The actual story of the Final Fantasy XIII Trilogy
AKA, Why Final Fantasy XIII needed two sequels and couldn’t have ended after just one game
With as divisive as fan and critical opinion are about Final Fantasy XIII, it seems to be popular to think that it could have ended on its own, and that XIII-2 and Lightning Returns are simply retconning or otherwise complicating what—for a good portion of people—was a already confusing story to begin with. And at face value, that argument does carry a bit of weight. After all, the party saved the world in true Final Fantasy ending fashion. Fang and Vanille kept Cocoon from falling and killing all of its inhabitants. And better yet, Lightning and everyone else were freed from their crystal stasis and she even relented and finally gave Snow and Serah her blessing for them to be wed.
So why ruin a good thing? Why complicate a happy ending with time paradox-this and Heart of Chaos-that and, in the opinion of some, milk a game that wasn’t even all that popular to begin with with not just one but two sequels? We can all say what we like—or dislike—about Final Fantasy XIII and its legacy. But there isn’t avoiding the fact that if one pays close enough attention, Final Fantasy XIII-2 and now Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII don’t exist out of cashing in on what was a financially successful game (six million copies sold and series-breaking sales records aren’t anything to turn one’s nose at), but of imperative to completing a story that Final Fantasy XIII only told a sliver of.
(What follows after the break below is a lot of information, and is written under the assumption readers have completed both Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2).
A struggle between the gods
Final Fantasy XIII and its sequels are part of a larger project Square Enix calls Fabula Nova Crystallis: Final Fantasy, which we all know originally started out in 2006 as a three-pronged series rounded out by XIII proper, Final Fantasy Agito XIII (now Final Fantasy Type-0), and Final Fantasy Versus XIII (now the fifteenth installment in the main numbered series). According to Square Enix, these three titles are not necessarily bound by plot or sharing the same cast of characters (Lightning will not be in FFXV, nor will Noctis be in Lightning Returns, and Ace will not be in—you get the idea), but in “a common mythos.”
The mythos on which Fabula Nova Crystallis is based is the story of two dimensions known as the Mortal World and the Unseen World, also known as Valhalla. There also exists the struggle between five gods: Mwynn; her son Bhunivelze; and his three offspring known as “fal’Cie”—Pulse, Lindzei, and Etro. As told by the official FNC trailer Square Enix released in 2011, Bhunivelze banished Mwynn to Valhalla to take control of the Mortal World, but after her death he feared she had placed a curse on the Mortal World that would result in its destruction. He then sought to destroy Mwynn permanently, but to do so would have to travel to Valhalla, which meant relinquishing control of the Mortal World. Unwilling to abandon the Mortal World completely, he created Pulse, Lindzei and Etro to protect it and search for an alternate way to reach Valhalla.
What became of his three offspring are all different tales. He had unwittingly created Etro in Mwynn’s image, and horrified by the resemblance to the mother he so hated, stripped her of her powers. Saddened by her abandonment, she killed herself and her soul was sent to Valhalla, and through her blood humans were born. Upon reaching Valhalla, Mwynn made her the goddess of death and charged her with maintaining the balance between the Mortal and Unseen Worlds. If the worlds are thrown out of balance, the it meant the end of the universe. the curse Bhunivelze feared was, in fact, fate.
To maintain balance, Etro gave all humans hearts with a tiny bit of energy known as chaos. The cycle of life and death in the Mortal World served as this balance between it and Valhalla: as long as people continued to live and die, balance would be maintained.
Lindzei was made Etro’s replacement, and she and Pulse took on Bhunivelze’s task of finding the Unseen World, and both also created their own fal’Cie to assist them. The fal’Cie, in turn, used the humans Etro had created. To force them to do their bidding, they branded them their slaves—l’Cie, and charged them with Focuses. A l’Cie’s focus could have taken on any form, but whatever the mission, it was all to meet the same end—find the way to the Unseen World so Bhunivelze could kill Mwynn once and for all.
As their fal’Cie searched, both Pulse and Lindzei departed from the world. As for Bhunivelze, he forced himself into suspended animation—otherwise known as crystal stasis—and would not awaken until such a way to Valhalla was found.
The War of Transgression and Final Fantasy XIII
The fal’Cie soon came to the realization that the humans were the key to the Unseen World: when a human dies, his or her soul passes through the Door of Souls, or Etro’s Gate—the way to Valhalla. Believing that if enough people were killed, it would force the gate open wide enough that the Mortal World would transform into Valhalla itself, disrupting the stability Etro was charged with protecting.
To this end, Lindzei created Cocoon, a sacrificial vessel disguised as a floating paradise for humans. It was planned that with enough humans inside, if Cocoon could somehow be destroyed the massive loss of life at once could force Etro’s Gate open. The fal’Cie of the lower world Gran Pulse and Cocoon then instigated the War of Transgression among the humans by stoking fear for the other world among each’s inhabitants: Cocoon was believed by Gran Pulsians to be the wretched nest of the viper Lindzei. Cocoon’s inhabitants in turn feared Pulse as a world worse than hell. The fal’Cie of Gran Pulse gave its people the Focus of destroying Cocoon: two of these l’Cie were Oerba Yun Fang and Oerba Dia Vanille. Before they could fulfill their Focus, however, Etro intervened and crystallized them to prevent the disrupt of balance.
