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Final Fantasy XIII | Square Enix

Let my biases be disclosed: the Final Fantasy series may well be the singular reason I ever got into games in the first place.  Setting aside the fact that the series’ birth year coincides with my own, some of its early entries served as my very first forays into the RPG genre and the interactive medium.  My childhood pantheon consists as much of the cast of Sesame Street as it does Cecil, Golbez, Terra, Shadow, and chocobos.  All this is to say: the series holds a place near and dear to my heart.  And though I tend to forgive faults in any given entry, it wouldn’t do anybody any good not to recognize them.

At the core of Final Fantasy XIII manifests the battle between free will and determinism.  Statements from Director Motomu Toriyama confirm this idea as a central theme during the game’s development, ultimately manifested through the plight of main characters at the mercy of an unjust fate.  The promise of potential soared high.  Conflict possibilities abounded.  This entry will look at how it all played out: character, plot, and world.

I may be three years late to the party but still — spoilers abound! 

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1. “STRANGERS ON A TRAIN”

Meeting our central character in (sci-fi) chains lacks no foreshadowing.  Parallels to Lightning’s imminent fate are clear.  Typical Final Fantasy faire has us thrown into the action a la in medias res.  We see her turn the tables on her captors, defy gravity in a flurry of gunfire (which would have been awesome to perform, not merely observe), and somewhat indirectly rescue other prisoners.  As a skilled fighter and soldier, she is established well.  I also have to note Sazh’s quip: “Run! — I meant away!”  One comedic line embodies his character’s sensible thinking amidst a chorus of often irrational voices.

Characterization of both Lightning and Sazh would have benefited from having their motives introduced a little earlier, but Snow needed more help than any other.  He undercuts his own charisma as a resistance leader by engaging in such empty rhetoric and paper-thin idealism.  Why would anyone put their lives in his hands?  He is never shown to be formidable.  He looks to be in his late 20’s but acts like a teenager.  And let fiction attest to there being no hero who ever calls himself one in earnest — least of all, one who does so every few sentences.

2. “ROBES, TRENCH COATS, AND OTHER WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION”

As much as the game relies on the Datalog to relay exposition and worldbuilding (more on this later), the one thing it was absolutely perfect for is the one thing it lacks: smaller details about the world.  For instance, it’s never explained why the Sanctum dresses up Purge deportees in cleric-like robes.  They’re too elaborate to just be equivalents of orange jumpsuits.  This is what Explorer player-types should be able to drink up in the optional readings in-game, not basic terms crucial to the conflict like l’Cie, fal’Cie, Purge, and so on.

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In fact, it may even be covered in the design docs piled up in Square Enix HQ.  Hope mentions that natural magic outside of military-issue manadrives is a l’Cie ability, implying that this is well-known.  If Purge deportees are selected based on a wild suspicion of being a magic-wielding Pulse l’Cie, then it would make sense that the garb in which they are detained harbors effects to hinder spell usage.  Maybe it inflicts Silence (Fog), or saps MP (ATB gauge).  Often times, details are what lend credibility to fictional worlds.

Weapons could have also been put into this “ARTEFACTS” section to explain why the six equipped by the main cast are widely sold in online stores yet used by no one else in the known universe.  Devs’ reasoning is clear enough.  Hope’s Boomerang speaks to a clear intent to align his battle skills to his youth and innocence.  He doesn’t carry a gun or sword.  He has a toy.  This becomes problematic when he demonstrates incredible skill with it in battle.

It could have been an oddly fitting moment to see Hope reunite with his father and then point out that Bartholomew Estheim used to be an Olympic boomerang champion.  Even matching the silliness of blitzball, it’s at least an attempt to address Hope’s unusual prowess.  Throw in an Easter egg, too; have Bartholomew take up his legendary boomerang when PSICOM raids the house, the shape of which Hope’s Tier-3 weapon takes later on in the game.

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The immense power hidden in Snow’s coat also begs to be explained.  If it is supposed to be some sort of AMP technology akin to Lightning’s device, the emblem designs on its back should have — at the very least — involved some clear visual indications of sci-fi tech, such as glowing lights (not unlike the blue bits on the Purge robes).  Simple embroidery, dye, or whatever seems to be going on in the game lacks plausibility.  The arm band Snow has — even that could serve as the central control, allowing for why the coat lacks markings in cutscenes.  It’s off.

