The story of Final Fantasy XIII mainly takes place in the floating world of Cocoon, an artificial planetoid built by the sentient fal'Cie, supernatural beings whom humanity view as their protectors. Cocoon floats in the atmosphere of the world of Gran Pulse, a natural world where beasts and plants can grow to tremendous sizes. The citizens of Cocoon view Pulse as hell for humans, greatly fearing its alien fal'Cie who have waged war against Cocoon in the past.
The story follows Lightning, a former soldier in Cocoon's Guardian Corps army, and five other people brought together by fate. They must face a series of trials while trying to change their destiny and stop an ancient conspiracy to destroy Cocoon from within.
Having been secluded from the outside world for ages, Cocoon's citizens have become paranoid of Gran Pulse. The Sanctum, Cocoon's government, led by the fal'Cie Eden and Primarch Galenth Dysley, proclaimed that any individuals suspected of coming in contact with anyone or anything from the lowerworld are to face exile from Cocoon.
One day there was an incident at the Euride Gorge Energy Plant believed to have been caused by Pulse l'Cie. L'Cie are people made servants of the fal'Cie who branded them, compelled to carry out the Focus the deity gives them, as they will face cruel punishment for defying or failing it: becoming a mindless shambling monster known as a Cie'th.
Six days later, the Sanctum's army, PSICOM, found a Pulse fal'Cie in an ancient Pulsian relic near the seaside town of Bodhum. Mass panic broke out, and soon Cocoon's citizens cried out for the entire town's expulsion to Pulse, prompting the Sanctum to initiate the Purge. Within the next two days, PSICOM quarantined Bodhum, seized its inhabitants regardless of whether they're citizens or tourists, and forced them onto Purge trains. The trains took them to the restricted Hanging Edge zone, with the Pulse fal'Cie Anima contained within the Pulsian relic, a local landmark and curiosity as an artifact from another world known as the Pulse Vestige.
One of the many on board a Purge train is Lightning, an ex-Guardian Corps soldier seeking to reach Anima and save her younger sister, Serah Farron. Ten days prior, Serah accidentally encountered the fal'Cie and became a Pulse l'Cie as nobody knew it resided in the Vestige. Anima took Serah captive the previous day and now holds her within the Vestige. Accompanying Lightning is Sazh Katzroy, a civilian airship pilot with a secret motive for pursuing the fal'Cie.
They stop the train and fight their way through the Hanging Edge as the warfare reveals the Purge's true nature: instead of forced migration to Gran Pulse as the Sanctum had everyone believe, it's a hidden genocide. Elsewhere, Snow Villiers and his friends in the rebel group NORA rally the deportees in a rebellion against PSICOM as he is also trying to rescue Serah, as she is his fiancée. Two youths caught up in the chaos, Hope Estheim and Vanille, become involved when Hope's mother, Nora Estheim, joins Snow's resistance army and dies under his care, prompting the two to pursue him.
The five come together in the Pulse Vestige, where they find Serah. She urges Lightning to save Cocoon before entering crystal stasis, a crystal sleep a l'Cie enters upon fulfilling their Focus. Lightning believes Serah is dead while Snow refuses to give up the hope she will awaken someday, believing the legend that l'Cie gain eternal life upon fulfilling their Focus. Seeking vengeance on Anima, Lightning heads into Anima's Throne to destroy the fal'Cie responsible for Serah's fate.
As Lightning, Snow, and Sazh face Anima, PSICOM forces blast the Pulse Vestige and everything in it to pieces. Upon Anima's defeat, the party gets transported into an otherworldly realm where the god Pulse transforms Lightning and her companions into l'Cie. Pulse shows them a dream-like vision of their Focus involving the capital city of Eden and Ragnarok, a mythical beast of legend said to have attacked Cocoon 600 years ago in the War of Transgression. An energy wave disperses from the Vestige and destroys the Hanging Edge. The party falls toward Lake Bresha below but survives due to Anima crystallizing the area in its death throes.
The newly-branded l'Cie, now enemies of the state, assume destroying Cocoon is their Focus, only Snow insisting that it must be Serah's wish to save it. They set off to escape the area and come across Serah's crystallized form, now part of the crystallized lake. Snow wants to stay by Serah's side while the others seek to outrun pursuit as PSICOM is hunting them and other Purge survivors. Snow stays to dig Serah out while Lightning and the rest head to the ruins of an old city at the lake's edge, where they find an airship left by a PSICOM patrol.
