I hacked Chapter One into two pieces, but Chapter Two has a bit less going on, so we should be able to get through it in one go. In our last episode, Hope and Vanille flew over to the Pulse Vestige in pursuit of Snow, and promptly crashed inside.
Hope and Vanille step away from the ruined space bike and note that there’s nobody else around. At this point, Hope reiterates the dangers of going near Pulse fal’Cie, and being made l’Cie. What l’Cie are is still unclear through the cutscenes, but you can find out if – you guessed it – you check the Datalog!
Vanille also questions Hope when he mentions that you’re “finished” if you get made into a l’Cie, sounding a little more offended than confused. This is a nice little hint at her secret, but either because I’m unobservant, or I hadn’t quite grasped what was going on at this point, I didn’t pick up on it the first time around.
You also win a shop after killing a robo-dog at the start of the Pulse Vestige. That is, you get a licence that you can use to access the shop at the Save Points, but sadly you can’t access the robo-dog’s purchase history.
Speaking of game mechanics, you also take control of Vanille at this stage, along with her lack of abilities. I forgave the lack of abilities during the previous chapter because of how it used game mechanics to show how the main characters didn’t have any special powers, and the pay-off is that when the main characters are branded as l’Cie, they can finally start using their wider range of abilities.
However, spoiler alert – Vanille is already a l’Cie at this stage of the story. I think it would have been better to keep Hope as the playable character for now, so that you wouldn’t be able to take a peek at Vanille’s spell list in combat. You were blocked from checking the information of NORA members in the normal menu, and I think I would have preferred it if Vanille’s list was blocked as well. It might have seemed a little odd at first, but in retrospect, you’d then realise why she didn’t share that info with Hope.
They have another conversation about fal’Cie and l’Cie, but it unfortunately only reiterates what cutscene-viewers already know – that Pulse fal’Cie and l’Cie are bad news. Hope also expresses the idea that if they get caught in the Pulse Vestige, they’ll get Purged too. I fear we’re long past that point, Hope! Vanille attempts to comfort him, but it falls flat. I suppose dragging him to the lair of a machine god wasn’t perhaps the best way to handle his sadness after his mother died.
They overhear Snow, and we switch back to his perspective. He’s in a strange little puzzle location, where it seems that you need to use a button to change the formation of the area. As soon as you do that, though, the perspective switches over to Lightning and Sazh. They’re stuck at a door that won’t budge, and Lightning has decided that whacking it with her sword might work. Strangely enough, it does not.
At this point, she comes to the personal realisation that “it” was her fault. She advises Sazh to cover his ears, and he assumes she’s using a blast charge and runs for it. Instead, she apologises to the door and asks to be let in, and the door duly obliges. Surprise surprise, but I’m not quite sure what was going on in this scene.
Presumably, Lightning is apologising to Serah (not that we know who she is yet) because she didn’t listen before, but I’m not sure what Serah has to do with this door. She might have been branded a l’Cie by Anima, but does that make her a doorkeeper in the Vestige? If so, why’s she bothering to keep the door locked until Lightning apologises/asks to be let in? Or did Anima itself hear Lightning’s plea and let her through, with the intention of branding her a l’Cie? If so, why lock the door in the first place? Funnily enough, the Datalog actually doesn’t know either.
Either way, that door is done with, and Lightning and Sazh venture further inside. At this point, we begin to get some more information about what l’Cie are. Sazh mentions that any soldiers still inside the Vestige are likely l’Cie by now, and goes on to describe them as “enemies of Cocoon”, which is a phrase you can expect to hear a lot more. Before we get any other info about that, though, the perspective switches back to Snow, who’s still enjoying his button puzzles. After a fight you hit another button for him, and the perspective returns to Vanille and Hope.
Snow’s button-pressing is apparently moving other parts of the Vestige around, which opens the way for Vanille and Hope to follow him further inside. They meet up with Snow after getting approached by Cie’th, which we’re told are l’Cie who failed the Focus given to them by the fal’Cie. At this point, people who don’t touch the Datalog have pretty much all the required information to work out what l’Cie are, so they’re mostly caught up with the Datalog.
After Snow tells them to find a safe place to hide, Hope expresses his frustration to Vanille about how he and his mother were only visiting Bodhum, and were taken prisoner by PSICOM because of that unlucky timing. This fills in the blanks about what started the Purge and closes the gap between in-game and Datalog a little more.
Snow also fills us in on who Serah is, and what’s happened to her – specifically, that she’s now a Pulse l’Cie. Hope is disgusted by the concept of trying to help a l’Cie, but still can’t find the words to challenge Snow about his part in Nora’s death. Vanille encourages him, but he’s still not quite ready (and won’t be for a while yet). Snow chooses to keep watch over them as he ventures further into the Pulse Vestige, pausing in the middle of his heroics to go back and get them.
Back over with Lightning and Sazh, we get the last major piece of information that we really need to understand the story at this point. While it was already implied what Focuses are, Sazh spells it out, asking Lightning what the fal’Cie ordered Serah to do. He asks “it wasn’t ‘blow up Cocoon’, or anything like that, was it?”, which sets up the main plot, but Lightning just replies sadly that she never asked.
Having now discussed the main features of what fal’Cie, l’Cie, and Cie’th are, Sazh does one last summary of the main points we know about all of that. I don’t have any problem with how this is done, and Sazh is certainly the most rational and knowledgeable party member, so he’s best suited to do the explanation. My problem is still that the experience up until now differed so hugely between whether you read the Datalog or not.