Vanille’s strange staff was referenced later in the game when used to catch one of the wyvern creatures aboard the Palamecia.  Its existence was extended outside the borders of battle transitions, which affords it solid consistency.  Sazh’s history as a pilot, however, doesn’t explain how he can handle firing twin guns with dead-on precision while striking ridiculous poses.  It also doesn’t fit his ‘worrisome old man’ attitude.  Lightning and Fang present the least problems because they are warrior-types in the narrative.

3.  “A LESSON IN BRANDING BY FAL’CIE”

By far, one of the biggest issues in the opening is the number of proper nouns it throws at players without presenting them in a plainly understood context.  To make up for this, FFXIII provides the Datalog.  But essential terms should only be elaborated upon in appendices; its core definition should be able to gleaned as quickly as possible from the time the story starts.  And it just didn’t happen.

The quicker we can understand the setup and exposition, the quicker we can become invested in the story.  Sazh shouldn’t have introduced the term “l’Cie” by simply reassuring a child that he isn’t one.  It tells us nothing.  Lightning shouldn’t reveal her motivation 30 minutes in by saying she’s after “fal’Cie”.  If we don’t know what a fal’Cie is, we certainly won’t know what it means to be hunting one down.

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The most direct solution would have been to start with a brief cinematic perhaps themed as a side-scrolling mural (think Journey in the tower before the snowy peaks).  The narrator, in this case Vanille, would have had a day where she first learned about them growing up in Oerba.  She can recount this, and even the gist of the Fabula Nova Crystallis legend, in under a minute.

To substitute these terms for their more obvious alternates (‘god’ for fal’Cie, ‘demon’ for Cie’th, etc.) is another solution, but it would cost some of the world’s uniqueness.  Still, one has to wonder if the gains in clarity would have outweighed that.

To go with “play/show, don’t tell” would require elaborate re-structuring.  Our time in Lightning’s normal world would have to be extended.  We could play as Lightning, whom PSICOM and the Guardian Corps dispatch in a joint task force to investigate the Pulse Vestige.  Players would get a chance to internalize Cocoon’s cultural fear of Pulse by fighting against Cie’th with possibly a l’Cie boss.  It’s almost expected then that the boss’ dying words would serve as some haunting reminder of how thin the line is between a human and a l’Cie.

“Focus” also feels like a missed opportunity, which I understand was more of a localization issue.  A focus is as much a sentence (in the judicial sense), confining people’s lives and free will toward a single, vague task and only to face centuries of sleep versus zombification.  The term ‘focus’ lacked the punch of what it represented.

4.  “FIREWORKS”

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On the subject of more informative introductory scenes, our ‘normal world’ glimpse — which I’m using in Joseph Campbell’s monomythic sense — could have taken the form of that night of fireworks at Bodhum.  So much importance is given to that night via flashbacks that it was a natural fit to have it open the game.  We’d see all six characters in the same place in joyous times, before then cutting away to the Purge scenes.  The rapid change in circumstance would draw us in.

There’s just so little that the first scene accomplishes when we see the train run across Cocoonic countryside.  It even lacks a clear establishing shot to explain that Cocoon is a hollow planet where gravity works in reverse via Deus Ex fal’Cie.  I always found it to be a stunning setting, but it gets so little attention.  And Vanille’s one line achieves nothing.

5. “ANIMA IS NOT ANIMA”

The presentation of the fal’Cie Anima was problematic.  Since Anima had no recognizable traits except its crystalline torso, the ensuing scene in which Lightning, Sazh, Snow, Hope, and Vanille are branded seemed to be some sort of interior dimension within the being.  It’s only in the Datalog where it’s explained that Anima didn’t brand the party, but rather some other entity did.  The fade-to-white transition and the fact that this entity seemed to emerge from a crystal didn’t help.  Why was it necessary to have the fal’Cie Pulse brand them and not Anima?

