Welcome back one and all to yet another installment of Vry desperately tries to convince the world that Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t completely suck. Today we’re going to be tackling the main story and the characters of Lightning Returns, since the two are pretty much interwoven. Much like the Final Fantasy XIII prime, much of the story is driven by Lightning, her personal mission, and her interactions with her friends and enemies. Which is important to note, because as you find out as soon as the short prologue mission you’ll find out that who falls on which side of that distinction may have shifted in the intervening 500 years that Lightning was snoozing in crystal. This will also cover a good chunk of the story for the game, as most of the main story missions for Lightning are tied directly to her friends. Fair warning, beyond this point there be SPOILERS for the entire trilogy.
We should probably start with our main protagonist: Claire ‘Lightning’ Farron. A lot has happened to Lightning over the course of the trilogy. She was branded a l’Cie, changed her destiny and defied the will of god-like beings known as fal’Cie, was sucked into the Unseen Realm of the Dead, became the knight guardian of the Goddess of Death, got out-chessmastered by a near immortal mad man, and sealed herself away in crystal slumber to avoid the apocalypse. That was before this game starts. At the beginning of this game, Lightning was drawn out of her crystal slumber by Bhunivelze, the ‘true’ god of the world and the being that created the first fal’Cie (Lindzei, Pulse, and Etro) and the world. Bhunivelze tasks her with becoming the savior and to secure as many souls as she can before his arrival to erase existence. In exchange for providing this service Bhunivelze will resurrect Serah, Lightning’s sister who the catalyst for the first game and the hero of the second game that met with a tragic end. Lightning agrees and sets out on her mission, but as things progress she begins to note things are amiss. Like the fact that while she knows she should and normally WOULD be outraged at God using her sister as a bargaining chip, she feels utter indifference towards it. She is driven solely by the goal she made for herself when she entered the crystal slumber – be reunited with Serah at any cost.
Helping Lightning in her mission is Hope Estheim. Hope was Lightning’s travelling partner and pseudo-student in the first game who later would start an organization to help save the world by building a new world for everyone to avoid the apocalypse in called New Cocoon and later just The Ark (Hint: It didn’t work!) Hope’s appearance in this game is that of his younger self as shown in the first game. No one knows why. Not even Hope. He vanished some 169 (Get it? 13 x 13 = 169. HA!) years prior to the game, and when he returned he was regressed to the young boy that Lightning last saw him as and filled with all the knowledge he would need to help Lightning complete her mission. Hope is weird. He routinely tries to push Lightning to focus on her mission and to ignore all the questions she has about her changed behavior. He speaks like he is ancient but with the body of a child, something to be expected when no one has aged in 500 years but here’s the kicker – NO ONE ELSE DOES. In fact, no one ages or matures or anything in that time. Children still act like children, despite being so for hundreds of years. So what’s up with Hope? Well, that is explained later and we’ll get to that.
Next up is Snow. Snow is now the “ruler” of the City of Yusnaan, which considering the last we saw was him continuously beating up a giant Flan monster like Sisyphus in XIII-2, I’d say that’s a step up. Snow has had a depressing turn since his fiance, ‘SERAH!’, died 500 years prior. He’s taken up the habit of becoming the protector of the city and thus its ruler mainly because he feels so much regret that he couldn’t save anything else. He failed to find Lightning for Serah, he failed to protect Serah, and then he failed to protect the world from the Chaos – so now he feels he’s making up for that. It’s also interesting to note that Snow is a l’Cie – a servant bound to a fal’Cie – and no, it’s never explained how he got re-l’Cie-ed after having the brand removed from him by Etro at the end of XIII. Well, it technically is but only in an external light novel that was never published outside of Japan. I really wish Square Enix would stop doing that. These games can be confusing enough as it is without them putting out plot info in other books that I can’t get my hands on. It’s like if the Hobbit movies only made sense if you were familiar with the Lost Tales books… oh wait… Oh! And they were only published in Germany. That’s more like it.
I’ll just tell you though. During Snow’s Most Excellent Adventure through time and space during XIII-2, he found himself struggling to accomplish… well anything. After all, at that juncture Snow was just a normal dude with a super-powered trenchcoat (Yes, that’s still a thing in these games). He can’t jump through time and space willie nilly. But luckily he comes across an actually friendly fal’Cie called Cactuar. They make a pact that Snow would help Cactuar, and Cactuar would make him a l’Cie so he could carry out his mission. That’s why Snow has the l’Cie brand in XIII-2 and Lightning Returns. Back to the actual plot!
