By this point it probably sounds like I didn’t like Final Fantasy XIII much at all. That’s not true, but it’s important to emphasise just how average it felt. Visually it was impressive, but in terms of exploration and variety it was a massive step back compared to previous installments that I’d played. Final Fantasy X was similarly linear, but there was an energy to its storytelling that seemed somehow absent in FFXIII.
FFX allowed you to walk around towns, take part in a Blitzball tournament (although that had its own issues), and didn’t restrict huge portions of the combat system. Because our protagonists in FFXIII are on the run, there is little time to pause and have fun.
Which I suppose is an interesting thought, because “having fun” isn’t really a requirement for an engaging tale – Vagrant Story, for example, has no story downtime at all. You had the prologue mission, and then the main story mission in the ruined city, with no time for relaxing, but it still got you involved in the characters, helped in part by giving you insight into the villains and what they were doing.
Which I’m going to use as an excuse to introduce Yaag Rosch, our first clear villain in Final Fantasy XIII. Now I know, we did have Anima earlier on, but he disappeared quickly enough that he likely wouldn’t be part of the over-arching storyline. It’s not as though they’d make the first boss the main villain of the entire game, right?
Joking aside, Anima isn’t the main villain, and neither is Rosch, but we do at least have a face for the Sanctum’s forces at last. Jihl Nabaat isn’t going to step into the limelight just yet, so for now, we have Rosch to deal with. He delivers a speech about controlling the panic spread by l’Cie activity, continuing the whole “for the people” theme.
For me, personally, he didn’t come across as particularly interesting here. It’s only a short scene to establish him, but he just struck me as a generic propaganda machine, and he has no real interactions with other characters, so we only see him in that role.
I’ll compare him briefly to the Shinra executives in FFVII, who have a board meeting in Shinra HQ near the start of the game. You get to see their quirks as they interact with each other, and it quickly establishes who you can expect to face off against over the course of the game. It’s quite a colourful cast (if perhaps somewhat two-dimensional), but I feel they served their purpose.
I’m being a bit hard on Rosch by saying that he didn’t interest me in this scene, but we are quite far into the game now, and I’ve been eagerly waiting for someone to serve as a proper villain. Sure, we’ve also had Dysley and Nabaat show up, but Dysley doesn’t look like he’d get in a fight, while Nabaat’s role is unclear. Rosch seems like a functional villain, but that’s about it.
We then rejoin Lightning and Hope, who are looking for a way into the occupied city. I suppose I should complain at this stage as well – I’m not going to get my long-awaited relaxing trip around town – but generally speaking, I’m a fan of this chapter. It’s a series of story events with a lot of things happening and some nice scenery to boot, so I found it to be particularly engaging compared to some of the previous chapters.
Hope points out that he knows a secret passage that the army’s unaware of, a claim that I’m not sure is backed up by anything. How on earth would he know what the army does? But his statement turns out to be accurate, and they sneak into the Nutriculture Complex, noisily killing everything in their path. I suppose this is one of those game and story disconnects, but quite honestly I’m just grateful that they didn’t force in a wonky stealth section. You can try to sneak past a couple of guards on the way to the secret entrance, but there’s literally no benefit to it.
Once inside, Hope states confidently that only other kids know about that entrance, and Lightning finally points out that it’s unlikely it’ll go unnoticed for long. Hope says they’d better hurry, before revealing that he doesn’t actually know where this path leads. I could spend a while quibbling about the sense of this plan, but I think it speaks for itself.
On the way through the Nutriculture Complex, they run into one of the infamous fal’Cie that run Cocoon. Many of the fal’Cie are named after summons from previous Final Fantasy incarnations, and Carbuncle couldn’t look less like its former selves. Oddly, Carbuncle reappears in the next chapter as a cutesy mascot in Nautilus, looking a lot more familiar, while bearing no resemblance to its "real" self.
It appears Carbuncle is in charge of the food supply in Palumpolum, and Lightning idly suggests that they could kill it and cut that off. Hope disagrees, and Lightning fortunately decides not to go through with it. They’re in Palumpolum to grab a train to Eden, rather than starving a (relatively) innocent populace, after all.
Further along the route, Hope remarks that they’ve been using Carbuncle to keep their bearings, a perhaps-unwise comment on the part of the writers, given that there’s only one way to go and there’s absolutely no reason for anyone to be using Carbuncle to track anything. Moreover, Carbuncle is constantly rotating, so I don’t think I would have found it very helpful for that purpose. All it really does is remind the player how linear everything is.
Anyway! This is a lead-in to another emotional moment for Lightning. After mentioning that they’re using Carbuncle as a marker, Lightning comments that they’ve relied on the fal’Cie all their lives. She compares herself and the populace to leeches, while Hope disagrees, suggesting that they are instead more like pets.
At this point, she has the realisation that she’s only been fighting this far because she had no other goals, after being kicked out of Cocoon’s system and way of life. Deciding that the goal she was pursuing (going to Eden and bringing down the Sanctum) was just her way of running away from that truth, she declares that Operation Nora is at an end. This, unsurprisingly, doesn’t sit well with Hope.
It’s a bit of a weird scene for me. I wasn’t a fan of Lightning’s sudden freak-out in Chapter Four, and I can’t say that I was particularly sold by this one here either. It felt a bit like there was some indecisiveness about where the plot was going, so the writers tried to abandon this idea after a fairly mundane conversation. Lightning has never shown any fondness for the fal’Cie up to this point, so I struggled to believe that she’d get that upset over them now.