6.  “SURVIVING TOO MANY FALLS AND CRASHES”

One or two implausibly survived situations is one thing.  But the number of offences in FFXIII‘s beginning was bizarre.  Lightning has an AMP cushion, sure.  Snow has a high tech overcoat that deals with force manipulation, okay.  Hope pilots an air bike with Vanille and crash lands for no apparent reason — and both of them survive? The Pulse Vestige plummets into an ocean while tossing out the characters — and they all survive?  I can’t quite understand these decisions.  Hope could have landed safely.  Moreover, the Vestige should have summoned a tower of water to crystallize and cushion its fall with, mirroring more directly the final fate of Cocoon.

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I have to mention, though: the crystal Lake Bresha looks gorgeous.  Whatever it’s justification, the area was one of the game’s most memorable.

7.  “TROUBLE IN PARADISE”

The tense relationship between Lightning and Snow is really one of the story’s greater highlights.  Even though Snow’s foolish and naive nature is grating and sometimes even unbelievable, his clashing with his fiancée’s sister stands as an incredibly well-rendered and believable aspect of the narrative.  When some 21 year old talks about saving the world, you really do want to punch him in the face.  And Lightning isn’t afraid to do it.

8.  “KOOKY PSYCHOPATH*

I remember in my first playthrough being taken aback by Vanille’s character.  She had the mannerisms of the token bubbly, cheery girl who’s become a staple in Final Fantasy casts.  Then she cheers on a 14-year old boy who had just witnessed his mother killed in action fighting someone else’s war — Snow’s war — to find the man and “talk” to him.  She also does this by frequently “hugging” him.

It isn’t such a crazy interpretation, is it?  Vanille acts like a psychopath, encouraging a child to kill and manipulating his hormone-riddled self — all with a smile on her face.  It’s utterly twisted.  The thread goes nowhere ultimately, as Vanille soon becomes the upbeat archetype she resembles.

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9.  “BECOMING L’CIE”

To an extent, every human on Cocoon is already living in confinement.  Beyond any digs at the level design or the geographic make-up of the hollow planet, the Sanctum government sows an intense fear of Pulse in its citizens that drives them even deeper into dependence on Cocoon’s fal’Cie and the Sanctum.  But when the brand of Pulse l’Cie befalls Lightning and her crew, the road suddenly grows a lot narrower.  Waking at Lake Bresha is an important moment in their journey.  Did they react accordingly?

For the most part, yes.  There’s a degree of shock and despondence in everyone.  The fact that a 14-year old is already ingrained in fear shows the pervasiveness of Sanctum propaganda.  But as I thought about it, I came to expect a few different reactions from these characters based on their histories and individual states of mind.

Lightning’s lifelong self-conditioning to be the rock in her family would have allowed her to take the news more or less in stride.  It would be a traumatic event, but she’d know how to keep moving forward, which is exactly what happens.  Snow’s reaction feels right as well.  He’d have just shared a tragic fate with his beloved, Serah, and perhaps seen it as a way to understand what she was going through.  His penchant for loading himself up with heavy burdens — a perfect fit for his Sentinel abilities in a great moment of ludonarrative consonance — also would have allowed him to accept his fate quickly.

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Out of all them, Sazh would have lived the most years embedded in Sanctum’s fearmongering climate.  He should have been the most resistant to his fate as a l’Cie of Pulse, especially considering what happened with Dajh.  Denial was in the cards, but it was never played.

Hope’s disposition supports his panicked reaction at first, but consider that he had just lost his mother, he’s on the run from the entirety of his homeland, and now he’s gained new powers.  In such a dark mood, it’d feel right for him to be strangely excited by his prospects until such time that his denial wears off and he realizes what a horrible future he ostensibly has.  Still, it’s actually the rare teenage boy who wouldn’t absolutely revel in knowing magic.  Moreover, he now has the means with which to stand up to the man he blames for his mother’s death.

Vanille, lastly, should have been the consoling voice not just because of her relentless optimism, but because she has been a Pulse l’Cie for quite some time.  She may not have enjoyed it, but she has the least reason to be despondent over these new brands out of familiarity.  All in all, although some of the reactions felt off, none take you out of the story.