Snow has decided that the best way to protect Yusnaan from the Chaos is to absorb all the Chaos into his own body. Hey, he’s a noble protecting of the people. Just not a SMART noble protecting of the people. Actually it seems more like his own personal honorable form of suicide since he’s pretty much lost everything he cares about. Even when Lightning returns (See what I did there?) he makes it perfectly clear that she is NOT the Lightning he knows. Which raises the question, who is she? Snow has a cool mechanic in the game in that the longer you put off fighting him, the more and more he turns into this crystal monster and becomes MUCH more dangerous. So first time players, fight Snow BEFORE Day 7 ends. You’ll be glad you did. Save Monster Snow for your New Game+ or New Game++ playthrough.
Now with Snow out of the way, what about Vanille and Fang? Well aren’t they still trapped in the crystal pillar? NO! For some reason (the will of God? Who knows…) they both thawed out of the pillar thirteen years ago. Vanille also came out of the pillar with the strange ability to hear the dead. All of them. Like everyone who has died since the chaos swept through the world. So 500 years of dead people constantly screaming at her. This has turned her into something of a religious icon for the church in Luxerion. They plan on having her perform a giant ritual to ‘send’ the souls and ‘free them’ as per God’s will. Turns out the truth is a bit less Disney-esque: She is literally purging the souls from the universe. People will forget that the souls and the individuals that once possessed them ever existed. Oh, and it will kill Vanille too. This is all part of Bhunivelze’s big plot to save only the souls HE deems worthy and as chosen by HIS savior. Dude’s a control freak (Not shocking from the ‘diety’ who literally destroyed time itself to find out if his dead mommy was plotting against him.) Enter Fang – who does NOT want Vanille to die. She’s been in the desert trying to find the “Holy Clavice” which is a relic from ancient times needed to perform the ritual. Her idea is to beat the Church to the relic and then destroy it so Vanille can’t perform the ritual. Vanille refuses to listen to Fang about how the ritual is going to kill her, because she feels this is a higher calling and that sacrificing herself to save all these poor souls is worth it. Vanille has had this self-sacrificing guilt thing going on since the first game, and it’s finally coming to a head here. So Fang’s storyline is essentially a Indiana Jones vs the Nazis style race to the huge religious artifact. But at least not before we get some Les Yay laced dialogue between Fang and Lightning (No, this isn’t fan service. It’s CANONICAL fan service. Remember, Fang did use the “Let’s see how far your mark is progressing” excuse to scope Lightning’s breasts in the first game. Fang also has a relationship with Vanille that – to paraphrase the developers – ‘transcends friendship and sisterhood’.)
Rounding out the first game’s crew there’s Sazh. Last we saw of ol’ Sazh was that he was trapped in an outside-of-time Casino playing cards for his son’s life, and then he appears 500 years in the damn future to help during doomsday with no explanation how he got there. Oookay, I was unfair when I said that. It is somewhat explained in the Sazh DLC for XIII-2 when he asks the Casino owner to send him somewhere that he can make a difference. However, it seems that all of that card playing was for not because in the post-chaos world of Nova Chrysalia, Dajh’s soul is missing! His body is fine, just sleeping away in Sazh’s bed, but the soul is gone to who knows where. Thus Sazh’s quest for Lightning is to get Dajh’s soul back. The kid’s soul is split into five pieces scattered across the world. However the easiest to get is the one from Chocolina, who for those who don’t recall is essentially The Doctor from Doctor Who if he decided to open up a store where he landed and dress like a giant chicken. Chocolina is also the baby chocobo that Sazh bought for Dajh in the first game given the power to change into human form by Etro. In this instance, Etro may have been too nice. Chocolina loves to tease Lightning about this and constantly remind Light that Chocolina knows who she is, but Lightning has NO CLUE who Chocolina is.
Well, that’s the original team but how about the XIII-2 characters? Well, you’ll be happy to know that the fates of Noel, Yuel, and Caius are discussed here and oh boy is this one a doozy. Strap in kids. First we’ll get Noel out of the way. Noel is actually the mysterious leader of the Children of Etro that have been killing off anyone who looks like Lightning in Luxerion in hopes of stopping the Savior. Noel wants to kill Lightning not because of her jerking him around like a puppet in the previous game but because Noel has spent 500 years losing his mind obsessing over how to save ‘his’ Yuel, or the last of the Yuels that died in his arms. He was given a Prophecy Drive (an old device used to record the prophecies of the Seeress Yuel) that shows him killing Lightning and being reunited with Yuel. Who gave him this drive? We’ll get to that. Anyway, Lightning and Noel end up butting heads across Luxerion until she finally beats him and leaves him a broken man pretty much.
