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Final Fantasy Month: The XIII Trilogy

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Ah yes, the XIII Trilogy… or the Lightning Trilogy…  or the only part of the Fabula Nova Crystalis project to walk away intact. The games are probably the most despised entries in the entire franchise in the West.  I don’t know about the East, but I hear they do apparently like Lightning so there’s that. I’m not going to go into my usual breakdown of plot and opinion on this one, namely because I’ve already spoken about it a little bit before:

…Just a uh… little.  Anyway, since you can go into and read a ton already on what I have wrote I figured I’d use this time to talk a bit about the Trilogy overall. Since really the entire thing feels like a microcosm of the Final Fantasy series as a whole.  Namely, an emphasis on experimentation.

The first game is flawed. I don’t think even an avid fan of it like me could argue otherwise.  The plot is dense and using the datalog to explain important story and world concepts was not a brilliant move. The linear gameplay with large tracts of corridors to run through was also a huge red mark for many players.  The game also emphasized on the characters and their day to day interactions during their journey (Day to day may be stretching it because I’m pretty sure the timeline of the game minus the 13 days leading up to the Bodhum Purge is less than a week).

Wait. Character interaction? Dense plot and backstory that is poorly explained?  Long hallway like areas? Isn’t that Final Fantasy X?  Indeed. It seems that for the first game, Square Enix went back to the well and imitated a lot of their last mega-hit, Final Fantasy X. Only this time, no one liked it.  Maybe it was the lack of awkward love story if you weren’t a creepy HopeRai shipper (Seriously. He’s like 14 in the first game people. And his Mom just died. So there’s a Freudian can of worms pairing him with Lightning.)

However, from there they decided to evolve and experiment with the second installment where they added more exploration and side content to the whole experience. The plot was still a bit weird if you didn’t devote a solid chunk of time into reading and thinking about it, but it almost felt that it was a bit more okay here since we were dealing with a time travel story and those by their very nature are going to start getting complicated and quick.  Even Chrono Trigger gets a bit nuts if you think about it too long (Coincidentally, I’m pretty sure thinking about Chrono Trigger too long is how we ended up with Chrono Cross.)  Both the combat system and the Crystarium saw more customization and player options added in as well.

Finally, we get Lightning Returns which is a radical departure from both XIII and XIII-2 in terms of combat and gameplay.  No more parties, you just had Lightning.  To compensate, you could switch between outfits that each played a different role and/or different abilities.  Similar to Dressphere switching in X-2.  The game was completely non-linear, giving you free reign over 5 ‘zones’ that had shades of almost an MMO like design with stuff like scattered bits of side quests, ‘dungeon’ areas, and each zone had a ‘main story’ chain that could be completed a bit at a time or all at once.  It was a complete reversal of the gameplay we saw in XIII.

The Trilogy started with the familiar and then pushed and pushed for exploring new ways to engage players.  Some worked, some didn’t.  That’s pretty much Final Fantasy in a nutshell.  It’s kind of a fascinating way to look at it.  Another fun way to look at is that is that the games continue to open up more and more as the characters fight for and claim more agency and ‘free will’ in spite of the situation they are in.  Since Free Will is a major theme throughout the XIII Trilogy, I can’t help but wonder if that was a conscious choice of the design team.

Well, as I said I’ve already written a ton on the XIII trilogy and I don’t want to dwell on it long here. Check out those links if you want to read more of my thoughts diving into the plot and mechanics of each game.  Next time, we’ll try talking a bit about a Final Fantasy MMO.

Till then, May the light of the Crystals guide your way!

Do you have any great memories from these classic Final Fantasy games? Feel free to share in the comments!

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Just Deicide: Lightning Returns (Final Part)

So we’ve talked gameplay and we’ve talked plot & characters – I think it’s time we wrap up the Lightning Trilogy with discussing probably my favorite part of Lightning Returns: the ending.  Not because it’s finally over oh sweet Noel Kreiss it’s over, but because I found it to be a satisfying conclusion to the overarching themes of the trilogy, even when the explicit details of the plot got a bit weird from game to game.  Let’s just go ahead and say that since we are talking the ending of a trilogy and then discussing said trilogy, there will be SPOILERS.

