, but it’s all explained by Lumina and over in a flash. The story in general is pretty outlandish, it’s hard not to be when it’s about the end of the world and a woman saving souls. In the end, I still genuinely enjoyed it, if only because I was willing to ignore a lot of the excess. I think they still spread it a little too thin, and Lightning’s interactions with the other characters was too shallow to develop much with any of them. Even Hope doesn’t enjoy anything near what he had with Lightning when they traveled through the Gapra Whitewood. The story would have fallen flat if it weren’t for the in-depth exploration of Lightning’s character, the dry wit and deadpan delivery she had when interacting with some NPCs, and how the ending managed to (figuratively and literally) bring things back down to Earth. They also made a world where no one has been born or aged (save for one) in five-hundred years, and it was really interesting!

Would I have liked a deeper exploration of the l’Cie? Yes. Would I have liked to see the cast fractured in new ways, facing new threats, and forced back into an adventure which tested and changed their bonds? Absolutely. Did I like how FFXIII ended with Lightning reunited with her sister, and FFXIII-2 opened with her in a place without time fighting a giant enemy horde? Not particularly.

Was the journey worth it? Hell yes!

Maybe it was all worth it, to finally see this.

Maybe it was all worth it, to finally see this.

Concluded in Part Three

Video and Image Credits:
Dansg081080p with subtitles – He also does Commentary Playthroughs 
and does them well.
ShadowYuri09720p without subtitles – If you’re into Serah/Snow, check her out.
Both of these people made my life a helluva lot easier when researching these articles.

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