Last time, we’d made it about halfway across the wilds of Gran Pulse. We rejoin Lightning and co. at the Sulyya Springs on their way to Oerba.
This is another odd little area that I suspect had its importance whittled down by limited development time. It’s home to a couple of story cutscenes, but you can also find the fal’Cie Bismarck here as well. Later on, when you find the little robot Bhakti, it gives hints about things that can be found around Gran Pulse. One of those is that there’s a “whopper of a fal’Cie” in Sulyya Springs.
After FFX, where you can run into a bunch of superbosses, my assumption was that you’d be getting into fights with a few of the resident fal’Cie in Gran Pulse, and this hint seemed to support that theory. However, if you do find Bismarck in the Springs (it’s not hard, but I missed it on my first visit), you get a little intro cutscene, and all that happens is a few new platforms appear with more regular enemies and a couple of treasure chests. You never interact with Bismarck again.
As for cutscenes, the first is a conversation between Snow and Vanille. Snow informs her that he’s telling Serah that they’ll all be okay, which reminds Vanille of when she met Serah during the Thirteen Days. Vanille confided in Serah that she needed to apologise to a friend, but couldn’t find the words. Serah passes on her philosophy of “face it later”, though she admits that she’s not altogether sure that it works.
Serah shares that she had a dream of destroying the world, but was rescued by her boyfriend, which then helped her to realise that running away from people doesn’t help them. This prompts Vanille to apologise to Serah, who was the friend she meant all along. Serah misunderstands and encourages Vanille to find that friend and tell them, not her.
Back in the present, Vanille says she believes that Barthandelus was lying about Serah’s Focus, and that she thinks Serah successfully refused to become Ragnarok. Snow casually says that he knows, while walking off. I’m not sure why he’s acting so unconcerned after he doubted her in the previous chapter, but I suppose that’s just Snow for you.
Once you’re done in the Springs, another cutscene plays, this time with Lightning and Snow talking. Just as with Vanille, Snow is staring at Serah’s Tear when Lightning comes to speak to him. In yet another example of a random outburst, Lightning throws Snow to the floor and demands to know what his plans are with Serah once things have been resolved. I’m mildly concerned at the writers’ experiences if attacking each other during conversations is the norm.
Still, the rest of the conversation here is a nice wrap-up for Lightning and Snow. At the start of the game, they didn’t see eye-to-eye at all. While Snow was on the right track, he didn’t fully understand the reality of his situation. He’s now reached a point that he still believes in Serah, but for the correct reasons, while Lightning has come to understand his brash self-expression as genuine love for her sister, rather than just bluster. While she originally distrusted Serah when she needed her the most, Lightning eventually found an example in Snow’s devotion, and that gave her strength.
These cutscenes remind me that one of FFXIII’s strengths is the time the creators devoted to the main cast. Sometimes the cast’s behaviour feels weird and out-of-character, but generally speaking I feel that they were done well. A lot of that is down to the fact that each character remains relevant for the entire story.
It’s often the case in RPGs that you’ll have this entire section devoted to having a new party member joining, and then they barely say a word for the rest of the story. In FFXIII, each character has their own arc that’s designed for the entire story, not just for their joining sequence, and time is devoted to the tale from beginning to end.
There are other games where I’ve felt that all the effort was put into the opening, but that energy dwindled by the end, so you got very little story by that stage, and the sense of purpose was lost. Even though FFXIII has various missteps, I do get the impression that they cared a lot about the main cast and the story. I just suspect that they were less interested in the antagonists and devoted a fair bit less time to devising them.
Back in the game, our next target is Taejin’s Tower, a dungeon that pretends to be more complicated than it really is. As you ascend the tower, it will occasionally shift some of the floors around, opening new routes and closing old ones. However, though it initially looks like it might get a tad confusing, it’s still relatively straightforward. I quite like this dungeon – it’s not excessively linear, there are a few more challenging fights, but it still keeps a reasonable pace, rather than getting too bogged down.