Alright, so as we previously discussed:  God is gathering up souls of the chosen using Lightning as his ‘Savior’, he will then usher those new souls to a New World and remove their hearts/chaos/emotions, then he will let the old world and all the souls of the dead there perish so that no one remembers any of them – the world or the people who died there – all so he can have HIS perfect world.  I don’t think it needs to be said, but Lightning and her friends do not exactly like that idea.

The ending to the game and the trilogy as a whole is done essentially in four parts.  There is the final dungeon, the final boss battle, the cutscene where you actually beat the final boss, and then the final final cutscene.  To get to the final dungeon on the last day (that’s Day 13 – or if you ran around and did 60+ side quests it will be Day 14), you show up at the church in Luxerion to bust up the ritual with Fang. Lightning holds back the guards while Fang talks down Vanille from doing the deed.  Luckily back up arrives in the form of Snow who proves that despite being a dummy at times is still able to deliver an epic smackdown. Snow is joined by Lightning’s other friends as it becomes one last stand as Vanille and Fang come together to guide all the lost souls – not to their destruction as the Church wanted but to Hope’s Ark to go be reborn on the New World with all the others.

Lightning’s job is not done however.  There is after all a god to deal with.  She enters the final dungeon which to be fair is essentially four monster filled corridors and a door leading to the final fight.  I’m not even sure you have to do the corridors – or ‘Trials’ – but I always do because they reward you with the Ultima Weapon and Ultima Shield, the two items that will not carry over to a new game+ because they are “story specific” to Bhunivelze’s temple.  Unfortunately, they don’t get any kind of cool unique appearance.  The Ultima items are pretty much just your starting sword and shield upgraded to have INSANE stats and abilities that will help immensely in the final boss fight.

Speaking of which, it’s time to show down with Bhuni-boy who is in an otherworldly realm dubbed ‘Cosmogenesis’ where he is putting the finishing touches on his New World and you finally get to see what this guy looks like:

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Oh…  oh wow.  For the record, that checker pattern ‘skirt’?  Yea, that’s the ground.  He’s literally wrapped the world around himself.  It’s at this confrontation that the truth emerges to reinforce the theory:  Bhunivelze wishes to remove all the old souls and the bits of chaos that make up people’s hearts and emotions so that the New Humans on his New World will have euphoric peaceful lives without the burdens of sadness or pain.  They’ll be boring emotionless drones, but hey that’s the cost of never having to feel bad: never feeling at all. I honestly don’t know if I would take that offer.  I can imagine some who would argue that it’s a good thing and that God is kind to give us such a blessing.  Then again free will is nice.  Like SUPER nice.  He also reveals his plan to establish Lightning as the ‘New Etro’ to guard over the Unseen Realm and keep it in harmony with the Seen Realm.  Again, Lightning being someone he has a leash on as compared to his mother or Etro, both of which kind of had reasons to hold a grudge and good old Bhunie just loves to assume the worst.  Finally, it’s revealed that the Serah ‘soul’ that Bhunie has been dangling on a hook in front of Lightning this whole time is just a mocked up simulacrum.  Since God has no way of seeing into the Chaos, he legitimately has no idea where Serah’s soul actually is but is perfectly willing to offer the soulless copy of Lightning’s sister for her to dote on.  This pretty much where Lightning draws the line.

Lightning flat out declares her intent to kill God.  To perform one suicidal action to throw them both into the Chaos and free the souls to live in the New World without gods or fal’Cie masters.  Since Bhunivelze made her the savior with the intent to become a replacement for Etro, she may not have the power to kill Bhunivelze but she is finally strong enough to do this one desperation act.  But the Serah Simulacrum speaks to her and tells her that the real Serah IS still out there, and does still need her.  So thus begins the final battle, as Lightning abandons her suicide run in favor of just flat out trying to murder God.  Oh boy. When was the last time in Final Fantasy we actually killed God?  Not like a god-like being, but the actual creator of the universe capital-G God?  We’d have to go back a ways I think. I know we did in Final Fantasy Legends.  Kefka is debatable whether he was god like or actually ascended to become God proper but you do fight and kill the actual Gods of Magic.  Dissidia has you fighting Gods. But yea, it’s been a while since we did this.

