Remember when I talked about how Final Fantasy VIII opened? You had Balamb Garden and town available to explore, along with part of the world map and a dungeon. Not too far into the game, you then were called to action, joining in on a military operation to kick the Galbadian army out of Dollet. By this point Squall had struck up a firm rivalry with Seifer and his lackies, and once in Dollet you ran into a couple of Galbadian soldiers with their own personalities – Biggs and Wedge.
Now, I’m not going to go into whether I feel these storylines panned out over the course of the game (okay fine, I think the Seifer thing ended really poorly), but I did feel they were great as a starting point. The military school setting added some grounding to the lives of the protagonists, and the squabbles with classmates were easily relatable amidst all of the giant monsters and robots. You had a clear enemy in Seifer, who at the same time had these flashes of actual logic, and even the potential for friendship, if you could just get him to stop acting out all the time. The Galbadians filled in the spot of opposing military superpower, much as the Sanctum does here.
Hey, you even got to go to the ball in VIII, along with some character downtime, showing Quistis’s vulnerability and Squall’s inability to handle that sort of conversation. All of these events have stuck with me, and they were contained to a very small area of the game, yet it feels like it was so much larger.
When the characters in XIII landed in the Vile Peaks, I was ready for some downtime. Since the beginning of the game, I’d been running from PSICOM, and I was ready by now to drop by a more peaceful area and get a handle on who these characters are, and what’s going on. I didn’t really have much attachment to the world of Cocoon or its people, since, for the most part, I only knew it as a place where I had to fight lots of soldiers and robo-dogs.
My expectations set by previous Final Fantasy games were that the game would start out relatively focused in one direction, and then open up. Surely, now that I’d left the Hanging Edge and the surrounding environments, I’d get to branch out and do something other than just fight monsters along a restricted road?
That was not to be the case, though. In Chapter 1, we ran along several roads around the Hanging Edge, in Chapter 2 we had a few routes around the interior of the Pulse Vestige, and in Chapter 3 it was pretty much a straight road across Lake Bresha and through the attached Ruins, albeit with some minor sidetracks for treasure chests. While we had a lot of story sequences, and a flashback, there wasn’t really anything extra that marked this game out as special, when compared to others that I’d played.
Running along a corridor and fighting monsters is fine. I really don’t have a problem with that. But the problem was that I was expecting a lot more, and while I was generally getting on with the cast, they were fish out of water, and so, by extension, was I. Final Fantasy XIII, at this stage, wasn’t a bad game, by my reckoning, but it was distinctly average.
So by Vile Peaks, I wanted to switch up the formula, and do something else. Unfortunately for me, that meant splitting the party again. Sazh is worn out after crashing a spaceship that he just flew through the sun, but Lightning’s having none of it. Lightning and Hope go one way, while Sazh and Vanille go another. The scene where this happens is a little wonky, as Lightning walks off, Hope elects to follow her, and then a couple of seconds later, Vanille encourages Sazh that it’s time to go. If Sazh only needed ten seconds to get his breath, he really should have just said!
You can run around the crash site as Sazh and take a moment to spend Crystarium points and sort any custom Paradigm Decks, but once you reach the bridge Lightning took, a cutscene takes over, and we return to Bodhum on Day 11.
I really like this cutscene. It’s a lot more human than the other scenes so far, and has a more subtle menace to it that doesn’t quite match the wacky adventures that follow. Lightning is distracted while on duty at the fireworks display, and Lieutenant Amodar drops by to wind her up about it.
Lightning’s behaviour is very different compared to what we’ve seen so far. She’s normally very cold, quietly reflective, or straight-up angry, with the occasional flash of cockiness. In this scene, she’s a bit more dry and awkward, noting that she only took her birthday off because her sister told her to do so. My previous impression of her was that she was in charge of any situation, but here she’s clearly a subordinate to Amodar, while also able to engage in some mild banter at the same time.
Amodar advises her to stay out of PSICOM business, taking a sudden serious tone, while also sharing that he wants to recommend her for officer training. We also have a reference to the “Euride Gorge incident”, which will figure more into the plot later. The brief few lines about being careful of PSICOM, along with Amodar’s abrupt change of subject to the fireworks, do more to make PSICOM look menacing than the entire rest of the game.
So far, in the game, the idea of what PSICOM are doing is vile, but in terms of interacting with them as a player, they’re pushovers, and the characters even paused to note that on Lake Bresha. Even though they manage to get quite the high bodycount murdering nameless civilians, they fail to make any real impact on the main characters, and the fact that they can’t kill the comic relief NORA characters is probably the death knell for their reputation.
As Lightning and Hope make their way through the Vile Peaks back in the present, she shares a little about the military, and how it’s split into PSICOM and the Guardian Corps, and that she’s been to the Vile Peaks in the past for missions. This leads Hope to ask her why she boarded the Purge train, so Lightning tells him about the day it happened.
This flashback gives us another tantalising glimpse of civilisation before quickly reminding us of its dystopian nature, as the PSICOM soldiers coldly gun down two civilians who attempt to flee instead of boarding the Purge train. “Those were warning shots, right?” asks one onlooker, after the lengthy barrage of bullets. I, uh, don’t quite think so, sorry.