Similar to how Vanille and Sazh seem to be able to understand the chocobo chick, Fang displays the ability to communicate with the mysterious guardian statues dotted around the tower. Serving as Cie’th Stone Mission NPCs, the guardian statues need to be helped out before you can reach the top, and help weaken Dahaka, the fal’Cie encountered earlier.
I feel like I remember having a few issues during the inevitable showdown with Dahaka atop the tower, but my Lightning/Sazh/Snow team devastated him in one swift Stagger. With the fal’Cie destroyed (without the use of Ragnarok, no less), the party turn their thoughts to Oerba. Fang and Vanille are briefly optimistic about their home, before Sazh points out that it doesn’t look so great from atop the tower.
I suppose winter isn’t a thing on Gran Pulse or Cocoon, because a spot of bad weather doesn’t necessarily mean the end of Oerba, surely? Well, apparently it does, because they’re spot-on when they lose hope that Oerba will still be in one piece. One short lift ride later, we finally arrive on the threshold of Oerba, and find the town deserted, populated only by Cie’th.
Oerba follows that same strange mix of ornate, temple-like structures and modern architecture. I’m quite fond of the location, though I always get thrown for a loop by the layout in the original game after playing FFXIII-2, which opens out some of the blocked routes when you get to visit it again (spoilers!).
If you’ve never played FFXIII, then prepare for a shock – this is the last place you’ll visit on Gran Pulse for the main story. After all the build-up, Gran Pulse is over in a flash. Sure, it can take a few hours to get through the dungeons and plains on the way to Oerba, but it’s such a strange bit of pacing compared to the lengthy opening chapters back on Cocoon.
I went to fish out my original PS3 version of the game at this stage because I remember distinctly how the manual laid out the questing system on Gran Pulse. In Section 3: The Field, it describes how you can ride around on chocobos on Gran Pulse, and spends a while talking about Cie’th Stone missions. There’s also a bit near the end of the manual describing how you can teleport around the world.
The cover and manual screenshots are often of Gran Pulse, and the manual also mentions various interactive features found there, so I spent much of the early part of the game wondering when we’d be done with Cocoon and make the inevitable move to Gran Pulse, where, it seemed, the majority of the game might take place.
Indeed, when I reached Gran Pulse, and they talked about finding Vanille and Fang’s old village, my expectation was that it would be the start of a long journey into discovering the meaning behind the old fal’Cie wars, some exploration of the mysticism behind the two opposed worlds, and gradually unlocking areas and teleports.
Instead, it comes to a very sudden halt. You find that nobody is alive in their old village, and Barthandelus pops up to tell you what a waste of time it was. He then goads the party into returning to Eden, where the actual storyline can resume. There’s nothing particularly important that the party learns on Gran Pulse, which on the one hand might be a clever storyline about how things don’t always pan out, or could just be indicative of a realisation that they couldn’t actually resolve the plot outside of Cocoon.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The village itself is populated by monsters, so the majority of your time will be spent fighting, as you’d expect, but you can actually examine some of the points of interest to get an idea of what sort of place Oerba used to be. You can also do a brief sidequest to fix Vanille’s little robot, Bhakti, which can then give you hints about things to find around Gran Pulse, along with dishing out a couple of achievements.
Once you’re done with that, though, it’s off through a warehouse and along a badly-damaged bridge that stretches out to nowhere. There’s no discernable reason for the party to go along it, and it’s clear that it leads to a dead end, but as it’s the only available route to players, it’s naturally your next destination.
And your faith is rewarded, for as I mentioned before, Barthandelus drops in for another word. After a brief deception where he poses as Serah (which seems to be largely an excuse for him to get a hug from Snow), Barthandelus goes into full gloat mode. Pointing at the futility of their journey across Gran Pulse, he states that the only goal available is to bring back the Maker by destroying Orphan.
He’s initiated his grand plan to force the l’Cie into action. After reviving Cid (that subject can wait for Chapter 12), Barthandelus resigned his post as Primarch Dysley, and put Cid on the throne instead. Next, he intends to slip information to the Cavalry to set them on a collision course with Orphan, in retaliation for the betrayal of their leader. Additionally, he notes that he will also stir up Pulsian panic to lead the populace into destroying itself.
