In Final Fantasy, death is common to the point of banality one second and a heinous finality the next. Seeing your adventurers blown up by a demigod while trying to save the world has always been a central part of the series’ appeal. If they go down in a fight, the characters can be back on their feet in a second. Just cast a life spell or toss them some reanimating phoenix down. But Final Fantasy earns its followers by laying down thick layers of sacrificial drama outside of battle. Nearly every game has a doomed martyr at its heart. Rather than treat it as a mere spice, death is Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII’s meat and marrow. Devoted to dissecting how impermanence defines humanity, it is the series’ most nourishing entry in nearly a decade.
Dying isn’t the easiest thing to do in the world of Lightning Returns. The story begins 500 years after the conclusion of Final Fantasy XIII-2. Everything, including time, is broken. Chaos—a black smoky nothingness that is full of monsters and slowly consuming everything—has reduced the world to a couple of cities and a single expanse of forests, plains, and mountains eroding into desert. The days are shorter, and there are few of them left; it’s common knowledge the world is ending in just a week. No one’s panicking, though. In fact, they’re chomping at the bit. Life lost its luster once everyone stopped aging. Illness and violence can still end life in Returns, but every man, woman, and child has been stuck living in stasis for centuries. There’s a beautiful post-grief air hanging over the game. These people miss death the same way regular people pine for their youth, unsure that they would want it if they actually had it.
Enter Lightning, a formerly stoic hero soldier of the original Final Fantasy XIII. She’s now a divine messenger on a quest to rescue people’s souls, so they can populate a new world. The game is blunt about her mission. No mealy mouthed symbolism here. God, the omnipotent creator of the physical universe, sent you back as his warrior messiah. Part Norse Valkyrie and part Noah, you spend the entire game as Lightning, running around the planet, saving souls, and bringing them back to your Ikea-meets-2001: A Space Odyssey lunar ark at the end of every 24-hour period. The more souls you save completing quests, the more the giant tree in your ark blooms. Up to five blooms can sprout, granting the world an extra five days, but that only delays the end.
Settling into Lightning Returns is tricky at first. It is undeniably strange, with its somber lead giving monologues about the end of days while wearing nothing but a giant sword and the Victoria’s Secret fall battle armor line. The strange pace of the game doesn’t help. Each locale, like the holy city Luxerion and the bucolic Wildlands, has one central quest that pushes the story forward and a couple dozen sidequests that are little stories of their own. Working one day at a time, Lightning has from 6 a.m. to 6 a.m. to accomplish whatever she wants, and it’s hard to not feel harried while watching the clock in the corner tick away. Do you help the jazz pianist whose songbook has been stolen by monsters in the desert, or do you try to make your way into the ancient temple spewing the destructive Chaos? Priorities become murky as your quest list grows, and there’s always the distraction of fiddling with Lightning’s outfits. All those Frank Frazetta-like costumes you collect in the game dictate what abilities you have—Lightning flies solo in this Final Fantasy—and it’s easy to spend time choosing which three looks you’ll be switching between in battle.
Eventually, the wackiness of what might as well have been called The Adventures Of Underpants Jesus fades away, leaving behind a smart, sad, and addictive game. Fights are quick and dirty bouts against only a handful of enemies at a time where you switch between outfits and skill sets on the fly. The battles yield more than just cash and power, though. Each one earns you Energy Points, which can be used for humdrum purposes like healing, but more importantly, they can stop time briefly. The longer you extend the day, the more opportunity you have to meet people and potentially save their souls.
Salvation isn’t always as dramatic as it sounds. Sometimes it just means helping a kid learn a new song on his trumpet. Other times, saving someone can be harrowing and strategically tricky. Take the lonely man you find reading a book in Luxerion’s south square. He’s been revisiting old journals that chronicle the last few hundred years of his life, and because he’s been alive so long, he’s forgotten most of it. The first volume of his memoirs was lost ages ago, but he thinks a used bookstore in another city might have it. Lending him a hand will help your mission, but it’ll also use up precious time. Spare the resources to teleport to this other town and freeze time, and you can uncover both the journal and the writer's unfortunate past. Then you have a choice: bring the book straight back to him or spend even more time trying to help him make peace with the painful experiences he's forgotten. Lightning Returns is overflowing with miniature dramas like these. Deciding how you pursue them and how you build the resources to do so is seductive and rewarding.
And as those rewards stack up, the subtleties beneath the bombast bleed through. Cities like the church-ruled, class-divided Luxerion and the party town Yusnaan (there’s a Gluttony District!) are as lived-in and natural as those in the misunderstood classic Final Fantasy XII. Crumbling plaster walls are covered with tiny old paintings in wood frames, and back alleys can hide treasure or just a good conversation with someone that needs a hand. Characters like Lightning and Snow that were mawkish anime stereotypes in past games are transformed into self-conscious Homeric archetypes. Even when the dialogue gets a little prolix, it’s rarely less than involving and never stupid. Lightning Returns even has a sense of humor—just wait until you meet Chocolina, the bird lady who, when she’s not living in a grown man’s afro, hangs out by town bulletin boards dressed like a Vegas showgirl and yells at you about helping people.
In concert, all of these components give weight to Lightning’s mission. Every person you meet is desperate for rest, and the hero struggles with her own timeworn numbness, as well. When the game confronts the implications of its apocalypse—like what shape life will take after this world comes to a close—Returns becomes deeply human in a way that Final Fantasy rarely manages. The game arrives where everyone who confronts death arrives, recognizing that nothing truly dies, it just changes. Bodies crumble and return to the earth, feeding other things that grow. The game’s ability to reach that conclusion through strange art and honest storytelling makes Lightning Returns a rare achievement.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: PlayStation 3