I’m currently making my way through the Fabula Nova Crystallis, and I recently finished up the original game. It’s a mess, and one deserving of a thorough critical breakdown, which Matt handily provides throughout his Let’s Play. Here’s an episode from it that puts some of the game’s ambitions and failures in context with the rest of the Final Fantasy series.
As a relative newcomer to Final Fantasy, I don’t have the familiarity to offer that kind of analysis, so instead enjoy a series of contextless anecdotes about my time playing the (in)famous video game, Final Fantasy XIII. There will be spoilers, there will be a bunch of meaningless lore jargon, and all the earnestness imaginable.
Honestly, there is no approach more fitting.
I die, for the first time.
Neither Vanille nor Sazh is able to perform the role of a commando, so my damage multiplier refuses to rise. I’m taken out in less than sixty seconds.
I retry the battle, and this time I select my abilities myself. Before, I’d been relying solely on auto attack, but now I assume the game is teaching me to take more deliberate control over my actions. I’m dead in less than ninety seconds.
Next time, I start to switch paradigms after every attack. I use Vanille as a saboteur and Sazh as a synergist, strengthening myself and weakening the enemies. I quickly realise that Vanille’s debuffs slightly stabilise the damage multiplier, and through switching between saboteur and ravager, I am able to stagger the enemy and emerge victorious.
It’s a fantastic moment of triumph, as the battle system suddenly clicks into place. I’m not navigating a series of inputs in order to efficiently target weaknesses and defeat enemies, I’m making up for each others strengths and weaknesses, orchestrating a combined effort that makes your team greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a runaway thematic success, placing me in the role of one of the main characters, with impossible odds that could never be survived alone, and force me to accept my limits and work together in order to come out the other side.
I proceed to fight the same enemies 23 times before the level ends.
Within the space of a few hours, Hope Estheim witnessed his mother die before his eyes, and was branded a l’Cie, someone fated to carry out the will of the gods and either turn to crystal or become a Cie’th husk. His life has been left in pieces, and in his grief and desperation, all he can do is blame the man who led his mother into battle and catalysed Hope’s journey: Snow Villiers.
Hope is presented with ample opportunities to confront Snow, but isn’t able to work up the courage, and eventually the party is separated. I guide him through the Gapra Whitewood with Lightning, running in a straight line down towards his home in Palumpolum. The battles are taxing, but inconsequential, and the play breaks every few steps for a cutscene.
Nothing really happens in these scenes, there’s no inciting incidents, plot developments or even context changing reveals. Hope merely talks. He talks about his insecurities, he talks about his weakness, and he talks about his need to be stronger, if he’s going to be able to take his revenge. His character arc is conveyed not through the externalising of his thoughts with choice and metaphor, but through pure introspection.
Ten hours in, Final Fantasy XIII is a game where the most important changes come through stopping and thinking, but the game never allows a moment to breathe.
With 40 hours on the clock, I reach an area known as Taejin’s Tower. It consists of multiple floors, connected by multiple elevators, with walls that revolve and change the realities of the space ahead of me.
As I climb, I take out the enemies in my path without much trouble, my mind focused on navigating the labyrinth and making my way to the next trigger point. Every so often, a massive creature attempts to attack my party, but we’re assisted by the statues that stand in this mysterious place. The atmosphere builds steadily throughout the dungeon, with each step I discover more about the space, and my progress is tied to this understanding. I feel a sense of ownership over my progression, as hollow as this may be, far more than I have than in the many long straight roads leading up to this point.
When I finally reach the boss fight, it’s a real climax. It’s one of the hardest bosses I have fought up to now, but not so over-powered that it becomes a draining battle of attrition. The creature that once felt so unknowable falls to my party’s hand, and I leave the tower, returning once more to the road that brought me here, and leads me onwards.
I spend far too long holding down the X button to level up my characters’ Crystarium.
I wonder for a second why the Crystarium is even here, as the combat system revolves around puzzle fights which require you to navigate the strengths and weaknesses of each character. Surely it robs these moments of their power if I can shape characters into being able to hold their own in as many classes as I desire? The game enforces the idea that the strength of its main characters comes from accepting themselves as they are and learning to rely on other people, yet my reward for progressing through is to make each character more powerful and versatile?
The final character finishes levelling up. I stop wondering, and carry on my way.
My band of l’Cie reach the seaside town of Palumpolum, and decide to rendezvous at the house of one Hope Estheim. The populous has scattered, fearing the destruction that l’Cie can bring, leaving soldiers to patrol the streets. As I round a corner, I come across a child who can’t find his father. It’s the first notable moment of world interaction in the game, where I’m able to walk past and listen into the conversations of those around me, gaining insight into the disparate viewpoints that make up the world of Cocoon.