The fight is massive and spans four different phases, each with a unique strategy to them.  Easily up there with Barthandelus and Orphan from XIII as the toughest non-Super Bosses fights in the Trilogy.  Not only that, but his fight has a ton of references to previous Final Fantasy games such as some of his attacks referencing the Emperor’s Starfall from Final Fantasy II, Almagest as used by Neo-ExDeath in Final Fantasy V, Hypernova based on Safer Sephiroth’s Supernova from Final Fantasy VII, several attacks including ‘Dancing Mad’, ‘Wings of Destruction’, and ‘Heartless Angel’ are inspired by either the abilities or even theme song of Kefka from Final Fantasy VI, and finally Bhunivelze’s pose in the final phase is based on the pose struck by the Cloud of Darkness in Final Fantasy III. He also draws several abilities and strategies from other bosses in the Lightning Trilogy. He’s immune to every status effect including poison, so forget using the poison and defend strategy from Orphan in the first game. Finally, he has several abilities that will drop you to either one or close to one HP regardless of your defense.  And all that is just on the normal version.  Oh yes, there’s a hard mode incarnation of this guy named Bhunivelze+.  I haven’t even tried that one yet.

So after four whole phases on intense fights is God finally dead? Oh heck no.  Bhunivelze created the universe (well along with his Mom), do you think four measly back to back fights will stop him?  It will knock him on his ass, but he crawls back ready to kill Lightning for the sheer insolence she has shown.  Luckily, Lightning has the one thing that Bhuni-boy doesn’t: Buddies.  Yes, this pen-ultimate cut scene has the entire assembled cast of the entire trilogy: Snow, Sazh, Dajh, Hope, Vanille, Fang, Noel, Caius, Yuel, and even Serah appear to help Lightning strike down God while utilizing all of the Souls of the Living gathered by Lightning and the Souls of the Dead gathered by Vanille as a giant sword of light to strike down Bhunivelze once and for all in an epic final blow worthy of Dragon Ball Z levels of sheer ridiculous epicness.

Bhunivelze’s death chimes in the death of the old universe however as the Unseen Realm and its tides of chaos begin to consume all that is left.  Caius and Yuel, both tired of their eternal struggle and cycle of life and death have agreed to stay behind and together serve the role that Etro once served.  But because Noel also wants a happy ending, Yuel gives him the last of her line – the final incarnation of Yuel in her cycle of Rebirth to take with him to the new universe.  With a new keeper of the Unseen Realm appointed, all that’s left is for the remaining team and all the souls to go to the new world in a brilliant stream of green lights and streaks that sort of looks like something that once helped stop a meteor from crushing a city (Yet another homage to an earlier game found here.  They really seem to enjoy the send ups.)

This brings us to the real ending of the series.  Claire Farron, the women once known as Lightning in another time and place, riding a train through what appears to be modern day France to go meet up with her friends once again.  It’s never flat out stated what this new world is, but theories have been as far flung as Gaia from Final Fantasy VII (Which considering there’s already a theory about Gaia is futuristic Spira from FFX, how does that work?) to Our Real Earth to the more modern and realistic setting of Final Fantasy XV.  Any and all are somewhat valid ways of viewing things, but the Real Earth seems to be the most likely since they do establish this as a world with No God, and No fal’Cie.  The FF7 connection is really reaching because all that connects them is the vaguely lifestream-y looking stream of souls, which has less traction then FF7 == FFX because Spheres are Materia idea.  We know that XV will have its own ties to the Fabula Nova Crystalis legend and that Etro will play some role in the story, so the No gods/fal’cie thing makes that one hard.  Plus… the signs are in French.  Like actual French.  Not even French sounding gibberish.  So that’s my best bet for where the ending takes place.