Caius and Yuel on the other hand? They’re having a much worse time. Caius succeeded in his plan to break open Etro’s Gate and destroy time, and even somehow lived to tell about it. But now 500 years later, his life is a living hell. Why? Because of Yuel. Yuel the girl he fought so hard to save. Yuel, the girl he destroyed time itself so she wouldn’t have to suffer. Yuel, the first human and blessed by Etro to be reborn each time she died because her heart did not fade into the chaos like everyone elses. Wait. Does that mean? Yes siree. When the Unseen World poured out into the Seen World, every single incarnation of Yuel came with it. Now Caius is stuck with them all. The Yuel who loved Poetry, the Yuel who liked Flowers, ALL OF THEM. And worse, they can’t decide what to do with Caius. Some pity him and want him to die so he can at last have peace, but some adore him and want him to live forever with him. Now Caius is trapped and wants to be put out of his misery by Lightning. The irony is not lost on him. However, the more important thing we learn is that the Chaos, this stuff that seems to eat away at reality itself – that’s Yuel’s fault. As she puts it, the Chaos is her ‘love for Caius’ but what that actually means is that her constant resurrections to be with her guardian was the reason that the Chaos was growing and bleeding through into the Seen World. Her very nature of being reborn whenever she died was damaging reality and thus was responsible for pretty much everything that went wrong from the ending of XIII to now. Again, the pity of Etro has messed things up. Then again, that’s the way with fal’Cie isn’t it?
For the final stragglers of the series: Serah is dead, her soul being the first one absorbed by Lightning while she was in Crystal Slumber to “protect it”. Odin, Lightning’s eidolon and ally, was turned into a majestic white chocobo by the Chaos (the Chaos is weird like that and transforms things a lot. Humans don’t get affected because they already have a touch of Chaos in them in the forms of “Hearts” that Etro gave them.) and Mog the Moogle is now the ruler of a village of moogle which is oddly hinted at being where he was from originally in XIII-2 making Mog’s very existence a weird time loop paradox, but since that’s an optional side quest in both XIII-2 and Lightning Returns, it never really gets addressed.
So that covers all the previous characters and most of the story but we’re missing something. Something to unite all this disparate stories into a cohesive whole and the game has given us that in the form of Lumina. Lumina is a brand new character for Lightning Returns who appears as early as the opening cutscene. She is inexplicable woven into almost every main story quest in the game. Who gave Noel the Prophecy Drive? Lumina. Who gives Sazh the box to store and recombine Dajh’s soul fragments? Lumina. Who is constantly pestering Snow? Yup. Who tipped off Fang about the Holy Clavice and the Church’s plot? You bet. So who the heck is she? Well, the long story short is and this is a BIG spoiler: She’s Claire Farron. She’s Lightning’s “heart” for the lack of a better term, given form by the Chaos. When Bhunivelze resurrected Lightning from Crystal Slumber and raised her to the status of ‘Savior’, he cast away her emotions and her heart, leaving her with nothing but her memories and her last goal: be reunited with Serah. She has no real emotional attachment to this goal other than it being ‘The Goal’ so when Bhunivelze uses it as a carrot on a stick to Lightning, she’s sees not someone using her dear sister as bait but as an opportunity to complete the goal. Her discarded emotions, her heart as it were, were discarded and took shape in the Chaos manifesting as Lumina who has a combination of Serah’s looks and Lightning’s snark and compassion for her friends. Throughout the game, Lumina pushes Lightning to realize what Bhunivelze took from her and to try to steer her back on the path to being reunited with her heart, her friends and ultimately her sister – who Bhunivelze never had any intention to return to life. Serah’s soul was to be flushed away with all the others during Vanille’s ritual and then since no one would have any memory of the souls, Lightning would be none the wiser.
