Welcome to my series on Final Fantasy XIII! I’ve played most of this trilogy inside and out, and find myself having to justify that enthusiasm quite often. So I suppose the question from the start is “why do you like Final Fantasy XIII?”, and the answer to that is “I enjoy it despite its flaws.” Well, I guess that concludes the entire series right away.
But I can also talk about Final Fantasy XIII for hours and hours, if provoked. Nobody’s actually provoked me on this occasion, but I’m going to do it anyway, because the subject interests me. This series will basically fall somewhere between a Let’s Play and some waffle about story structure.
When Final Fantasy XIII came out, I didn’t have any idea what it would be about. I’d purposefully avoided any information so that I could experience the story without any expectations, but as I’d soon find out, I had plenty of my own expectations anyway.
All the same, I was hoping for another Final Fantasy X, after my troubled time with XII (that’s a story for another time, but suffice it to say that I did eventually become good friends with that game, but not at the time so much). So without further ado, let’s get started on the game proper.
My first impressions were good. The opening video (before you reach the main menu) was energetic and action-packed, and the first cutscene matched these expectations. When I first played it, I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but it does at least get everything off to a nice pace.
We start off with Lightning and Sazh on a train under guard, but when the train has a brief bump, Lightning breaks out of her shackles, frees everyone else on the train, and swiftly arms herself. Security is pretty great here.
Shortly after, the train enters the first main area of the game, which is a suitably impressive spectacle. Apparently it used to be a residential area, but was repurposed for the military, and it looks very fancy indeed. It seems that fighting has already broken out on other trains in the area as well, as we see a pitched battle between what appear to be regular civilians and the suited-up army, along with apparently some robotic monsters under the army’s control.
However, Lightning’s actions appear to have earned her special attention, as a larger mech swoops in to initiate the first gameplay sequence. Perhaps the most important part of this first scene is where the first of my expectations came into play. Namely, the battle system.
When I first played the game, I was a little confused at this point. While I had two characters, I only appeared to be able to control the actions of one of them. A little strange, I told myself, but I suppose that this is just so we can get to know each individual character before we finish the prologue and get control of all of them. I would later find out that I was incorrect on this point.
Looking back, I’m not quite sure how I didn’t realise that I’d never be able to control my team-mates (yes yes, we’ll get to how stance-dancing works later), since the game outright tells you:
However, I still managed to convince myself that this was only temporary. Comforting myself in this way would become a common theme as I continued my first expedition into this world of XIII.
I should probably pause briefly to talk about characters at this point. So far, we’ve just got Lightning and Sazh, so it won’t take too long (oh, and the voiceover lady, but she can wait). Lightning’s basically portrayed as the badass loner, what with the earlier freeing-everyone/beating-up-the-train-full-of-soldiers thing, not to mention grabbing a rocket launcher off Sazh and blowing stuff up mid-flight as well.
Sazh, meanwhile, is very much the opposite. It’s tempting to say that he’s starkly the comic relief at this point, bumbling around, yelling in fear, and making quips and one-liners, but that would be unfair. He also pauses to help a child while Lightning beats up everyone, which alludes to his main character arc about his relationship with his son. I suspect that Sazh is actually my favourite character. There’s a lot of characters in XIII whose emotional journeys include being fine for ages, and then suddenly shouting a lot, but Sazh is generally the character who considers things quietly before bringing them up in a composed manner.
I don’t mean how he shouts at giant robots and then instantly regrets it. When he has serious input on what’s going on, he’s generally the member of the party who expresses it sensibly, in contrast to Fang, who suddenly starts shrieking before attacking the party out of nowhere (but we can talk about that much later). Sazh’s development towards his major scenes in Nautilus feels a lot more natural than what goes down with many of the other characters, and as such I feel they made the right choice in having him at the start of the game, as it’s easier to identify with him.
Once the tutorial boss is dead, Sazh tries to stop Lightning waltzing off on her own, mentioning that she’s with the “Sanctum” and querying why she’s trying to stop the Purge. Lightning, being our smouldering loner, just mentions that she’s no longer a soldier, and walks off. Speaking of obscure references and story presentation, we then get introduced to the Datalog:
It’s just as well that it’s here, because I had trouble following a few of the things going on in this first sequence. We’re not quite at the point where I felt the need to go to the Datalog for help, but as this sequence goes on, a lot of information gets thrown into the Datalog rather than referenced in-game, and I suspect that the experience differs wildly between players who check it and players who don’t. Right now, the Datalog is mostly tutorial stuff and the enemy log, so we can leave it to one side and talk about the scenery instead.