After a PSICOM platoon sent to exterminate him nearly kills him, Snow's desperation compels the Shiva Sisters to manifest. After subduing them, he receives his Eidolon, mysterious otherworldly beings that only l'Cie can tame. Another Pulse l'Cie, Oerba Yun Fang helps the Cavalry (a division of the Guardian Corps) capture Snow along with Serah's crystal.
Sazh pilots the stolen airship through the blockade. While aboard, the group views a live interview with Galenth Dysley about the "success" of the Purge. PSICOM pursuit shoots down the airship, and it crashes in the Vile Peaks. After a dispute on their Focus, the party splits again: Sazh and Vanille wish to flee from their pursuers, but Lightning intends to get revenge by destroying the Sanctum and the fal'Cie Eden said to be controlling it. Joined by Hope, she plans to travel through the Gapra Whitewood, his hometown of Palumpolum, and take a train to Eden, the heart of the Sanctum government.
As she and Hope trek through the remainder of the Vile Peaks, the pressure of keeping Hope safe and dealing with enemy soldiers takes its toll on Lightning, and she snaps at him for being a burden. Her Eidolon Odin appears and attacks Hope as if to force Lightning to choose between her mission and him. They bring the Eidolon under control together, and Lightning decides to help Hope toughen up as they continue their mission together.
The Cavalry takes Snow and Serah's crystal aboard their headquarters, the airship Lindblum. The Cavalry's leader, Cid Raines, asks Snow to help him find the other l'Cie so together they can free the people of Cocoon from fal'Cie rule. While passing through the Gapra Whitewood, Lightning learns about Hope's mother and the boy's belief that her death was Snow's fault. Hope reveals he followed Lightning to gain battle experience and become strong enough to face Snow, forming "Operation Nora", his plan for revenge. Although Lightning tries to convince him the Sanctum killed his mother and not Snow, Hope vows to punish Snow and the Sanctum both. To dissuade Hope from his goal, Lightning suggests he talk with his father in Palumpolum.
After making their way out of the Vile Peaks, Sazh and Vanille travel through the Sunleth Waterscape towards Nautilus. Sazh confesses why he went to the Hanging Edge: his son, Dajh Katzroy, was made a Sanctum l'Cie by the fal'Cie Kujata during the incident at Euride Gorge while Sazh and Dajh were there as tourists. Sazh suspected Dajh's Focus was to destroy Anima when the boy sensed the Pulse Vestige in Bodhum and caused the Purge, having gained the ability to sense Pulsian beings. To save Dajh from becoming a Cie'th, Sazh boarded the Purge train with Lightning to try and complete Dajh's Focus for him. Unbeknown to Sazh, Vanille knows more about the Euride incident than she implies.
Arriving in Palumpolum, Hope leads Lightning underground to slip past the soldiers occupying the city. Lightning realizes she's been running from reality by making the Sanctum her enemy and now has Hope following suit; she tells him to end Operation Nora and talk to his dad. Hope has a strained relationship with his father, and he feels Lightning is abandoning him, but she assures him she won't. Returning to the surface, PSICOM troops surround Lightning and Hope. Snow and Fang save them, and the l'Cie split up in the chaos, with Lightning and Fang in one group and Snow and Hope in another.
Fang reveals to Lightning that she is Vanille's friend and looking to reunite with her, the actual reason she is helping the Cavalry. Fang and Vanille are Pulse l'Cie and Gran Pulse citizens, having received their Focus there long ago and entered crystal stasis. They awoke in Cocoon within the Pulse Vestige 13 days ago, starting the chain of events that led Cocoon into chaos. Fang's l'Cie brand is different from the others', white and static, meaning she doesn't have to worry about becoming a Cie'th. However, Vanille's brand is still active, so Fang seeks to complete their Focus, whatever it may be, to prevent Vanille from turning into a Cie'th. Fang apologizes to Lightning for how she and Vanille were unwittingly responsible for Serah becoming a l'Cie; Serah found the door to the Vestige open after the pair left, and Anima, dissatisfied with their progress, sought new l'Cie. Fang explains how a l'Cie's brand shows the time they have until they become Cie'th and assures Lightning that Serah will awaken from crystal stasis eventually.
Meanwhile, Snow obliviously continues feeding Hope's rage toward him. Snow and Hope see PSICOM gathering more civilians to Purge, so Snow saves them by scaring them, only for them to return later as an angry mob. They escape to the rooftops, where Hope confronts Snow about his mother's death, intending on taking his revenge. An attack from a PSICOM warmech foils his plan, and Snow saves Hope from further harm by cushioning their fall. Snow apologizes for what happened to Nora, and the two settle their differences. Fang, Lightning, Hope, and Snow reunite and head to the Estheim Residence. Hope informs his father of Nora's fate and repairs his relationship with him, and Lightning resolves her issues with Snow while he recovers from his injuries.
