From blue mages and wily thieves to fal'Cie, Eidolons, and ladies named Lightning, the Final Fantasy series has grown to embrace them more complex traits of RPG storytelling. The last two chapters alone Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 packed in everything from divine intervention to time travel and alternate dimensions. You can go ahead and pretend you were able to keep track of it all, but we're guessing even the most FF-elite can benefit with a little recap.
So, to prepare for the newly announced Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy (PS: You can go ahead and read our Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 review), the (final?) piece of the Final Fantasy XIII puzzle, here's an overview of the story so far...
Final Fantasy XIII is a tale of two worlds...
At it's core, Final Fantasy XIII is a story about two worlds linked by fate, legend, and godly influences. One of these worlds is Pulse (sometimes Gran Pulse), a savage planet dominated by untamed monsters, ancient ruins, and divine machines called fal'Cie which dictate all facets of life. The other world is Cocoon, an artificial safe haven for humanity which hovers above the surface of Pulse and is also at the mercy of the fal'Cie. Here, the governing body Sanctum does everything in its power to turn its people against Pulse by convincing them the planet below is more or less a version of hell. Cocoon's anti-Pulse convictions are so strong that any contact with the planet and its inhabitants are met with severe repercussions such as exile or a Purge of any Cocoon section that has the misfortune of discovering something from Pulse in its backyard.
...the fal'Cie who keep them spinning...
Those fal'Cie we've been referring to? They're a pretty big deal. As the story goes, Final Fantasy XIII's universe (aka the Fabula Nova Crystallis universe) was divided into the mortal realm and Valhalla (aka The City of the Dead). In a bid to rule the mortal realm, the god Bhunivelze killed his mother Mwynn and sent her to Valhalla, but not before she cursed the mortal world (or so he suspected). Hoping to finish her off in Valhalla for good, but without giving up his reign in the mortal realm, Bhunivelze created three other beings to help him break into Valhalla by way of a master plan that would require an entire civilization and loads of time. Thus were born the makers: Pulse, Lindzei, and Etro.
Pulse created Gran Pulse and its fal'Cie, and was tasked with finding the door to Valhalla. Lindzei spawned its own fal'Cie and was responsible for protecting Bhunivelze. Meanwhile, Etro, whom Bhunivelze found to be too much like his mom, was given no powers. Unfortunately, this prompted her to commit suicide, sending her to Valhalla and seeding humanity with her blood. Shortly thereafter, Lindzei built Cocoon from bits and pieces of Pulse under the pretence of giving humans a paradise (read: prison) to call their very own.
...and the l'Cie who do their bidding.
Fal'Cie are beings of immeasurable power and influence, but they don't like to get their hands dirty. Instead, they choose humans to carry out various missions (aka a Focus) and brand them with a l'Cie tattoo to give them a rough estimate of how long they have to complete it. The catch is that humans branded as l'Cie must figure out their Focus by themselves. Those who fail are turned into hideous Cie'th monsters. Reversely, those who decipher and complete their Focus are turned into crystal until the fal'Cie can find something else to keep them busy. No matter how you slice it, becoming a l'Cie is a raw deal.
Lightning is the star of the show
Lightning (real name: Claire Farron) is Final Fantasy XIII's number one heroine. She is a strong and (mostly) silent type who's past service with Sanctum's Guardian Corps and proficiency with a gunblade make her a force of ahem nature on the battlefield. When we first meet Lightning, she is cutting a swath through PSICOM (members of Sanctum's main military branch) on a train bound to the Pulse Vestige, a mysterious structure that was discovered in Lightning's hometown of Bodum and relocated to Cocoon's Hanging Edge for safe keeping.
Why all the rush? Early on, it's revealed the Pulse Vestige contains a Pulse fal'Cie called Anima. This motivates Sanctum to Purge the residents of Bodum including Lightning's sister, Serah, who is trapped within its chambers at the beginning of the game.
Sazh joined Lightning to help his son
Sazh Katzroy is the first playable character Lightning bumps into on her mad dash for the Pulse Vestige. He joins Lightning to further his own mission to save his son, Dajh, who was taken for study by PSICOM after being accidentally turned into a Cocoon l'Cie at a place called Euride Gorge (remember that). Handy with a pistol, Sazh quickly proves himself to be a useful addition to Lightning's impromptu army. He also houses a chocobo chick in his afro because, well, we're not entirely sure. Our money is on it turning out to be some kind of immortal McGuffin who will save the entire race in Lightning Returns.
Snow joined Lightning to save his fianc
Snow Villiers is the leader of NORA, a group of young Bodum resistance fighters who, at the beginning of Final Fantasy XIII, are launching their own attack against Sanctum in retaliation for the Purge. Coincidentally, he's also Serah's fianc, giving him another reason to join Lightning and Sazh en route to the Pulse Vestige. Prone to making rash decisions, boisterous outbursts, and ending every sentence with a fist bump, Snow is not Lightning's favorite travel companion. He is, however, vital to the story and can soak up damage like no one's business.
Hope and Vanille joined because they were there
Hope Estheim and Vanille (aka Oerba Dia Vanille) are the final characters that party up with Lightning at the onset of the game. Hope is the youngest of the pair, and he joins the cause after losing his mother in a botched NORA offensive; an incident which leaves him with a burning, unspoken hate-on for Snow for roughly 99.997% of the game. Vanille, on the other hand, is a bubbly teenager who appears all too comfortable with the amount of death and destruction that surrounds her. It's possible this is because she almost became the ultimate source of death and all destruction a few hundred years in the past, but we've already said too much.
The fun begins when everyone becomes a l'Cie
Upon reaching Pulse Vestige, the ragtag posse finds Serah just in time for her to say something about saving Cocoon and turn into a crystal before their eyes. Naturally, this is not the outcome both Lightning and Snow were hoping for, and in a fit of anger the gang storms the inner chambers of the Pulse Vestige to fight the fal'Cie Anima itself. Their hopeless battle ends with everyone crashing into Lake Bresha below where they awaken soon after with vague recollections of a monster called Ragnarok and freshly inked l'Cie tattoos. And so the countdown begins...
Paths splits, secrets are revealed
Shortly after coming to grips with their new fate, Snow and a crystallized Serah are taken captive by Fang and Cid, leaders of Calvalry, a branch of the Guardian Corps. Fang reveals to Snow that his true Focus is to destroy Cocoon, but Snow being Snow refuses to accept the task. Later, they reconnect with Lightning and Hope who have been kicking around on their own little journey to Hope's hometown of Palumpolum. Once reunited, they learn Sazh and Vanille have been taken prisoners by the Sanctum's Primarch, Galenth Dysley. This prompts Lightning, Snow, Hope, Fang, and Cid to launch an ill-conceived rescue mission.