I don’t think this needs explaining, but in case you’re just joining me here on Cross-Up, I might as well spell it out: I don’t like terrible things. I like knowing that my time hasn’t been wasted, and that I’ve gained something from whatever little experience coming my way. I DON’T like knowing that I can’t sit through something and walking away from it with a genuine headache not long after. And that’s what Final Fantasy 13-2 does to me, every single time I try to play it. Every. Single. Time.
And then there’s “The Subplot.”
Listen. I actually don’t finish every game I play. It’s not that I got bored with them, or even hated them; I just…you know, never got around to seeing them through to the end. But there has never, ever been in a game in my possession that broke me, my spirit, and my very psyche as severely as The Subplot of this game. To be honest, there have been times when games have made me actually stop playing for a little while, but that’s because they got an extremely positive emotional reaction out of me. Skyward Sword made me stop. Xenoblade Chronicles made me stop. Hell, even One Piece: Pirate Warriors made me stop (though that may be more of a credit to the anime than the actual game). But in their own ways, those games -- and a good game or even story in general -- have elements that can bring your progress to a halt. They can give you memories you’ll keep with you for months and even years to come. They DO NOT make you so furious and confused that you throw your controller aside and stare blankly at the screen for several minutes, stewing in silence at the sheer level of idiocy on display. They DO NOT make you realize how much time you’ve wasted, and the fact that trying to play on until “it gets better” is only going to help you waste EVEN MORE TIME.
So I’m done. I’m done with this game -- for now, at least. Maybe if I cool off after weeks of not touching it, I’ll come back and be able to finish it. But as it stands, I’m willing to let it sit in its case, hoping that maybe when I crack it back open, it’ll come out of its cocoon as a beautiful butterfly…or maybe Persona 5. So if you’re weary of me poking holes in this game’s story, rest assured it won’t last for much longer.
I’ll get into The Subplot soon. But first, we have to discuss something else. Someone else.
(Or: What the Hell Are You Doing, Squeenix?)
All right, let’s play a game. In the space of a paragraph or less, come up with the most generic and stereotyped summary of FF (or any JRPG) that you can -- you know, as if you were an outsider looking in, or an FPS fan gleefully slamming the genre.
Here, I’ll get the ball rolling: In a world full of magic and crystals and giant chickens, a spiky-haired emo twentysomething with a ridiculous sword fights another spiky-haired emo dude (who may or may not look like a woman) with a huge sword, with ominous Latin chanting in the background…and everyone can fly for some reason. The story makes no sense and everyone has amnesia, but on the plus side there are hot chicks everywhere.
It’s an unfair gesture -- the highest form of insult and pigeonholing possible. But you know what the sad thing is? That’s this game. It largely fulfills all the stereotypes I listed and more. It is exactly what you’d expect out of a generic, no-surprises-there JRPG. It is no longer the type of game that instills wonder and intrigue; FF13-2 is nothing short of a parody of the franchise.
How do I know? Easy. Ignoring the fact that I’ve pissed away so many hours of my life, you don’t need to look any further than the design of the game’s main villain, Caius Ballad.
I mean, really. Would you look at this guy? Is this really it? Haven’t we had enough ultra-handsome, ultra-suave villains in JRPGs? I mean, this is not exclusively a FF problem, at least prior to the “Compilation of Final Fantasy 7”; based on their Dissidia designs you could argue that Garland, Golbez, and Exdeath are “generic big guys in armor”. But just look at what else we’ve had showcased in Dissidia -- Cloud of Darkness, Kefka, Ultimecia, Jecht, Gabranth, and even big bad demon Chaos have all shown how much variation you can have in your villains. And don’t even get me started on the heroes; we’ve had burly guys and flimsy guys, children and adults, waifs and powerhouses, athletes and scholars, grumpy old(ish) samurai, willowy rabbit mechanics, and a toy cat on a toy Moogle piloted by a businessman working for one of the world’s most corrupt companies. And Quina. Anybody know what Quina is?