While the party is busy formulating a plan to deal with the Sanctum, PSICOM officer Yaag Rosch arrives with his troops. Snow tries to make them realize they also wish to protect Cocoon and demands for the Purge to stop as PSICOM is also Purging Palumpolum due to finding their l'Cie group there. Yaag claims the Pulse l'Cie's lives aren't worth the risk of sparing and that the populace demanded the Purge. After a fight with an attack shuttle, Rygdea from the Cavalry rescues Snow, Lightning, Hope, and Fang and takes them on board the Lindblum with help from Cid.
Sazh and Vanille arrive at Nautilus, an amusement park, where they watch a newsflash regarding the events in Palumpolum and the Pompa Sancta parade, a dramatic re-enactment of the War of Transgression. Tired of running, Sazh contemplates turning himself in for a chance of seeing Dajh one last time. Vanille protests and is about to reveal the truth about the Euride incident when Jihl Nabaat, PSICOM's supreme commander, arrives with a PSICOM platoon and Dajh, who has been kept in PSICOM custody to discern his Focus.
Dajh turns to crystal upon reuniting with Sazh, revealing his Focus was the Pulse l'Cie's capture. Jihl shows security footage from Euride Gorge and reveals the truth behind the incident: Kujata turned the nearest person it could sense, Dajh, into a l'Cie to protect itself from Vanille and Fang. Furious, Sazh confronts Vanille, triggering the appearance of his Eidolon, Brynhildr, which he brings under control with Vanille's help. Sazh vacillates over shooting himself in his grief, but can't go through with it, prompting Jihl to take him and Vanille into custody. Jihl takes them aboard the Palamecia to bring them to Eden for live execution.
During their captivity, Vanille reveals her origins to Sazh: She and Fang became l'Cie to fight Cocoon during the War of Transgression centuries ago and entered crystal stasis on Pulse. Twelve days before the Purge, they awoke in Cocoon, but Fang lost her memory of their previous Focus. Fearing more people getting hurt because of them, Vanille lied and pretended to have also lost her memory and has been running from her fate ever since. Deeming themselves Cocoon's enemies and their Focus therefore linked to harming it, Fang suggested they attack Kujata, a Sanctum fal'Cie in Euride Gorge that provides Cocoon's electricity, to help recover their memories of their Focus. During the commotion, Kujata made Dajh a l'Cie, Vanille and Fang got separated, and they've been searching for each other since.
Upon learning of Sazh and Vanille's capture, Lightning and the rest mount a rescue mission with help from Cid and the Cavalry. They board the Palamecia using a stolen PSICOM shuttle, but the crew discovers their ruse. Sazh and Vanille escape their holding cell, recover their weapons, and fight their way through the ship. The l'Cie reunite on a forward portion of the Palamecia's exterior and head to the bridge using one of PSICOM's militarized wyverns. They face Galenth Dysley, who kills Jihl and the entire bridge crew. Dismissing the l'Cie's assumption that he is one of them, Dysley reveals his natural form as the fal'Cie Barthandelus, the true master of Cocoon and a fal'Cie master of illusion.
After suffering defeat at the l'Cie's hands, Barthandelus reveals their Focus is to become Ragnarok and destroy Orphan, the fal'Cie that powers all the other fal'Cie in Cocoon and holds it afloat over Pulse. Barthandelus claims Serah's Focus was to gather them for Pulse to brand them l'Cie so they could bring about Cocoon's destruction, a revelation that cripples Snow. Barthandelus departs, leaving behind his familiar Menrva to serve as an airship for them to escape from the now-sinking battlecruiser. The l'Cie make their escape, avoiding pursuit from Yaag Rosch onboard the Proudclad, and end up inside the Fifth Ark hidden beneath Eden. Fang and Vanille recall a legend concerning the Arks' purpose as armories and training grounds for l'Cie, surprised to find one in Cocoon.
The Ark fully awakens the l'Cie's powers. Deeper inside, they encounter Cid, who reveals himself a Sanctum l'Cie and how Barthandelus orchestrated the l'Cie's every action. He explains the fal'Cie desire Cocoon's destruction to summon the Maker, the creator of both fal'Cie and the world, to remake the world. Sanctum fal'Cie were built for Cocoon's maintenance and are thus unable to do the deed themselves. Cid attacks the l'Cie to stop them from destroying Cocoon but is defeated and turns to crystal despite defying his Focus, puzzling everyone.