So with the story now finished, was it really worth it to play some 180 hours of game to reach that conclusion?  Well… yea. For me it was.  For all the game play issues, which really were improved on heavily after the feedback and criticisms of the first game (and even then most of those were – in my opinion – excusable to the nature of the story being told but admittedly flew in the face of what many people would expect from a Final Fantasy title), I found the story to be an incredible interesting and character driven narrative.  To the point where it utterly baffles me when I hear people say the characters are boring or bland.  There’s a difference between bland and subtle.  This is very subtle.  Not to mention the characters and their development is incredibly well rounded compared to many of the more popular Final Fantasy entries where the characters were almost defined by a single personality trait.  Optimisitc! Bad ass loner! Angry!  Moron!  Where as in the XIII trilogy, there were a lot of nuanced performances built around knowing these characters back stories and motivations.  Vanille is not a ditsy airhead.  She puts on a ditsy act as an act of denial about the immense guilt she feels, something that is quite noticeable if you contrast how she behaves around the others versus when she’s by herself.  The scene where it begins to dawn on her that her traveling companion, Sazh, has lost his son because of her actions and very existence, that she goes out and stands in the rain under the excuse to feel it on her skin but if you look, she’s trying to mask the tears coming down her face was a real punch in the feels.  Even Snow, the king of bravado, is dealing with the tragedy of his curse and the loss of his fiance by blindly marching forward like a hero to save the day, running from his problems.  But eventually, when he has lost Serah completely and the world is dying around him, he succumbs to depression and begins to slowly kill himself with a final silent noble act of absorbing the Chaos into his own body to try and give the people of Yusnaan another day of happiness before the end. Something he couldn’t do for Serah, despite all his trying.  The characters are THE reason to play through these games.  Just remember that the subtext is just as important, if not more, than what they are actually saying and doing.

The trilogy also has a great overarching theme of the desire for free will and fighting against your fate, and the need to preserve it even if free will means doing something stupid, or getting hurt by your choices or actions.  In the first game, the message is very direct.  The fal’Cie have literally stripped the main six from having any autonomy in their actions.  It’s complete the focus or be doomed to be a cie’th for eternity.  Even if you complete the focus, all it means is getting stored in crystal until the fal’Cie want you to do something again.  You become a slave to these god-like creatures for all eternity, or suffer a fate worse than death. The reaction to this is each character walking their own path to try and preserve their free will – be it by running away to do whatever they want to actively trying to kill their new ‘masters’.  Ultimately, the sheer strength of their freedom overcomes the chains.  Something that seems weird but makes perfect sense in the context of the mythology: humans are the only creatures capable of Free Will thanks to Etro.  It’s an X factor that the fal’Cie literally can’t comprehend and only out of fear, myth, faith, and sheer power have managed to control their thralls to this point.  There are thousands of years of stories about the fal’Cie and their l’Cie and what happens.  Your promised eternal life and happiness in a crystal dream for completing your focus.  To many it’s consider a downright honor to be chosen.  Why? Because that’s the belief the fal’Cie have worked to create in humans so they obey.  When these six broke that control and killed Orphan, they proved that the fal’Cie only have as much power over the human spirit as we let them.  That in the end, our focus and our destiny is for us to decide.

In the second game, the nature of free will and even more so the concept of fighting destiny is explored through the idea of time and the question of is the future set in stone?  Serah and Noel each want to change something.  Serah wants to change the past, and Noel the future to get what they want.  However, it’s shown that their actions do have a very real cost in the end.  Changing the future, striking out and making your own path, is what is killing Yuel and ultimately Serah as well.  Serah chooses to risk death to get a future where everyone can be happy.  However, with each life of Yuel’s reincarnation that gets extinguished the Chaos also grows and threatens everything.  It becomes a question of risk vs. reward.  Are you willing to put it all on the line to get what you really want?  You have free will to make your own destiny, but that can come back and bite you.

