Lightning is returning. So why don't I feel any spark?
I've been playing Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII for the last few days, and it's curious just how little I've learned about her. I know she is the world's savior, awoken after 500 years by Bhunivelze--that is, God. I know she must save as many souls as she can before chaos consumes the world in a matter of days. And I know about a prophecy that states that she is the one who will ultimately destroy the world. In fact, Lightning Returns is chock full of prophecy talk, though I have yet to put all of its jumbled pieces together into a coherent whole.
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I know these things, and many others, because the characters talk about them at length, but I don't know Lightning. As the rosy-haired heroine chats with returning character Hope Estheim aboard his floating ark, I learn that she herself is surprised by her lack of emotion. God has promised her that she will be reunited with her lost sister Serah as a reward for her sacrifices. But Lightning isn't moved or excited by the notion, and doesn't fully know why. Hope tells her it's because she's evolving into a deity herself. The implication is that deities are above such petty concerns as love and expectations, and Lightning doesn't look forward to the possibility that she might sit at God's side once she has performed her duties. The problem is that I'm not above those petty concerns, and Lightning's stoicism erects a wall between me and the game. She outright doesn't care, and she's not doing a very good job of convincing me that I should, either.
Mind you, these are the words of one of the world's only apparent fans of Final Fantasy XIII. I liked Lightning then, and against all odds, I even could conjure up affection for several of her cohorts--even Vanille, in spite of her excessive chirpiness. Lightning and Snow were driven by their love for Serah, who was frozen in crystal, destined to remain there now that she had fulfilled the will of the fal'Cie. (For some of you out there, this should all make perfect sense, though after investing more time than I care to admit with Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, I am not sure I've retained all the vital details.) Love is a relatable emotion, and its role in driving our actions is universally acknowledged.
Lightning doesn't look forward to the possibility that she might sit at God's side once she has performed her duties.
Planets and random souls, on the other hand, are more difficult to relate to. Ironically, saving your sister can be a more powerful goal than saving a society. It's the personal versus the impersonal. It's empathy versus sympathy. Lightning is ambivalent about her duty. And in turn, I'm ambivalent about her ambivalence.
It didn't have to be that way. Lightning now does battle all on her own. I like the battle system, which molds the previous games' paradigm shifts into a semi-real-time combat mechanic that keeps me switching between customizable roles called schemata, with each role being assigned its own spells, its own outfit, and its own weapon. But lone-wolf Lightning is an uninteresting Lightning. She keeps in constant contact with Hope, who chatters so much that he's constantly cutting off conversations with others, or being cut off when you trigger battle or dialogue events. Yet without an adventuring party to balance Lightning's stoicism, to broaden the story, or even to provide comic relief, Lightning is the hollow shell that she says she is.
Don't take my ambivalence as a sign that Lightning Returns doesn't have narrative merit. I'm not very invested in Lightning's rescuing duties and random fetch quests at this stage, nor is the game very effective at filling in the narrative gulf separating these events from those that concluded Final Fantasy XIII-2. Yet I'm intrigued by game's depiction of religion and the religious, most notably in how Western religious themes are represented. Bhunivelze is sometimes referred to by name, but is typically known as capital-G God. With Lightning cast as the savior, it's not difficult to draw the obvious parallels between Bhunivelze and Jehovah, and even Hope in his hovering craft would seem to be a holy angel, acting as Lightning's spiritual guide. Eventually, the story both fulfills its Christian allegories and subverts them, though sharing exactly how would spoil important plot points.
Meanwhile, a murderous cult channels Herod the Great, killing young women who physically fit the description of the rumored savior. This is the Final Fantasy telling of the Book of Matthew, Chapter 2, in which Herod commands the slaughter of all newborn boys throughout Bethlehem, fearful of the rise of the prophesied Messiah. Of course, Lightning Returns doesn't echo the New Testament in every detail; this murderous cult incorrectly assumes it is acting on behalf of a great warrior destined to conquer the savior, for example. Japanese role-playing games have never shied away from religious and mythological themes--killing deities is a popular pastime in RPGs, after all--but it's rare that such a game would so closely mirror accounts from the Bible.
As for Lightning, she's a reluctant savior, leaving me to seek pockets of personality in the game's nooks and crannies. Various quests lead me across multiple locales, and don't need to be accessed in any particular order. And it's in places like the aptly named Dead Dunes that I find the little touches that can mean so much. There, Lightning skims down heaps of sand as if she's surfing, evoking memories of Journey, and I activate cactuars to use as quick-travel devices--a pleasant nod to the series' common themes and characters. It's in this arid place that I find the most hope. The locals tell me there's treasure out there to be found, and I think to myself that maybe there's a grand adventure here after all.
I'll be excited if Lightning finds intriguing secrets buried out in the sandy wasteland. I'll be more excited, however, if she finds herself.