Hot and Cold: A Guide to Sazh and Snow

Sometime earlier this year, during playthrough one billion and one of Final Fantasy XIII, I realized that I really ought to consider writing a walkthrough of the game, since, having played through the game an almost indecent amount of times, I could give a lot of good guidance that would help new players. Then I realized that sounded like a lot of work, and really I would rather just do a character guide, explaining which characters work well together and which weapons to use, etc.

Final Fantasy XIII is all about synergy. Instead of focusing on which individual moves you’re going to use to win a battle, the trick to fighting in FFXIII is to have a party whose paradigm roles, weapons, accessories and abilities are going to compliment one another in order for them to win. In Final Fantasy XIII you don’t so much take on the role of the individual fighters as much as that of a strategist who delivers orders about HOW your characters should fight, rather than explicitly WHAT they should do. This is probably the central thing that throws off new players, and results in a lot of hatred for the game, along with the most cited grievance, the game’s incredible linearity.

Final Fantasy XIII is not quite as linear as it’s critics would have you believe, because they aren’t really looking at the game in context. I am something of a Final Fantasy XIII apologist because I think that if only a few important tweaks had been made to the game, it would have come out much better. People complain about meandering down endless corridors, but they aren’t realizing that exploring wide open areas isn’t really the POINT in Final Fantasy XIII. The point of the game is to experience the story, and the areas you move through are a vehicle for the story. Even the battles themselves are incredibly cinematic, the characters seem to be doing a lot of the battling on their own while the camera sweeps around them, and you as the player can’t spend that much time worrying about which actions your party leader is taking because you need to make sure you have a Medic to take care of any low-HP wimps on your team (if I’m just pulling a name out of thin air, let’s say, oh I dunno, Hope), or keeping an eye on your enemies chain gauge and making sure that you have a Commando or Saboteur to stabilize it so you don’t lose all your hard work in chaining.

At any rate, each character has versatility, and each character can be put to more than one use. Some characters, like Lightning, are so versatile that they end up in a sort of jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none category (although luckily this can be corrected with stat boosting items; I usually have my Lightning set up to be just as strong or stronger than heavy hitters like Fang), while others ought to be used for their intended purpose, like Fang, who is so built for physical attacks that the only reason she’s any good as a Ravager is that the majority of her attacks will be elemental strikes instead of spells. Hope can be a decent saboteur but he’ll never work as a Commando (and yes, I’ve tried. Long story short, you can give him all the attack power in the world but that won’t make his slow boomerang strikes and inability to Launch any less of a hindrance).

Basically my point is that there’s always a way to make every party work, somehow. What I originally intended to was to write up a full “character guide,” identifying each character’s strengths and weaknesses, and my recommendations for how to use them. I got as far as Sazh and Snow, but never really finished, and right now I’m in a tactical RPG phase so FFXIII has had some time to recuperate from my relentless playthroughs. So, it is with this in mind that I present to you my character guides for my favorite and least favorite Final Fantasy XIII party members, Sazh and Snow.

Okay, so Lightning is really my favorite, but Sazh is a pretty close second. As for Snow, I still find him incredibly annoying, and it baffles me that a lot of players complained about finding Vanille and Hope annoying, when Snow is so incredibly obnoxious. At any rate, I have warmed up to him a LITTLE after finally trying to use him in my party a few times, and seeing how his obnoxious hero thing softened up throughout the series.

 

Sazh Katzroy

Party Role: All-Rounder
Stats: High HP, average STR and MAG
Paradigm Roles: Commando, Ravager, Synergist (offensive)
Special Ability: Cold Blooded (Chain Booster)

Sazh is the oddball character in the party. Vanille and Hope are mages, Fang and Snow are physical attackers, and Lightning and Sazh serve as all-rounders, but he doesn’t pack the same firepower as Lightning. Like Lightning, his stats are evenly dispersed between attack and magic, and he has access to both the Ravager and Commando roles pretty early on. Unlike Lightning though, he is one of the slowest attackers in the game. His attack animations for magic and physical attacks are both fairly slow, and his attacks are unlike anyone else’s because he attacks with a rain of bullets, each one doing smaller amounts of damage.  You’ll notice early on that Sazh’s weapons have about half the potential attack or magic power as other characters, and even though the explanation might seem obvious, it actually took me a while to notice why: it’s because Sazh has two guns. So, his weapon might only increase a particular stat by 100 points, but in battle it’s really increased by 200 points, because he attacks with both guns.

Even though he has a few drawbacks, Sazh should not be underestimated. Because of his unusual attack setup, Sazh is sometimes able to deal more damage cumulatively during an rain of bullets than a character like Lightning would with a single slash. He also has an incredibly useful Blitz ability that unleashes a hail of bullets across a wide range of targets. His starting element is fire, but like all the other characters he quickly learns other elemental abilities like water and lightning. His unique full ATB ability is called Cold Blooded, and it’s something of a cross between Lightning’s Army of One and Hope’s Last Resort. Sazh unleashes a flurry of magical explosions and gunshots, which are not really all that strong on their own, however, they’re not meant to be. The purpose of Cold Blooded, like Army of One, is to boost the chain gauge of an already staggered enemy. And not only does it do this well, it does this OUTSTANDINGLY well. Sazh has the highest chain boost potential of any character in the game. This effect is really brought to a head if you combine Cold Blooded with his weapon Antares Deluxes that increase Chain Bonus Boost, and upon upgrade grant Chain Bonus Boost II. Together, a single use of Cold Blooded can bring certain enemies’ chain gauge almost all the way up to 999% once they’re staggered.

For some reason, Sazh has the most HP in the entire game, even more than Snow, whose role in both battle and the story is to literally be a giant damage shield. You won’t notice Sazh’s high HP early on, but later in the game he outclasses everyone in HP. Interestingly, he’ll also be one of the first characters to completely finish the Crystarium. One of his weapons attempts to take advantage of his high HP by trading off great stats for the “paper tiger” and “silk tiger” abilities, but honestly even with his incredibly high HP, that paper tiger ability is so debilitating that you need to equip Sazh with HP accessories to offset it, and when choosing a weapon it’s important to consider whether or not you’ll have to waste any open accessory slots offsetting a weapon’s downsides. In my experience it’s usually better to settle for a weapon with average stats and a good effect, or good stats but no special effect, than to choose a weapon with great stats but a debilitating effect like Silk Tiger, Stifled Magic or Stagger Lock.

Final Fantasy XIII Drinking Game: Take a drink every time Sazh shouts “Vaniiiiiiille!”

Sazh can hold own as a Commando, particularly when he’s the party leader and you have the freedom to employ his Blitz ability at will for maximum enemy coverage and several extra hits. Sazh is also capable as a Ravager, but as an all-rounder he isn’t actually designed to excel in either role, but to boost an enemy’s chain gauge into oblivion so that a heavy hitter like Fang or Snow can deal the most damage. As with any character though, you can turn him into a heavy physical or magical hitter with a combination of weapon choice and accessories.

Sazh’s third role is Synergist, and he’s far and away the most useful Synergist for most of the game. Hope’s Synergist abilities focus on casting protective buffs and guarding against elements, whereas Sazh gains access to offensive buffs like Bravery, Faith and Vigilance almost immediately, and in my experience these buffs are just more useful than defensive buffs most of the time. Be advised that his AI and auto-battle script prioritizes using Vigilance before buffs like Bravery of Faith, so if you need one of those quickly you’ll have to do it manually. Hope’s significance as a Synergist shouldn’t be downplayed, but defensive buffs are most useful during boss fights, and offensive buffs tend to be better suited to random enemy encounters, which obviously you’re going to have way more of.

As a Sentinel, Sazh is one of the three characters who use the “guard” abilities rather than “evade” abilities. I see why they did this for symmetry amongst the characters (three using guards and three using evades), but it seems to me that it would have made more sense. I can’t say too much about it because I rarely use Sentinels at all and even more rarely have ever used Sazh in the role. As a Saboteur, he learns mostly the same abilities as Vanille in mostly the same order, focusing more on the standard abilities like Deprotect and Impreil than area-of-affect abilities like Deprotectga and Imperilga. As a Medic, he is capable of learning Curasa, which not all characters can do, and can heal well enough, but not until you’ve traveled a very long way through his Crystarium path. For the most part, if you’re playing through the game for the first time and unlock his Medic role shortly after arriving on Gran Pulse, he’ll only have access to the cure spell.

Most of the party’s eidolons function the same. Brynhildr will heal you if you’re damaged, stabilize the enemy’s chain gauge with physical attacks and boost it with magic (mainly fire elemental). In Gestalt Mode Brynhildr turns into a car, which has some pretty good spinning area-of-effect attacks, plus one really cool ability that grinds sparks into an enemy’s face and can be used repeatedly back-to-back for excellent chain gauge boosting. And in case your wondering, it’s pronounced “Broon-heel-door.” And also in case you were wondering, she’s female. The more modern version of the name is Brunhilda.

Like Lightning, Sazh has the potential to be a strong physical or magical fighter, or to excel at neither but provide support in both. Unlike Lightning, he doesn’t have access to the Medic role, so his usefulness in a party is somewhat diminished. If you’re planning on using Lightning in your central party, be careful if you choose to include Sazh. You absolutely cannot function without having at least one of the two, Hope or Vanille, in a party. This means that if you choose to use Lightning, a mage, and Sazh, you’re down one powerhouse Commando, so you’ll need to either turn Lightning into one (which is pretty easy to do with a weapon like Gladius and a few Power Wristbands), or try and turn Sazh into one. Unfortunately, Sazh is just really difficult to include in your party right when you gain the ability to switch members because of how balanced he is. Even if you don’t like Lightning (in which case the door is that way) and don’t want to use her, you can’t really replace her with Sazh because doesn’t have the Medic role, and relying purely on Hope or Vanille to heal your party can prove to be very dangerous.

Really, Sazh is best suited to advanced players who have their final party destinations set in their mind and know how to offset his flaws. If you’re a beginner, it’s better to stick to Lightning as your all-rounder. Whether you choose to play offensive or defensive if a consideration too: if you prefer to be defensive, you’ll want to use Hope for protective buffs and healing, if you prefer to go on the offensive, spending the time in battle to buff your party with Sazh can provide an advantage.

Personally, I love the Sazh-man. He’s the game’s most well-constructed character with the most emotionally compelling storyline, his voice actor did something few are able to do, which is to channel Eddie Murphy without being an embarassing ham, and he has that adorable chocobo hanging around him (choco-boco-LEE-NAAA!). He is very tricky to include on a party, but if you’re willing to put in the effort, he pays off as a great all-rounder with access to the best chain gauge boosting potential in the game. Just don’t make the mistake I made and think you can just throw together a party of Lightning, Sazh and Fang because they’re your favorite characters right after you get to Gran Pulse. You NEED a capable Medic. Never forget this.

Snow Villiers
Party Role: Physical Attacker
Stats: High HP, high STR, average MAG
Paradigm Roles: Commando, Ravager, Sentinel
Special Ability: Sovereign Fist (Massive Damage)

Oh, Snow. The big lug. I hate this character so much, on so many levels, and for such a wide variety of reasons. For one thing, he’s a thoughtless, arrogant, chummy douchebag whose unnering optimism and positivity is both inappropriate and uncomfortable, and for another it’s difficult to make sense of just what the hell to do with him in battle. He’s the only character apart from Lightning to start out his career as a l’Cie with both Commando and Ravager unlocked, but he isn’t an all-rounder, and mostly should only be used as a supporting Ravager, never as your main magical damage-dealer or chain booster.

Snow’s role in both the story and battle is to stand there and take damage. He’s a walking and talking Sentinel if there ever was one. FF13 Drinking Game: take a drink every time Snow falls from an incredible height and doesn’t die. Warning: you will be drunk quickly. He takes so many hits and so many falls that it’s a wonder he doesn’t die of internal bleeding halfway through the game. He wears that ugly tan trenchcoat and covers his hair with that ridiculous bandana, and his punching attacks just don’t FEEL as nice as anyone else’s. With Lightning you get that satisgying slash, with Fang you get the pummeling noise, but Snow just punches people, and for some reason it feels out of place to me. Luckily, Lightning hates Snow as much as I do for most of the game, so she punches him in the face several times, and every time she does, an angel gets it’s wings.

FF13 Drinking Game: Take a drink every time Snow shouts out “Serah!” or says “We can SAVE Coccoon!” Again, you’ll be drunk well before chapter 3.

But now that I’ve diatribed enough about how much I dislike Snow, let’s get into his actual usefulness as a character.