Shaken by the turn of events, the l'Cie reach a dead end. Snow decides to follow Cid's example and forget their Focus and fulfill Serah's final wish of saving Cocoon. While everyone else agrees, Fang turns on them, declaring that even though they might wish to save Cocoon, she would rather follow their Focus to destroy it than see any of her friends become a Cie'th for defying it. Fang unwittingly summons Bahamut and brings it under her control with the others' help, reluctantly agreeing to follow their plan. Bahamut's "taming" reveals a new path, and the l'Cie find a Pulsian airship at the end, which they use to travel through a portal to Gran Pulse.
A wild wyvern attacks the airship in the skies above Gran Pulse, and the l'Cie become stranded in the valley of Vallis Media. The party searches Gran Pulse for days, looking for a way to remove their brands, but finds no traces of human life. Sazh's Chocobo Chick warns the party that Hope's l'Cie brand is advancing, and he has fallen unconscious. They bring Hope back to the base camp, and Vanille suggests they go to Oerba, her and Fang's hometown. Hope wakes up and implores them to go without him as he would only slow everyone down. His despair summons his Eidolon Alexander, and he brings it under his control with Fang and Lightning's help. The l'Cie come to believe the Eidolons' purpose is to give l'Cie hope, not free them through death.
Discovering a path to the Archylte Steppe, the l'Cie begin their journey to Oerba. Along the way, Vanille claims she became Ragnarok during the War of Transgression and cracked Cocoon's shell as her previous Focus; however, while traversing the Mah'habara Subterra, Fang bluffs about remembering her past Focus to coax a confession from Vanille. Fang claims she was the one who became Ragnarok and scarred Cocoon. Vanille tries denying it, but the shock from having her biggest lie exposed causes her Eidolon Hecatoncheir to appear, confirming Fang's suspicions. Vanille and Fang defeat it, after which Vanille resolves to come to terms with her fate and stop running from it.
The l'Cie traverse the remainder of the Mah'habara mines and use the fal'Cie Atomos to reach the Sulyya Springs, where Vanille speculates Barthandelus lied to them about Serah's Focus, and that she overcame her Focus and turned to crystal of her own will as Cid had. They reach Taejin's Tower, a crumbling mechanical tower where the errant fal'Cie Dahaka makes its home. The Menhirrim there help them destroy Dahaka and reach the tower's top, from where the l'Cie ride a capsule down to the slopes of Oerba. They find the village covered in a blanket of snow-like crystal dust and infested with Cie'th. At the end of a crumbling railway overpass, the l'Cie are shocked to find Serah waiting for them.
Serah implores the l'Cie to become Ragnarok and destroy Orphan, but they refuse. She abandons the disguise and assumes Barthandelus's human form. The fal'Cie explains the reason for Cocoon's creation: the fal'Cie, desiring to summon the Maker, need a sacrifice large enough to attract the Maker's attention, and the deaths of Cocoon's inhabitants would cause a large enough disturbance in "the great beyond" for it to happen. The l'Cie engage Barthandelus in battle, determined to prevent this atrocity from being committed.
After defeating him, Barthandelus gloats how Cocoon's citizens are fighting among themselves now that the resurrected Cid has become the new Primarch, angering the Cavalry for his assumed betrayal. He claims the Cavalry is mounting an attack to destroy Orphan, believing it would free Cocoon from fal'Cie rule, and the l'Cie have a choice: kill Orphan themselves or let Cocoon's people do it. He leaves behind another airship and returns to Cocoon to oversee the final stages of his plan.
The l'Cie find an ancient record telling the War of Transgression's aftermath: the reason Fang hadn't destroyed Cocoon was that the goddess Etro, a deity whose worship was once prominent on Gran Pulse, intervened and turned her and Vanille into crystal before they could. Oerba's people placed Vanille and Fang's crystals inside the Pulse Vestige to honor Anima, the fal'Cie they had served. Barthandelus brought the Vestige into Cocoon so the two could finish the job when they awoke. The party decides to return to Cocoon and either save Orphan or die trying. They board the airship and use a portal in Pulse's atmosphere to return to Cocoon.
Eden under siege
The l'Cie and their Eidolons disrupt an ongoing race in Eden, causing mass panic among the spectators. A PSICOM battalion and the resident Guardian Corps are deployed and flood the streets with soldiers and mechanized beasts. Barthandelus uses transgates to warp Pulsian creatures and automata from both the surface of Gran Pulse and within the Fifth Ark into the city, causing mass hysteria. The l'Cie fight their way through soldiers and monsters alike while the Cavalry infiltrates the Primarch's office. No longer under Barthandelus's thrall, Cid tells Rygdea the Cavalry's actions will lead Cocoon into ruin. Rygdea shoots Cid at his request, ending his torment, and leads the Cavalry to confront Orphan at Edenhall, the seat of the Sanctum's power.