What I’m getting at here is that this is another lesson of character design that the long-in-the-tooth Squeenix seems to be forgetting: not every character needs to be beautiful. If every character looks like a damn fashion model -- quite literally in some cases -- then nobody looks like a fashion model. Nobody is beautiful. Everyone just becomes a part of this deluge of makeup and hair gel, and the game suffers for it. It’s harder to sympathize and feel attachment to these characters by virtue of their unreal beauty (let alone their absurd archetypal personalities); it’s breaking the suspension of disbelief. When military officials look like they’ve just come out of a photo shoot, it’s the kind of thing that’ll subconsciously tip you off. Hell, I bet that’s why Sazh is one of the most appreciated characters in vanilla 13 -- it’s because he’s one of the few people in that game that could potentially look like a real person. (Though the shape of his afro is a bit suspect -- and while we’re on the subject, no, afros are not semi-permeable masses that can flawlessly hide items; try to stick a baby chick up there, and I promise you it’ll just sit atop his hair, not go inside it.)
It may be a little silly of me to expect a sense of realism out of characters in an unreal, often hyper-stylized franchise and medium. But for good or for ill, FF has had some incredibly iconic designs over the years. It’s been overflowing with creative vision. There’s no denying that Cloud’s hair was absolutely bonkers, but that was to help him stand out -- to establish himself as a badass soldier above all the rest (to his detriment, of course). Squall’s hair was comparatively simple, befitting his practical nature and prioritization of the soldier lifestyle -- and it certainly helps that he’s wearing a bomber jacket instead of a purple jumpsuit. Zidane’s monkey tail worked for him because he was a thief -- a master of tricks and mischief. There’s even an argument to be had for Tidus and his balls-out insane getup; it shows a hodgepodge of ideas and emotions competing for supremacy, and in spite of his hatred of his father he STILL wears several of Jecht’s emblems on his person.
So what does Caius’ design say about him? Uhhhhhhhhhhh…he likes purple and black and belts and feathers and fur? No, no, that’s not good enough; obviously, he’s a warrior. A fighter. And story-wise, he IS a guardian of sorts, so there’s that. Granted that doesn’t explain why his armor makes him looks so ridiculously evil, but then again I’ve always thought a largely-violet ensemble lends itself too easily to villainy.
So how about Caius as a character? Wellllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll…I don’t know. That’s not to say I’m indecisive about him; it’s just that I’m having a hard time remembering anything truly distinct about him. It probably doesn’t say anything too flattering about the character or the game if I can’t remember such important details about things I’ve experienced barely two months ago, but I can still remember the vitals from significantly-older (and better) games.
I can say this much, though: much like Lightning, Caius speaks in wordy platitudes that wear down on you after a while…a while in this case being about eight seconds. But to be frank, it’s not as annoying with Caius as it is with Lightning -- the reason being that at least with Caius, it’s actually a part of his character instead of retconning. Caius is this immortal warrior who’s been guarding Yeul for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It’s more than welcome for him to have an archaic and flowery speech pattern. It certainly helps that for long stretches at a time, his presence and impact on the plot are completely missing.
This game is positively bonkers about the treatment of the characters in its logo. How is it that in some twenty hours of gameplay, Serah and Noel have barely had any encounters with Caius? How is it that in twenty hours of gameplay, I’m hard-pressed to explain in detail what his plan is, how he’s going to achieve it, why he has to be stopped, and how our heroes are supposed to stop him? Why does such a basic element of the story have to be missing for so long? Why is the game relying on obfuscation and secrecy? Is it just to build tension and mystery? No, that can’t be it, because it just leaves me wondering what the hell the point of the story is. Just think about it -- what would Independence Day be like if we didn’t find out that the aliens wanted to wreck Earth until there were only twenty minutes left in the movie? What if they hovered around for an hour, leaving people to guess what they were up to and react accordingly, based on the potential to interact with an extraterrestrial species or just plain protect the citizens and interests of their respective countries? What…wait, actually, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea. The focus would have to change, but it’s more than manageable.
It’s certainly better than what 13-2 offers, which is nothing. If you’re going to have a villain, have him do something. Make him memorable, and have him do that quickly. Say what you will about Sephiroth (I sure have), but his status as a gaming icon has been well-earned; FF7 hyped the hell out of him well before you actually met him in person. He slaughtered his way through Shinra HQ and dragged a sin against nature from one floor to the next. He did what no one else could and gored the Shinra president. He made shish kabob out of the Midgar Zolom, a giant cobra that would tear the shreds of your party to shreds if you even tried fighting it at that point. And of course, there’s the image of him walking through fire after giving you -- the player, more than anyone else -- a cold stare-down. He was a nightmare, and THE key villain, and that fact was established well before you hit the ten-hour mark.
