Recently, Square Enix revealed new pre-order content for the upcoming third game in the Lightning Saga, where Lightning can wear a Cloud Strife costume and equip his Buster Sword. While clearly fanservice, this feels like a sad attempt to put Lightning on the same level as Final Fantasy VII's protagonist. While I am far from Cloud's biggest fan, even I can't deny the impact he has had on RPGs. You mention Cloud and RPGamers instantly know who you are talking about. They quickly remember some of his greatest game moments such as him fighting Sephiroth, holding Aerith as she dies, or performing one of his classic limit breaks with the equally iconic Buster Sword. Cloud became an icon in gaming without even trying. He was in the right game at the right time. Looking back at Final Fantasy XIII it seems like Square Enix has been subtly trying to convince us that Lightning is on the same level as Cloud Strife, but she is far from it.
Final Fantasy VII was undoubtedly Cloud's story, but Final Fantasy XIII never really felt like Lightning's. She was the main character, but never truly had any defining moments for gamers to latch onto. Her sister Serah was frozen, but it always seemed more important to Serah's boyfriend Snow than to Lightning. Outside of one scene where Lightning blames Snow for all her problems and punches him, she's pretty one-sided. While never directly stated, it often feels like the designers want you to think of her as an iconic protagonist, much like Cloud, but it never happens.
We first see Cloud as a rough and callous soldier jumping off a train at the start of a mission. This is mirrored in FFXIII with Lightning on a train. She flips, spins, kicks, and shoots every guard on the train in overly dramatic fashion. She's already shown as being larger than life, something only hinted at with Cloud. Lightning also has the same cold, dispassionate demeanor as Cloud, but we never really see why she is the way she is. With Cloud, we actually get to play through his transformation. We see him as he comes to term with the fact that he's been living a lie and changes from the uncaring individual he was to one with a drive to save his friends and the world from Sephiroth.
Lightning's development has no such contrast. The game's antagonists are not even close to the level of Sephiroth. Dysley/Barthandelus is barely seen, let alone does he have as much presence as someone like Sephiroth, Jenova, or even Hojo. Jihl Nabaat and Yaag Rosch and the rest of the PSICOM crew are like FFXIII's equivalent of the Turks, but they receive so little screen time that they lack the personality the Turks developed. Cid Raines could have been a promising anti-villain, but also lacked any sort of depth within the story. Many of these characters are fleshed out in the datalogs, but come up short during the actual game and do little to help further develop Lightning.
Without an antagonist to push her story forward, Lightning's "saga" doesn't really feel like an epic tale. The tragedy supposedly driving her is one of revenge and self-preservation. She believes her sister Serah is lost forever and is moving forward simply to stop the evil force at work and hopefully save everyone in the process. If anything Snow, Vanille, Sazh, and Hope all have more drive and development than Lightning. She has no defining moments, as she's only seen as the game's badass, performing superhuman feats such as jumping between moving cars during a race or flipping around killing soldiers. This is made even worse in Final Fantasy XIII-2 where Lightning is now shown as a goddess knight battling against a new villain named Caius. Caius feels like a cheap attempt to emulate a Sephiroth level antagonist for Lightning (and Serah), but again this feels forced and comes out of left field. Despite never being shown why, Lightning's played up to be grand and glorious, but it all feels so empty.
The worst part of all this is the fact that Lightning did have moments of personality and had the potential to be a great protagonist. In flashback scenes that show what happen before the actual start of XIII, she's shown as someone who loves her sister and wants the best for her. This is seen briefly in the "worst birthday ever" scene where Serah reveals she's getting married to Snow, and Lightning flips out. She has heart in this scene, but other than that and a moment later in the game where she decks Snow, players never get to experience any of her change. So by the end of the game, her attitude change and remorse of being such a jerk feels disingenuous.
Lightning is a shallow character, especially when contrasted with Cloud. Players get to experience his change firsthand. He starts off as seeming like a legend, but then throughout the game players (and Cloud himself) learn who he really is. He was a lowly soldier, almost a nobody, who was living a lie and claiming to be someone he was not. Eventually, all of that catches up to him, and he has a complete breakdown where players get to see him at his worst. He recovers from that, accepts who he is, and the rollercoaster of his character arc is topped off with him becoming even greater than who he was pretending to be. In stark contrast, Lightning is a one note character until her 180 toward the end of the game. And further more in FFXIII-2, she makes an even more dramatic and nonsensical shift in her character development. As such, we are left with a character that we are being told is awesome, but we are never shown why.
The biggest shame is that Lightning could have been a fantastic, powerful female protagonist. She pulls off the strong female part well enough, but it comes at the cost of character depth. As the main character of the game (not to mention the whole saga), the game's dramatic moments should have had her at the center, but instead her role was almost meaningless. So as we approach Lightning Returns, we still have little reason to care about her. Maybe this final game will fix some of these issues, but it's hard to see how at this point. Lightning is no Cloud. She could have been, and could even have surpassed him, but she didn't and no amount of trying to make us believe otherwise will change that. Especially not a Cloud costume.