The citizens take shelter at Edenhall, where the l'Cie spot crystal shards floating in the air. An illusion of Barthandelus explains the fragments are the souls of the departed and that their presence signals the appearance of the Door of Souls and the Maker's inevitable return. Barthandelus claims he has the l'Cie's "loved ones" captive. The Calvary soldiers and PSICOM troopers in their vicinity turn into Sacrifice Cie'th, the result of Barthandelus branding them l'Cie without giving them a Focus. Yaag Rosch confronts the l'Cie again, but after being defeated for the second time, he orders his soldiers to end l'Cie operations and evacuate the city. Rosch detonates the Proudclad's wreckage, sacrificing himself to ensure nothing will follow the l'Cie into Orphan's Cradle, an alternate dimension serving as Cocoon's command center.
Inside Orphan's Cradle, the l'Cie discover the remainder of the Calvary soldiers converted into Cie'th. The fal'Cie Eden guides them to the Narthex, Orphan's resting place, where they meet Barthandelus. Barthandelus destroys Serah's and Dajh's crystallized forms and commands the l'Cie to fulfill their destiny by killing Orphan, thereby cutting the power fueling Cocoon's functions and causing it to crash upon the lowerworld's surface. The l'Cie see through Barthandelus's illusions, and Barthandelus engages them in battle only to be defeated and sent sinking into a pool of liquid. Menrva, Dysley's familiar, dives into the pool, allowing Barthandelus to rise as the protective shell surrounding the dormant Orphan.
The l'Cie fight Orphan's first form that's now merged with Barthandelus but fail to destroy him. Orphan, growing frustrated, reveals why fal'Cie make l'Cie: the Maker created each fal'Cie for a defined purpose with finite power to accomplish the task, but humans have infinite potential to be anything they want through sheer willpower and determination. Thus fal'Cie make l'Cie to partake in humankind's inherent power.
Orphan tortures Vanille to force Fang to transform into Ragnarok. Seeing no way out of their situation, Fang submits. When the others try to stop her, she overpowers them, causing everyone except her and Vanille to turn into Cie'th. Her companions' shambling remnants attack Fang, triggering her transformation into an incomplete Ragnarok. Fang's Ragnarok is unable to destroy Orphan; only the outer shield dissipates before Fang reverts.
Orphan revives Fang and tortures her to force her to transform again while a helpless Vanille watches her friend suffer. Meanwhile, Lightning, Snow, Sazh, and Hope relive the memories of their journey and find the strength of will to revert, though they believe their Cie'th forms were another fal'Cie illusion. As Vanille prepares to stand against Orphan, the others fire magic spells and save Fang from the fal'Cie, who sinks into the pool.
After giving themselves the Focus of saving Cocoon rather than destroying it, the party's l'Cie brands turn white. Orphan's newly born form rises from the pool, revealing it shares Barthandelus's desire to summon the Maker, even if it means its death. As Orphan has shown its true colors as an enemy of Cocoon, the l'Cie kill the fal'Cie, believing if they can destroy Cocoon, they can also save it.
The dawn of a new era
With Orphan's demise, the rest of Cocoon's fal'Cie shut down as the now-powerless structure falls towards Gran Pulse. The party finds themselves back in Eden as Orphan's Cradle vanishes, and Lightning, Snow, Hope, and Sazh float away and start crystallizing. Fang and Vanille join hands to become Ragnarok's true form and create a column of lava to engulf Cocoon's surface and slow its descent. Ragnarok crystallizes the lava by summoning the crystal dust from Oerba's ruins, leaving Cocoon supported by a massive crystal pillar. Lightning, Hope, Sazh, and Snow's crystallized forms appear on Gran Pulse, their Focus fulfilled.
Through an unknown force, Lightning and her companions wake from their crystal sleep. The group finds their l'Cie brands gone and reunite with Serah and Dajh, who are also normal humans again. While Cocoon's survivors rally around the remaining military units as they see Gran Pulse for the first time, Hope takes a moment to mourn for Fang and Vanille while Lightning gives Serah her blessing to marry Snow. Vanille and Fang's crystallized forms float within the core of the crystal pillar that holds Cocoon above Gran Pulse, hands entwined, their Focus finally complete.