Okay, enough complaining about the difficulty -- let's talk story.
I wanted to write more about story more evenly, but this is one of those plots that's less about individual events and character development and more about the gradual contextualization of things that have been in front of you the whole time. There weren't a ton of real revelations until Chapter 5 (of 6!), which I'd argue is an indicator this game's story isn't very well-paced. Even at this point -- I'm about to enter the last chapter of the game -- I know for a fact that I'm going to write some laughably wrong stuff here, but it's now or never.
I really enjoyed Chapter 5. Right off the bat, you're separated from Noel, and are dropped in a bleak shadow version of Valhalla (here's the appropriately unsettling music). Concrete details are dropped about the nature of Yeul, Caius's plans and motivations, and Serah and Noel's roles. It's an abrupt change in tone, and the "deaths" of Noel and Serah were more brutal than I'd thought this game would get. I played through Chapter 5 before I finished Yaschas Massif 100/110 AF, so I had a neat moment during that questline where I learned why one of the Yeuls you meet in the Void Beyond had a veil covering her face (she was the one who created a time rift to save Paddra from a monster, which cascaded to cause the red orb disappearances).
The return to the dream version of New Bodhum was a tad predictable, but it served its purpose of showing that Serah's motivations had evolved beyond simply wanting to find Lightning, and perhaps demonstrated Caius's underestimation of her strength of character and lack of knowledge of Vanille and Fang's nature. By the way, meeting back up with Vanille and Fang really reminded me of how much they'd grown on me over the events of XIII. Vanille's mix of the familiar child-like playfulness and a higher degree of worldliness pretty succinctly gave me an idea of what life inside the Cocoon crystal had been like.
Noel's sequence was great. There were hints throughout the story of just how bleak a future he'd lived in, but the reality (well, dream reality) was still worse than I expected. Being one of three remaining people on the planet and being asked to kill one of them to gain the power to protect the other (I think?) reads like something out of Greek mythology. The way Caius left, Yeul died, and Noel was left the single remaining human over the course of minutes is, well, pretty much as bad as things can get. It's weird to think all of that happened (from Noel's perspective) minutes before the beginning of the game, and it definitely helps contextualize Noel's behaviour, especially his attitude toward Serah using up her uncertain quota of future gazing.
The lyrical version of Noel's Theme really contributed to the tone of the scene, and the dramatic red tint and spotlighted characters gave it a vaguely stage play-like feel.
The (for real) Lightning meeting in future New Bodhum filled in some story details, but I'm still not very clear on how exactly Caius' plan works. From what I remember, he's going to crash new Cocoon into old Cocoon, and the ensuring death toll will overwhelm Etro's Gate which will cause chaos/entropy to overwhelm everything? That, in it's own convoluted way,kind of makes sense, in part because it's almost exactly the same story as XIII. What I don't get is why he wants to break open Etro's gate at all. Does he not already have access to Valhalla, or is the opening of the game pigeonholed in a more advanced timeline where he's already opened the gate (and, I assume, can't leave)?
The timeline-based story is interesting because of just how uncertain and fragile everything seems, but by its very nature it was inevitable that aspects of it would end up being inscrutable and circular. I've been trying not to think about it too much -- thinking too much about time travel-based plots never ends up anywhere good -- but there rules governing the timelines are so unclear to me that it's making understanding major aspects of the plot difficult.
Speaking of timelines, won't preventing the future where Cocoon crashes also cause Noel to never have existed? Do people with Etro's blessing need to have a temporal "root"? Damn it, I just overthought this again.
- Serendipity seems super dumb. Completely random slot machines are stupid to begin with, but advertising DLC that will add another soulless minigame is practically insulting. I googled the slot machines and saw people talking about using a rubber band to hold down their L1 buttons for hours on end to farm fragments. I know it's easily to ignore, but why is any of this in the game in the first place?
- A lot of the sidequests in this game are, I believe, required to be played in a very specific sequence despite having no narrative correlation. I say "I believe" because I think I remember being told I could only take on two(!) at a time, so I may have just been maxed out and not realized it. Regardless, I was running into situations in Yaschas Massif 100 and 110 in which I was standing in front of quest givers who wouldn't talk to me until I resolved completely unrelated quests, causing me to have to make needless runs back and forth across the map.
- By the way, did there really need to be 4 different iterations of Yaschas Massif? The amount of time they expect you to spend in that one zone is nuts.
- I ran into similar sequence problems with Vile Peaks 10 AF and 200 AF. I managed to enter into the second (from a sequence perspective) time period, and ran into a confusing brick wall. It didn't end up being that complex, but I might have wasted a bunch of time being confused if I hadn't just googled it.
- Fuck clock puzzles. This guy deserves a medal.
- That Red Chocobo music! Those lyrics!