Pete Davison: The Late Review – Final Fantasy XIII

Posted on March 14, 2011 by

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[This post contains spoilers.]

Final Fantasy XIII is a game about control in its many forms. What happens if the State or Church has complete control over the populace? What happens if beings beyond our understanding control the resources that determine humanity’s survival? How do you challenge a fate which seems to be set in stone?

This theme permeates the entire game, from its visual design through its progression structure to the oft-criticised linearity. The game starts with the Sanctum-endorsed “Purge” sending hundreds of citizens to their death. Lightning and her soon-to-be companions are the ones who step up to challenge this seemingly-inevitable fate, but they don’t really have a choice. It’s fight or die, and to our heroes, death is not an option. This sets them on their path, and once they’re on this path, there’s no escaping their destiny: they are going to become Pulse l’Cie and receive their Focus: to destroy Cocoon as Ragnarok.

This inescapable destiny is reflected by the fact that there’s no deviation from the path on which you, the player, can move. The first part of the game is completely linear for some time, and this is entirely appropriate for the theme. It reflects several things: the tightly-ordered society that is the Sanctum-dominated Cocoon, and the inevitability of preordained destiny. It’s not until much, much later in the game that our heroes come across the verdant green hills of Pulse, a land devoid of human life and thus free of the “control” and corruption which the Sanctum and, by extension, the fal’Cie hold over the heads of the population of Cocoon.

But there’s subtler things, too. As our heroes progress along their path, they grow in power. At the start of the game, they don’t learn from their experiences. Shortly after they become l’Cie, they have the opportunity to develop themselves in the disciplines in which they’re good at. Shortly before they arrive at Pulse, when they make the decision to challenge the unjust fate which appears to lie before them, their options open up. The player is able to develop them down pathways which were formerly closed to them. It’s harder work for seemingly relatively little benefit, at least to begin with, but the option is there. The path of least resistance still allows the greatest benefits, but those who are willing to make the effort and invest the time will find it pays off later. And as their l’Cie brands advance, bringing them ever-closer to their inescapable destiny—destroy Cocoon or endure an existence worse than death—ironically, their options open up and their potential for advancement becomes ever stronger.

It transpires throughout the course of the story that the party has, in fact, been manipulated for nefarious ends. The interesting thing about the end section of the game is that it jumps firmly back onto rails, but this time it’s rails that the party (and/or the player) has chosen to jump onto and follow to their conclusion. There’s nothing stopping the player keeping the party down on Pulse, indulging in sidequests, trying to hunt down elusive treasure and wondering if they’ll ever be tough enough to take down one of those enormous Adamantoise creatures. The player makes the choice to return to Cocoon and see the story through to its eventual conclusion. And when the final confrontation ends up causing that which the party had struggled so hard to avoid, it’s through strength of will that Fang and Vanille manage to use Ragnarok’s power to make a choice. A choice not to destroy Cocoon, but to save it instead. The two worlds are changed forever by their actions. The choices that they made put into motion a chain of events that inextricably tie Pulse and Cocoon together—literally, physically.

Ironically, of course, the ultimate control of Final Fantasy XIII’s world is that which the creators hold over the player. The characters make choices for themselves and the player is powerless to do anything about it. The player is just along for the ride. But the lengthy setup, the introduction of the characters and the resolution of all their personal stories by the time the party reaches the relative “freedom” of Pulse—if the player has let themselves become invested in the fates of these diverse characters, if they can let themselves look past these characters’ first impressions: that Lightning is an aloof, arrogant arse; that Snow is an idiot; that Hope is a whiny brat; that Vanille is an irritatingly girly girl; that Sazh has a stupid name and never quite seems to understand what’s going on; that Fang is all too quick to jump off a metaphorical cliff at the slightest provocation—then they’ll be right there with them, rooting for them as they decide the fate of the world.

Final Fantasy XIII isn’t for everyone. The mixed critical reception the game got on its initial release is more than enough to make that abundantly apparent. Is it the large tracts of linearity, the characters, the fact it’s not Final Fantasy (insert number here) that puts people off? I don’t know. But I absolutely loved it. It was a spectacular thrill-ride with characters that despite occasional pretensions of obnoxiousness that they display at the outset, end up being a good, memorable ensemble cast—and seriously, what JRPG cast doesn’t have occasional pretensions of obnoxiousness? I found it fun to play and beat it with a sense of satisfaction and closure, not least because of the fact that I know thatit’s over (until the full-on sequel of course) and won’t feel obliged to return because of some piecemeal DLC.

I am half-tempted to go Trophy-hunting and/or finish off the last 24% of sidequests on Pulse that I didn’t complete—but if I don’t, I still feel like I’ve had a satisfyingly “complete” experience. And that, in this day and age of games that keep getting extended, extended, extended and thus losing the impact of their original “ending”… that’s something to be celebrated.

 

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Posted in: Pete Davison