Snow’s individual storyline is actually really weird, and he spends most of the game away from the rest of the party. Even when he rejoins the main team, he stays behind as an extra character that the game  doesn’t allow you to swap into your party until you gain that ability on the Palamecia. He’s on his own for a chapter of the game, and is the first character to unlock an Eidolon, though not the first Eidolon you’re allowed to use. When he does resurface his only ally is Hope, and the two of them make an incredibly awkward team with only average damage-dealing or chain-boosting ability.

Mostly, he falls short in the roles he’s expected to play: as a Commando, he has great damage dealing potential but is severely outclassed by Fang, whose slightest touch can obliterate small planetoids. As a Ravager, he can work well if you give him a weapon with high magic but then you’re missing out on his much better Commando abilities, including his ultimate ability Sovereign Fist, which we’ll get to in a moment. As a Sentinel he does very well, having the highest HP for most of the game before Sazh unexpectedly beats him at the Crystarium finish line.

In his secondary roles, he mostly learns big area-of-effect abilities. His Synergist path is complete with abilities like Bravera and Faithra, and his Saboteur path has Deprotectga and Deshellga. As with most other characters he’s a competent Medic later on, but shouldn’t be relied on as one.

Soverign Fist works exactly the same as Fang’s Highwind ability, excepting that Fang is far superior in every way. Basically you wait until the enemy’s chain gauge is really high, or they’re about to lose their Stagger entirely, and then use Sovereign Fist for one big powerful wallop. Use it carefully though, because it resets the enemy’s chain gauge. This means you’ll miss out on any character using Scourge or Smite, but Sovereign Fist will most likely be stronger anyway.

I have played Final Fantasy XIII more times than I can actually count, and have almost never included Snow in my party, even in passing. I tried it once, but not for very long. I know I’m hard on him, but he really isn’t that bad. If you put in the effort he can be an incredibly capable physical attacker, I just really don’t like this guy. Every time he says something corny and cracks a smile I just keep hoping Lightning will deck him for me one more time. Let it be known that even though the sound of his voice makes me roll my eyes, I actually like his voice actor. It isn’t the actor’s fault, he portrayed Snow the way he is: a cringey parody of the hero archetype. He thinks he’s a hero, but he consistently fails at everything heroic he tries to do, and is so fond of throwing himself in harms way or offering to take someone else’s punishment that you start getting the feeling that being a Sentinel really turns him on. He also has a habit of saying EXACTLY the wrong thing at the wrong time. Like bragging to Hope, whose mother died saving Snow, about how he’s going to have a big happy family one day, about how he’s going to save everyone, and accidentally using her name in a sentence. I get it Hope, I hate him too.

And if his abduction by the cavalry is any indication, the army really is more than a match for NORA.

Side note: am I the only one who thinks that his character design is a weird amalgam of Seifer’s two designs from Final Fantasy VIII and Kingdom Hearts? Just take Seifer’s central outfit from Final Fantasy VIII and add his bandana from Kingdom Hearts and bam, you’ve got snow. Except Seifer knew when to quit.

He’s, uh… he’s a terrible… uh, character… I uh, I hate him… I’m not… I’m, uh, not attracted to him… Nope… Definitely not. What?

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My Last Night Here With You

Not us, by the way

Not us, by the way

(The following is a VERY detailed account of my relationship with my ex-boyfriend. I started this post attempting to talk about how I ended up living here in Delaware, and explaining what happened up to this point. I decided that the best place to start was with my breakup a couple of years ago, but that accidentally turned into a flashback and, well, I basically went through the entire thing. If you’d like to read a very personal account of my experience trying to make a monogamous relationship work while dealing with anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, and a discussion of emotional and physical abuse in relationships, plus some explorations of family and death, feel free to read. I wrote this to help myself, to reflect on the past, and to help myself move forward toward the future. If you want to know more, you’re welcome to read.)

About two years ago, I broke up with my boyfriend of nearly three years. It was a tumultuous relationship, but unlike previous relationships which seemed to mostly consist of a series of one uncomfortable moment after another with little joy in between, this one actually had a lot of good moments.

We met under weird circumstances: I had moved to Georgia with my family, and he was going to college an hour away from where I lived. We met online and I went to see him in the middle of the night, where we made out and had sex until the sun rose, at which point we sleepily headed over to his college’s music building where I got to play several pianos and a harpsichord. I spent a couple of days with him and started to feel immediately overwhelmed.

I have this problem with getting into relationships. Most people have a “honeymoon” phase at the beginning of their relationships, and I’ve experienced that, but the beginning of a relationship is always an incredibly stressful time. I experience something akin to deep grief, or loss. Connecting with a new person makes me feel incredibly vulnerable, but it also makes me feel that the foundation of my life has been pulled out from under me, and I’m caught in a rushing torrent with no one to hold on to but this new person, who I’m enamored with but who I have no trust built up with. I always experience panic attacks, intense anxiety, dread, fear, and often get emotional and start crying a lot.

This is a problem that I didn’t really start to notice until after the relationship started. It’s a pattern that’s followed me through almost every romantic relationship I’ve ever had. The beginning of a relationship is fraught with panic and anxiety equal to or greater than the excitement and joy of being with a new person. This time was no different.

By the way, about this person’s name. He is my ex-boyfriend, and we’re still friends today, but truthfully the details of our relationship would be painful for either of us to reflect on in their entirety. For the purposes of not dragging him through the mud (I want to tell the truth but the truth doesn’t reflect well on either of us), I’m going to give him the pseudonym Guy. Because he’s a guy. I’ve said his name before, but for the purposes of this story, his name is Guy.

Guy and I spent the weekend playing video games (I was immediately attracted to the fact that he loved Sonic the Hedgehog and had a collection of just about every game), did a lot of fooling around and kissing, watching movies, and of course, more sex. Because that’s what you do in the beginning. But I kept feeling overwhelmed by this unbearable dread. A few things started happening all at once:

First, my OCD kicked into high gear. And I mean ACTUAL Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the kind you can be diagnosed with (and I was, as a child), the kind where you have to blink your eyes an odd interval of times or else you’ll be overcome by panic. Whenever I get into a new relationship, I suddenly have this urge to be COMPLETELY honest with the new person I’m dating. And I mean entirely. Brutally, painfully honest. Like, it’s hurtful, for both of us. If I feel that I’m not entirely physically attracted to the new guy, I’ll feel the need to tell him, or else I’ll feel that I’m hiding it from him. Consequently, I start blurting out a lot of confused feelings all at once. “I’m not sure I’m entirely attracted to you, I mean I am, but like, just not sure how much. But it doesn’t change anything. I just wanted to be honest. But I don’t want to hurt your feelings. Oh god now I’ve hurt your feelings. I’m sorry I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just that I’m not sure how attracted to you I am, I mean I am in some ways but not in others, but it doesn’t mean, well, what I’m saying is…”

You can see how embarrassing and uncomfortable this is for both of us. Well, it was like that EVERY day, multiple times a day. And frankly, if I were him I’d have dumped me right there because that much emotional need is too much for anyone to handle. I am not going into this story under any illusions that I was a blameless angel. But the thing is, it wasn’t like I was TRYING to be hurtful toward him. It’s just that my fun array of mental disorders all started coming out all at once, and I was unable to keep any of them in check, so I was word-vomiting my every feeling, no matter how good or bad, and I was caught in a continual state of confusion.

And that’s the second thing: the confusion. Getting into a new relationship is an incredibly upsetting experience for me, because I have problems with commitment. And I don’t mean like in television when you hear a woman say that a guy “has commitment issues,” and just wants to be single, I mean that I literally cannot exist happily in a monogamous relationship. Again, this is something I did not know about myself at the time, and I had to learn the hard way. The absolute pressure of agreeing to be someone’s boyfriend is unbearable for me, the seriousness and weight of the decision is equivalent to agreeing to marry someone. Imagine agreeing to marry someone a day after you first met them. Think of how pressured and afraid and in way over your head you would feel. Alright, now multiply that by a few degrees, and you’ll have an idea of how I was feeling. I knew he wanted to be my boyfriend. I knew I was considering being his boyfriend. But the confusion kept bouncing around inside my head, each question tinged with red hot panic welling up inside my chest and burning my neck: “Am I ready to be his boyfriend? If we’re boyfriends that means I can’t see anyone else. What if I don’t love him? It’s too early to know if I love him, but what if I don’t FALL in love with him? How will I get out of this? I’ll have to break his heart. I don’t want to break his heart. I should just do it and see what happens. But I’m not ready to do it and see what happens. But am I leading him on? What happens if I say no? Will I regret it? Should I just run away and cut off all contact? Let’s just try and enjoy this moment. But I can’t, the more I enjoy it the more pressure I feel. I wish I’d never come here, this is too much pressure. Why can’t I just be happy?”

If you think reading that is aggravating, imagine having it bouncing around inside your head for days. Or months. Or years.

All he wanted to do was give me a chance and try dating me. And for me, that was the equivalent of him asking me to marry him and move to another country tomorrow. It isn’t his fault that it happened, and that he had to deal with what frankly was probably emotional abuse from me, because of my anxiety. And it isn’t my fault either, I tried everything that I could to stop the raging tumult of emotions, but they just wouldn’t stop, and the only thing that helped was to talk about it out loud.

I’m going to digress from the story about Guy for a moment to explain why I was acting this way. A big part of why this was happening was that I’d recently had a succession of very quick, failed relationships. I met a guy who seemed pretty cool, then immediately lost interest when I saw what he looked like. I felt terrible about myself for this: how could I be so shallow? He was a nice person, we had a lot in common, and I was gonna bail on him because I didn’t think he was very good-looking? I decided I was being ridiculous and went out on a date with him anyway, which ended in us more or less having sex. Afterward I felt even WORSE. Now I had an emotional attachment to him but I STILL didn’t think he was attractive and it was a HUGE problem for me. What did I do now? I went back and forth, from hour to hour, from minute to minute. The intense emotional anxiety of that time is, to this day, the worst stress I’ve ever experienced in my life. It last about three weeks, and for those three weeks I could not sleep, I woke up feeling like I was going to vomit, I was assailed at all times by relentless panic. Ultimately I ended this brief almost-relationship and collapsed into a mess of emotions right in front of him, putting this poor guy in the awkward situation of comforting ME for breaking up with HIM, for the express reason that I just found him too unattractive. What a horrible thing I did to this guy. And I’m not here to make excuses for it, I probably scarred that guy in a way that can’t ever really be healed, but I didn’t mean to do it, it was a product of my anxiety, and my deep inability to connect with or trust other people.

After that incident there was another guy, who by the way was a good deal more attractive, and believe me I felt like a pig for even bothering to make a judgement on it, but even though we seemed to get along well I just couldn’t bring myself to agree to be his boyfriend, despite spending a lot of time together and having sex and generally doing things that couples do in the early stages. Finally I just couldn’t do it and had to call it off with him, and I found myself getting dressed for work while crying hysterically, and going in to work holding back tears all day. It was unbearable. And I just thought, “Is this what every relationship is going to be like for the rest of my life? Do I demand perfection from everyone? Am I even CAPABLE of feeling love?”

It was a terrible feeling, and it was very scary. And it persisted into this budding relationship with Guy.

playing-video-games

At first, I just told him flat out we couldn’t be boyfriends, I just couldn’t do it. He was very understanding. He did something very sweet. He said, “How about for this weekend, and just for this weekend, we be boyfriends? Just for two days. And there’s no pressure, and we can just have fun and enjoy ourselves, and when you leave you don’t ever have to talk to me again if you don’t want to.”

Patience of a saint, this one.

I did it. We spent the weekend together. We went out to dinner. I cried a lot. I cried because I was so sorry for doing this to him. He held me. He told me it was okay. He kissed me and promised me I didn’t have to worry. He said all he cared about was that I was happy.

When it was time to leave, I told him I just wasn’t going to call him again. In order for me to get back to normal I had to completely cut off contact from him. He said he understood. I made it home, relieved. Now that I was relieved from the pressure I had a chance to reflect, and I kept thinking to myself “Look at all that this guy did for me. He could have been a great potential boyfriend. Hell, with patience like, he might be husband material some day. And I’m just going to throw him away?”

I found myself sitting in my truck, and I knew I’d made a terrible mistake. I cried. I cried a lot. Finally I called him and told him I was sorry, that I didn’t want to cut him out. He understandably didn’t know where this put us as far as the friend/boyfriend barrier was concerned, but he assured me all he wanted was for me to be happy, even if that meant it wasn’t with him. I kept apologizing to him for how fucked up I was, how I was so unable to love or care about someone without all this emotional weight pressing down on me. He told me he didn’t mind. I kept saying I was sorry for being crazy. He would smile and say he liked me just how I was, even if I was crazy.