Those repercussions are fully explored in Lightning Returns, which feature’s the titular character faced with the decision of asking which is preferable: Euphoria with no free will or free will with suffering? You are constantly bombarded with stories of loss and misery through the side quests and main story, but are told that this can be avoided by simply casting aside your emotions and freedom and living in peace for all eternity.  But you also see stories of love, compassion, and those who despite facing the end of all things choose to keep pressing on and living their lives to the fullest.   There’s a kid who just wants to pass his hunting trials and become a man of his clan before the end comes.  What does it matter? In the grand scheme it doesn’t but to him it’s everything.  Fang is fighting to save her friend, Sazh to save his son, Snow to protect the people – all knowing that there are only 13 days left, they still choose to fight to live.  Lightning’s ultimate choice is that freedom is more important than a guaranteed happiness.  To that end, she kills God and frees everyone to have whatever life they choose to have.  Even Caius who was given no choice in becoming a guardian, no agency in whether he lives or dies thanks to the Heart of Etro or the Yuels, finally gets to choose to stay in the Unseen Realm.  Really, there was no need for him to go, but he didn’t want the Yuels to be alone.

The only thing I do wish they had done was keep the song from the first game going through the whole trilogy.  While only included in the western release, Leona Lewis’ “My Hands” is a song that strongly resonates with both Lightning and Serah that only strengthens as the trilogy goes on.  The song’s solemn lyrics of longing and missing another person while having to go on without them becomes even more poignant by the third game when you start coming face to face with just how many people are now trapped in time, forced to live eternally, after losing loved ones to the slowly dying monster ravaged world and expanding chaos.  Sadly, the song is only featured on the first game where it sort of resonates with Lightning’s quest to get her sister back but doesn’t live up to its full potential.

So is the Trilogy a flawless masterpiece?  Hardly.  The story is confusing and told is a jarring all-over-the-place style that requires copious amounts of reading extra content to follow any of the over arching narrative. The gameplay – especially for the first game – can be boring and tedious and will definitely be a huge turn off to fans of the previous games (even though I’ll admit that the ‘run a straight path and fight monsters’ is pretty much the exact same style as the critically and fan adored Final Fantasy X).  It is a flawed trilogy of games and I will admit that.  But that doesn’t mean I think it should be tossed aside and forgotten to the annals of history.  There is a lot of great content here: Wonderful stories, brilliantly well rounded characters, and a fascinating mythology behind it all. The second game explores a lot of the same ideas that Chrono Trigger fans would find very much right at home and the third game has a truly engaging time-based system and active combat system that has a ton of optional stuff to explore and is short enough to encourage multiple playthroughs with a new game+ feature.

My recommendation is while I can’t wholly endorse these games at $60 a pop, if you can nab them used or new at a decent price (I only paid $15 for the first two, and got Lightning Returns new at release) I would recommend nabbing them.  If you really want to skip the first one, I can’t blame you. There’s a decent enough recap in the Extras menu of XIII-2 that will bring you up to speed but you will miss some excellent character writing that comes later in the first game.  These games also serve as a firm full exploration of the Fabula Nova Crystalis mythology and covers everything from Bhunivelze to his fal’Cie, Pulse, Lindzei and Etro, the concepts of the Seen and Unseen realms, and of course the idea of the l’Cie that plays a big role in Final Fantasy Type-0 and assuredly in the upcoming Final Fantasy XV.  Remember, the mythology is the only thing shared between the three and you’ll get no better crash course in that than from the XIII trilogy.

So that’s the end of my look at the hated XIII trilogy.  I don’t know if I changed anyone’s minds but hopefully I showed that there’s a bit more to these three games than what appears on the surface.  I know I discounted the games pretty harshly at first when I first rented the first one to give it a go back in the day, but after a second look was quite impressed with what I found.  I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank all my readers and oddly enough Noah ‘The Spoony One’ Antwiler whose incredibly biased albeit hilariously entertaining reviews of the Final Fantasy games he doesn’t like inspired me to look deeper into these games and see if they were truly that bad.  They’re not in my opinion.  Hell, not even Final Fantasy X.  I mean, I didn’t like X as much, but it wasn’t garbage by any means.  Anyway, if you want a chuckle with someone ripping apart the games and riffing a lot of the admittedly silly parts, check it out.  I’ll be here finishing up class reviews for SWTOR, replaying Metal Gear while waiting for my PS4 to get repaired and trying to finish out Type-0 HD.