So what does Caius get? Well, he gets his big whompin’ battle with Lightning…which, as I’ve explained in grave detail before, sucks. A battle with no stakes, no context, and no consequences is just wasted time, no matter how many powers you give your characters. Now, supposedly it’s been confirmed that Caius is “the strongest FF rival ever”, but that doesn’t mean jack shit; ignoring the fact that it’s shown the moronic paradigm shift at Squeenix Keep, how are we supposed to measure who’s the strongest and who’s the weakest? Are we supposed to strap on our scouters and check the villains’ power levels? Furthermore, what is the purpose of outright declaring that Caius is the strongest? Why should that matter? Caius is a threat in his own right because he’s a villain out to do…something bad, and is presumably well-equipped for the task. Did they really need to instigate pissing contests about who could beat who on GameFAQs? And again, what is the purpose of power in terms of making him memorable? He’s absent in all but spirit throughout most of my time with it; it’s hours and hours in before Serah even meets the man in the flesh. You get one boss fight against him that (as always) you can win by going on autopilot; just have one Medic healing at all times, and you can mash X to win.
But there’s a particular scene that I have to point to early in the game. First off, look at this picture.
That’s Caius up there. And that’s Yeul he’s standing next to him (more on her in a bit). Care to know where they are? They’re outside New Bodhum, relatively near the crater left by Noel’s meteoric entry into the present. Care to know what they’re doing? Watching Serah and Noel start their journey.
The question that immediately popped into my head when watching this scene was “Why aren’t they doing anything?” At that point, there’s just enough information to assume that it’s in Caius’ best interest to screw with Serah and Noel as often and as thoroughly as he can. But he doesn’t. Why? Hell if I know. I guess it’s part of his “master plan” or something, but even then that’s no excuse. If by some reason -- by virtue of Yeul, some manner of constantly-reincarnating seer and prophet -- he always knows where and when Serah and Noel will be, why doesn’t he stop them? Why doesn’t he enact his plans immediately instead of tiptoeing around confrontations and action and establishing himself as a villain? Furthermore, if it’s thanks to Yeul that he knows what will happen, then how does Yeul know? Sure, she’s a “seeress” and can presumably see every moment in history, but does that mean she can pick and choose what she wants to see?
And since so much of this game’s plot (sure, let’s call it that) revolves around alternate timelines and paradoxes, how is it that Yeul can keep all of this chronological hopscotch straight in her mind? Furthermore, how is Yeul getting around, to the point that she can be a few dozen yards behind the main characters at any given moment? I was under the impression that we’re dealing with multiple Yeuls, reincarnations that exist specifically within that section of time (a Yeul for 3AF New Bodhum, a Yeul for 13AF Bresha Ruins, and so on…although that depends on whether or not Yeul is ten years old, or is just really, really young-looking and is of comparable age to Noel). So how did she get to New Bodhum? How did she manage to slip into town without anybody noticing, especially since thanks to the meteorite fall the town’s on high alert and guards are on patrol? And on top of that, why doesn’t anyone notice Caius? That guy would stick out at a hair metal concert.
See, this is what happens when you make your characters too powerful -- when they use their powers once to gain an advantage, the expectation is that A) they can and will use that power again as needed, and B) their powers will be handled efficiently and consistently so as not to open any plot holes. And as a corollary, C) their powers should be geared so as to keep the balance between the protagonists and antagonists stable. Would anyone like to explain to me how it’s fair that our main antagonist is immortal and can go one-on-one with a warrior goddess and is being backed by a prophet that can see whatever the plot needs them to, while our main protagonist is so out of her depth and just plain dumb she has to have a guy in parachute pants move her out of the way of a giant fuck-off energy wave coming right at her?
All right, that’s enough of that. Let’s switch gears and talk about Yeul.