10.  “SPLITTING OFF”

There was something so endearing and so right about Lightning and Hope’s trek across the wastelands of the Vile Peaks.  She had just lost a sister and was primed to accept a surrogate sibling to seek some solace or penance; he had just walked away from the object of his vengeance out of self-doubt and would be looking for a strong mentor.  It was perfect.  There was a need in the game for players to become accustomed to specific combinations of battle roles, and the scenario team capitalized on it through exploring character relationships.  It also made sense that Light recognizes her own dependence on violence in Hope’s eagerness to internalize it.

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Sazh and Vanille’s unlikely pairing leads to some poignant moments which, though at times a little melodramatic, were well-intended.  Vanille runs into the rain to mask her own crying; Sazh fails to shoot Vanille and then turns the gun on himself.  Was there ever a doubt that Sazh wouldn’t do it?  No.  It would be entirely out of character.  Because of this, the dramatic moments deflates.  It could have been more effective for Sazh to just coldly tell Vanille to get lost and never show her face again.

11.  “LINDBLUM”

Before the whole pursuit arc stretches on for too long — and it does run for a little longer than necessary* — we’re reunited back up to four with Snow and last-but-not-least Fang.  Most players are primed to like her character from the sheer fact that while everyone is clearly fazed and frantic about their l’Cie identities, she enters the picture as a level-headed, no-nonsense, and rather charming ‘dragoon’ type.  She lacks the brooding and angst of the others and it’s a great relief.

* It’s also tough on pacing to spend so long as a fugitive.  Tension runs high in these scenarios, but prolonging them without escalation brings on fatigue.  It would have been nice to have a break-off point where Lightning and crew go into hiding and temporarily escape their captors, even if only partially and temporarily.  Alternatively, the open fields of Cocoon could open up much sooner as well.  The story’s two-thirds prior feel too much like the game is just trying to begin.  The midpoint was not at the midpoint.

12.  “CORRIDORS”

This point also marks the first possible reprieve players could have been given from the tunnel-like areas which have so been lambasted by fans and critics.  Devs have defended their design in crafting a linear set of levels to tell a specific story.  But there was a chance here to throw in some modularity.

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Being aboard the Lindblum could have opened up, say, three areas around Cocoon which can be explored in any order.  These could have revolved around finding Sazh and Vanille before Sanctum makes the announcement of their execution, following false leads purposely circulated by Dysley to give the l’Cie a chance to become stronger (as per his masterplan).

13.  “SINK THE MOTHER SHIP”

It’s worth noting that the game’s most comedic moment, in my opinion, comes from a rather unlikely character.  Jihl Nabaat, heretofore established as a secondary antagonist, is summarily killed by Primarch Dysley in a blink, but not before drawing attention to all the ridiculously cumbersome Code: Colors the Sanctum uses.  The moment came as a surprise, but fit well to break up the tension.  She and Yaag Rosch shared similar problems with one-dimensionality, yet of the two, I would have wanted to see Jihl again instead of Yaag.  She had flair.

As a twist, Galenth Dysley’s revelation in the throne room delivered on its surprise.  The unfortunate expense was coherence in the lore.  Fal’Cie had, eventually, been established as being beyond human comprehension such that communication between the two races — namely, the giving of a Focus — could only take the shape of a vague vision.

But Dysley/Barthandelus, Eden, Orphan, and every Cie’th stone mission refutes that detail.  Through Barthandelus, we witness the possibility of human speech.  Through the Cie’th stones, we see clearly understood Focuses.  This relegates the ambiguity of the visions as a choice on the part of the fal’Cie.  Since giving bad instructions is a horrible way to get something done, why did it bother at all?

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There’s really one line that would alleviate most of the confusion.  Lightning asks the others at Lake Bresha how they’re supposed to complete their focus if they don’t know what it is.  Sazh replies that “that’s how a Focus goes down,” implying that it’s common knowledge.  He should have said the opposite.  Focuses should be clear-cut because fal’Cie are both capable of speaking to humans and eager to see those Focuses come true.  They should be surprised.  The Ragnarok vision should have been an anomaly.