Things went back and forth some more. I would hint at being his boyfriend, then take it back. I went to visit him again, but there was no conclusion reached about where we stood. Although that didn’t stop us from having sex. After a couple of weeks we were meeting for what was probably the third time and he finally just put it to me straight: I want you to be my boyfriend. I didn’t know what to do. I told him about my doubts and my confusion, my inability to overcome the intense anxiety attached to being in a relationship. He told me he didn’t care, and that he just wanted me to give him a chance. He said that if it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out, but I owed it to myself to at least try.

If either of us had been older and more mature we may have realized some things. Firstly, he might have realized that I was an emotionally dependent basket case, and that no matter how much he tried he was never going to fix me. I don’t think he WANTED to fix me, but my behavior toward him was emotional abuse, I was playing with his feelings even if I didn’t mean to. I was battling my own demons, but he was caught in the crossfire. However, I don’t think his desire to be with me anyway came from being young and naive, I think it came from the fact that he’s just a caring person who wanted to love me despite my flaws. He didn’t care that I was impossible to please, he just wanted to give it a chance with me. Now, if I had been older and more mature I would have realized that giving the relationship a try might have been possible without the anxiety if only we agreed that it wasn’t monogamous, because I simply cannot cope with that relationship structure, or handle the rigorous pressure I feel when in a monogamous relationship. I might also have been better at containing my emotions and not word-vomiting all my feelings, both positive and negative, all over him. I might also have been wise enough to realize that I just WASN’T READY for a serious relationship.

But we were twenty, and we were kids, and we were falling in love, however dysfunctionally.

He made the bold choice of telling me he loved me, right after I agreed to be his boyfriend. Tentatively, I said it back. The words had a hollow ring of dishonesty to them that didn’t sit well with me, because I didn’t think I was capable of loving him yet. But I certainly felt something, and it was strong.

The next couple of months were intense. We were with another almost every day. Which is difficult to do when you live hours apart from another. Here’s how we did it: I would go to his school when I had days off from work, and when school was finished he ended up going home to his family. Because he had no obligations over the summer, I’d bring him back to my house with me, and he would stay in my room, which was a camper in my mother’s back yard. He’d sleep during the day when I was at work, and when I had a day off, I’d take him the two hours to his parents house and stay with him there until it was time to go back to work, at which point he’d come back home with me. This continued for about two months, and though there were a few times when we were apart, we ended up spending most of our time together. Finally my mother decided she was moving back to North Carolina. I had no intention of going back with her, both because living with her was miserable and because I didn’t want to leave Guy. Guy suggested that I ask his parents if I could stay with them over the summer and look for a job in his hometown, and in the meantime he would quit school and look for a job too, so we could find a place together.

Again, a more mature version of myself might have told him that dropping out of school to shack up with your boyfriend is just bad practice, and doesn’t bode well for a future career. But at the time, I found it romantic, and agreed to this plan of action, so I called his parents and asked if I could stay with them for a while, and they said that it was fine.

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Here’s the funny thing: his parents MUST have known we were boyfriends. They knew he was gay, anyone can tell that I’m gay after just talking to me for a few minutes (one of my best friends once made the hilarious observation that “even blind and deaf people know you’re gay”), and we were obviously spending every waking moment together. In addition to that, I’d be staying in his room and sleeping in his bed with him. They HAVE to have known we were dating. But they just never said anything about it. Neither did we. There was a reason for this. Guy had told me that his parents had been a little uncomfortable when he let them know he was gay; apparently his father had accepted it pretty easily but his mother didn’t like it, and felt very uncomfortable about it. Because of this, Guy didn’t know if his parents would have a problem with a guy who he was clearly dating moving into their house, but they didn’t seem to mind.

And it was never mentioned. It was quietly acknowledged without words. Guy and I spent every moment together, we just made an effort not to hold hands or do anything too affectionate in front of his parents. Guy’s sister knew we were together, and once told me “I don’t mind if someone’s gay but I don’t want to see ’em kissing on each other and stuff.” You might thing that sounds homophobic, and well, you’d be entirely right. But this was in Georgia, and his family were from a small town in the mountains, so that’s about the closest you’re going to get to gay acceptance. She really meant no harm. People who are ignorant about their own homophobia don’t realize when they’re being homophobic, and don’t know how much their words can hurt. I did take pleasure in getting her back though: a little later on we were at her house and she had Guy in the kitchen, trimming his hair with an electric razor, and she tried to make a joke by asking him “Are your pubes all bright blonde like your head or are they dark?” I called out from the other room, “They’re dark!” To which he burst into laughter and she let loose a disgusted sigh. Take that.

Living with Guy’s parents was, to put it mildly, an experience. Both of them were getting older, and both of them had very serious health concerns. Guy’s dad had had a stroke, and was nearly immobile, confined to his recliner most of the day, using an oxygen machine to help him breathe at night. He was a great guy, though. He loved science fiction and had a big collection of Star Wars novels, and spent a considerable amount of time watching every series of Star Trek on Netflix. Guy’s mother, who I was at first afraid of because of the fact that she hadn’t taken Guy’s coming out well, was incredibly kind to me. I once took the initiative of giving her a foot rub when her feet were hurting, and it quickly became my occupation, so she would every now and then call out to me from the other room to come and rub her feet. His parents shared everything with me, I was allowed to have any food in the house that Guy could have, and even though the sodas hidden in the kitchen cabinet were theirs, they shared them with me often, or didn’t chastise me when I snuck in at night and grabbed some.

One night I was washing the dishes and Guy’s mother came up to me and hugged me, and thanked me for doing the dishes and for being so helpful. I was a little surprised, and told her I was happy to help. She looked at me and smiled, and she said, “You know, you’re my son too.”

I was their son, too. And they didn’t just say it, they treated me exactly the same as Guy. I was given the same amount of privilege and responsibility. And not ONCE did they ask me for rent. And they had every reason to, not the least of which being that I lived there for nearly six months and never paid a dime. Why didn’t I pay anything? Well, the short answer is that Guy and I couldn’t find jobs. The more honest answer is that we didn’t really want to. We slept every day until late in the afternoon, and put in job applications online only sparingly. We went job hunting every now and then but truthfully we didn’t put much effort into it, and a consequence we remained unemployed. My mother would send me twenty dollars or so every now and then and we would use the money to go Taco Bell late at night. Taco Bell was great because we were poor.

We were really poor. And really hungry.

Guy’s parents got disability checks once a month, but most of it had to be used to pay bills on the house, which was actually a small trailer that was falling apart at the seems. The electricity cut out if too many things were plugged in at once, there were mountains of garbage behind the house, stinking and covered with maggots, because Guy’s parents simply couldn’t hall it all off to the dump and there was no one to do it for them. So Guy and I began to slowly, over the course of several months, chip away at the piles of garbage by loading them into my truck bed and taking them to the dump. It wasn’t just bags of garbage but old furniture, big bulky stuff that was difficult to get rid of. The grass was entirely overgrown because it hadn’t been moved in a very long time. We helped out with that, borrowing a lawn mower from Guy’s brother and trying to get the grass cut down to size.

There were several cats in the house. One of them was very old, one of them was just fine although he was incredibly fat, and one of them was sick. The sick one died. Guy’s parents noticed it had crawled behind one of the living room recliners and just died there. They asked us to clean it up. I didn’t want to touch anything dead, but there was no one else to do the job apart from Guy and myself, so I started digging the hole. I lost my cool in the yard. His parents were very difficult to live with, asking us to do all the cleaning, to take care of everything that had to be done, often making Guy cook us dinner with what small amount of food we had, and when they did get their disability checks they refused to buy groceries, instead sending us out to pick up pizza for a week at a time until they were completely broke and we had to borrow money for bread and peanut butter until the next month. Looking back on it, I can see that I was being ungrateful, because despite the fact that we were poor and had very little food, they still hadn’t asked me for a penny, not even SUGGESTED it. And I actually HAD found a job, at Sears, and quit on the second day because I hated it. And they had said it was alright, and hadn’t asked me for any money at all.

In retrospect I wasn’t really mad at Guy’s parents, although their stubbornness at NEVER grocery shopping and wasting all of their money on fast food and cigarettes had a negative impact on all of us. But really, I was mad at the situation. I didn’t have any anxiety medication (I’d started a year before but had to quit when I lost my insurance), I was having panic attacks, Guy and I were beginning to fight a lot. We would sometimes get into screaming matches, and we lived in VERY close quarters. Our entire living space was his bedroom, most of which was taken up by his bed. There was nowhere to walk to and no gas to drive anywhere, so we were stuck with one another at all times. Most of the time that was alright. Other times it was incredibly difficult. Both of us were losing weight from how little we had to eat, and I became very aware of the fact that I was in a hopeless situation. It was doubtful that I would find a job close enough to justify the gas money needed to drive there, much less hold down a job because of my anxiety. Guy and I had a lot in common, but something felt off about our relationship. Still, something ALWAYS felt off when I was in any relationship so I just started to accept that that was an inevitable feeling for me.

One thing I do miss is having sex with him. Even now, I still miss it. As we grew closer, I started to find him really attractive, as opposed to in the beginning when I kept honing in on any imperfection about him. I started to really love his body, his lips, the way he kissed, how warm he was at night when it was cold. I really loved being close to him, I loved trying things out with him (in the beginning of our relationship he’d been the bottom and I’d been the top, he became convinced that he was a top now but we could never really make that work). I watched a lot of porn and don’t get me wrong, I was still craving sex with someone new, like I always do when I’m in an agreement to only have sex with one person, but I began to feel really attracted to him, and the more that happened, the less I worried. Knowing that I found him sexy meant that one of the fundamental reasons a past relationship had failed and this relationship had started rocky was now overcome. I made a point of telling him often how beautiful I thought he was, in an effort to make up for how I’d hurt him in the beginning by telling him that I thought he was unattractive. That’s something that still bothers me to this day. I know that the reason I did was because I was having an anxiety attack and my OCD made me blurt out every thought, but I see now how much I must have hurt him, made him feel unattractive, and inflicted an emotional wound on him. If you’re reading this, Guy, I’m sorry. I really am. I didn’t know what I was doing.

Eventually, something had to change. My mother was asking me to come live with her in South Carolina, but I refused to come unless Guy could come with me. For religiously bigoted reasons, she didn’t want a gay couple in her house. She thought that not only was it “inappropriate” and “sinful” for us to live together, much less sleep in the same room, but that it would have a negative impact on my little sister, who was about eight at the time. Basically what she was implying was that having us around might turn my little sister gay, or at the very least, instill in her the distasteful idea that gay people were allowed to be together, live together, and that gay love was alright. You can perhaps see why I had no desire of ever returning to my mother’s house.

But frankly, I was hungry.

No really, the hunger was driving me crazy. I would get incredibly angry very easily, because I just didn’t have food. For weeks at a time, the only food we had would be bread and peanut butter, and when that ran out, cans of green beans or some frozen chicken that had to be thawed, cooked without any seasoning, and eaten as it was. Sometimes there was ramen. I hate ramen, by the way. I was just so freaking hungry, and whenever I had two dollars to rub together I’d go immediately to Taco Bell, but then of course there’s the fact that Guy and I were together at all times, so if one of us was eating, so was the other. This was fine except it meant that in addition to being so poor we hardly had any money to eat, we had to have double the money needed just to go through a drive through and get something. And we couldn’t get something like pizza, because that was too difficult to hide from his parents, who would have undoubtedly asked for food as well if they knew we were going to get it, which is why we usually went to Taco Bell at three in the morning and hid the bags in our trash can.

To their credit, his parents usually knew when we’d been out getting food, and his mom once smiled at me coyly and told me she knew that we’d been out to eat the night before, but there was no resentment in her voice at all. I think she knew how desperate we were feeling.

Finally, my mother agreed to let Guy come as well, under the stipulation that we were not allowed to sleep in the same room together. It wasn’t a great option, but there was food at my mom’s house, plentiful and readily available food, and I think that was ultimately what led me to accepting the offer.