Which brings us to the final piece of this puzzle. The grand architect of the Fabula Nova Crystalis himself: Bhunivelze, God of Light and yes, you actually get to meet him in this one. Actually you meet him a lot but you wouldn’t know it because it turns out that the Hope that is inexplicably younger to match Lightning’s last memories of him (She never met older Hope in XIII-2) is actually just a puppet for Bhunivelze himself to speak through. Oh, Hope has his memories buried somewhere, but Bhuni-boy won’t let him touch them unless needed. Hope is just there to help manipulate Lightning into being the Savior, to round up the ‘chosen souls’ and help usher them to his ‘New Perfect World’. Which brings us to Bhuni’s plan. A quick recap: Bhunivelze kills his Mom Mwynn so he can rule the universe himself. He worries that his mother is plotting against him in the Unseen Realm but doesn’t know because as the God of the Seen Realm, his eyes can see all except through the Chaos of the Unseen Realm. He tasks two fal’Cie – Pulse and Lindzei – with trying to break into the Unseen Realm to find out and then goes to sleep until the job is done. He wakes up to find the chaos EVERYWHERE. Yea, that crap he can’t see through? EVERYWHERE. Including in all these humans’ “Hearts”. So he says ‘Screw this, I’m starting over with my own universe where there is no Chaos, no hearts, and no Mom.’ Gets Lightning to do the dirty work and then plans to flush the old universe, dead not-gathered souls and all away so he can play with his brand new shiny universe with his perfect emotionless humans and his Mom won’t be able to stop him despite her being destroyed by the Chaos and turning over her guardianship of the Unseen Realm to Etro for ages already at the time all of this happens but since the Unseen Realm is still a thing where dead stuff goes, use the emotionless-and-has-no-memory-of-Serah Lightning to become the ‘New Etro’ and stand watch over the land of the dead. That’s his plan in a nutshell. I said it before: control freak.
I think that pretty much covers the characters and about 85% of the plot of the game. It’s a bit weird to go about it this way, but the game is extremely non-linear so the only really way to talk about it is by discussing the characters’ roles in each of the quest lines. Next time in our final installment we will discuss the ending of Lightning Returns and look back at the entirety of the XIII trilogy and the first chapter of the Fabula Nova Crystalis. Thanks for reading!
So now that we’ve gotten the characters out of the way, we should discuss the story a bit. Really, pretty much everything in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a step up from the original. The crystarium offers more choices, there are side quests, the plot doesn’t really require a crap ton of external reading to make sense, and the whole thing is more of a fun adventurous romp through time and space than a dreary struggle to survive and usurp the god-like powers that rule over us. Sort of. In the end, it’s best explained that XIII-2 is a more complicated Chrono Trigger, but not as complicated as Chrono Cross. Which is a very good description, unless you haven’t played those games at all. Which in case you haven’t… shaaaame.
Allow me to go into things a bit more so you have a better idea of what I’m talking about. Fair warning, ye travellers of the interwebs, thar be spoilers ahead. Of course, most people hate the now titled Lightning Trilogy of the Fabula Nova Chrystallis, so I’m not sure anywhere cares if I spoil things. Still, you will complain about the lack of warning regardless of whether you cared. I know you too well internet.
The general plot follows four characters and their separate goals. There’s Serah who wants to travel to the end of everything to find her sister who fights a never ending war in the land of the dead. Her partner in all this is Noel, the last human who was conscripted by Lightning to help Serah who wants to change history so that his time doesn’t completely suck as much with everyone being dead and whatnot. Next is Hope, who is now aged up since the first game and is working on advancing humanity to prepare for the potentially doomed future and also enjoys freezing himself with hundreds of years at a time to do so. Finally, there’s our sort of villain Caius who wants to create a world where Yeul will stop dying over and over.
Serah and Noel travel around time and space using time gates (Chrono Trigger people, starting to see similarities yet?) and by travelling through different times, they work to solve Paradoxes – errors in the time stream – to find anachronistic fragments of time that will allow them to open other time gates and eventually work their way to Valhalla at the end of time. The hitch to this whole thing, is that every time the timeline changes, Yeul the Seeress gets a vision of the new future and it sucks a bit of her life away, hence her constant dying. This puts Noel and Serah in direct confrontation with Caius, who is either trying to preserve the timeline, or destroy time completely by flooding reality with a force known as Chaos that dwells in the Unseen World of Valhalla. How does he plan to do this? Why by finishing the fal’Cie’s goal from the first game and killing a ton of people to open Etro’s Gate wide enough that the Unseen World pours into the Seen Wold.
It’s at this point that I feel it’s important to revisit the cosmology of the Fabula Nova Chrystallis mythology. In reality, there is the Seen World – the physical real world where time flows, the fal’Cie of Lindzei and Pulse once ruled, and was shaped and formed by Bhunivelze, God of Light – and then there is the Unseen World – the land of the dead, also called Valhalla, floating in a sea of Chaos where no time exists and God (Bhunivelze) cannot see into, hence the name Unseen World. The whole set up for the Lightning Trilogy is that God wants to find the Unseen World, so he goes into hibernation while his servants: Lindzei and Pulse, and their servants – the lesser fal’cie and thus the l’Cie – search for a way to get into the Unseen World. That’s ultimately very important to what happens in Lightning Returns.