With his plan kindly laid out, he then initiates a boss fight.
Once you defeat him, he pops up for another chat, still unaffected by the beating he just suffered, and says this line above. When I first played the game, uncertain of the exact direction of the story, I wondered if there might be some unexpected twist coming, and Barthandelus might turn out to have a slightly-more-reasonable motive for planning this bloodbath. This didn’t turn out to be the case, though; he’s basically just a jerk.
With Barthandelus’s departure, the party takes a look at a strange Cie’th Stone, which has a record of the past for them to read. It touches on some of the world’s backstory, name-dropping Lindzei and Pulse. Remember I suspected a twist? I started to wonder if this was all leading to this Lindzei character dropping in to swipe the final boss spot. Unfortunately, though, not much of Lindzei’s relevance is covered in the main story, and even the sequels don’t really touch on her much.
What is important in this particular scene is the reference to “Her Providence” draining Ragnarok of strength, and stating “L’Cie who rest upon Cocoon will reawaken, however long they may wait. And Ragnarok will rise again, to tear the land from its seat in the sky.” This information isn’t really discussed in any detail, but it’s fairly crucial to understanding the deus ex machina that takes place right at the end. Though not stated outright, the goddess Etro, practically unmentioned throughout this game, steps in to bring the l’Cie out of their crystal sleep, just as she intervened with Ragnarok during the War of Transgression.
Unfortunately, FFXIII over-explains some obvious concepts (the people are sheep led by mass hysteria) while completely glossing over some of the major story features that give context to a lot of the unusual behaviour and events.
Speaking of unusual behaviour, it’s time to talk about the defiance of fate! The group discusses what to do next, and together, they decide to tie up loose ends and stop Barthandelus. None of them suggest an actual solution to the issue – the closest things they manage are “let’s get Dysley”, and Hope speaking at length about how they just have to “do it”, without actually discussing what “it” is.
So in order to stop Barthandelus, they’re going to defeat him (somehow), destroy or not-destroy Orphan (undecided), while taking Barthandelus’s ship (the convenient travel form of his familiar, Menrva) at his direction. Destroying Orphan means the collapse of Cocoon and the death of its inhabitants, while leaving Orphan active means that the fal’Cie can just keep attempting to carry out their plan to bring back the Maker, even if Lightning and co kill Barthandelus.
The unfortunate linear nature of the plot (let’s stop Barthandelus from having us kill Orphan, and kill Orphan) ties in to the inevitability of its linear gameplay structure too. When you feel like you’re just being led along a straight path in the game and its story, it just makes it that bit more frustrating.
FFX had a very similar story (spoiler warning for this paragraph!), in which a group of heroes is being led to carry out a futile sacrifice to perpetuate the will of an inhuman would-be deity. Tidus serves as a foreign element that falls into this unusual set-up, with a less rigid mindset because of his more relaxed background as a Blitzball player in a city unbound by the Yevon religion. Encouraged by Auron, he defies the mandate that Yuna must use the Final Summoning to defeat Sin, and she trusts in his judgement and works with him to find an alternative way to destroy Sin. They speak with the Fayths and come up with a plan to ground Sin and destroy it from inside, having a clear idea of how they’ll limit Yevon’s options to keep summoning and force a showdown with him.
Here, though, nobody has any idea what the plan is. They pretty much resolve themselves to go after Dysley/Barthandelus, and do whatever. Now, there is eventually a “twist” to how they solve the game’s central conflict, in that Fang and Vanille use Ragnarok’s awesome power not as a tool of destruction, but instead a way to hold up Cocoon and stave off an absolute apocalypse, but this is never hinted at beforehand and only ever takes place after you’ve played all the game’s story content, in the final cutscene itself.
And this lack of planning only gets worse in the next chapter’s opening, as we’re soon to see.
In any case, that’s the end of Gran Pulse. Once you’re ready, you can use the airship to return to Cocoon for the grand finale. Vanille does a brief bit of narration in which she talks about choice being all they had left (yes, we just talked about that), and then the airship flies into one of those weird magic gates in the sky, bringing a close to our open world exploration, for now.