At this point, with Lightning and Sazh heading off along different paths, we’re still working out the main direction of the plot. Let’s pause and take a look at each of the protagonists.
Lightning: Joined the Purge to attempt to rescue her sister. Serah turned to crystal, which Lightning has interpreted as dying, so she’s now decided that Eden is behind the Purge, and intends to kill it to stop it from manipulating events further.
Sazh: Was also on the train to be Purged, but we don’t know what his link to Bodhum is, if any. The Datalog tells us he volunteered for the Purge, but that hasn’t been stated in-game yet. He wants to run from the military, but doesn’t appear to have a goal in mind. He’s hiding something from the others, which we can reasonably guess is related to his son.
Snow: Planned to save Serah and free the people of Bodhum from the Purge. Was asked by Nora to make sure “he” gets home. Left that duty to NORA, but hasn’t mentioned or thought about them since becoming a l’Cie. With Serah crystallised, he’s interpreted their Focus to mean that they need to save Cocoon. However, he got hung up on saving Serah first, which led to him being captured by a mysterious military force.
Hope: Was caught in Bodhum at the wrong time. His mother died supporting Snow’s brief insurrection, and he now wishes to confront Snow about it, but lacks the courage and, currently, the opportunity. Afraid of his situation but steadily building in confidence, he’s tagging along with Lightning in order to get stronger.
Vanille: Was in Bodhum when the Purge was initiated. Doesn’t appear to be linked to anybody. Appeared to be so invested in Hope’s need to confront Snow that she convinced him to dive into mortal danger at the Pulse Vestige. Now appears largely disconnected from what’s going on, with no specific goal. Expressed a possible interest in protecting Cocoon. Occasionally becomes sad when nobody’s looking.
Mysterious Woman: Working with an unknown military group. Also a l’Cie. Was at Bodhum on Day 11 looking for someone.
In terms of the overall plot, the Sanctum initiated the Purge to avoid trouble with the Pulse fal’Cie, but their efforts failed, and now several l’Cie are on the loose with unknown intentions. The group of l’Cie received a vision of Ragnarok destroying Cocoon, or so it seemed. Both the military and the people of Cocoon fear and hate the l’Cie and want them dead.
In terms of potential antagonists, we have the following -
Galenth Dysley: Human leader of the Sanctum, speaks in favour of the Purge and presumably ordered it, or passed on that command from Eden.
Eden: Appears to be the ruling fal’Cie. Suspected to have commanded the Purge, and hasn’t spoken against it, indicating approval, since Eden is known to correct human missteps.
PSICOM: Organisation in charge of the Purge. Don’t have any identifiable leaders yet, beyond the bosses at the very top of Cocoon’s chain (Dysley and Eden).
The Pulse fal’Cie: Anima is dead, but there was some sort of being that marked everyone as l’Cie, so if that still lives, then perhaps it’s still going to feature. The denizens of Pulse in general are said to want Cocoon destroyed for whatever reason.
If you want to flip things around, you could also say that the main party serves the role of bad guys at this point. They’ve got crazy powers and have probably killed a couple of hundred soldiers by this stage. One of their number wants to break the entire power structure on what is essentially a revenge-driven whim.
There’s a lot of details flying around at this stage, but the plot hadn’t quite reached the point where it gripped me when I originally played. The lack of a clear villain to point at and hate isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the villains of VIII and IX didn’t appear until quite a few hours had passed, and even then, VIII’s villain wasn’t quite what they seemed.
Lightning’s stated goal to topple Eden is essentially “on the mark”, although she’s picked out the wrong fal’Cie. It comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t seem to really solve their current predicament, so it’s hard to sell and get invested in at this stage. That’s emphasised even more when she drops the plan a few hours later into the game. The main characters are mostly fugitives, but those who aren’t gunning for Eden haven’t really picked out or even discussed where might be a safe haven.