It also seemed to make the previous sections feel that bit more pointless. Some of it can be explained, but a lot of the time it just feels like there was some behind-the-scenes indecisiveness at play. The writers needed a goal for Lightning, but with Serah crystallised and out of the picture early on, the next best thing was having her fight the Sanctum. Without any personal antagonists present for Lightning, though, the section felt somewhat hollow. I was more engaged in seeing her fight with Snow at this stage.
I think a better way to handle this would have been to give Lightning a specific, smaller-scale location to aim for – a way to try and cripple PSICOM operations temporarily, to give her time to go to ground somewhere. The goal of challenging all of Eden with just her and Hope seems so unlikely that the game almost feels relieved when it can get rid of that story arc.
And instead of Lightning getting upset about the notion of pets, when she’s never previously cared about the fal’Cie, wouldn’t it have been better to have her re-evaluate the situation when she meets up with Snow and Fang, who offer her a new perspective of the Sanctum and the l’Cie? They’re right around the corner, the writers didn’t even need to wait that long!
What we’re left with here is Hope declaring the initiation of Operation Nora in one of his chapters, and Lightning cancelling it right at the start of their next. There’s enough interesting plot points in this chapter that this weird little development wasn’t needed.
Actually, I tell a lie – they do have a brief discussion about who they each are at the end of it, and I would certainly keep that in. For all that people don’t like Hope, I think his struggle over how to react to his mother’s death is well done, both in terms of writing and the English voice actor’s delivery.
So I haven’t sounded particularly complimentary of this chapter so far, but from here I enjoyed it a lot more. Lightning and Hope get surrounded by PSICOM, which makes sense given the subtlety of their infiltration so far. While PSICOM suffers from Resident Evil 5 syndrome, and just stand there without firing, Snow and Fang crash the party, using the power of the Shiva sisters to set Rosch’s forces in disarray.
Snow then delivers important news – Serah will turn back from crystal some day. Remember when I said there was a better time for Lightning to change up her goals? This was it.
Lightning and Fang go off in one direction, leaving Hope with Snow. Unfortunately, the news about Serah seems to have given Snow back his confidence, and he continues to play the attention-seeking hero, which doesn’t sit well with Hope. Snow’s snide remarks about it being stupid to get killed also serve to deepen Hope’s hatred.
Fang and Lightning have a phone conversation with Snow, in which I’d be tempted to question Fang’s familiarity with modern Cocoon technology. They did have technology of a sort down on Pulse, but it seemed more like junkyard tech, rather than Cocoon’s fancy gadgets. Still, I suppose I’m quibbling again.
We then get to see Rosch having an argument with his troops. After he calls off any restrictions on force, some of his soldiers question the chaos it will cause. Rosch lays the blame at the feet of the people, forgetting that the people are following the narrative fed to them by the Sanctum. It’s not a problem that he feels this way – it’s a key part of his character arc that he’s a victim of the system as well – but I figured I’d mention it anyhow.
Lightning and Fang continue their conversation with Snow over the phone, planning where next to meet up. Lightning attempts to warn Snow about Hope, but the line is interrupted by plot static, and she is forced to give up. Forgetting about Snow’s impending murder, she turns her attention to Fang, who announces that she isn’t from Cocoon, and neither, for that matter, is Vanille.
Snow and Hope, meanwhile, continue on their way through the city. They swiftly realise that their presence is making things dangerous for regular people, so Snow decides to draw PSICOM’s fire by running around out in the open. Another welcome escape from forced stealth sections, I guess. There’s a lot of detail in the scenery around Palumpolum, and Snow’s section gives you some time to get a proper look around.
Hope attempts to help a girl who’s stuck by herself, only to draw an angry mob that’s practically carrying pitchforks. I’ve fortunately never been chased by a furious band of villagers to date, but I’m not entirely convinced that it would really play out like it does here. Faced by a powerful l’Cie armed with magic and potentially also a gun, they slowly walk towards him, yelling about protecting Cocoon. They feel more like the mindless villagers at the start of Resident Evil 4 than actual frightened residents of a port city.
PSICOM catches up with Snow and Hope, who manage to escape on one of those spacebikes, crash-landing on the rooftops. Snow has a brief chat with Hope, who bitterly states that he has no family. Snow attempts to encourage him, sharing his plans to raise a family after saving Cocoon. Hope isn’t convinced that they can do anything to fix their situation, and PSICOM is eager to prove him right, launching another assault.
After another section of fighting, Hope challenges Snow on his plan to raise a family, asking what he’d do if his family was taken from him. Snow doesn’t really catch on, but the arrival of a boss interrupts that discussion. Hope isn’t done, though, and once they attempt to catch a break at some vending machines, he raises the subject once again.
Now, this conversation is one that I liked. It had a proper build-up over the course of the game so far, and the constant interruptions up until now served to heighten Hope’s anger and anxiety, so when it all bursts out here, it didn’t feel random like the other arguments.
Snow’s reaction is genuine and it breaks down his pretences throughout the game so far. He acts on belief in himself and faith in a romantic notion of heroism, but in truth he simply doesn’t know how to fix the situation, so he just continues onwards in an attempt to find the answers he needs.
Hope isn’t interested in this confession; he only wants Snow to suffer the same fate as his mother. He attacks Snow, but a PSICOM gunship catches up with them, nearly killing Hope with a salvo of missiles. Snow instinctively saves Hope as they plummet from the rooftop, once more breaking his fall with his own body.
With that cliffhanger, let’s take a break for now… but next time, we’ll get to see the end of a few plot threads, and the beginnings of a few new ones.