One of the contentious issues with XIII is how the world is presented. The art style is lovely, with huge set pieces and sweeping landscapes, although there are a few somewhat drab caves to traverse as well (but that’s what caves should be like, right?). Either way, our starting area is very simple:
I’d played several other FF games by this point – namely I, II, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, and XII – so I was well aware that the general structure of the games is linear. X starts off with you running down several similar roads in Zanarkand, both peacefully and under threat from Sinspawn. The Midgar Reactor in VII is not so different either – whatever you do, you’re going to end up going from the train to the centre of the reactor.
However, XIII does a worse job of hiding its linearity. You can funnel a player towards the goal while still giving them a certain amount of freedom. I’ll go into that more after we’ve visited a few more areas to establish a pattern, but it’s worth noting the structure of VIII at this point. When you begin that game, you have access to Balamb Garden (Squall’s training school), a small part of the world map, and Balamb Town, not to mention the first dungeon. You can talk to plenty of NPCs to get an idea of the world, and access the school’s computer network for even more side info on what the world is like. You can even get murdered pointlessly by T-Rexaurs in the forest for a lesson in picking your fights, and remembering to save!
In XIII’s opening, you can only go forwards, with a couple of things to activate along the way, fighting simple enemies who don’t really have a chance of winning. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there’s plenty of linear prologues that are still engaging, and linearity by itself isn’t always terrible. The problem was that VIII was my first numbered Final Fantasy game, and I had those expectations set. X has a linear opening as well, but eventually gave you a little bit more freedom to go around some towns and talk to NPCs along the way (except for later in the game where it slaps Dark Aeons in some awkward places).
Based on my experiences in X, I took the attitude that this linear direction would just be for the prologue, after which I’d get out into an open world with NPCs and hidden locations to run around in. Just as with the battle system, I told myself things would be fine, and pressed on.
The shops should have been another red flag. When I noticed shops were available through the save points, I was a little confused, but supposed it was just a convenience thing for these more restricted parts of the game. However, I would later come to realise that there would be no visiting stores or otherwise in this game, just more interaction with the game’s interface. Again, that’s not entirely a bad thing, since it’s a lot more convenient, but it also detracted a bit from my experience of the world. In my first couple of playthroughs, I didn’t even understand why we fugitives were able to even use the stores, though I more recently stumbled across a Datalog entry that explained it.
The concept of Pulse being a terrible place is introduced to us in this prologue chapter. For an unmentioned (as yet) reason, the people on the trains are being relocated to this place, which is something to be feared. Popping into the Datalog will inform you that Pulse once attacked Cocoon, whatever Cocoon is. If you head elsewhere in the Datalog, you can find out that Cocoon is a floating globe where this is all taking place right now. And if you head to another part of the Datalog, you can find out that the reason this is all happening is because a “Pulse fal’Cie” was located near the town of Bodhum, prompting a panicked relocation of the citizens to “maintain peace”, since “Pulse magic” is dangerous.
And there’s more information there besides. At this stage in the story, you can jump way ahead of people who don’t use the Datalog. Suddenly there’s all this context for what’s actually going on, but little of that comes through in the sparse dialogue. I’m not sure when precisely I made my first dive into the Datalog, but I do know that it heavily changed how I viewed events as I travelled along the roads of the Hanging Edge.
The problem here isn’t that there’s lots of extra info, but that much of it is required reading that changes how you perceive what’s going on in-game. If something’s being held back in-game for a specific reason, then it’s probably wiser to keep it out of the Datalog until then. Additionally, the Datalog in XIII is part of the interface, not the world, so diving into that is effectively taking you out of the game universe.
After a bridge gets destroyed, Lightning starts using this weird little anti-gravity jumping-aid gizmo that she popped out in the initial battle cutscene as well. Sazh tries to stop her leaving him by himself, and it breaks. This appears once more in Chapter 3, and then disappears for most of the game, only to reappear in the penultimate chapter, by which point I’d forgotten that it existed completely. This was somewhat exacerbated by the one-to-two years between starting and completing it, mind you, but I still feel it probably could have done with more presence in the middle of the game as well.
Shortly afterwards, Sazh questions what Lightning’s after, to which she eventually replies that she’s after the Pulse fal’Cie. The Datalog won’t help with this one yet, aside from references to some fal’Cie building Cocoon, having magic powers, and being protectors of Cocoon. That’s fine. We don’t need everything up front just yet. However, with that tantalising bit of information out in the open, we whisk across the battlefield to another of our party members.
But let’s leave things there for Part 1! Next time, we’ll be covering the second half of Chapter Two, and getting acquainted with a few more of the main characters. If you have any questions or comments, don’t hesitate to get in contact!