This is another little scene I enjoyed. When Lightning goes up to demand to be let on, the soldier drops his hard exterior to quietly notify her that she doesn’t have to go. It’s a weird contrast where a person knows he’s sending people to die, but still offers a way out for a stranger who fits into the loophole. Does that make him a better or worse person? I suppose it doesn’t matter, since we’ll never see him again.
Who we will see again is Sazh, though, who takes an interest in Lightning’s unusual behaviour. Unlike the PSICOM soldiers, he’s clearly worked out that she’s planning something, and decides to stick with her, which loops us back to the start of the game.
Back in the present, Lightning explains to Hope that she wanted to rescue her sister, and boarding the train was her best bet to get close to the Pulse Vestige (which also was looming ominously in the background of many of the train scene shots). Hope comments that he doubted he could do such a thing, so Lightning encourages him, saying that there are some things you just do. She then underlines this concept by climbing a sheer(ish) cliff face and leaving him behind.
Back with Sazh and Vanille, we’re introduced to a new game mechanic, whereby sometimes you may encounter packs of enemies fighting each other, allowing you to pick sides and try to make things easier on yourself. There are many things that disappointed me about XIII, but quirks like this helped to keep the combat interesting.
Speaking of little quirks, Sazh is a pilot and knows his way around equipment, so he gets to operate various machines in the Vile Peaks. When he and Vanille catch up with a despondent Hope, this allows the three to open a path to follow Lightning.
They also pause a moment to actually think about what to do with Hope, who’s a lot younger than everyone else and clearly the least comfortable (at least outwardly). He thinks back to the fireworks at Bodhum, another scene that I feel does a good job of fleshing out personality in the main characters. Much as Lightning is hard-nosed and cold in the present, but a little awkward and humorous in her flashback, we see that Hope is a bit more assertive and easy-going in his normal life.
That doesn’t really go for his attitude towards his father. Vanille and Sazh don’t believe that Hope’s father wouldn’t care about him, though Hope clearly doesn’t feel that way. Sazh states outright that any father would care, projecting his own feelings as he’s currently concerned about his son. He’s still not willing to talk about that just yet, though, and switches up the subject again.
Further along the path, we get some more backstory about the War of Transgression, in which Pulse forces attacked the outer rim of Cocoon, only to be repulsed (heh) by the Sanctum fal’Cie. Sazh snarks at Vanille for sleeping through history, and she admits that she did, “more or less”. When Sazh ponders what sort of things from Pulse might have been mixed in with the Pulse garbage the fal’Cie brought to fix the damage to Cocoon, Vanille seems saddened. I’m not quite sure how I didn’t figure out her secret by this point, but certainly with hindsight it’s easy to spot.
Lightning jumps out of the scenery a bit later and quietly rejoins the party, booting Hope out of the active battle team when she does so. She’s just in time for the next boss fight, which yields new roles for Lightning and Sazh, along with access to weapon upgrading. It’s a bit of a confusing system at first, but basically comes down to two main points: you use animal/organic materials to increase the experience multiplier on weapons, and then use metal/machine components to add high amounts of experience.
Each time you use the machine components, it lowers or resets the multiplier, so using resources sensibly is key. Fully upgraded weapons can also be upgraded to new versions of the weapon, that can then be upgraded to higher versions yet again, until you finally max out the weapons. I’m fairly neutral on the system. It doesn’t add a huge amount to the game, but it’s something, at least. It’s also a tad mystifying until you work out the experience multiplier system.
The group pauses at a derelict Pulse warship, at which point Sazh raises the subject of where they’re even going. Lightning has a goal in mind – to travel to the capital city of Cocoon, Eden, and defeat the fal’Cie that rules there, also called Eden. There’s a few cases of these weird duplicated names in XIII, and I’m not fully certain what the benefit or point is. Another example would be Pulse (location) and Pulse (god).
Anyhow, Lightning’s decided that she’s worked out what’s going on, and how to handle it. To her mind, the fal’Cie are pulling the Sanctum’s strings, and Eden is the one who planned and executed the Purge. The fal’Cie, she feels, treat people as expendable slaves. As such, she’s going to storm Eden and kill Eden. Sazh is baffled by this plan, especially since he believes that killing Eden will spell the end for Cocoon. Vanille raises the point that Serah told them all to save Cocoon, not destroy it, and starts to suggest that their Focus might actually be to protect Cocoon as well.
Lightning dismisses the notion of following their mysterious Focus, stating firmly that she lives how she wants. She then ponders whether Snow would try to stop her, if she did choose to assault Eden and threaten Cocoon. That’s an interesting thought – I would have quite liked to see the story turn Lightning or Snow into the enemy, depending upon which side we’d take. Lightning even raises the notion that they could easily become enemies next time they meet, but no such conflict will ever emerge. Well, I say that, but then there is Fang…
Either way, the party splits in two again at this point. Lightning is still holding to her plan to assault Eden, I guess, while Hope likes the idea of snubbing Snow, so he takes off after her. Sazh and Vanille don’t appear to have a set plan just yet, but wisely stick together instead of going solo.
This juncture’s probably a safe point at which to take a break, but there’s plenty of distance to cover in the Vile Peaks yet.