14.  “WHAT A FAL’CIE WANTS”

If the fal’Cie Pulse’s motives are truly beyond human comprehension, then maybe he did want to see what these humans would choose to do with their shared Focus.  That wouldn’t explain why it chose these six people nor why it intervened at that exact moment in the Pulse Vestige.  But at least then, the ambiguity would be intentional.

What about the mechanics of the Focus, anyway?  Was fal’Cie Pulse condemning five of the l’Cie to become Cie’th?  Or was it suggesting that all six join together as Ragnarok?  That would have been a sight to see in terms of creature design.  “Fangnarok” and “Fanillearok” looked fantastic.

15.  “BECOMING RAGNAROK”

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What lacked in the remainder of the game was the knowledge of how to become Ragnarok.  It had no place in either the gameplay or the mythology.  Was it a kind of Cie’th, or an Eidolon, or a fal’Cie?  Was it simply a Deus Ex Machina?  If there had been any sort of mechanic resembling cooperative attacks, that would have integrated Ragnarok into the game a bit better.  Starting from the moment of Barthandelus’ revelation and finding ourselves at the Ark, there should have been some sort of system introduced suggesting the merging of l’Cie.

At the least, Ragnarok’s introduction begged some form of interweaving with the gameplay.  A pre-existing framework comes to mind: an Eidolon battle.  After Orphan dies, Vanille faces Fangnarok to build some form of Gestalt meter.  Then, their merging becomes a unit of play we can understand.

16.  “WELCOME TO GRAN PULSE”

Before I delve too much into the ending, a lot of nit-picking above has led me to point out what is inarguably the best part of FFXIII: when the walls of the corridor-inspired levels crumble and we open to the wilds of Pulse.  So, much opens up at that point.  The party becomes fully malleable.  You gain more directions than forward or backward.  Sidequests pile on (a note on this next).  Pulse feels like a world, comparable to the openness of Ivalice in Final Fantasy XII, which is one of the reasons that game excels in immersion.

Our first sight of the lowerworld plays an important part in dispelling the fal’Cie’s propaganda.  Untamed.  Wild.  Dangerous.  But juxtaposed with the sinister order of the Sanctum, Pulse is a refreshing breath of chaos.  The vague inkling of an ecosystem, fal’Cie Titan the biogenitor and instant evolver of species, different climates — it all comes together in magnificent display.  The constrictions of Cocoon feel far away.

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17.  “IMPLICATIONS OF CIE’TH STONES”

Cie’th stones open up the gameplay in FFXIII at the cost of much tension.  Becoming a Cie’th is supposed to be a horrific fate.  Yet here we see that after a certain period of time ambling around as zombies, failed l’Cie turn into tame floating statues who retain their identities and memories.  It was as if a lie had been exposed.  The dangers of failing a Focus should have remained as becoming a monstrous Cie’th until slain.

I can’t confirm this, but I get the impression that Cie’th stones may have been a later addition after the town areas previously mentioned in development were cut.  Devs likely needed a way to include sidequests and opted for Focus-based quest givers to give more exposure to other l’Cie.  But in some ways, this worked better. Visiting the ghost town of Oerba emphasized the fact that Cocoon is cultivating fear toward a planet that isn’t even inhabited anymore.  The soundtrack there “Dust to Dust” stands as the score’s most powerful.

It’s a haunting image.  Not a soul roams the lands.  Cocoon won, yet its masters choose to keep fighting ghosts.

18.  “EIDOLONS ASSEMBLE”

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In what has to be the game’s best cutscene, Lightning and crew all simultaneously summon their Eidolons and lay siege to Edenhall.  An ideal scenario would be to make this section playable, but it was pure visual bliss to see all six of the beings unleash hell against Cocoon forces.

Of course, there’s no clear indication when or why the characters decide to make such a grand and destructive entrance instead of a covert one.  In fact, it only played into Barthandelus’ plan to stage an attack from Pulse and push the Cavalry into action.  One imagines it might be symbolic in nature.  Eidolons are then understood as tests of resolve at moments of greatest self-doubt.  To bring them all in is a demonstration of their conviction to topple Barthandelus and save Cocoon.