In a slightly odd little cutscene, Sazh and Vanille see that PSICOM must have caught up with Lightning and Hope, and decide that helping out would only be getting “in her way”, and just walk off. Sazh certainly tends to run from his own demons, but it feels strange seeing him rationalise that they’ll be fine like this. The only contribution Vanille’s had to the plot so far has been to convince a traumatised boy to risk his life in a deranged machine god’s lair so he can talk to someone about a non-urgent matter, so I guess it doesn’t surprise me that she’d turn her back on them. (I mean sure, it’s important to Hope, but during a massive military slaughter I think it could have been shelved).
Anyway, Lightning and Hope get through their fight fine (thanks to me), and Lightning decides that their best route will be through the Gapra Whitewood, and from there to find transport in Palumpolum. Luckily for her, that’s Hope’s hometown, so he can help out with the local shortcuts.
They come across two soldiers who are checking a broken-down robot to see if the l’Cie used it to escape. After dispatching them, Hope is inspired by their idea, and gets the robot working. I always forget that this part happens in XIII – while the game is almost devoid of any side activities or minigames, here we get a brief trip on the robot, killing smaller robots and smashing down a few barricades. It’s short and not particularly involved, but it’s nice to have a brief break from the constant fighting.
It sets up the possibility of further activities, and you will at least get to ride a chocobo, but unfortunately this is pretty much the only minigame you’ll get in XIII. Moreover, it never crops up again, and you can’t select to replay the section (without reloading a save). It feels like an idea that was abandoned or forgotten in development.
At the end of the segment, the Pulse armament machine thing walks over a cliff and Hope falls off, nearly getting crushed at the same time. Lightning compliments his “nice landing” and then complains that he’s too soft when he wants a moment to recover from falling down a cliff and landing on hard stone. Snow managed to survive falling off the walkway and landing on rubble earlier, so perhaps this superpower is like the unspoken underwater breathing/long-term breath-holding of Final Fantasy X.
A bit further along, we get one of the weird character freak-outs that struck me as bizarre on my first playthrough. So far, Hope’s been fighting alongside Lightning, and while he wasn’t able to climb a sheer cliff face or keep going quite as relentlessly as Lightning, he did still hold his own in combat, and use a Pulse armament to clear a stretch of enemy territory. However, she runs out of patience with his stumbling and tells him he’s a liability.
During this conversation, Lightning falls to her knees, clutching her chest while her l’Cie brand starts glowing furiously. They keep talking to each other as though this isn’t happening – Hope doesn’t react in the slightest to Lightning’s collapse, or indeed her new glow (he is behind her, so perhaps what he can see is a bit restricted, but it was quite vibrant).
Lightning’s freak-out feels a little forced as well. She’s been very closed about her feelings, aside from occasionally punching Snow over the subject of Serah, so having her fall into despair comes as a bit of a surprise. Certainly, it’s possible for people to bottle stuff up so long that it explodes, but here it just felt like they needed to quickly get the next Eidolon/boss fight into the game, so Lightning just became randomly infuriated by Hope. And just to clarify, I don’t get annoyed every time a main character gets frustrated to the point of despair – we’ll get to Sazh soon enough, and I think that part is potentially the best part of the game’s characterisation (excluding a certain mood-breaking moment).
Here it feels very unnatural, though – from her sudden shouting, to the fact that nobody seems affected by her collapse/glow, to the appearance of a giant robo-knight, everything feels more like spectacle than genuine characterisation. I don’t think that starting up one of the boss themes (one that I like quite a bit, mind you) during their conversation helps, making it even more outlandishly dramatic. They do at least notice something’s up once Odin appears, so there is that.
Once Odin’s been successfully appeased through chain-building and healing, Hope identifies Odin as an Eidolon, aware that l’Cie are able to summon such things. Lightning snarks that she must have hit her head on the train, and then about-faces and decides that she’ll help Hope to toughen up instead.
Next time, we’ll rejoin Sazh and Vanille, and find out what’s happened to Snow as well.