I finished this game over two weeks ago now, and I’m still thinking about things that I wanted to say about it. I can feel myself petering out on the topic, but there are just a couple final things that I want to address.
In the world of the Final Fantasy XIII series, there is only one black man in the world. His name is Sazh Katzroy, and he has an adorable son with a gigantic afro named Dajh whom he spends all of his time worrying over and trying to keep safe. I like Sazh a lot; of the main six characters from the first game, he’s the only male character who’s even remotely interesting (Hope and Snow, in hindsight, are dealing with a lot of angst over dead/endangered women, and the more frequently you see and recognize refrigerated women as a plot motivation, the more boring it gets; Dajh operates in a similar way for Sazh, but at least Dajh is a boy), and consequently I used him in my party pretty regularly even though it was arguably less efficient than only using the female characters who were built around a more offense based combat strategy (remember, the guiding principle in the Final Fantasy XIII series when it comes to combat is doing everything fast; defensive or tactically intricate setups were never rewarded in the same way as being able to kill enemies in as few seconds as possible). In Final Fantasy XIII-2, Sazh takes a backseat along with most of the original cast as the story shifts to focus on Lightning’s sister Serah and the new character Noel. I was okay with this move, since everyone more or less got decent cameos in that game (although in retrospect I realize that Sazh got shorted in that game too, since he only shows up in the entirely optional casino area while everyone else’s appearances intersect with the main story).
Now we get to Lightning Returns, which focuses heavily on Lightning, but has a quest structure that requires the player to complete several storylines in the world’s various areas which each involve Lightning helping out the surviving major characters from the two previous games. You can’t finish the game unless you do all the main quests, so the player will inevitably run into Sazh and Dajh again, but the structure of their story is such that it will likely happen as an afterthought to the other, very plot heavy, quests. Where each of the other four main quests are built around Lightning exploring the area where they’re centered extensively and culminate in a dramatic showdown at the end of long dungeon (that is to say, they’re structured like typical story quests in other RPGs), Sazh’s quest line is essentially a scavenger hunt that requires the player to go back and complete menial tasks around the world that are on par in difficulty with the much more abundant side quests. Completing Sazh’s story is largely incidental to everything else that’s going on, and its resolution, while kind of sweet (I think there’s some serious baggage to be unpacked in a story whose ultimate moral is that a black man needs to smile more because he scares his son when he doesn’t), doesn’t really carry the same intensity or fate of the world stakes that you see with the other characters. That’s okay in one sense, because there’s definitely room in epic scale fantasy to present small stories about a family, but it signals that the developers are done with Sazh as a player in larger events, and they have been since the end of Final Fantasy XIII. Even in Lightning Returns‘s climax after defeating the final boss, we get a scene showing all of Lightning’s friends showing up to lend their support in fighting off Bhunivelze (including Noel, whose connection with the rest of the original cast has always seemed tenuous at best; he’s Serah’s pal, so I don’t know why he’s all buddy-buddy with the original l’Cie team) except for Sazh. He shows up as an afterthought along with the rest of the souls that Lightning saved (y’know, the faceless masses that represent all those sidequests the player completed) and actually says something like, “I guess we missed it, huh?” This is particularly galling because while Lightning certainly has some deep personal connections with Hope and Snow, Sazh was the first person she befriended on their odyssey.
For me, I can’t help juxtaposing Sazh’s irrelevance to later games in the series with the fact that he’s the only black man in the world.
Setting aside all of that, one other thing that I particularly liked was the development of the relationship between Fang and Vanille. These two characters are really central to the entire series’s story, and they represent a great example of prominent characters who are written with heavy queer subtext. Though it’s never explicitly stated, Fang and Vanille’s relationship throughout the series reads heavily as romantic in nature, particularly in the way that Fang insists on taking on a protector role for Vanille akin to typical male-female gender roles that often appear in Japanese romance stories. Their story in Lightning Returns involves a major scene in the game’s conclusion where Vanille gets to fulfill her destiny as the person who can guide all the dead souls into the new world (even in a game that’s all about how important Lightning is, Vanille still gets to be the person who really matters), and Fang, in a fit of worry over Vanille’s safety, throws her arms around her friend in a show of support that definitely feels more than platonic.
All in all, the handling of characters and story in Lightning Returns is kind of a mixed bag. I really like moments like the one between Fang and Vanille, and at the same time I feel really irked that the writers didn’t integrate Sazh more fully into the narrative. It’s frustrating to see moments like these inhabiting the same story, and that’s when I have to remind myself that the Final Fantasy series as a whole has a specific target demographic, which is Japanese teenagers. The series’s themes aren’t particularly profound or difficult to parse, and it’s also bound up in a very specific cultural context that makes progressive elements like the inclusion of apparently queer characters run up against other problematic things like treating a black character as a novelty. As I get older, I wonder how much longer I’ll continue to have a taste for Square Enix’s JRPG series.