He then finishes it off with the advice that, as l’Cie can never become properly human again, Lightning shouldn’t make her sister suffer. It’s interesting advice to give, since his own son is a l’Cie. I suppose that Sazh feels deep down that he doesn’t want his son to suffer either, but can only express this by talking to someone else about their own situation. Lightning doesn’t take the advice well.
We’re a few hours into the game now, and it’s worth pausing to note that we’re still restricted to the same basic battle system. None of the characters have different moves, and all battles are still a case of hitting enemies and using potions. While there is the Chain system, you don’t really have the tools to do it effectively at this point. We’re not gathering any Experience for our characters, there’s no levelling, no stats or skills to customise, we can’t modify weapons, and we cannot choose the party. Final Fantasy VII had Materia, and VIII had the Junction system. Whether you liked those systems or not, they were at least systems that you had access to not too far into the game.
I might be complaining slightly early, as we’re really not that far from unlocking some of the main systems in XIII, but the problem is that so much feels like it’s missing at this stage. For these first two chapters, you have no towns, NPC interaction is limited to “walking near” (there’s even a tutorial for auto-conversations), you don’t have any customisation, and you can’t deviate from the paths or even go back to any of the areas you already left.
When I first played the game, in this early part, I comforted myself that a lot of this stuff would loosen up once we’d finished establishing the main plot of the game. I didn’t know that the main party would get branded as l’Cies themselves, but I figured that something similar would happen. I also assumed that we’d eventually get to drop into towns soon enough, just as in X, which also had a long, linear prologue sequence.
However, the town hope never pans out. The closest you really get is a small base camp down in Pulse, which has no functions and is never really used, or Hope’s home, which is visited once and promptly assaulted by PSICOM. Every other town is either hostile (Palumpolum) or overrun with monsters (Oerba). As for revisiting areas, everything in Chapters 1-10 is lost forever once you leave. You can only go to Pulse or Eden from Chapter 11 onwards, one of which is a wilderness with no humans, and the other which is a battleground, essentially.
Of course, the next question is whether the game has to be just like the other Final Fantasy games, and have the same formula. I suppose my somewhat weak answer would be “not necessarily”. As a linear game, I feel that FFXIII functions well, which may not be clear from my criticisms up to this point. However, for me, at least, it only functions well in that manner if you don’t have expectations set by other, similar games. When I played the game a second time, I was a lot more satisfied, as I wasn’t constantly frustrated wondering when I’d be done with the dungeon-crawling and actually get to flesh out the world a little.
A lot of the fun in FFXIII comes from whether you like the battle system. If you do, then there’s less need for the environments to be super-detailed and wide open, as the focus is more on playing through battles and getting to grips with the strategic aspects. However, in these first two chapters, you don’t have access to any of that – Paradigm Shifts are a distant, unmentioned dream.
If you don’t enjoy the battle system, then you’re left with the story, and not much else (at least, until Pulse). The story itself is something that I largely enjoyed, but as is probably clear, I did feel that there were multiple missteps that hindered how much I could get into it. There’s no point doing a conclusion on that just yet, but suffice it to say that I can understand why many people got nothing out of XIII, and put it down.
We’re not far from the end of Chapter 2, so let’s get back into the action. Lightning and Sazh reach Serah, who’s lying in the middle of the floor for whatever reason. Sazh returns to the idea of putting her out of her misery, but before he can go through with anything, Snow, Vanille, and Hope arrive. We quickly see that Lightning doesn’t think much of her future brother-in-law, and she blames him for what happened to Serah.
As for Serah herself, she wakes up in the middle of all of this to advise Lightning to “save Cocoon”. Before she can explain how, she turns to crystal, sparking off debate about whether she is dead, or if it’s eternal life granted by the fal’Cie for completing her Focus. Lightning takes issue with Snow’s optimism and punches him, and then the Sanctum forces begin to open fire on the Pulse Vestige, intending to destroy it utterly.
Things quieten down suddenly, though, and in the “calm” Snow decides he wants to talk to the Pulse fal’Cie about Serah. Lightning and Sazh follow, though their own intentions are not quite the same. Lightning starts a fight with Anima after Snow gets no response, and Sazh decides to join in after thinking about Dajh.
I should probably comment on the fal’Cie here, now that we’ve come face-to-face with our first one. The idea of machine gods is an interesting one to me, whether here or in other fiction, and I do quite like the designs of those we see in XIII. When it comes to Anima, there’s a certain dysfunctional madness at times, whether it’s the strange faceless torso design, or the screens that pop up all showing the l’Cie brand symbol. In fact, those screens remind me of a sequence in the original Silent Hill, where a number of screens in the Town Center start flickering through various mysterious symbols, which makes the fal’Cie that bit more unnerving for me.
Either way, Anima has no words to share with the party, which I feel is a good thing. While one of the fal’Cie later on has quite a few things to say, I generally prefer god characters not to get into silly squabbles with humans they see as far beneath them.
The party manages to defeat Anima, which I’ll put down to either “he wanted to lose”, or “he was severely weakened by PSICOM’s bombardment and/or other causes”. Either way, they’re sent off to a strange darker realm, where they’re branded by another machine god. When I first played, I assumed this was just Anima, albeit with an actual face this time around, but I’m reliably informed that this was in fact the god Pulse himself. After they’re branded, the companions see a confusing vision of destruction that flashes by too quickly for them to understand.
Right now, we don’t have any answers. The Pulse Vestige collapses into Lake Bresha, which crystallises, and Vanille narrates that when she found things too tough, she’d close her eyes and lose herself in happier days. This closes out Chapter 2 of Final Fantasy XIII, and also leads into our first major flashback!