Okay, this one actually is us, featuring my sister

Okay, this one actually is us, featuring my sister

I was too hasty in my desire to leave. I wanted to go home, I wanted to be near places I recognized, I wanted to have my own family to rely on the way Guy had his, and I wanted to have a chance to get a job and start really working on getting a place with Guy. His parents were sad, but truthfully they were being evicted and had to move out anyway, and they were going to be moving in with Guy’s sister, who had no room for us. We had to leave, one way or another. On the last day, after we’d packed up the truck, Guy’s mom hugged us both, and told Guy that he could come back any time he needed to. Tentatively I asked, “What about me? If things don’t work out, can I come back, too?” She seemed genuinely shocked that I would ask. “Of course!” she said.

I’m going to skip ahead a little to tell you that Guy’s mom died a year later. We were living with a roommate by then, and had driven down to Georgia to see her in the hospital. When she’d woken up briefly to talk to everyone, she asked, “Where are [Guy] and Jesse?” She asked for her son, and asked for me too, even though she’d only known me for a year or so, but she considered Guy and I a unit. She knew where one of us was, the other was nearby. She had never actually acknowledged, at least in front of us, that we were a couple, but for all I know she may have just felt awkward about it, and thought we didn’t want to talk about it in front of them as much as they didn’t want to talk about it in front of us. But this woman was on her deathbed, and she thought to ask where I, of all people, was. Guy was there, I wasn’t at the hospital at that time, so the second time she woke up, I was there in the room, and she smiled at me and did something that I still find really incredible.

She pointed at Guy and myself, and she said “I love y’all.”

Y’all is of course the southern way of saying “the two of you,” but it was really important that she addressed us together. She was dying, she had to know she was dying, and this was literally the last time she ever spoke to her children. And she didn’t tell Guy, “I love you,” she told Guy and his boyfriend, “I love y’all.”

When I was alone in the room with her, while she slept, I spoke to her.

“You’ve been better to me in a short time than my own mother ever has. You’ve treated me with love, no matter what, and taken care of me when you didn’t have to. You gave me a home when I needed one, and you told me I was your son, too. Well, you’re my mother, too. In a year you’ve shown me more love and kindness than my own mother ever has.”

I also felt that she was giving us her blessing, as a couple. I don’t remember if I said it out loud, but I decided that for her sake, I would take care of Guy.

We had already made the journey back home when Guy got the call that she’d passed away. We went back to Georgia for her funeral. I was mostly silent, I didn’t know what to say. I did walk out of her funeral service, though, because the preacher was some insane fire-and-brimstone preacher who took this opportunity of a woman’s DEATH to start preaching about Jesus and telling everyone in the room that they’d go to hell if they didn’t believe. He was turning purple and stomping his feet so hard that her coffin ACTUALLY started to shake. I could take it no more and went outside. His family wasn’t mad at me, Guy’s sister laughed and said that I just wasn’t used to “that kind of preaching.” Sadly, I HAD seen that kind of preaching before, and it sickened me, but it sickened me even more so that this awful man used a woman’s death to take advantage of her grieving family to push his idea of salvation on them. But that’s another topic for another day.

Guy gathered some things from his childhood possessions. One of them was an assignment he’d done in Kindergarten, where the students had to fill in the blanks talking about their mother. “My mother is as pretty as ______,” “I love my mom like I love _____,” “My mom’s favorite food is _____.” For the record, is answer to the first one was “My mother is as pretty as a bird,” which is about the most fucking adorable thing I’ve ever heard. He put it into her casket and she was buried with it. When we got home, there was a photograph of Guy’s mom, it was not an incredibly flattering picture, just her standing in the kitchen with her mouth open, looking surprised to have had her picture taken. But he framed it and put it on the wall.

I still have it. It’s sitting on my desk. It travels around my room to different perches. It’s not that I had an incredibly emotional attachment to Guy’s mother, it’s not that her death caused me profound sadness. And I don’t say that to be insensitive, it’s just that I am terrified of death so I purposely maintain an emotional wall between myself and everyone save a few select people. Guy is one of the people whose death would devastate me, and whose death I continue to fear. Maybe one day I’ll overcome my fear of death, but regardless, I felt a little odd keeping Guy’s moms picture. I didn’t know if he’d left it behind when we broke up on purpose, or just forgotten it amidst all the other stuff in our room. But I kept it, and though it sometimes hides in a dresser drawer (for some reason I would feel weird keeping it on the wall), it’s always in my possession.

Guy’s mother treated me not only better than she could have, but probably better than I had a right to be treated. She deserved rent from me, she deserved more from me than I probably gave, but I was afraid and hungry and anxious, and I did what I could, and so did she. She never judged me, she never turned me away, and treated me as her son until the day she died.

Her acts of kindness are important. They showed me that the kind of parenting my mother gave me was not love, it was dysfunctional emotional abuse. Guy’s mom loved me unconditionally and she had no reason to at all, apart from the fact that she just wanted to. She made me a part of her family. I was her son, too.

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Guy and I lived with my mother for a few months, it was predictably pretty awful. Our emotions got really turbulent and ultimately it led to a physical altercation between us. There was a day when I was pissed off about something, storming around in a huff, and I grabbed my keys because I was going to go for a drive to calm down. Guy didn’t want me driving while I was upset, he would be too worried that I was going to get into a wreck. His intention was good, but he made the unfortunate choice of snatching my keys out of my hand, which led to me trying to grab them back, which led to us scuffling toward the living room recliner, where she shoved me down and held my arms down. His intention was to hold me still so I would listen to him, but as you can imagine it didn’t work, and my immediate reaction was to go on the defense. He shoved me down into the chair and my reaction was that I shot out my hand and slapped him across the face. He responded by throwing a hand back out and hitting me on the head, then started screaming at the top of his lungs.

I looked into his eyes when he started screaming and I broke.

I fundamentally broke.

I had thrown the first punch, let it be known. This was not an abuser-victim one-sided altercation. We had both hurt one another. But I was the one who broke first. I started crying, and then I started screaming. Really, really screaming. Guy picked me up and carried me into our room, where I collapsed onto the floor in a sobbing heap, still screaming. I didn’t speak, I just cried, and screamed, very loudly. No one else was home. He sat next to me. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” he said over and over again, he chided himself and said how terrible of a boyfriend he was, he said he was sorry over and over again, he held me as I screamed. After about half an hour of relentless crying I started to breathe. I opened my mouth to speak and I could not form words. To this day I don’t know if I was being dramatic, or if I actually went temporarily mute. I would make a gurgling nose and then close my mouth. I couldn’t speak.

When I could talk, I said that I didn’t know what this meant, or what to do from hear. I called my friend Thomas, I told him that this clearly was a sign that we weren’t working and it needed to end. But I decided to sit down and talk to Guy. I told him that what happened was indicative of a larger problem, and it showed that we just weren’t going to work together, no matter how hard we tried. He believed we could move on past it, and promised he’d never put his hands on me again. I was making him out to be the bad guy, I admit, I wouldn’t really acknowledge my part in the physical fight. I made it sound like he had hit me, when in truth we’d hit one another. But being the victim was the only thing that made sense to me at the moment, it was the only way I knew how to cope with what was happening.

Things were never really the same. For weeks, I would remember the incident when I was at work and fight back tears. I was so angry at myself. How could I have hit him? How could I have possibly hurt him? I hated myself for what happened. I hated myself for hurting Guy.

Things got worse. We did find a place to live, away from my mother, living with a roommate. We were both working and bringing in enough money to live on. We had video games and we could go places for fun, and we had a little life together. But the arguments got worse. We were growing apart. He didn’t want to have sex nearly as much as I did, he told me he just wasn’t a very sexual person, and it was hard for him to deal with me not only wanting to have sex so much but wanting to touch him so much, to hold him and kiss him and be romantic with him. It was hard for him, he felt a little smothered, and weirdly so did I. But I felt smothered by RESPONSIBILITY, not by his actions. It was so hard to be with him when I wanted so badly to pursue other relationships with available gay guys I had met. I didn’t want to dump Guy, but I just wanted to at least have sex with someone new. It was a natural urge that I had no way of fighting, and truthfully I didn’t want to fight it anymore. I started spending a lot of time watching porn, which by the way I believe is a completely healthy way of exercising your sexual desires.

There were more physical fights. Almost every time, he and I would get mad, and I would try and goad him into hitting me, so that I could play the victim. I’d get in his face and say “Hit me then, like a big man. Push me around, hit me.” Sometimes he’d shove me. At the time I thought I was standing up for myself. In truth I was trying to start a fight so I’d have an excuse to say he hit me. We got into a physical fight when he was on the way to work one morning, with me riding in the passenger seat. I finally got fed up with him when he was screaming at me and slapped him in the head, to which he responded by punching me straight in my chest. I sat quietly, gasping and holding my chest. He pulled into a parking spot and got out, and walked inside. I sat there, holding my chest. He’d punched me. How could he do that to me? It didn’t seem to matter to me at that moment that I’d hit him first.

I went home, told the story to my friends online, made myself the victim, and decided that either way it was time to end it. I don’t remember if I tried to break up with him right then, but there was another incident when he stormed outside, got in my truck, and backed out of the driveway, spinning dirt everywhere, and screaming out the window at me, cussing and calling me names. I turned around walked inside, and said “This is just too white trash for me, this is not an episode of Jerry Springer. I’m done.”

He brought me flowers when he came home. I told him it was over. He apologized. He begged. He cried. He got on his knees. I went into the kitchen and grabbed a knife, acting like I was going to cut myself. He cried, I started to cry a little out of sheer frustration, he begged me to stay with him, I gave in. I just wanted all the pain to stop.

A few days later we were at my mom’s house. He asked me to come outside with him and we stood in the little greenhouse where my mom kept her plants. He got on one knee and asked me to marry him.

“Are you serious?” I said

It was not a nice thing to do. But admittedly, it was a bad move on his part. Our relationship was falling apart and the only thing he could think to do was ask me to marry him, like that would fix it. I see now how hurtful it must have been to be rejected by me, but it was a very strange move by him. Still, I see why he did it. He was desperate. He wanted to fix something that couldn’t be fixed.

I started talking to an old friend, and we swapped some dirty pictures back and forth. Guy and I had decided a while back that this was okay and did not constitute cheating. There had been once incident in which a friend and I had jerked off together on webcam and when I told Guy he said I’d cheated on him. I felt terrible, but I was more than a little annoyed to learn later, after we’d broken up, that he had ALSO jerked off on webcam with someone, and it had been THE SAME GUY. I was mad at both of them for not telling me, and at Guy for making me feel so bad when he’d already done the same thing before I did it.

So this old friend and I had been flirting online, and we’ll call him James for the sake of the story. James and I met up and he actually took me on what amounted to a date, driving me through the mountains, and we actually did walk up a mountain together and take pictures on a bridge high up in the air, and at one point during the ride I actually pulled my dick and let him touch it. When I got home I told Guy what had happened. He was mad.

But he was also tired. We were both tired. We were tired of trying. We were tired of failing.

We were sitting on opposite couches when suddenly he just piped up, all happy, saying “What if we just stay together?”

“Huh?” I asked.

“We don’t have to be boyfriends anymore, but we can keep living together, and seeing other people. Nothing actually has to change, there just won’t be any pressure on either of us anymore.”

Weirdly, incredibly weirdly, I perked up too. “But we can be broken up?” I asked hopefully.

“Yes,” he said, “But we’ll still stay in each other’s lives, we’ll still live together.”

We were both smiling.

How fucking weird is that?

Looking back on it, we were both in denial. Our relationship ended right there, and we just went back to doing what we were doing. We kept on hanging out in the living room, chatting like nothing had happened. We had agreed on something between polyamory and an all-out breakup right then and there, and we just sauntered on like nothing happened.

The denial didn’t last for very long. Having now gotten permission and my freedom, I slept with James pretty quickly. But Guy and I realized that this just wasn’t happening. And if we were going to break up, we had to really break up. And so we did.

It was very, very sad.

He made plans with his sister for her to come and pick him up, and take him back to Georgia with her. I stayed at my mom’s house for a couple of days, not wanting to be with him, because it would just be too hard. Eventually I did go home. I crawled in bed with him.

Late in the middle of the night I felt something wet on the back of my neck. His arms were around me. He was crying into my hair, and he was also singing.

He was singing the words to the love song from Final Fantasy VIII, it’s called Eyes On Me. It hadn’t exactly been “our song,” but he had really liked it and learned to play it on saxophone.

I held his hand. He sobbed into the back of my neck.

“My last night here with you, same old songs, just once more.

My last night here with you, maybe yes, maybe no.

I kind of liked it your way, how you shyly placed your eyes on me.

Did you ever know that I had mine on you?”