But before I do that, I want to make something pretty clear pretty quickly: if there’s one archetype that I hate -- and I mean hate -- more than any other in a JRPG or fiction in general, it’s the magical waif. You know the type: it’s the young, innocent and friendly girl with a frail body and an easily-shaken mind. It’s more often than not the main love interest, more often than not the one packing immense supernatural plot-rending powers, more often than not the one character the entire story is duct-taped to, and more often than not one of the dullest characters in the entire cast. Hands clasped in prayer, holding/using some kind of staff, head downward-turned and teary-eyed, and clinging to the hero’s leg like a ball and chain well before the endgame. Also tends to be a princess, in some position of religious power or duty-bound by dogma, sought after by malcontents in The Empire, and/or just plain part of some prophecy -- whether she’s a key player or just spills it for others.
The biggest gripe that I have with this archetype is that more often than not, they’re not really characters; they’re just collections of ideas. The idea is to have you bond and adore and enjoy these people (you can’t spell “character” without “care”), but with the magical waif that’s incredibly difficult. The reason being is that generally speaking, you aren’t supposed to care about them. You’re supposed to pity them -- because as we all know, a good character is based solely on the circumstances of their birth and how much they suffer vis a vis the plot.
It’s a cheap substitute for writing effort and character establishment, in the sense that this archetype has been done over and over and over again. That’s not to say that it can’t be done well; Estelle from Tales of Vesperia is a solid example, in the sense that she has more of a personality, is more than just a reward for the hero, and (in typical Tales fashion) is actually a deconstruction of the waifish princess with a mysterious power. Whether or not the same will apply to Yeul when all is said and done remains to be seen. It probably won’t, though; just listen to her theme.
But even if Yeul DID turn out to be the best waif ever created, it’s still baffling to see her in the context of FF13. I give that game a lot of shit, but at the very least all of its ladies -- except Serah -- were, at least in concept, tough and competent ladies who weren’t just bootstrapped to plot-ordained roles. Many uphold Lightning and Fang as tough and impressive heroines, and while Vanille isn’t exactly the most common form of the mold, I’d sooner put her in that category than just the waif category. So why, then, would 13-2 decide to backpedal and put yet another one of these waifs into our hands? Is it because she is -- if only by guilt of association -- a villain?
Probably. Because make no mistake: as much as Squeenix would like you to believe that Yeul is this innocent and faultless little girl doomed by fate, she IS a villain in her own right. (The name is a big tipoff -- Yeul? A corruption of “Yule”? I see what you guys are up to.)
As I understand it, Yeul is a seeress. She can see the future, and I would assume that also includes visions of the past -- so until proven otherwise, I’m going to think of her future-sight as an ability to read the flow of time like a book. At any given moment, she can look forward or backward from her current position to gain new info…and presumably, that means she has some sort of Ctrl+F function built in to find specific items, ergo why she can track down Serah and Noel. (It still doesn’t explain how she and her many reincarnations are getting around unnoticed, or why nobody has ever even THOUGHT of mentioning the presence or ability of a seeress in the narrative of either of the 13 games, but work with me here.) What’s important is that Yeul -- the aggregate consciousness of the Yeuls in every time -- know exactly what’s going to happen, and as the seeress it’s her job to protect the timeline.
Except if that’s the case, the plot breaks down even further. If Yeul knows that Caius is going to screw up (and in many ways HAS screwed up) the timeline, why does she never call him out on it? Why does she never tell him to stop, or just cool it a little? Sure, whatever Caius is trying to do is ultimately for her benefit, preventing her reincarnations from being bound to death by time paradox (or something), but if her ultimate goal and reason for being the seeress is to protect the sanctity of the timeline, why is she letting that guy do whatever the hell he wants? Is it because she doesn’t want to die or be reincarnated anymore? If that’s the case, why is that a detriment? She has to die eventually even if Caius succeeds. Is he just out to end her effective immortality? Is that what she wants? Did she tell Caius what she wants? Or is that what Caius wants? Or is this just more proof that Squeenix hates women?
But wait, there’s more. If Yeul has the foresight to know the disasters that are bound to happen, then why doesn’t she tell Serah and Noel about them? There’s an entire sequence where a futuristic city falls under siege, and Yeul is on the scene. Serah and Noel meet up with her, and with her dying breaths she tells them to head to a place (and time) called Augesta Tower, because that’s where they’ll find all their answers. She knew the situation well enough to die in the exact place that Serah and Noel would reach…so if that’s the case, did she also know that the city would fall under siege? If so, why didn’t she try to prevent it? Why didn’t she arm the heroes with the knowledge needed to prevent the chaos to ensue (and a segment of The Subplot) when they met another one of her reincarnations -- or better yet, when she watched over them in New Bodhum?
