The opening of Chapter 3 gives us a tantalising glimpse of a town we’ll never get to visit, aside from a brief run on the beach. The events preceding the Purge are divided into thirteen days, and we join Snow here on Day 11 as he sets out to propose to Serah. A few things are laid out in this sequence: Serah is already a l’Cie, Lightning is not currently aware of that, and there’s zero safety at this fireworks show. Snow and Serah fly into the fireworks on their space scooter but nobody seems to care. Perhaps that’s commonplace in Cocoon?
Speaking of Cocoon, I might have missed it, but I don’t think the actual geography of the world has been explained in-game yet. Cocoon is a floating globe, where people live on the inside of the shell. Gran Pulse is the land below, named after one of the gods, and as far as I can tell it’s basically a normal planet. Naturally, this has all been laid out in the Datalog, but aside from the opening prologue, and vague references to Pulse being somewhere “below”, this much is still a mystery in-game.
Having towns and incidental NPCs is usually a good way to get this information out in fantasy games, as side characters and books are generally nicer for explaining the history and setting than having the heroes stopping to recount the basics of their own world. Alternatively, just a camera pan from Pulse up to Cocoon would do the trick. Either way, I know what Cocoon was because of the back cover description, and the Datalog, so I didn’t really have any questions about Cocoon and Pulse at this stage.
We also get to see the Pulse Vestige towering over the town in certain shots. I’d question why nobody ever investigated the place, but my assumption is that a certain well-placed individual in the government was happy to keep it untouched until he needed to make use of it. Actually, I just double-checked, and that’s indeed the case.
Another important point established here is that the Focus given to l’Cie is rarely very clear. It’s a bit of a wonky system, but the Pulse fal’Cie appear to be feral machine gods, so I suppose they’re not too good at communication with humans. If it’s Pulse himself who ultimately determines the Focus, then I guess he’s not good at it either. Either way, people generally don’t know precisely what is being asked of them, so they appear to spend most of their time figuring that part out. In a lot/most cases, they never work it out, and are reduced to being Cie’th instead.
They discuss the concept of fulfilling a Focus to “gain eternal life” again. Snow says that he wished on the fireworks that Serah would agree to marry him, and Serah says her equivalent wish was that she’d be able to tell Lightning that she’s become a l’Cie. Snow doesn’t seem bothered by this, fortunately, though he does try to fly her into an exploding firework shortly after, so you never know.
After the flashback we wake up with Snow at Lake Bresha, which was crystallised when Anima and the Pulse Vestige fell from the Hanging Edge. Snow theorises that Serah saved them, angering Lightning, who still believes that Serah has died. However, they have little time to take stock of the situation, as they’re beset by errant Cie’th. Snow leaps to their defence, only to accidentally use magic.
The bad news? They’ve been branded as l’Cie by Anima/Pulse. The good news? The combat becomes a lot better at this stage (or worse, I’m not going to decide that for everyone). Either way, you can do more stuff now, which is where Paradigm Shifts come into play. There have been many systems over the Final Fantasy series, and a common revisited one is that of Jobs – so any character could be any role under that system, to be customised as the player wishes. I used to skip through endless random fights in FFV by making everyone tanky knights and spamming attack while I read books or watched films.
This system draws upon that, to an extent, allowing you to set up different formations for your team that you can switch between mid-combat. If you’re familiar with these, feel free to jump past this paragraph! This is streamlined into six classes – Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Synergist, Saboteur, and Medic. They function as melee damage, spellcaster, tank, buffer, debuffer, and healer respectively.
The good thing is that this means you can start customising. However, there always has to be a downside – we’re about to go through multiple party changes, and that means your Paradigm Decks are going to get reset quite often. The other bad news is that the roles you can pick for each character are limited at this stage. This will get unlocked a while later, but there’s more bad news on top of that – characters tend to only be good at their three main roles, and have a limited toolset with the secondary three. Lightning manages to break past this, as she’s poor at one of her primary roles as well (Medic).
We can put the discussion of levelling roles to one side for now, though, as we still can’t level yet. Instead, let’s stop by the party, where Hope is freaking out over what’s happened. He turns blame on Snow and Serah, while ignoring the fact that Vanille provoked him into flying into the Pulse Vestige in order to deliver a message that really could have waited for a less dangerous time.