Stay weird, folks.

God Damn It (Literally): Lightning Returns (Part 2)

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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!

Serah the Explorah: Final Fantasy XIII-2 Part Three

XIII-2_Main_Menu

Well, it’s been a while. The wheels of time spin ever onward into the black nothing that is everything.  Or something.  That being said with the announcement of all three XIII games being released for PC via Steam, I think it’s time I put the finishing touches on my critique of the second installment of the “Lightning Trilogy” now that the Fabula Nova Chrystalis includes Final Fantasy Type-Zero and the upcoming Final Fantasy XV which I am eagerly awaiting and dreading since the sheer amount of cash I know I will have to drop on a Playstation 4 to play it will render me a pauper panhandling for pixels.

Anyway, the only thing really left for me to talk about is the general game mechanics and since this is a sequel you’d think there wouldn’t be much to talk about in that department, but there actually is.  See there were a lot of complaints people had with the original Final Fantasy XIII.  The lack of exploration, minimal sidequests, the extremely linear crystarium leveling system, and the list of course goes on.  XIII-2 does its best to try and remedy a lot of those complaints.

For instance, most locations you visit are quite open, with big fields and sprawling towns that you can look around and talk to people in.  The weird little floating terminal shops are replaced with the more annoying time-and-space-bending Chocolina (I like her but I’ve been told that she is…  ahem… “Weird and annoying.”  So there’s that.)  and there are a ton of sidequests that not only involve going around and exploring the area you are in, but will routinely require you to travel to alternate timeline versions or future/past versions of the same location to complete.  There’s a bunch of sidequests too.  Ranging from simple fetch quests through time and space to defeating powerful enemies.  Some include game wide spanning tasks like completing maps of areas (which requires time travel again because some areas are only accessible in certain points of time) or gathering lore objects to unlock new abilities.

The crystarium was brought back in an improved form as well.  The original crystarium was pretty much just a straight replacement for gaining experience and abilities from leveling up.  You got points, put those points into whatever class you wanted to level up, and unlocked new abilities.  Each path was pretty linear.  In XIII-2, the Crystarium is equally linear… sort of.  The actual path of the Crystarium is pretty much a straight line following the design of a character’s weapon.  However, where things got interesting is instead of having each node be a set bonus or ability, the game leaves it to you to decide which class (sentinel, commando, etc) to level up.  Based on which class you assign to a node determines which bonuses to attack, magic, or defense you get and the size of the node determines how big the bonus is.  So a larger sphere might give you a +10 to a stat, while a smaller one gives you a +2 or something.

Once you’ve assigned a certain number of spheres to a class, you will unlock abilities.  For example, every 10th sphere for a class grants a new ability and everything in between gives stat bonuses.  It’s actually a really clever system to add some customization. You can min max to make sure you get all the bonus you want, or you can just do what I want and just fill out the Crystarium with a single class until you unlock everything and then move on to the next one.

Now, you may be wondering how this is possible when a linear crystarium with a set pattern clearly has a beginning and end.  Well, once you completely fill up the pattern you get a new blank one to fill out.  When this happens you get a choice to either boost an existing class you put spheres in on this “level” of the crystarium, or unlock a class you don’t already have like saboteur or medic. But keep in mind, the point cost for each sphere continually increases. So the higher you go, the pricier things get.

Speaking of classes, in Final Fantasy XIII you had three party members to balance out the roles.  But in XIII-2 you only have Noel and Serah! How can this work?  Well, that’s something else they added to this game: Monster partners.  There’s a chance when you defeat a monster, you’ll have a chance to get a crystal that carries that monster’s essence, which will allow you to summon them in combat to assist.  Each monster has a pre-set class that can be leveled with its own crystarium that improves with monster food that you can find or buy.  You can also dress the monsters up in silly hats.  Not that I did.   Much.