A few days later it was time for him to leave. We kissed a lot. We held each other. We waited for his sister to show up. She arrived and I helped load his stuff into the car. She waited outside. We stood in the hallway. I kissed him again. We said goodbye.

He got into the car and she drove away.

It was quiet.

I didn’t turn around or go into my room, I grabbed my keys and my laptop and got in my truck, and went to my mother’s house, where I stayed for a few days. When I came back, it was still quiet, our roommate wasn’t home. I stood at the closed door of our bedroom. I knocked on the door, knowing he wasn’t there. I called out his name.

“Guy?” I asked to nothing.

There was no response.

I opened the door.

Our stuff was strewn everywhere. We’d made a big mess packing. He’d left some things but mostly it was my stuff everywhere, and some of his clothes that he’d left for me.

Folded neatly on the back of a chair in our room was a tee shirt. It was a navy blue shirt for some restaurant, a shirt he’d had for a long time. When we first met, when I’d told him I was going to cut of all contact with him, he had given me that shirt to remember him by. I asked if I could have something that smelled like him, so he’d worn it all day and then given it to me. Now it was laying here, folded, on the back of the chair, and he’d worn it the day before. I picked it up and pressed it to my face. It smelled like him.

I looked around at our room, clothes and games and papers strewn everywhere. I started pacing around the room, into the closet, and back to the center.

I opened my mouth and sang.

“My last night here with you, same old songs, just once

My last night here with you, maybe yes, maybe no

I kind of liked it your way, how you shyly placed your eyes on me

Did you ever know….? That I had mine on you?”

I sat down and cried. I held his shirt, and I cried.

I cried for two years. Sometimes it was easier, sometimes it was harder. I lay in bed at night and felt so strange to have the bed all to myself. I missed him there. I missed snuggling up to him and pressing my waist against his butt. I missed touching his hair with my fingers. I even missed him waking me up in the middle of the night to tell me to stop snoring.

I didn’t regret my decision. But I missed him.

I still miss him. I still think that breaking up was the right thing to do. Most of the time, I’m alright. Sometimes, I miss him. It’s not that I regret breaking up, and in fact I think that the way our relationship happened is what HAD to happen. I learned a lot about emotional abuse, as both the victim and the abuser. I learned about monogamy, I learned what my boundaries are in a relationship, I learned what I can and can’t handle, and I learned when it’s time to let go and move on.

Breaking up was the right thing to do. I hope that he agrees. But I still miss him.

And he still misses me too. We talk, we’re friends. There was a long period of silence, but we became friends again. We’re not incredibly close friends, but he knows where he stands. Which is to say, he hasn’t stopped being important to me.

During the past year when I felt suicidal, every time I imagined killing myself, I always imagined what my suicide note, or video recording, or online post, might say. Every time it included Guy. I always left him everything. I always told him I was sorry. I always told him that I loved him. Every time I’ve imagined what I might do if I were in the hospital dying, I always open my mouth and ask for Guy. He rushes to my bedside and tell him I just want to kiss him again before I die. It’s morbid, but depression is morbid. Whenever I’ve thought about dying, the most important things that I think about are telling Robert and Zack how much I love them, how much their love and support means to me, and to tell Guy that I love him.

I don’t believe Guy was “the one,” because I don’t believe there is “the one.” Even in a polyamorous sense, I don’t believe that there are certain people you’re just destined to find. But I do believe that you find someone you care about, you connect, and you make it work. One of the most important things I learned was that I DID love Guy. I worried our whole relationship that I didn’t really love him, that I was just forcing it. And there were many things I was forcing, and I was even forcing myself to love him before it was time, but in the end I DID love him. And I still do.

I’ve thought about what would happen if he were to ask me to be with him again. I live in Delaware and he lives in Georgia, and we haven’t physically seen one another since that day that he left, but still, I’ve thought about what I would say or do. I know instantly that getting back together is not the right thing. But then, I think to myself, what about this longing I feel for him? What about this pull toward him, what about the fact that I still miss him, that I still love him?

I’d love to see him. I’d love to kiss him, to hold him, to fuck him, to be close to him again and experience that love that still exists.

Just because your relationship can’t work doesn’t mean you don’t love someone. And just because you love someone doesn’t mean you can make a relationship work.

It’s hard. But I learned so much. And I only learn things the hard way.

In Medias Res: Final Fantasy XIII Review

WARNING!

This is not a good review of Final Fantasy XIII. In fact it’s not even really a review, it’s more like a VERY in-depth exploration of the first 10 chapters of the game, with way too much detail and a surprising number of addendums and epilogues, most of which were written at different times. When I wrote this “review” of Final Fantasy XIII, I had not only not yet completed the game, I also didn’t understand how the Stagger mechanic worked, buffing and debugging, or even Gestalt Mode and Paradigm Shift beyond the basic tutorials the game provides. Embarrassing. For the record, I did go on to master the Crystarium and gain every achievement (including the soul-draining Treasure Hunter) except for the one that involves five-starring every Cie’th stone mission, but I’m like three away! At any rate, for a longtime Final Fantasy lover and first time Final Fantasy XIII player’s very confused thoughts on the game when I was still in the middle of playing (hence the title, In Medias Res), read on…

-edit, December 2013

I am currently at Chapter 11 of Final Fantasy 13, and if you’re familiar with the game and have played through it you will know that, despite having already spent twenty hours playing the game, I have only JUST reached the main area. Yes, in this 13-chapter game, you don’t really get full access to explore until chapter 11. I admit that I haven’t finished the game, and as such I cannot give a truly complete review on how this game holds up for me, but having experienced so much already in the first 10 chapters, I’m going to give my thoughts on the characters, story, and gameplay of FF13 so far.

Part 1: Story

There are two areas of the world of Final Fantasy 13: the sprawling overworld wilderness known as Gran Pulse, and a floating shell above the surface known as Cocoon. The majority of the story takes place in Cocoon, where in the peaceful seaside town of Bodhum, home to the game’s main protagonist, Lightning, a fal’Cie is discovered. The fal’Cie are huge, magical machines that have great powers, and the Cocoon fal’Cie serve as protectors of Cocoon, providing it’s citizens with light, food, and advising the government on important actions that need to be taken. A l’Cie who is branded by a fal’Cie is given a task to complete, known as a Focus, and if they complete their task in a certain amount of time, legend says they will turn to crystal and be granted eternal life. Should they fail to complete their Focus, or run out of time, they instead are transformed into a vile creature known as aCie’th. Cie’th begin as dark monsters wandering the world, but eventually they turn to stone, trapped forever in that form until someone else completes their Focus.

The fal’Cie discovered in Bodhum is not a Cocoon fal’Cie, but a Pulse fal’Cie, meaning that it came from the wilderness below, which the people of Cocoon live in constant fear of attack from. There is an outcry from the people of Cocoon that the Pulse fal’Cie and any people who came into contact with it be migrated to Pulse, so as not to take any chance of contaminating their safe haven of Cocoon with anything from the world below they so fear. The government, in response to the outcry, begins a process known as “the Purge,” in which all of the Cocoon citizens in Bodhum who saw or came into contact with the Pulse fal’Cie, are placed on Purge trains to be shipped out of Cocoon as refugees. The government tries to make it seem like these people are selflessly sacrificing their peaceful lives on Cocoon for the fate of the other citizens, but resistance begins mounting when the Purge trains reach a place known as the Hanging Edge, and it becomes clear that the Cocoon government, Sanctum, does not intend to move these people to the world below at all, but to conduct a mass extermination of all the refugees.

The story’s main protagonist, Lightning, boards the Purge train because her sister, Serah, was made into a Pulse l’Cie by the fal’Cie that appeared in Bodhum, and was taken hostage within it. Because military personnel are exempt from the Purge, Lightning resigns from her position in Coccoon’s Guardian Corps and boards the train in an attempt to get close enough to the fal’Cie to find Serah. The game begins when Lightning fights back against the military on-board the train and begins heading toward the fal’Cie in search of Serah. She is accompanied by Sazh Kazroy, and in another area of the Hanging Edge, Serah’s fiancee, Snow Villiers, is mounting his own resistance, taking in volunteers and giving them weapons. During the battle, one of the citizens is killed, a woman named Nora, and though Snow is very upset with himself because he feels responsible, he presses on to the fal’Cie, also in search of Serah. He is followed by Hope Estheim, son of Nora Estheim who died aiding Snow’s resistance, and a mysterious girl named Vanille, Hope following Snow into the fal’Cie wishing to confront him over the death of his mother, and Vanille following for her own reasons which aren’t yet stated.

Our five main characters meetup in the chamber just ahead of the fal’Cie, where they find Serah, who asks them to save Cocoon, and turns to crystal before them. Snow and Lightning, furious at Serah’s fate, rush forward into the fal’Cie, followed by Sazh, Hope and Vanille, and after a battle with the fal’Cie whose name is revealed to be Anima, all five characters are restrained by tendrils coming from the fal’Cie and lose consciousness; while unconscious they see a vision of an apocalyptic future filled with destruction.  When the cast awaken, they find that they’ve been made into l’Cie by the same fal’Cie who branded Serah. Like Serah, however, they have no certain way of knowing their Focus, the task they must complete in order to turn into crystal and gain eternal life, or else be transformed into C’ieth. All that they have is their vision of the apocalypse, Ragnorok. Snow believes that their focus is to save Cocoon, as Serah asked them, and that since she turned to crystal immediately after asking them, it must have been the right thing for them to do.

The party begins to split when they find Serah, still crystallized, and Snow stays behind, knowing that he’ll be captured by the military as a fugitive l’Cie, to try and protect Serah. Lightning and the others continue on their way and eventually wind up in a mountainous region of Cocoon filled with robots that built their own small city out of the scrap material from the ancient war between Cocoon and Pulse. Lightning resolves that she’s going to plunge right into the heart of Cocoon’s government in the capital city of Eden, and destroy the fal’Cie of the same name who pulls all the strings in Cocoon’s government. The party’s final split occurs when Lightning leaves to go and destroy the fal’Cie, and Hope follows her, wanting to grow stronger so that he can confront Snow and get revenge for the death of his mother. Vanille and Sazh decide to run entirely the opposite direction to avoid being captured by the military. Snow, meanwhile, is captured while trying to protect Serah, and meets Fang, another l’Cie who works for a division of the Guardian Corps secretly aiding the fugitive l’Cie.

And that’s basically the main setup of the story. It’s a lot to happen in the first few chapters of the game, and you don’t get a ton of gameplay to break up the story. There is just SO MUCH STORY in this game, and this is coming from a person who has probably played Final Fantasy 10 upwards of 50 times before, and I know all of those (unskippable) scenes by heart. If Final Fantasy 10 was an interactive movie, this game is an interactive miniseries. I’m just going to go ahead and say that while the story sets up very nicely, it doesn’t ever really take off. The whole game, all you hear about is fal’Cie and l’Cie. Now granted, they’re the main focus of the story, but there aren’t really any interesting side-stories, everything all goes back to the Pulse fal’Cie that was discovered in Bodhum, and you’re treated throughout the game to numerous flashback sequences of the thirteen days in Bodhum from the time the fal’Cie is discovered, up until the time the citizens are Purged. But the game is so focused on this story that you don’t really get to play very much, and when you do you basically walk a straight line until you get to the next scene, fighting a chain of enemies as you get there.

Then there are the aforementioned flashback sequences. Some of them make me want to pull my hair out. It’s so over the top with it’s romance. We just watch Snow go on and on about how he’ll do anything to protect Serah, while Serah cries and runs around screaming about how she’s a l’Cie, “enemy of Cocoon!” (get used to hearing that, every character’s going to say it a few times). And it’s not that I can’t do cheesy romances, either, but the romance between Serah and Snow just doesn’t have any BASIS. We don’t KNOW these characters, and we as players (or, more appropriately, viewers) aren’t invested in the fate of their relationship. I guess in a sense it’s moving to see Snow risking everything time and again for Serah, but it’s not like in previous games when we meet the couple and watch their relationship build. Basically, this game doesn’t have it’s “lake scene,” for all you Final Fantasy 10 players who know what I’m talking about. They tried, but as far as I can tell, they haven’t done a great job at building up the romance, or even really making most of the characters very interesting.