There’s also part of the mythos that when Etro killed herself and descended to the Unseen World, her blood was to shape the first humans. The very first one being a girl named Yeul, formed to look like Etro herself. However, something strange happened when Yuel passed on to Valhalla: she did not fade away like other souls. Trapped there alone and without anyone, Etro pitied her and sent her back to the land of the living, gifting her with the Eyes of Etro which allowed her to see the future and giving her a protector and eternal companion – the Guardians, a long line of warriors entrusted with the heart of Etro herself.
Caius plans to do this by destroying Cocoon and dropping into on to Gran Pulse just like the fal’Cie did. He works throughout the time stream to cause the crystal pillar formed at the end of the last game to erode. But Caius isn’t the kind of person to let things ride on a single plan that has already been thwarted once before. No, no, no. Caius has a secondary plan. He plans to die. That’s right, because you see, part of his charge as the protector and companion to Yuel, Etro had to make sure he wouldn’t die and fade away like everyone else besides Yuel. So the Goddess gave Caius her heart. The Heart of Chaos as it has been called. Which makes him effectively immortal. It heals him, it gives him eternal youth, and it makes him nigh indestructible. But if someone were to kill him, they would effectively kill the Goddess at the same time and destroy the only force holding back the chaos and keeping it sealed in the Unseen World. So if he wins or loses, he wins.
And that’s the big thing at the end of the game. After all the altered time lines, changed futures, and more Yuels than you can shake a stick at, you finally showdown with Caius and defeat him, and he demands that you kill him. You can choose to refuse, but if you do all it does is Caius forces himself onto Noel’s twin blades and impales the Heart of Chaos. And thus the timeline changes, Yuel dies and so does Serah as she also gained the “gift” of the Eyes of Etro along the journey (Potentially due to Etro’s involvement on the Day of Ragnarok at the end of the first game, which would explain how Serah knows about Lightning surviving and everyone else thinks she is trapped in the crystal pillar) and with the Goddess’ heart destroyed, the chaos pours out of the Unseen World and floods the Seen world, merging the two into a new reality with no time. Caius wins.
Yea. You heard me. In the end of the game, Caius wins. Bad guy victorious. World doomed. The real downside is you just spent half a game trying to work with Hope to find a way to save all of humanity and now it’s all null and void. On the upside: HOLY CRAP THE BAD GUY WON! How often does that happen? There’s even a secret ending showing Caius smugly looking victorious as the world reshapes itself.
In the end, the story is really good. It’s downright enjoyable. It’s not a slog to figure out exactly what everyone is doing and why, motivations are simple and to the point but still grand in scale. The ending however puts a damper on things. It undoes most of the work you’ve done through the game, which really makes things feel like a waste of time. Of course, none of those things would have happened. And I’ll admit that was irritating, but not wholly a deal breaker for me.
As I said, they did away with all the countless pages of external research to understand the basic plot. Oh sure, the deeper nuances like the nature of Etro, or the history of the Seen and Unseen worlds are not fully fleshed out except in the datalogs. There’s also some random little elements in the game that are never really explained at all in the game or the logs. Like when you run into Snow. How did he get lost in time? Why does he have a l’Cie brand again? This is apparently all spelled out in a novel that was released in Japan. There’s actually like three or four novel tie-ins to the game that explain a lot of the details for the smaller elements. More explanation for Caius and Yuel’s relationship, details about Snow, and a bunch of other things. Though in the greater plot, these don’t really bear any great weight. The paradoxes that occur are more than enough explanation for the weirdness that pops up in the plot, like Snow and Sazh’s inexplicable time leaps (Hope’s is actually given a fairly thorough explanation.)
So in terms of sheer narrative after playing the entire Lightning Trilogy, this game is really my favorite story. It’s a fun adventure.
Next time I’ll to talk about the mechanics a bit more.
(Just an afterthought, I know some people often wonder why it’s Lightning and Caius on the title logo instead of Serah and Noel. Really, the entire story is a giant chess match between Lightning and Caius. Serah, Noel, Mog and Hope are Lightning’s pawns in trying to thwart Caius’ attempts to end the world. So that would be why.)