I’ve played through the game enough to not only be confused, but justifiably pissed off. In the course of that sequence, the townsfolk are massacred by an outbreak of monsters, a bridge gets dropped on the city streets -- and likely civilians -- below, security systems go haywire, and even beyond the bounds of the game it’s safe to assume there was tons more collateral damage. And yet it’s Serah and Noel who get treated like they’re wrecking the timeline when Caius and Yeul are the ones mucking about via paradoxes or a combination of inaction and enabling? Furthermore, what sort of disastrous effects might that city siege have had on the timeline? What if one of the people who died was supposed to find a cure for a disease, or develop some new technology? What if generations down the line, a descendant ends up becoming the president? Are we just supposed to not give a shit about the people we’re supposed to be saving?
Let me answer that for you: no, of course not. Because it’s as I said earlier: Yeul is in this game for one reason only. She’s there to give Caius and Noel motivation, yes (itself a pretty skeezy practice), but more importantly she’s there for the player to pity. After clearing a way through the siege, Yeul’s death sequence is capped with a sad song and a sudden bout of rain, with any concern about the city that’s been ransacked -- and is still being ransacked -- completely forgotten. There’s no denying that Noel has a right to flip out and drop everything, in that he’s seeing his friend (or some version of her) die before his eyes. The problem is that the player feels no such sense of attachment. I’m not trying to be a heartless monster here; I’m trying to speak from the standpoint of the player. We have maybe seen about fifteen minutes’ worth of Yeul up to that point in the game, if that -- and a fair bit of that time had her either standing in silence, speaking cryptically, or being dead.
You can feel a slight bit of sympathy at the sight of someone dying in front of you, but from a writing perspective it’s a significantly poor effect. We don’t know who this girl is or why we should care about her; we only know and care about her in relation to Caius and Noel, and even then it’s patchy. The most we can feel is the shallowest form of sympathy imaginable…but Squeenix, in its infinite wisdom, figured that a sad song and some rain are enough to make us care. There’s a difference between bringing out tears through emotional torque, and bringing out tears because you make your audience peel onions -- but at this stage, I’d bet that Squeenix assumes they’re one and the same…and that onions are the greatest actors in known to man.
I wish I could say more about Yeul. I really, really do. But after twenty-plus hours of this game and nothing to show for it except multiple headaches, I can’t. She’s done little, if anything, to prove herself as anything more than an amalgam of ideas and clichés. The intent was to make her sympathetic, that much is obvious -- but in her current state, she’s bland, she’s biased, she’s banal, and most of all she’s boring. I don’t care about this character at all. I don’t care about Caius, either. And the two of them together establish another flaw in 13-2: if I have absolutely no idea what the villains are trying to do twenty hours into the game, and said villains have oh-so-rarely graced me with their presence, and as a result have left little impact on the plot, then what the fuck have I done so far? Am I even throwing a wrench into their plans? What is their plan? How do I stop it? Why can’t I do that instead of random fetch-quests to gather sheep wool or taking orders from swirling balls of angst?
And that’ll do it for this post. But before I go, there are two things that need to be said. First off, I found a clip that perfectly encapsulates what I’m talking about -- both how Yeul is about as intriguing as a plank of wood, and how the story relies so heavily on pointless obfuscation.
Do you see what I mean? Yeul walks on-screen, spouts cryptic nonsense that means virtually nothing to the player or the characters, and then…walks off. Fade to black, and then the next thing you know, she’s gone. Where did she go? Why did she tell us that? Why didn’t she tell us anything else? If she’s supposed to lead others down “the correct path”, then why not do so with Caius? Why not tell plenty of other people? Yeul? Yeul? Where are you going, Yeul? Why don’t you give me some answers, Yeul? Why don’t you tell me what’s going on? Why don’t you tell me what your plan is, or how you feel about these paradoxes, or what’s going on in general? Why don’t you show some emotion and establish yourself as more than just a plot device? Why don't you do something?
Nostalgia Critic, you wanna take this one?
The second thing that I want to say is that next time, I’ll wrap up my discussion about the story of 13-2 -- at least, as much of it I can suffer through. That’s right. I’ve teased it and teased it and teased it, and now it’s time to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Prepare yourselves. It’s time for The Subplot.