The floating world of Cocoon

Another thing is the plot. It’s just not extremely interesting. It sets up well, but nothing ever really happens beyond the initial setup. Every single plot twist in this game is that some character or another turns out to be a l’Cie or a fal’Cie. And then (spoilers ahead), you learn that the leader of the Sanctum government is actually a fal’Cie disguised as a human, and he informs the cast that their focus is not to save Cocoon, but to destroy it. One of the main characters must transform into the monster Ragnorok and use their power to destroy Cocoon, as a sacrifice to the original Maker, the god who created the world, and when Cocoon has been sacrificed, the Maker will return to Gran Pulse to put the world to rights again and return it to it’s “former glory.” Upon learning this, the main cast all decide that they’re not going to be tools of fal’Cie, and that they’re going to fulfill Serah’s wish and save Cocoon, even if it means not completing their focus and turning into Cie’th. We also learn that Cocoon is sustained by a fal’Cie called Orphan who uses his power to keep Cocoon alive and floating.

Doesn’t this sound awfully familiar?

In Final Fantasy 10, the main cast learn that the higher-ups in the government have pulled the wool over the citizens eyes, and that one of the members of the main cast must transform into a great beat, the Final Aeon, in order to defeat Sin, the monster that plagues the world. Within Sin is Yu Yevon, a Summoner who uses his power to create and sustain Sin, his floating armor. It’s all very similar to what’s going on hear.

Then you have this game’s sequel, the main plot of which is that Serah goes on a journey to find Lightning, who mysteriously disappeared upon defeating Orphan in the climax of Final Fantasy 13, which is pretty reminiscent of Final Fantasy 10’s sequel, in which Yuna goes on a journey to find Tidus after he mysteriously disappeared upon defeating Yu Yevon.

Basically, a lot of this story has been done before, and done better. There aren’t a lot of layers to this story, or to these characters, many of them are pretty one-dimensional. Every plot twist is that someone or something is a fal’Cie or a l’Cie. The only break we’re given from the main storyline are the flashback sequences, which usually consist of the main characters filling out their mostly shallow backstories, or a lot of cringe/vomit-worthy love scenes between Snow and Serah. The story moves at an extremely slow pace, and when the action finally begins, it’s pretty unsatisfying. I fear Final Fantasy may be beginning to go down the same self-indulgent road as Kingdom Hearts with convoluted plotlines. While the plot of this game isn’t atrocious, it’s just not very interesting, and while I’m not here to compare this game to all of it’s predecessors, it certainly doesn’t make me feel as invested as the storylines of any of those games did.

They see me rollin’

And let’s not forget the constant string of references to past Final Fantasies. There are so many that it’s not even hitting my nostalgia buttons. The first battle in the game is probably the best example: Lightning, the ex-soldier, and Sazh, the (I’m just going to say it, Square are the one’s who did it, not me) gun-toting black man, face off against none other than a guard scorpion. Yep, first battle, guard scorpion. Players of Final Fantasy 7 will instantly recognize the first boss fight of that game, against a guard scorpion. Now, I’m not saying that Sazh is anything like Barrett just because he’s black, but you kind of have to wonder about how racially conscious the designers are; Sazh is a black man carrying two pistols with an afro so thick that a small bird literally lives in it. In addition, every time there’s a scene that’s focused around Sazh, bayou-style harmonica music starts up. Ultimately he’s one of the better characters despite a lot of the cosmetic aspects of his character being pretty stereotyped.

Apart from the opening sequence, there are just tons of references, however small, to past Final Fantasies, to the point that it’s almost annoying. It’s like the game isn’t even trying to come into it’s own as a Final Fantasy title, it’s just using plotlines derived from Final Fantasy 10 and including a lot of references to past games already beloved by fans of the series. There’s a moment in the story, I can’t remember exactly when, but you’ll notice it if you’ve played Final Fantasy 10, where Sazh stands on a ship and and holds onto a rope in exactly the same pose from exactly the same angle as Tidus’ iconic entrance into Luca from Final Fantasy 10. Things like this happen constantly during the first few chapters of the game, thankfully they eventually start to die down a bit. It’s not that referencing the past games is a bad thing, but it’s just so excessive near the beginning of the game that it honestly becomes annoying.

Part 2: Characters

Many times, when playing through a title in the Final Fantasy series, or any game where you’re given a list of party members from which to choose your main team, you choose different people when you play through the game again and again, because you like the characters and you want to get to know them better and use their strengths and weaknesses in your party. The problem with Final Fantasy 13 is that of the main cast of six characters, probably only three are genuinely likable.

The main protagonist, Lightning, is a Final Fantasy hero we’ve all seen before. Quiet and cold, she’s a fierce warrior who doesn’t say much about her emotions, and the only thing we usually see from her is anger and determination. It’s interesting to note that apparently, during the creation of Final Fantasy 13, Lightning was intended to be a “female Cloud,” or rather, she was intended to be modeled after Cloud, the main protagonist of Final Fantasy 7. This is actually kind of funny to me, if it’s true, because Cloud was actually a flirtatious, overconfident, somewhat lovable smartass. He wasn’t cold or stoic or mean whatsoever, he was kind and laid back. If Lightning is modeled after any Final Fantasy hero, it’s Squall Leonhart from Final Fantasy 8, the two have very similar quiet dispositions, all gunblade references aside.

Regardless of who she may or may not have been based on, Lightning is an okay main character. I like her, and I think that anyone who plays the game will like her, but I don’t think I LOVE her. She doesn’t really move me the way that past heroes have, and even a whiney brat like Tidus still managed to make me care about his situation. Lightning is just sort of a stereotypical fantasy hero, quiet and calculating, unmatched in combat, and determined to get what she’s after at any cost. She fits the role of leader, but she doesn’t really pull at anyone’s heart strings.

Then we have the game’s secondary main character: Snow. I’m going to say this now: I. HATE. Snow. I have never disliked a character as much as I dislike Snow. Everything that he says and does makes me want to punch him in his smiling face. He’s such a “good guy” trope. He always does what he thinks is right in every situation, never leaves anyone to suffer, and pounds his fists dramatically and screams at the INJUSTICE of every situation. Oh, the melodrama! Snow takes personal responsibility for the suffering of everyone around him, he goes on and on about how he MUST fight to do what is right, always, and spends the majority of the first half of the game screaming “Serah!” at random intervals. He’s cocky and annoying, I absolutely can’t stand anything that comes out of his mouth, he has not had a single moment where I’ve found his character to be redeeming at all. I absolutely cannot stand him, it’s like his character was conjured up to try and bring in players who’ve never played the Final Fantasy series by putting in the most streotypical heroic good-guy ever and giving him a corny romance with a pretty girl in a miniskirt.

Not all of the characters make me want to vomit and pull my hair out though. A good slice of the main cast is very likable. Sazh is the voice of reason amongst the group, and the only who seems to think like a rational human being. He’s also one of the most moving characters in the story. His motivation is to save his son Dajh, who is, predictably, a l’Cie, by completing Dajh’s unknown focus for him. In a sequence quite surprising for a Final Fantasy game, Sazh even puts his pistol to his head and attempts to kill himself. Hope, on the other hand, is a character who I really want to like, but just can’t. He begins the game as a complete weakling, crouching down behind people and screaming for his life and crying about every situation he finds himself in, and as he travels with Lightning becomes so hell bent on revenge with snow that he becomes outraged and overconfident, charging off into battles in an attempt to become stronger and get revenge. His whole plotline sounds good, but it just doesn’t really do it for me, it’s all so melodramatic that I don’t really buy it.

Fan service anyone?

Oerba Dia Vanille, better known simply as Vanille, serves as the narrator of the story. Vanille is perhaps the most likable character in the game, and her story is probably the most interesting, as she ultimately becomes one of the central figures of the main plot. I am a bit disturbed by how much blatant fan service Vanille delivers throughout the game, however, constantly jumping around and laughing in an extremely sexual manner. Seriously, it sounds like Vanille has an orgasm every time she is even remotely stimulated by anything. When she’s not being dramatic or narrating, she’s giggling like a schoolgirl, throwing her butt in the air and rolling around in the grass squealing in excstasy because she likes the way a flower smells or something. She let’s out an orgasmic scream with her legs mounted atop her Eidolon when it unleashes it’s final attack, a massive explosion. It’s kind of funny to me that I did not notice this whatsoever the first couple of times I played this game, but on my current playthrough it was pointed out to me and I can’t believe I never noticed it before. Still, Vanille is a really good character, and a good choice to be the narrator. She also sports an odd Australian accent that goes in and out randomly, so that sometime’s she sounds British, sometimes she sounds American, and sometimes she sounds like a British-Australian hybrid.

Oerba Dia Fang, or simply Fang, is a warrior who, like Vanille, hails from Gran Pulse. I’m gonna go ahead and say it, it’s pretty heavily implied that Vanille and Fang are a couple. They don’t come outright and say it, but if you play the game you’ll see what I mean. Apparently Fang was originally designed as male, but later changed to female, so it would make even more sense if you factor in the possibility that there may have originally been a romance planned for these two. Fang joins the party about halfway into the story; she too sports an Australian accent, and is another of the more likable characters in the main cast.

Altogether, the main cast leaves a lot to be desired. With the exception of Fang and Vanille, most of them just aren’t very compelling, and their backstories don’t really make me as a player care about them that much. I think the fact that Square Enix tried so hard to break all of the Final Fantasy traditions in this game hurt them in this area as well as basically every other. There’s no token non-human character, and everyone kind of blends in. Hell, can’t we at least have them all wearing ridiculous outfits that look silly when they all stand together in a group? No? Fine.

Part 3: Music

I don’t have very much to say about the music in this game, except that it’s mostly the same two tracks rearranged for different situations. Most of the area music is the main theme of the game, a cute love-ballad, rearranged to fit the mood of the area, and most of the intense cutscenes use a rearranged version of the main battle theme, which is also Lightning’s theme. Nobuo Umeatsu is said to be making a return to the Final Fantasy series, and I’ll be very grateful when he does, because with the exception of the theme songs of the games, which have been mostly pop ballads, the music of the Final Fantasy series has been extremely forgettable since he left after Final Fantasy 10. That being said, I don’t dislike the music of this game, it’s just not very diverse or memorable. The battle theme is pretty, but it’s just about all you’ll be hearing apart from the main pop song that’s been woven into the music of the areas and cutscenes.

Part 4: Gameplay

And here it is. The gameplay. As I’ve mentioned before, this game tried very hard to break all of the Final Fantasy traditions, which I respect, because I like originality. However, I think they tried so hard not to be a Final Fantasy game that the battle system is, at times, totally ludicrous.

Firstly, characters do not have stats in this game apart from strength and magic. Yep, that’s it. If defense and magic defense are factored into these stats, I don’t know, because the game certainly does not tell me. There are items that increase your damage resistance and magic resistance by a certain percentage, which is the closest you get to actually having a defensive stat. Your armor comes in the form of accessories, much like it did in Final Fantasy 10 and 10-2, with these items doing everything from increasing your HP, strength or magic, to giving you elemental resistances and increasing the effects of items. Having no stats apart from strength and magic seems like it would make battling simpler, but it doesn’t.

The battles take place in real time, which is something we should all be used to by now, and characters act via an Active Time Battle gague that fills up gradually. Every move has an ATB cost, rather than an MP cost, and you can choose as many moves as you want based on the ATB points you have. All of the characters start out with 2 ATB gague segments and gain more as time goes on. Because it would be too difficult to decide what all three of your characters do with all three of their ATB gague segments while running around in real time and getting pummeled by enemies, you only control the party leader, and the other characters act on their own to support you. There’s also an Auto-Battle option, which queues up what the computer decides to be the most effective action at that point in battle, such as healing the character with the lowest HP, or using a wide-ranged attack called Blitz to attack multiple enemies at once.

Everyone has access to different roles in battle, which correspond pretty closely to the job system Final Fantasy veterans are already used to, with roles such as Commando (Warrior), Ravager (Black Mage), and Medic (White Mage). During battle, you set which characters are fitting which role using a Paradigm. For example, if you have Lightning as a Commando, Hope as a Ravager, and Vanille as a Medic, that is a Paradigm called Diversity. During battle you can switch between the Paradigms you have set up, which is known as a Paradigm shift.

This all sets up very well, and it could work out great. However, for a variety of reasons, it doesn’t. That is because enemies are defeated mainly using a concept called Stagger. Whenever you battle an enemy, they have a Stagger bar in the upper right hand corner of the screen, and you fill it by using a variety of attacks, which requires a lot of Paradigm shifting so that your characters can perform different moves. However, this mechanic just hasn’t really panned out in my personal experience of playing. Maybe I’m missing something, or maybe you just have to be a Dungeons and Dragons type to really get this battle system, but the majority of enemies I battle are very difficult to Stagger, and the only way to really make them Stagger is to constantly switch between Paradigms. That doesn’t seem too bad, but it takes all of the fun out of battling. You never really get a chance to do anything, or decide what actions to take, because you have to spend the whole battle constantly Paradigm shifting so that your opponent’s stagger gauge will go up.