I suppose I should talk about the elephant in the room: The downloadable content.  Yes, this is – as far as I’m aware – the first Final Fantasy to employ DLC.  I might be wrong there. The DLC for this game falls into three categories: Outfits, Arena Opponents, and Story DLC. There’s not much to say about the outfits.  They’re usually just skimpy outfits for Serah and increasingly weird outfits for Noel that look like something from Cirque Du Soleil. The one I DID like was the Mass Effect N7 armor, because then I can put Serah in something that looks like practical armor for once instead of a bikini.  There are also some weapons you can buy, and to be fair they tend to be fairly powerful in the early game but quickly get eclipsed once you start upgrading the other weapons in the late game.

The Arena Opponents are insanely powerful monsters to test your mettle against in  the Coliseum that gets unlocked with the Snow DLC.  They include anything from Snow and Lightning, to homages like Ultros and Typhon from FF6 to staples of the series like Omega Weapon.  The best part is that if you defeat these powerful enemies, you gain the ability to summon them in battle like the monsters.  Which is kind of weird for Snow and Lightning, but whatever.  I was never able to beat any of them during the actual game.  Pretty sure these are for the folks that are on their New Game+ playthrough or something.

Finally, the two story DLCs are Sazh and Lightning’s stories.  They kind of fill in some of the gaps with the other characters.  Sazh’s DLC is essentially playing at a trans-dimensional casino for both his and his son’s lives, and learning the truth behind our supernaturally everywhere-at-once shop keep Chocolina.  Lightning’s DLC is actually an epilogue to the game that bridges the gap between XIII-2 and Lightning Returns and features an insanely long battle against Caius that involves Lightning dying over and over and coming back stronger each time like a season of Dragonball Z.

If you want my recommendation, skip the outfits and the arena stuff unless you really want to do dress up and have a good challenge.  The Story DLC is actually kind cool and a fun break from the main game.  Especially the Sazh stuff, since it actually lets you play the casino games which include poker, slots, and a weird clock based card game that is really fun.

The only other thing that comes to mind to talk about would be the fact that like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy XIII-2 employs a New Game+ that allows you to access multiple endings called “Paradox Endings”.  At the end of the game, you get a special ability called a Paradox Scope.  By re-beating levels, sometimes with alternates means, with the Paradox Scope activated you can get the eight extra Paradox Endings for the game.  The fights for these Paradox Endings are incredibly tough but also kind of cool to see all the different ways the story would have ended by creating paradoxes.

An interesting thing to note, is that each of the Paradox Endings supposedly make references to things that happen or exist in Lightning Returns, a game that takes place after the Chaos floods the world at the end of this game.  No clue why.  It’s just one of those really neat things someone noticed.

Overall, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is probably my favorite of the XIII games.  A return to exploration and side-quests, a lighter more enjoyable story that doesn’t feel rushed or jam packed with “See Wiki for more info” bits, and the whole time travel thing was actually really enjoyable.  Especially seeing all the different locations with hundreds of years of difference.  It’s probably the most fun of the three in terms of sheer attitude.  I know some people really didn’t like Serah or Noel for…  reasons I suppose.  I never quite got it myself.  Serah is pretty much the best parts of Vanille and Lightning in the first game without all the annoying beats or horrifically tragic backstory.

Well, that wraps up my talk on Final Fantasy XIII-2 and hopefully I’ve convinced at least a few people to try it out when it comes out on Steam.   While I would recommend playing XIII first, I know that’s a hard sell so I won’t blame you if you skip it.  Heck, Square Enix won’t either.  The console version had a recap of FF13 option right on the main menu of XIII-2, and I’m going to assume that it will on the Steam version too.  So go ahead and skip the first game and just use the recap.  It’s easier to understand I’ll admit.  But if you enjoy Final Fantasy, I would recommend trying out this gem that many overlooked because of the negative reception of the first game.

Time Warp: Final Fantasy XIII-2 Part Two

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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.)

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