The moment owes its awe factor from taking a controlled gameplay element and letting loose with it.  In battle, only one could be called at great cost and only the one linked with the party leader (though this was an arbitrary distinction; there’s no reason why Sazh can’t summon Brynhildr when Lightning is walking ahead of everyone). Appearances of Eidolons are so constricted that unleashing them just felt good.  It was cathartic.

19.  “WHAT’S IN A NAME?”

A brief note on the main-main character’s name: a bit of mystery had stirred itself up over the course of the game.  Several mentions were made regarding Lightning’s assumed name that it was natural to wonder what preceded her surname “Farron.”  The game gets a bit of flack for its odd choice of names for the central cast: Hope, Snow, Fang, and Vanille (‘Vanilla’ in the JP release).  But when Barthandelus, in the guise of Serah, reveals Lightning’s true name, I remember a distinct and strong impression.  It was the perfect name.

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Claire.  It fit so well.  It bore much of the strength of ‘Lightning’ but with a touch of femininity — of humanity.  She’s a person.  She’s not just a soldier or a l’Cie.  She’s a woman, a sister, and a friend.

20.  “ARCS AND DEVELOPMENT”

A thin thread had run through the story about the secret nature of the Focus: it can be changed by the strong will of a l’Cie, whose human heart harbors the limitless potential of chaos which fal’Cie lack.  This deals directly with the game’s central theme of free will VS fate, and it ties through many of the character’s personal arcs.  Devs did an excellent job keeping this aspect focused (no pun intended), ensuring that the resolution of the external conflict depended on that of the internal struggle.

It would have been heavy-handed to bookend FFXIII with mirrored statements from Lightning: “My name is Lightning” to start, and by the end, “My name… is Claire.”  It would, however, demonstrate the inner conflict which she was set to face through the game.  Lightning becomes aware of her need to be strong and fight, stemming from her parents’ death, rather early on.  While this could have led her towards a less violent path, she instead owns it.  She’ll keep fighting.  She’ll fight not for the Sanctum, not for fal’Cie, but for Serah and for Cocoon.

Snow didn’t undergo a significant character change in the storyline.  His tireless optimism and gung-ho attitude was tested, however.  And it endured.  The greatest lesson for a character like his, who’s always too eager to carry another burden, is learning when to let go.  Nora Estheim’s death clearly has an impact on him.  Hope’s outburst in Palumpolum coaxes out of Snow the guilt he shoulders.  Although Hope soon stops blaming him at Palumpolum, Snow’s own arc lacked closure because we never see him forgive himself and how that affects his flawed “I can protect everyone” mindset.

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The character with the most growing up to do, Hope, experiences more or less a full change.  With the anger he directed at Snow, he was dealing with his own regret for not stepping up.  Forgiving Snow was as much about forgiving himself.  The awakening of Alexander marks the true resolution of his story.  He gives in to his weakness and inferiority compared to the others, only to have his inner power manifest itself.  The scene misfired.  Alexander should have subdued the other five character and forced Hope to act alone.  He had to regain his will to fight — as per the battle theme’s name — before reining in his Eidolon, not the other way.

Sazh presents with some problems.  It’s a tragic moment when he resolves to turn himself in and plead for one last chance to see Dajh because he deems himself an unworthy father and that his son is better off all alone.  I was surprised to see no mention of Sazh’s wife.  He never talks to her (in spirit), asks her for guidance.  A man in his forties raising a young child alone has all the makings of a paternal narrative rife with self-doubt.  But since Dajh spends most of the game off-screen, devs couldn’t capitalize on this.  It was a shame not to have more exchanges between him and Lightning.  She had all but assumed the parent role in the Farron family.  They could have helped each other realize that sometimes things are beyond their control.

Vanille’s dramatic question begins even before FFXIII‘s opening credits.  The War of Transgression came to an abrupt end because she resisted becoming Ragnarok.  This comes to a head during a flashback on Pulse when Vanille met Serah.  A little distance, she advises, is sometimes needed to deal with something.  In essence, Vanille had experienced all the growth she would before the game even starts.  The ending is merely a demonstration of her resolve.