Another important thing to note about Staggering is that though your party fills an opponents stagger gauge by attacking, it’s also steadily falling back down to zero, so you have to act fast to keep it from starting all over. However, there are times when an opponents Stagger bar moves so painfully slow that it can take five to ten minutes just to defeat one enemy, for exmaple you can be battling an enemy whose Stagger point is at 200%, and the percentage their Stagger gauge has reached will be 199.8%, but five more attacks don’t even fill it up to 199.9%! Other times, their Stagger gauge drops so rapidly that there is literally no way to attack in time to keep it from dropping to zero and restarting, and Paradigm shifting causes your characters to stop battling for the few seconds it takes to shift, which leaves you entirely open to attack, and causes your opponent’s Stagger gauge to drop back down to zero again!

On top of the difficulty of staggering opponents, your party is so weak in the HP department that you have to have at least one character healing the other party members at virtually all times! This doesn’t even help most of the time though, because a Medic will launch four Cure spells at one character at a time, and if two characters are injured then you have to wait for them to queue up another four Cure spells to lob at the injured character who will probably be dead by the time they get to doing it. Medics also aren’t provided with very effective spells, as I am now at chapter 11 of 13 and have still not upgraded beyond Cura, or even seen Curaga in my list of upcoming abilities, even though I know that the spell exists in the game. And guess what else? You are only given Potions with which to heal your party. Basic Potions that are ineffective most of the time for healing and only help somewhat if your character equips an item that doubles their effectiveness. On top of that, the time that it takes for a character to do their item animation usually causes me to get killed and lose the battle, because there’s a second or two of delay between selecting the item and the party leader using it.

And if you think you can get through the game without Paradigm shifting, guess again. This may work in some of the earlier chapters, but by the time you get to Chapter 11, enemies have so much HP and (presumably) defense that you can attack for minutes on end and still not see any significant decrease in their health, nor an increase in their stagger bar, so you’re left constantly Paradigm shifting in an attempt to do some damage to them, but whenever you shift to any sort of offensive Paradigm your characters are immediately pummeled to near-death and you have to switch back to a defensive Paradigm just to heal everyone, at which point the opponent’s Stagger bar has dropped to zero and you have to start all over again! The enemies also have so much health that it’s nearly impossible to defeat some of them without staggering them, especially bosses. In Chapter 11, many of the enemies have HP ranging from the hundred-thousands to an enemy with literally five-million HP! FIVE MILLION! Ruby goddamn Weapon from Final Fantasy 7 only had 800,000! From what I can tell, the characters HP, Strength and Magic all increase dramatically near the ending of the game, but a player shouldn’t have to go through 80% of the game with low stats, fighting beginner level enemies, only to be thrown into a grand open plain filled with enemies that have five million HP!

There are no towns to explore in this game, and as such, your shops are all available to you at save points, and you gain access to new shops by defeating important enemies. In the shops you can buy items, but you won’t spend much time buying items in this game because the game does not give you any gil. Occasionally you’ll run across a treasure sphere with a little gil in it, but it’s nothing substantial. You cannot earn money from battling, you cannot earn money from side quests, you cannot earn money from anything in this game, all that you can do is sell items, and usually the only items that fetch any significant amount of gil are weapons. The concept of selling items for gil, as opposed to just earning it from enemies, was used in Final Fantasy 12, but in that game, enemies dropped loot, the sole purpose of which was to sell so that you could have gil. In this game however, enemies drop components, which could be sold for gil but wouldn’t be enough to provide you with any real money, and besides, you would just spend the money you earned buying more components, because of the weapons system.

The weapons system is the only part of this game that I think I really like. Components that enemies drop can be used to upgrade your weapon, in a concept similar to weapon synthesis used in Final Fantasy 8 and the Kingdom Hearts series, except that instead of hunting down the right component pieces for the proper upgrade, you can use any component to upgrade any weapon, because they all have an EXP value. For example, a character’s weapon may require 1,000 EXP to level up to level 2, so you can use components whose combined EXP values equal 1,000 or greater to upgrade to the next level. If you overshoot the amount needed, the weapon will automatically add in the extra EXP you gave it and continue upgrading to the appropriate level. Leveling up a weapon increases it’s strength and/or magic depending on the weapon, and when it’s reached it’s maximum level (which from what I can tell is about level 26), you can use a special kind of component that acts as a transformation agent to change the weapon into it’s next form. For instance, Lightning’s default weapon the Blazefire Saber maxes out it’s level at level 26, and you can use the transformation agent Perovskite to upgrade the weapon to it’s second form, Flamberge, and eventually when it’s maxed it’s level out again, upgrade it to it’s ultimate form, Omega Weapon.

Weapons are not the only thing that can be leveled up, as accessories too have levels, and increasing these levels can increase their effect, such as providing you with more elemental resistances, or strength, magic, and HP bonuses. Items with single effects like the Doctor’s Code, which doubles the restorative effect of Potions, max out at level 2. The weapons system can be confusing without a guide though, as it’s hard to tell when comparing a new weapon to a currently equipped weapon which has better stats, since the new one will always be on level one, and some of the weapon and accessories abilities, like Stagger Lock and Deprotect reistance, aren’t really ever explained to you without you doing your own research.

The characters level up through a system called the Crystarium, which is the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy 10 reincarnated. The Sphere Grid was a fantastic system for leveling up characters, and this game pretty much sticks to the Sphere Grid formula, except that rather than gaining a Sphere level and using each level to progress to the next node of the grid, you use Crystarium points, which are this games Experience points, to progress to the next crystal, which will increase your magic or strength, give a new accessory slot or ATB gauge segment, or grant you new abilites to be used in battle when using the role you’ve gained the ability in. The Crystarium is a solid level-up system, but because the pacing of the game is so slow, you’re given basically a level cap on how far you can progress through the Crystarium in your given chapter. By Chapter 11, crystals have gone from costing four hundred, seven hundred, or a thousand Crystarium points, to up in the thousands and ten thousands, and it’s apparently only going to get more expensive from there. By the time every member of the party is given access to every role of the Crystarium, learning the techniques for new roles costs thousands of Crystarium points just for a single crystal! The problem with the Crystarium, is the same problem that exists with the enemies and the area layouts: the pacing.

The pacing of this game is horrible. It is, for the most part, an interactive movie. You spend the majority of the game walking on narrow paths down a straight line, and fighting groups of enemies with your only goal to the end of the path where you’ll watch another cut scene. The areas are basically straight lines handed to you on a silver platter, and your only objective is to battle through the hordes of enemies to get to the next cutscene. It sucks all of the fun out of exploring and training your characters. It’s terrible game design that the player spends the first 10 chapters running down narrow paths, only to be thrown onto the sprawling plains of Gran Pulse that is literally a gigantic open field filled with enemies. Chapter 11 also introduces the Mission system, in which you find Cie’th Stones that, which basically give you a beast of some sort to kill, similar to the hunt system from Final Fantasy 12.  The problem is you really have no idea where to look for the marks you’re hunting, and trying to aimlessly wander around gets you killed by the hordes of dragons and behemoths with hundreds of thousands of HP, motionless Stagger gauges, and strength stats so high that you have to spend the whole battle with them healing yourself.

Eidolons make an appearance in this game as well, and unlike Final Fantasy 12, which made an effort not to use any of the classic summons, the majority of the Eidolons featured in this game are familiar summons like Shiva and Bahamut. Whenever one of the main party members is in great distress or feels the need to give up (such as Sazh attempting to shoot himself, or Hope asking the others to leave him behind), their personal Eidolon appears and challenges them in battle. The method of defeating an Eidolon is not by reducing it’s HP to zero however, since it has no HP gauge. They also cannot be staggered, as they have no Stagger point. The method of defeating them is to fill their Gestalt Gauge, which fills based on different actions characters use in battle, but really all you need to do is keep paradigm shifting and using a variety of abilities. Every Eidolon battle begins with the Eidolon placing a Doom counter over their l’Cie partner, and when the counter reaches zero, the battle ends unfavorably. Once you’ve filled the Gestalt gauge, however, you can claim the Eidolon as your own and enter Gestalt mode, though you won’t be able to actually use Gestalt modes abilities in the initial battle.

Eidolons are summoned using Technical Points, which you acquire through successfully completing battles and unleashing full ATB gauges, and each l’Cie can summon their personal Eidolon, no other. Unfortunately, Eidolons aren’t really as powerful as they seem. Summoning an Eidolon during even a normal battle against a few simple monsters doesn’t really make the battle dramatically easier, as opponent’s are still very difficult to stagger, and your Eidolon doesn’t do such a significantly higher amount of damage than your character that it easily turns the tide of a battle. Instead of HP, your Eidolon has a Gestalt meter that steadily decreases, and at any time you can enter Gestalt mode, in which your Eidolon transforms into a vehicle of some sort for your character to ride and battle atop. They morph in a style similar to the that of the Transformers series, sometimes into beasts, such as Odin morphing into a horse, which Lightning rides atop, swinging Odin’s twin swords, or Brynhildr morphing into a car, which Sazh drives. This actually caused quite a stir amongst Final Fantasy fans when details and footage of Final Fantasy 13 were first being made public; I personally don’t really mind the transforming aspect, as it provides a unique style of gameplay that happens entirely in real-time. Upon entering Gestalt mode you’re given a list of abilities, along with Gestalt points you can spend to use each ability, and a finishing move with a cinematic final blow that does a lot more damage than any of the others. Unfortunately, as I said, Eidolon’s don’t really turn the tide of any difficult battle, so you’ll find that you haven’t really done too significant an amount of damage to a boss if you summon an Eidolon, and because of the limited amount of Technical Points your party is given, you can only summon an Eidolon once per battle.

This game has also completely changed status effects, which are divided into subcategories Debuff, Debilitate, and None. I still don’t understand what the majority of them do. Debuff status effects all decrease stats, such as Deprotect and Poison, Debilitate hinders your ability to act, such as Fog and Curse, and None… well, I can’t really figure it out, apparently instant death is somehow involved. I have about no idea what all of these new status effects do, I don’t know the difference between Fog or Haze, I don’t know how Debrave is directly related to Brave, if it cancels out Brave or if it’s just something different altogether, the status effects make no sense to me, and while as a player I should learn these effects, most of them aren’t explained within the game, and considering the game wastes no time explaining extremely simple things like how to use a Potion, you would think that the designers would have though to explain the basic game mechanics of a new game in the series that doesn’t have the same status effects or stats as any of the others! The battle system, along with everything else in this game, tries so hard to be unique and break the Final Fantasy mold that it completely forgets to be a solid system for battling!

The final new concept of the battle system is the ranking system. At the end of each battle, you’re given points on how well you completed the battle, a rank of zero to five stars. This rank does absolutely nothing whatsoever, it doesn’t give you experience, it doesn’t let you keep the points you earn to spend on something, it’s just there to judge you for no reason at all. This isn’t an arcade game where you’re trying to get a perfect score on each level, it’s an RPG, and there’s no need whatsoever to rank how well you did in the battle, because that’s entirely beside the point!

The battle system is so full of fresh, new ideas, that it seems like it’s going to pan out very well at the beginning of the game, but by Chapter 11, it’s all falling apart: enemies are overpowered and extremely difficult to defeat, characters can’t gain more than one or two crystals at a time because of the ludicrous cost of leveling up, gil is sparse because it can only be obtained by finding items and selling them, battles consist of mostly letting the computer do the actual battling while you command from behind the scenes with Paradigm shifting, Eidolon’s are underpowered, even easy bosses have so much HP that you have to dance around them for minutes a time, slowly wittling down their HP gauges and sometimes never staggering them, and on top of that you get the added insult of making a zero-star rank if you complete the battle in anything less than a minute or two, even on bosses.