After my next fight, the child and father are reunited ahead of me, and I continue fighting soldiers through back alleys, roof tops and closed-off roads. I don’t talk to another soul in Palumpolum.
In one sense, this is remarkably effective (can’t bring this up without linking to Stephen Beirne’s piece), I’m on the run and forced into hiding, my moments of interaction with the wider population are sparse and fleeting, and it serves to give the journey a haunting and lonely feel. But I’m caught in a war that’s still being waged with propaganda and rhetoric, and with such a disconnect from the people of this world, it’s impossible to gain any real sense of the ideological systems at play in Cocoon.
When I arrive at Hope’s house, I watch as the characters decide it’s time to take the fight to Cocoon’s leader, Primarch Galenth Dysley, and resolve to topple a system which I, and only I am prevented from truly understanding.
Hope pulls out his dagger, and after hours of talking himself up, finally confronts Snow. This is the moment that’s going to make everything right, the moment that’s going to resolve his feelings of anger and grief, the moment that’s going to make him a man who can solve his own problems.
But before he can go through with it, an attack airship launches missiles which land right behind him, knocking him off the edge of the pathway. Snow immediately catches him, protecting him as they both land in the alleyway below. Snow’s less concerned with the fact Hope tried to murder him, and more glad that he’s found the son of the woman who died under his watch, and can fulfil his promise to her to get him safely home.
It’s a fantastic moment of characterisation for the both of them, Hope’s inner turmoil resolved and framed as the overblown insecurities of a teenager, and the bright side of Snow’s bullishness shown as he’s able to roll with it and not lose sight of the goals that matter to him. The majority of Hope’s development happens entirely in his head, this confrontation of Snow the only real ‘action’ within his arc, and it’s immediately interrupted by an explosion. Hope’s story is a surprisingly nuanced and affecting one of someone learning to overcome their insecurities as they realise their negative assumptions about the world aren’t based in reality.
And after it concludes, there’s about 30 hours of game left.
Just seconds after the title card fades away, Lightning crashes a train, and starts a revolution. A war breaks out in The Hanging Edge, a once thriving city now abandoned and restricted after Cocoon’s encounter with Pulse hundreds of years in the past. The opening chapter presses forward with blistering speed, Sazh and Lightning pushing towards the Fal’Cie ship in the centre of the city, whilst Snow, Hope and Vanille are all doing them same on the other side.
The urgency is shattered somewhat as every twenty minutes, I pause to read the Datalog, and fill myself in on critical information about the state of the world. Character backstories are filled in as the story progresses, Final Fantasy XIII is not unaware of its in media res opening, but it’s never clear how familiar with the world the player is expected to be. In certain situations, lore is re-explained multiple times in differing contexts, and in others it is simply relegated to the datalog.
It’s the kind of worldbuilding that wouldn’t be out of place in an RPG that then dropped you into its world and allowed you to travel freely throughout it, reminiscent of Mass Effect or yes, other Final Fantasy games. Yet the other shoe never drops, and aside from the datalog, there’s no real way of taking in the nuances of the world they created. It’s filled with subtext and nuance, but it exists in this form only to look pretty in cutscenes as I zoom through on my adventure.
I stop for a moment to appreciate how amazing Fang’s hair is.
Whilst the other party members rally onboard a Guardian Force vessel to assault the headquarters of Primarch Galenth Dysley, Sazh and Vanille find themselves in Nautilus, City of Dreams. I walk through the town, listening in on conversations, taking in the beautiful environments and even briefly losing my Chocobo. It’s an intimate chapter, emphasising the way these characters have bonded in a way the endless slaughter of the Palumpolum assault couldn’t possibly reach.
In this brief respite from the fighting, the relationship between Sazh and Vanille is able to breathe, and it is due to the gift of a quiet moment of introspection that theirs the strongest bond forged throughout Final Fantasy XIII. The character relationships form in the fires of their battle against the might of the Cocoon armies, but they settle and grow when they are able to cool. When Vanille is about to reveal her role in branding his son a l’Cie, I feel the full weight of this choice. They’ve walked together, watched a parade together, navigated the overly complex space together. Through simply existing as a pair, they’ve come to trust one another.