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Fang, it seems, has the least screen time and fewest lines right up until the battle with Orphan.  As much as she came out ahead of the others in likeability, her sudden prominence felt jarring.  This was magnified by how nothing foreshadowed the mechanism with which the l’Cie could transform into Ragnarok.  Even the mystery of Fang’s whited-out brand wasn’t much mentioned, despite its clear oddity.  If the characters don’t take note, why should players?  Still, like Snow, she had a resolve that was merely tested, not altered.  And it prevailed.  The one bit of growth not receiving much attention is how she forgives the people of Cocoon for the deaths of her and Vanille’s families, realizing that only the Sanctum fal’Cie are responsible.

But none of that warranted the ending.

21.  “THEIR SACRIFICE”

Fang and Vanille bear and profess to a great deal of atonement over the course of FFXIII.  These two characters alone had experienced losing their family and homeland once before.  But the obscure mechanics of turning into Ragnarok muddied the waters.  Every single party member wanted to protect Cocoon.  That was their shared resolution, and it was how the theme of free will VS fate was explored in the game.

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It’s strange to phrase it this way, but Fang and Vanille’s martyrdom didn’t feel justified by the narrative.  More time needed to have been devoted to their acclimation in Cocoon.  Or Barthandelus’ self-destructive schemes had to arise as a result of Fang’s failed attack centuries prior.  As it is, they spend 13 days plus no more than another week being hunted through its landscape as fugitives.  They had no time to bond with this new home.  Weighing everyone’s stakes, no single character had more to gain or lose by sacrificing themselves for Cocoon.

But did they need to?

I’d say yes.  Battle party restrictions aside, it can be assumed that it canonically takes all six l’Cie to fell fal’Cies Barthandelus, Eden, and Orphan.  This is no more of a feat than stopping a falling moon from colliding with the planet.  The fal’Cie Anima (or Pulse?) turned a lake into crystal just to protect its tower.  If the ending is to be an escalated mirror image of that scene, Lightning, Sazh, Snow, Hope, Vanille, and Fang would all have needed to perform the miraculous deed at great personal cost.

In FFXIII‘s end sequence, Vanille brings up the idea of miracles.  Free will’s triumph over predetermined fate takes nothing short of it.  Does it not make sense that the price of the act needs to match its magnitude?

22.  “DEATHS WITHOUT FINALITY”

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A significant amount of the game’s higher-level content is locked behind the final battle.  I’ve never before had a problem with this sort of design choice, for instance in Kingdom Hearts.  But when two main characters are killed off in a dramatic act of self-sacrifice, seeing the story’s final act get reset cheapens the tragedy.  There was no reason to push the final Crystarium expansion that far back.  Without finality, death is meaningless.

Of course the ending sequence in Narthex had a myriad of Deus Ex WTFs.  Cie’th transformations were suddenly undone, except that they’re written off by Lightning as “smoke and mirrors” instead.  Vanille survives Fang’s Mega-Highwind attack, when in fact her turning (or faked turning) would have obviously plunged Fang into despair with no possible return.  Even Barthandelus had to have known that.  Characters disappear and reappear at will.  It broke the believability the game had spent so long building.

23.  “IN CONCLUSION”

There were some great moments in Final Fantasy XIII.  The unfortunate truth is that the myriad issues that arose during development, about which devs have been quite forthcoming, showed through in the final product. A heavy reliance on indirect exposition with key terms hindered the immediacy of the conflict.  An over-extended fugitive sequence stretching through miles of visually lush but structurally narrow levels strained tension into fatigue.  A few missed opportunities for further character development minimally marred an otherwise strong character-centric narrative.  Extensive post-game content conflicts with narrative immersion.

FF13 20

Despite all this, the game still delivered a strong story experience.  Devs ensured internal conflicts as well as the overarching external one and centered everything on a central theme.  Barthandelus was in bad need of dimensionality, but the attention given to rendering the protagonists all but made up for it.  And despite some vagaries in the crystal lore, the world of Pulse and Cocoon retained a grand sense of wonder and mystery within which players can still lose themselves.

With one sequel released and another one due, I can’t help but wonder if the proverbial foundation of this trilogy — much like the crystal pillar upholding Cocoon’s husk — will stand strong despite the cracks in its surface, or if it will crumble because of them.  Only time will tell.

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