The difficulty spikes so high in chapter 11 that it’s like you’re not even playing the same game anymore, and you have to spend a lot of time level grinding to be strong enough to defeat even the weakest of enemies on Gran Pulse. You go immediately from walking straight lines to a huge open field covered in deadly enemies you have slim chances of defeating, and are left to fend for yourself entirely in a game that hasn’t set itself up to even have an overworld this close to the ending. You’re given what you want if you’ve been bothered by the linearity, but the wide open space is just as bad, it’s so non-linear that you’re left having no idea what to do, and whichever course you decide on will involve battling your way through hordes of extremely strong enemies you’re not in any position to fight yet. In addition, this chapter gives you such extreme stat bonuses (like a normal strength crystal going from giving you +4 strength to +80) that it’s like the real leveling up and exploration was just tacked on at the ending so as to give the pesky players who want real gameplay instead of an incessant pummeling of story something to silence them. The pacing of this game is horrifying, going from your stats being in the hundred to the thousands within a couple chapters! You spend 80% of the game walking straight lines with the game holding your hand in every aspect, to being forced to level grind from what was probably about level 20 to about level 50 in two chapters. The game has tried so hard to have a compelling story that it completely sweep gameplay under the rug in favor cutscene after cutscene of l’Cie and fal’Cie.

Conclusion

I have never been disappointed in a Final Fantasy game. Ever. Even games that I didn’t particularly love, I could still have fun with and see the advantages of. I appreciate when a game tries to create a fresh atmosphere and a new style of gameplay, and sometimes it can be rough to adjust to. But this game blatantly ignores gameplay in favor of it’s story, and that’s just ridiculous. If I wanted to watch a Final Fantasy movie, I would go get one of the many that have been produced. I came to this game hoping to find something that would capture my interest and keep me hooked on playing for hours, building my team and creating the perfect combination of weapons and abilities that worked for me. But instead, I have spent twenty hours walking a straight line, only to level up painfully slow, and then be thrown into the final three chapters of the game, where absolutely all of the team building and leveling up occurs.

The mistakes that this game makes are absolutely unforgivable, and I am not a hard gamer to please. I enjoy very simple RPGs, give me something to level up and a big field in which to do it, and I’m happy. But the overworld of Gran Pulse is not the same thing whatsoever, and it makes me really angry that the Final Fantasy franchise would create a game so story-centric that it doesn’t even attempt to have compelling gameplay that makes a player want to come back. Replay value has always been a key factor in the fun of any RPG. Why would I want to replay this game? To watch the same melodramatic story play out again, only to be treated to hour long interludes of walking down straight paths and fighting enemies that take minutes to defeat, so that I can barely level up whatsoever, and then be treated to more cutscenes? What would be the point? The battles in this game just becomes less and less fun as the story progresses, and eventually the only reason you’re playing is to see what happens next in the story, which isn’t in itself all that compelling in the first place!

I thought that Final Fantasy fans were just doing what all fans of major franchises do when they said that Final Fantasy 13 was a disappointment, and that Square Enix’s games were going downhill, and they were just complaining because they weren’t getting Final Fantasy 7 all over again. I’m happy when a game tries it’s best to be an individual and not exactly the same as it’s predecessors. But by the time you’re near the ending, Final Fantasy 13 just isn’t an extremely fun game. I really don’t see any reason to play it again, and that’s just sad. It’s not completely devoid of fun, it has it’s appeal, but it’s sad to see the Final Fantasy franchise attempt to cash in on the storyline it’s so renowned for by focusing so much on the story that gameplay goes virtually unnoticed. I’m really surprised, because I have always expected top quality games from the Final Fantasy series, and it has never let me down before. But this game has let me down, and I’m sad to say that. I sincerely hope that when Square Enix goes back to the drawing board for the next Final Fantasy installment, which should be another installment in the Fabula Nova Chrysallis series that Final Fantasy 13 is a part of, they’ll try and keep in mind that players keep coming back to their games not just because of the compelling story and characters, but because of the solid, unique, fun gameplay that each installment has offered.

Square clearly spent a lot of money making this game pretty. The characters and areas are beautifully rendered, the cutscenes are spectacular, the creatures and places are stunning and beautiful, the music, while not nearly as memorable as music in the past installments, is cinematic and sets a good mood. The concepts for the gameplay are good, but they’re ignored for most of the game, and by the time they finally come to fruition, the game’s almost over, and it’s far too late to give the player an overworld to explore. The slow pacing, lack of gameplay, oversaturation of story and melodrama, and well-intentioned but ultimately bad attempts to be individual among it’s predecessors make Final Fantasy 13 a truly dissapointing game that starts strong but becomes weaker as it draws to it’s final climax. I’m not finished with the game and I know that I still have more of it to experience, but based on my twenty hours of gameplay through 11 of the game’s 13 chapters, I am really saddenned to see a series that I have always had faith, trust, and hope in, make such a big mistake as blatantly disregarding gameplay for a pretty, cinematic game that is more or less an interactive film. A beautifully rendered interactive film, but not a compelling game. I came to Final Fantasy 13 expecting a game, and what I got was a film. I don’t know what else to say except that I hope that when Final Fantasy 15 finally rolls around, we’ll be given a game that’s not only unique in it’s storyline and characters as well as beautifully rendered and detailed, but provides solid, FUN gameplay. I want to have fun when I play a game. This game has not delivered in it’s fun factor.

I give Square Enix all the credit it’s due for the beautiful cutscenes that they clearly spent all of their time working on, but I’m sad to see a franchise of the magnitude of Final Fantasy, of which I have so much personal investment in, having spent my childhood and the majority of my life enjoying these games, slipping to such a degree as it has with Final Fantasy 13. Here’s hoping the next one is a lot more fun.

Afterword

Since writing this review I’ve finished the game, and while I still stand by the points I made here, I’ve since learned that a lot of the trouble I was having with the battle system was due to ignorance about the basic mechanics of the game. For instance, I was using mostly commandos, and the game doesn’t ever really tell you that commando’s are virtually incapable of staggering enemies, and that ravagers are the main enemy staggerers. It also doesn’t go into detail explaining all of the new status effects, the new weapons and armor system, it doesn’t talk about Synthesis Groups whatsoever, gives only a vague outline of how to upgrade weapons and armor, and you’re left with virtually no idea of what certain weapons and armor will upgrade into. If the game takes the time to hold your hand through teaching you how to use a Potion (which, in addition to being virtually worthless in battle, is the only healing item in the game, aside from Elixirs, of which I received one on my entire playthrough and it was right before the final boss), I would think it would explain the different between Debuffing and Debilitating status effects, how damage is dealt in battle considering the only stats your given are Strength and Magic, or how to upgrade to a weapon’s final form, since it uses a different catalyst than the original and there’s no way to see which catalyst upgrades which weapon without trial and error.

By the end of the game, the fun factor drops nearly to zero; I was extremely bored with the final dungeon, which was just a tedious line of overpowered enemies that I don’t know how you’re expected to defeat if you haven’t grinded or upgraded your weapons, which by the way it’s reccomended that you don’t even do until AFTER you’ve beaten the game. It’s like the whole story of the game is just a buildup to being able to do the Cie’th Stone missions after you’re finished. And in case you’re wondering, the story doesn’t really get any better, it’s pretty much just a lineup of people saying the words “l’cie,” “fal’cie,” “cie’th,” “focus,” “crystal,” etc. Vanille and Fang’s backstory is never really fleshed out, a lot of things happen in the finale of the game that don’t make sense, like Fang attempting to save Vanille by… killing her? The party turns into Cie’th, and then suddenly they weren’t Cie’th, the party destroys Orphan even though their goal was to save Cocoon by NOT destroying Orphan, the main villain of the game WANTS you to kill him, it’s all very confusing and didn’t really add up by the end. The sad thing is, once the brief action is done in the final scene and Vanille and Fang transform into Ragnorok to save Cocoon, the ending scene is only a few minutes long. I spent 50 hours watching hundreds of cutscenes just to finally complete the quest and get a very brief reunion between Serah and Dahj and their families, and that’s it. No epilogue, no explanation of what happened to the citizens of Cocoon, nothing. All of the rest of the story is told through a series of web novellas called Final Fantasy 13 Episode Zero, a prologue, and Final Fantasy 13 episode 1, an epilogue. It was pretty disappointing, the one thing I thought this game would hold up it’s end of the bargain on was lengthy cutscenes, but ironically the only time in the game I wanted a lengthy cutscene was the ending, and it was disappointingly short, though the action in the finale of the game was still great.

The fun factor of the game goes WAY up after you’re finished with the main story. Gran Pulse is much more fun to explore than any area of Cocoon, the missions are a fun system, and the ability to customize all the characters of your main cast without worrying about hordes of overpowered enemies adds so much to the fun. It really seems like Final Fantasy 13 is intended to be played in two parts: the main story which as I’ve said in an interactive movie, and Gran Pulse which you can’t fully explore until after you’ve beaten the game.

In fact, you aren’t even given the entire Crystarium until after completing the final chapter, and even though all characters can develop in any role, they aren’t all given the same abilities, and due to the outrageous CP cost for learning abilities in other roles, characters are mostly confined to their initial three roles. For example: you can make Sazh a Medic, but the only abilities he’ll ever learn are Cure, Esuna, and Cura. Then there are some characters whose central roles are Medics, who don’t ever gain important Medic abilities: Vanille is the only Medic to learn Curaja, and Lightning never learns Raise, even in the final tier of her Crystarium. Characters do all learn a “signature” move though, such as Lightning’s Army of One, which is a cinematic Omnislash-type attack, Fang’s Highwind ability, which does extremely high damage to staggered enemies, usually breaking the damage limit, and Vanille’s Death ability, which has a certain percentage of chance to kill an opponent instantly, and is your best bet for fighting Adamantoises before you’re ready.

All in all, Final Fantasy 13 was pretty much a let down, but there is some hope: the postgame is a lot more fun than the actual story itself, and the sequel, Final Fantasy 13-2, looks worlds better than it’s predecessor. I watched the first half hour or so of the sequel’s gameplay, and a lot of problems with the original are rectificed while the good aspects of the original are improved upon: the player starts right in the middle of the action, quick-time events had been added, the player can choose the way certain scenes play out, and even influence the ending of the game. In fact, there are nine different endings to Final Fantasy 13-2, consisting of one canon ending and eight “paradox” endings.

The story of the sequel is immediately more interesting: Lightning is a warrior in a strange world called Valhalla, locked in a deathmatch against an enigmatic villain named Caius, Serah lives in the town of New Bodhum on Gran Pulse, and sets off on a search to find Lightning, who is thought by everyone to be dead, insisting that Serah’s memories of meeting up with Lightning and her party alongside Dahj were a dream, and that Lightning had in reality sacrificed herself to become the crystal pillar holding up Cocoon when it fell to the earth. In addition, the battle system seems to have been improved upon: Paradigm Shifts happen instantly, enemies chain gauges seem to fill much faster, and enemies actually award you gil for defeating them! Also, the entire Crystarium is available from the beginning of the game, and has been given some improvements as well.

Kupo!

The areas in Final Fantasy 13-2 are open and non-linear, exploration is more interactive with the inclusion of a jump button (the first main series Final Fantasy to ever officially give the player the ability to jump at any time), the setting is much more interesting, between the wilderness of Gran Pulse and the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Valhalla. The music also sounds much more interesting, rather than being the same three or four tracks remixed for different occasions, the tracks I’ve heard just from the small portion of the game I’ve seen have been interesting, different, and incorporate a much more rock and dance oriented feel, with the strings and orchestras from the first game still present and mixed in. Even though the battle theme that was woven into almost every track in Final Fantasy 13 appears again, but it’s much more interesting with the diversity of the sequels soundtrack. Also, did I mention there are Moogles? Yep, Serah’s weapon is a moogle that transforms into a bow. Her partner, Noel, may look like he was plucked right out of Kingdom Hearts, but Final Fantasy 13-2 still looks very promising, and looks like a lot more fun than the original.

Almost all reviews of Final Fantasy 13-2 unanimously agree that it’s a vast improvement upon it’s predecessor, and from what I’ve seen of the game I agree. The story is more involved, the gameplay more fun, the outcome is affected by the decisions you make, it’s much more of an RPG and less of an interactive movie than the first game. The cinematics are also a lot more interesting, and everything about the game seems more fun. I still have some achievements to work on, as well as finishing the missions, but when I’ve completed this game I’m really considering playing Final Fantasy 13-2, as it seems to improve greatly on everything this game missed the mark with.

Altogether, Final Fantasy 13 is not the greatest entry in the Final Fantasy series, but at the very least, it’s a good setup for Final Fantasy 13-2, which may be the first sequel in the Final Fantasy series to be significantly better than it’s predecessor. Hopefully when I embark on my next Final Fantasy adventure, I’ll be greeted with a story that’s more engaging (and frankly more interesting), and a style of gameplay that’s a lot more fun than this one has been. While Final Fantasy 13 isn’t a complete failure, it’s certainly a let down, but it’s sequel seems to have what it takes to make up for the slip-ups in this game.