There isn’t another relationship that the game handles in this manner. The time taken to build these two as a pair is rewarded tenfold when the climax of the chapter plays out, Vanille’s true identity as a Pulse l’Cie is revealed, and the two are pitted against each other. Said climax is little more than these two characters talking to each other and realising there is nowhere for their hopelessness to go, and no anger or guilt worth throwing away the relationship they’ve formed.
It’s essentially a short story of what the game’s structure and tone could have been. Assured and melancholy, the tale of Vanille and Sazh is a triumphant execution of how to build strong storytelling fundamentals into a game.
I land on Dysley’s flagship, and the game feels as if it is building to a climax. All the character arcs have been resolved, the story has gone through multiple twists and turns, and the stakes are being pushed as high as they will go. This is it. This is the big push.
Two hours of dungeon later, I still haven’t reached Dysley. I fight through wave after wave of PSICOM soldiers, the fights getting more challenging at a faster rate than I am gaining strength. All the narrative energy that was built up for this push to take out Dysley has fizzled out along the way, every new corridor full of enemies is another cruel joke.
When I reach Dysley, he is revealed not as the elected leader of Cocoon, but as the Fal’Cie Barthandelus. He informs the party that their focus is to destroy Orphan, the Fal’Cie that gives Cocoon its power, sacrificing all the lives of the citizens of Cocoon in order to allow the Fal’Cie to be reunited with their own god, the maker.
As twists go, it’s serviceable enough, serving basically as a moment where you realise your actions have been furthering the villain’s plan all along (although the villain’s plan is so confusing that this detail is incredibly easy to miss). But it comes at the end of the death march that is Dysley’s airship, and the reveal is that the game isn’t nearly over at all, but instead only at the half way mark.
I suddenly remember why both me and Matt quit around this point when we tried to finish the game years ago.
Cid Raines lies dead on his couch, as Cocoon’s government collapses under the weight of revolution. A tragic figure, Cid is a man who set out to rid the world of Fal’Cie rule as the head of the Guardian Forces, but ended up being branded a l’Cie, and was forced to carry out their bidding. Barthandelus made him the new Primarch when ‘Dysley’ was no longer needed, but Lightning and the others return from Pulse bringing an army of creatures with them, and Cid realises there’s nothing he can do to stop his rule falling apart. In his final moments, he realises that his following the Fal’Cie orders has all been for nothing, and he orders his best friend to end his life.
The story of Cid exists on the periphery of Final Fantasy XIII, just one of many stories tucked away on the sidelines that functions mostly as untapped potential, to remind you of the love that went into crafting the world itself.
I sit in a skype call and walk from Cie’th stone to Cie’th stone, completing missions on Pulse. At this point, the story has all but slipped away into nothingness, and I am free to roam the wilderness, taking out the beasts in my path, and picking up rewards. Away from the directed levels of the earlier chapters, the random encounters between missions don’t get any more difficult as time goes on, and are all but inconsequential as I sleepwalk through them.
With this different structure, Final Fantasy XIII becomes a sort of calming ritual, something to half-concentrate on as I moan about Doctor Who or something suitably inane. It’s a far cry from the high-budget spectacle of every other element of the experience, but when it allows itself to ease off the gas and relax into its long playtime, it stops being so consistently exhausting.
With Orphan defeated, Cocoon does indeed begin to fall, but Fang and Vanille sacrifice themselves to suspend it on a crystal pillar. It’s a genuine moment of catharsis, in which these two characters who have been running from their destiny take responsibility for their role in events, and decide to fix it together. The victory isn’t that the world is saved, it is that Fang and Vanille decide that saving it is more important than surviving it. As the pillar forms, the screen fades to white, on a poignant moment of hope and ambiguity.
Then a Leona Lewis song plays, the surviving main characters group hug and plan a wedding, while Fang and Vanille calmly narrate with what is implied to be immortal omniscience, granted to them as they turned to crystal. It’s not bad per se, but it’s an ending that feels tonally, and even thematically, inconsistent with what came before. If anything, it serves to reveal how hollow the games plotting had been. Nothing about it is earned, and it only serves to rob Fang and Vanille’s sacrifice of the weight it had in the moment. The character work and emotional climaxes all came in the first half of the game, so all this final climax really is to me, is the saving of a world that I never felt part of.
As the credits roll, the game plays a montage of clips from the 50 hours prior. I think back on them, and conclude I didn’t hate anywhere near enough of them to come out of the game so down on it. It’s full of things that I love, but can’t seem to put them together in a way that makes the impact they deserve. Is it really fair to call something like that a failure?
Instead of answering, I walk over to the shelf, and pick up my copy of XIII-2.