A lot of people complain that Hope’s whiny, but I don’t really fault him for being upset in this situation. He just got dragged off by the military to be executed, his mother was killed in action, and now he’s a l’Cie. Cocoon has clearly been taught/indoctrinated to fear being branded a l’Cie, and it seems to be a relatively rational fear, given that it basically ends your normal life regardless of success. I’m pretty sure I’d be unhappy as well. It doesn’t help that the Pulse fal’Cie seem to want to nudge their l’Cie servants into attacking Cocoon.
Not that the party has worked that part out, yet. They start out on their journey across Lake Bresha, and stop about five paces down the road to discuss it. They all shared the same dream, which apparently depicted Ragnarok. Sazh believes that, as Pulse l’Cie, they’re enemies of Cocoon, meaning that their goal is to destroy it. Snow, however, holds to the belief that Serah’s request before she crystallised still holds true – that they’re to save Cocoon instead. He then decides that Serah “must” be nearby, despite the fact that she was one small crystal inside a large complex that was blown up and dropped into a vast, crystallised lake.
Once the cutscene closes, we’re given access to the Crystarium, which is a fancy way to present and describe levelling up. You can choose where to spend your experience (crystarium points) first, but there’s not too much in the way of choice beyond that. Actual customisation will mostly come in the form of the Paradigm Decks, and weapon upgrades, but the latter is still largely linear, with a couple of deviations in the path. When it comes to the Crystarium, the best thing I find is to suffer being underpowered against enemies for an hour, and then spend all your points at once so you can feel like you jumped in progress. It’s not wildly inspired, but regular levelling isn’t all that exciting either, so I’m not going to complain too much about this.
The scenery here is beautiful, but we’re still restricted to thin paths with little deviation. The formula from here is mostly limited to what you see above. There’s one path that’s correct, and another with a treasure chest at the end. This doesn’t change for most of the game, which is essentially why it’s labelled as a corridor simulator a lot of the time.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? For dungeons, probably not. Most dungeons in Final Fantasy games follow this same formula. Bravely Default, which was hailed as a return to the old formula, had dungeons that were often small square rooms with a couple of minor side routes to treasure chests, and took a while to clear because the encounter rate was so high. The difference is that it gave you world maps and towns on top of that, to help vary up what you can do in the game, and let you choose where to go.
However, as a JRPG that’s focused on being a dungeon crawler, FFXIII is fairly limited in functions. Etrian Odyssey IV is the sort of dungeon crawler I like – the fights are difficult enough that you still need to pay a certain amount of attention, the dungeons are large and you can doodle your own map on the touchscreen (it’s a 3DS game), and you can customise the characters however you want. Or make a mess of them, like I did. They also have much bigger and harder enemies that patrol the dungeons which are best to avoid, at the start. Once you’ve got a handle on the combat and character mechanics, you can then choose to tackle the larger “FOEs” early, which makes for some satisfying battles and victories.
Speaking of difficulty, FFXIII isn’t the hardest game, but I find that some of the fights do punish a lack of attention. The chain system is satisfying when it goes right, and some of the side bosses (and a few of the story ones) are punishing if you don’t know when and what to switch to, so it generally kept me engaged. There’s a few areas, like the Vile Peaks, that feel like they go on forever, and that’s where having safe havens and towns usually helps to break up the monotony of endless monster-grinding.
The next boss, the Manasvin Warmech from the start of the game, will happily punish players who haven’t spent their points, used any gear upgrades, or bothered to pay attention to Paradigm Shifting. It’s not difficult once you grasp how fights are intended to work, but taking its large attacks to the face without a Sentinel or a Medic can quickly result in a Game Over. It’s not the worst penalty, since it just lets you retry from before the fight, but it can act as something of a wake-up call after a relatively easy opening.
That said, there was a pack of four Breshan Bass earlier that all attacked Lightning at once, insta-killing her. I remembered to pay attention to her health after that! Losing your party leader means Game Over in XIII, so keeping your main character alive is crucial to success. This gets changed in XIII-2, but for now we’ll have to maintain a watchful eye.
Now that we’re used to the new combat mechanics, we can dive back into the story for the rest of Chapter Three next time!