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The Bizarrely Executed First Two Chapters of Final Fantasy XIII

October 13th, 2017 by Andy

ffxiii

First impressions last, and it mattered a lot for Final Fantasy XIII’s first two chapters and their contribution to the mixed impression of the game as a whole.

Video games aim higher than ever to ascend to great cinematic and literary heights. To do so, they often borrow techniques and concepts from old world schools. In literature chapters divide works into distinct units with self-contained ideas and themes that build on one another to form tonally competent wholes. As such, they service as progress markers that gallop the consumer through the story. Chapters take different forms, as some writers cut them entirely or and utilize unconventional strategies to break-up their work. Given their forms of conveyance, television and episodic games split their stories up to emphasize each episode’s individual appeal and build an overarching narrative. Some video games, however, include chapters but  do not always treat them as individual units within the greater arc, as there is often little to distinguish one chapter from the previous beyond their chronology. The decision to break Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XV into thirteen and fifteen chapters respectively—not-so-subtle nods to their namesakes—is one we do not agree with. In the latter example, for the conceit to fit, the developers unceremoniously fashioned the post-game content as the fifteenth chapter. In the former, they needed to break the opening section in half without differentiating them. We look into the awkward length of XIII’s initial chapters, underwhelming objectives, and other minor grievances which poorly set up the following eleven chapters and are to blame for numerous negative first impressions.

opening

Following Vanille’s opening narration and a high-octane cutscene, the game begins with an introductory boss battle amidst a war zone. Soldiers wielding machine-guns and rocket launchers mow down resisters and send augmented monsters to tear through the rest. Lightning and Sazh fight only those who get in their way, while Snow leads the resistant efforts to protect the unlucky folks who were being sent to the planet below. This set-up is certainly energetic and is an interesting frame for how five of the main characters, and Serah, gather together. Relevant information is withheld from the player and disseminated over time. This is effective and even quite skillful for the most part. The player obtains more insight on the conflict, what the characters seek and fear, and is introduced to the machine God fal’cie. The story only hints at the backgrounds of Sazh, Vanille, and Hope, but sets them up nicely nevertheless. The issue lies in introducing the player to the initial goals of Lightning and Snow. They both wish to find Serah, Lightning’s younger sister and Snow’s fiancée, who is located on the hanging platform surrounding the Pulse fal’cie. The player, however, doesn’t learn about the fal’cie soon enough. They fight scores of soldiers and their mechanized pets before the fal’cie lowers into view. It’s clear that the beginning of the game wasn’t nailed down until late in development, and myriad problems draw from this lack of a salient objective.

snowandlightning

Although this is nothing new in modern RPGs, one complaint many levy against XIII is the existence and the persistent updates to the datalog, claiming that it is an unnecessary and quite overwhelming addendum required to understand the story. We disagree, at the very least in the context of the opening sections. The story overall has flaws, but we do not find the datalog to be among them. We found the flaw to be in the unwieldy length of the opening section. These two chapters are individually short, but together they are too long. This forces extra cutscenes and exposition, which in turn causes several instances of repeated information. What should have been an hour or so of story is needlessly stretched into two hours. We already know what cie’th are, humans who fail their focus and turn into monsters, and we are aware that the fal’Cie is scary to those on Cocoon. But subsequent brooding about their situation do little to expand upon the world. It also means that Snow and NORA have more opportunities to repeat the word “hero” ad nauseum.

The importance of Snow and Lightning’s dynamic was not conveyed properly due to the opening section’s flawed pacing. They both have an overlapping goal, but the plot does not adequately emphasize their conflict. Snow calls himself a hero, but we know that he isn’t the leading man here. Lightning is the protagonist (she is on the cover, after all), but her ambivalence to the plight of the colonists makes her to be more of an anti-hero than a hero. And Snow, the one who fights for the common man, is all talk (according to Vanille), cocky, childish, and gets people killed. He is heroic, but not a hero, and Lightning is unheroic, but the heroine. This is an fascinating contrast that is not deeply explored. Additionally, NORA is overplayed in these chapters, yet underwritten in the story overall. Their moments needed not to be confined to the early chapters and a cameo near the end. Instead, they could have had brief appearances early on and then further developed through playable flashbacks. Their over-enthusiasm and behavior would have been more developed and less of an annoyance. Lightning and Sazh’s journey through the warzone, however, was a joy to follow.

The writers also overplayed their hand with the inclusion of the Vanille sections. Instead of Snow encountering them on his own, the game hands control of Vanille to the player for about ten minutes. This section is largely pointless and serves to further fill time, for the exposition of these characters could have been reduced to cutscenes alone. The main reason for its inclusion seems to be foreshadowing through gameplay. Vanille, unlike Lightning and Snow, has three ATB gauges instead of two. Only after they become l’Cie do the others attain their third bar. Thus, foreshadowing a future reveal.

vanihope

The gameplay loop wears out its welcome quickly. There are no new abilities given over time. One must not forget that the openings to previous Final Fantasy games were similarly simple, but they left the door open to implied growth. Giving Lightning her titular ability, lightning, and Snow, perhaps, a temporary machine gun ability, would have rounded out their opening options and given the player more ways to explore the combat. Combined with a shortened time, the prologue to the game would felt less tedious. This tedium is only augmented, and confused, with the influx of save points. During my re-play through, I counted 13 save points and 4 options to save between cut scenes before the first save point of chapter 3. 17 save points within two hours is not only egregiously numerous, but also a further indication of the opening’s uncertain development process. The developers had a strong idea of the middle and end gameplay and story sequences, but weren’t sure how to start everything. In figuring it out, they took an outside-in approach. To appeal to gamers new to the genre, they littered the opening section with save points and potions. This, combined with the fact that if the player gets a game over they simply return to just before the encounter, implies that they wanted players to have an easy time early on. In deciding length, they chose to have thirteen chapters, and to do so they extended and split the prologue.

The opening is defensible, in some ways. As mentioned earlier, Lightning and Sazh’s writing are quite good, if not repetitive later on and spread out over too long a time. The switching of perspectives, from Lightning, to Snow, to Vanille, and so on, while one character too many, increases in frequency and builds to an enjoyable climax. Their eventual overlap when finding Serah and witnessing her transformation into a crystal is fantastic in that its payoff is deserved and allows for these disparate characters to respond to one another. Sazh’s callousness, Vanille’s familiarity, and Hope’s grieving, are all telling about their characters and foreshadow the rest of the story.

 

About Andy

Andy23 | male | writer| admirer of storytelling through video games and other media, indefatigable fan (and apologist) of RPGs.

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