The in-game events of Final Fantasy XIII tell the story of the fal’Cie’s second attempt to destroy Cocoon to meet the end Fang and Vanille failed to do so and Etro interrupted during the War of Transgression, and the plan almost succeeded had it not been for Fang and Vanille using Ragnarok to crystallize Cocoon in midair instead of destroying it as the prophecies had foretold. So happy ending, right? Not so much. As self-contained as the game’s plot and ending might be, though, neither answer a whole lot, and simply set the stage for what happens in XIII-2.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 in the context of Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology
Before the announcement of XIII-2, it was widely speculated as to why the party awoke from crystal stasis. Was it Vanille, whose spirit commanded them to “Wake up” at the sound of her voice? Or was it the sheer power of the party’s free will to transcend their status of l’Cie? It was actually Etro, who pitied their fate and reversed their stasis. Not only did she do that, but she reversed the opening of the Door of Souls and revived all who had originally died on the Day of Ragnarok to once again preserve balance. These actions, though, severely weakened her, and fell into sleep because of them.
But XIII’s seemingly happy ending flies in the face of everything FNC mythology preordains: because of Etro, the world had not ended, and Valhalla had not been found. Twice had Etro intervened with the inevitable, and twice had the inevitable been prolonged. If Cocoon would not fall and all of humanity killed through the destruction of Orphan, then it would have to some other way. Like the natural erosion of the Crystal Pillar holding Cocoon up in the sky, for example. Something that Caius Ballad wanted with all his being to happen.
The stories of Caius Ballad and Paddra Nsu-Yeul run almost parallel to the events of Final Fantasy XIII, and it is not until Etro’s intervention at the end of XIII do they intersect. He has been watching every incarnation of Yeul born and die young since before the War of Transgression, and has been plotting for a way to kill Etro himself for cursing both him and Yeul with eternal life ever since. The death of Etro means universal balance would be irreparably disrupted, and time itself would cease to exist. In a timeless world, the Mortal and Unseen Realms would be come one: Valhalla. In a timeless world, Yeul’s life-ending visions would end and they would be freed from their curses. In a timeless world, the way to Valhalla that Bhunivelze, his offspring, and their fal’Cie have been searching for since the beginning of the universe will have finally been found.
The intersection of Caius’ plan and Bhunivelze’s plot could not have been more perfect. And Etro, as per the duty given to her by Mwynn sought to avert this—the inevitable—at all costs.
To this end, Lightning was taken from the Mortal World to Valhalla where Etro made Lightning her protector against Caius’ plan to kill her as Etro fell into sleep. In response, Caius creates the time paradoxes throughout the timeline that Serah and Noel seek to fix, setting into motion the events of XIII-2: in the secret ending “The Goddess is Dead,” Caius’ monologue reveals as much.
What happens at the end of XIII-2 is, at its essence, everything that should have happened at the end of Final Fantasy XIII but did not because of Etro’s actions: the destruction of Cocoon and the end of the world, and all the events come back to the heart of FNC mythology. With Etro killed because of the destruction of Caius’ Heart of Chaos, it destroyed the balance between the two realms she sought to protect. With the destruction of that balance came the death of the Mortal World as Mwynn had preordained. With the death of the Mortal World came into being the existence of Valhalla: Bhunivelze’s original goal.
Bhunivelze Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
Up to this point, the god Bhunivelze has not been seen at all. One interesting point of symbolism that seems to be lost among many is that just as Hope’s ark—named Bhunivelze—rises, Etro is killed and the Mortal World transforms into Valhalla. According to myth, Bhunivelze would not awaken until the end of time when the door to the Unseen Realm is finally opened. With the end of Final Fantasy XIII-2, it seems as though the legend is finally complete, with all its parts finally coming to fruition.
So why Lightning Returns? From what information about the game Square Enix has released, Bhunivelze is the god worshipped by the people of Nova Chrysalia, the timeless realm born out of Valhalla. And Lightning is once again handed a task from a god to do their bidding: she is made his Savior to guide souls to a new world, as he is unable to create humans to populate it by himself (remember that humans were a by-product of Etro, who is now long dead), and is using the promise of reviving Serah as his leverage over her. Everything beyond that is left to speculation until the game comes out and we can actually see for ourselves. But one thing is for sure, and that is that Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII will finally end this story.
Much has been put into calling these three games “The Lightning Saga,” or that these three games are centered around Lightning. I would argue that it is less about her or any of the other human characters, but more about the struggle between the five Fabula Nova Crystallis gods: like what is so common in Greek mythology, the entire human cast have simply had the misfortune of having been caught up in divine folly, and are nothing more than pawns used to do their bidding. Everything in the first two games has been leading up to Bhunivelze’s fight against Mwynn; how it will finally end in Lightning Returns remains to be seen.