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"After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.
"His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, 'Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.'"
— Matthew 28:1-6, New International Version
Claire "Lightning" Farron isn't a perfect Christ figure. When she awakens at the beginning of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, she's been effectively dead for five centuries rather than three days. But the intent is clear: Lightning is, in the words of one Something Awful forum member, "anime Jesus."
The plot of Lightning Returns is a flaming car wreck of narration, a confusing mess built on the shambling foundation laid down by the utterly incoherent Final Fantasy XIII-2. The central story plays out like a fan fiction tour to hang out with (and usually fight) just about all the major named characters from the first two games in the trilogy, while the side stories (many of which funnel into the main quest) are all over the map in terms of tone and content. One minute Lightning is helping an alcoholic widower grieve the loss of his beloved; the next she's helping a man obsessed with muffins.
Yet there's one element of the game's narrative that actually does work: The concept of Lightning as a savior. She's been tasked by God, or at least a god-like entity named Bhunivelza, to save as many souls as possible before the world comes to its final end seven days hence. The Christian symbolism on display isn't even slightly subtle, what with Lightning having been presumed dead these past five centuries, then miraculously resurrected from her otherworldly slumber; it's one part Resurrection and one part Second Coming. Honestly, the religious references surrounding the character feel as muddled as the rest of the plot. As a woman warrior gathering souls before the apocalypse, Lightning's as much a Valkyrie as a Christ figure. Meanwhile, she nips over to an extradimensional space called the Ark (yes, as in Noah's Ark) once a day to refresh herself. While she's there, she feeds her harvest of happy souls to an Yggdrasil-like tree whose blossoms extend the world's existence for another day. Clearly, thematic consistency is not Lightning Returns' strong suit.
And yet, I somehow find the story's approach to Lightning's role as Savior interesting... possibly despite itself. The idea of a video game protagonist as a messianic chosen one has become a tired cliché, and it almost always plays out the same way: "Who, me? I'm no hero! I never asked for this responsibility! Whine, whine, whine." Well, not with Lightning. Rather than mope and dicker about her assigned duties, she jumps right in and gets on with the world-saving. If her personality weren't so flat here, you could say she was relishing her role; but at the very least, she's very matter-of-fact about it, frequently referring to herself as the Savior without irony or self-consciousness.
In life and in fiction, you normally only see acceptance of messianic status among the insane. There's nothing mad-eyed about Lightning, though; on the contrary, she's infuriatingly dull. Yet frustrating as her uninflected speech and stiff mannerisms can be from a moment-to-moment perspective, it makes her straight-faced proclamations of being God's harbinger much more interesting. There's no waffling or soul-searching for her mission; the game jumps right in and begins in media res, and the first proper quest beyond the prologue sees Lightning trying to put a stop to a string of murders by people who also buy into the notion of her role as Savior and aim to stop her by slaughtering every girl with rose-colored hair (of which there turn out to be surprisingly many).
The cumbersome narrative of Lightning Returns definitely puts the "messy" in "messianic," but every once in a while the game stumbles its way into thematic brilliance. There's seemingly accidental genius in the way Lightning's high-end equipment echoes the motif of sacrifice and martyrdom. In particular, the "Thorn of x" set of accessories invokes both Christ's crown of thorns and the concept of religious self-flagellation. By equipping a Thorn item, one of Lightning's stats will rise dramatically while greatly diminishing another. For example, one might let you amp up her magic to ridiculous levels, but the tradeoff is that her physical defenses will be reduced to nothing. Min-maxing goes hand-in-hand with RPGs, but such dramatic give-and-take tools are uncommon among Final Fantasy games; their appearance here, dressed as they are in nakedly religious terminology, adds a small but welcome touch of narrative and mechanical integration to a game that sorely needs it.
Given how haphazard Lightning Returns' story ended up being, I'm reluctant to read too much into how on-point the game turned out to be in this one respect. Throw enough at the wall and eventually something clever will stick, right? But still, credit where it's due and all that. Alas, these occasional flashes of brilliance ultimately just leave me wishing the overall narrative had been more carefully thought through.
Maybe they'll get it right in Lightning's next inevitable appearance. Though Lightning Returns marks a very conclusive finale to her tale, Square Enix's determination to drop her into every project under the sun only cements her Christ-figure status. As Jesus said in his final words in the Book of Matthew: "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Lightning costume DLC for Thief, anyone?