Operation Backlog Completion 2024
Mar 182015

Two weeks ago, Tales of Symphonia’s villain ripped out my heart and steamrolled it. Consequently, I now like him more than ever.

I’m not going to spoil anything about Tales of Symphonia, although it’s quickly becoming my favorite RPG (if not my favorite game) of all time. Instead, I’m going to talk a little bit about villains and then take this opportunity to cover one of my favorite topics–how much I hated Final Fantasy XIII! Consequently, this post WILL contain Final Fantasy XIII spoilers, and while I didn’t appreciate its story, you might not want it spoiled for you. If so, why not read about an RPG I liked, instead?

Raistlin Majere from Dragonlance

Hero, antihero, or villain, we love Raist either way.

Someday, I’ll write a full rant review/discussion of FFXIII, but today I just want to talk about its villain. Because FFXIII’s villain is awful. See, good villains make you feel emotion–any emotion. It can be sadness and anger, like my experience with Symphonia. It can be fear or uneasiness, as I’ve mentioned in the past. Maybe you love the villain’s humor or style. Maybe you sympathize with the character and wish things could work out differently. Maybe you feel hatred so strong, you just can’t wait to take down the villain.

But you should feel something.

Raistlin Majere, from Dragonlance is a great example of a villain who causes many different emotions all at once. He might be the most beloved character in the series, even when he’s evil. (Raistlin resides on a revolving door between antiheroism and villainy.) Even characters in-universe comment on how everyone can sympathize with him and his motives for the terrible things he does.

There are many villains out there like Raistlin, and maybe it’s a misguided attempt to balance this that leaves us with villains like Final Fantasy XIII’s Barthandelus, who makes the audience feel nothing at all.

Okay, I’m sure Barthandelus has his fans. But for my part, I felt nothing. I didn’t love him. I didn’t hate him.

I just didn’t care.

Let’s start by taking a look at how we first meet Barthandelus, or rather–and here begin the spoilers–Primarch Dysley.

All right, so at this point in the story, we’ve seen the guy trying to kill us, so it’s obvious he’s the (or at least a) villain. Thanks to Sazh, we even know who he is. Plus he gets a Datalog entry, so we can learn stuff they didn’t otherwise know how to tell us:

Galenth Dysley is the Primarch–the human representative of the Sanctum. Acting as a bridge between the fal’Cie Eden and a citizen-elected council, he facilitates the government of Cocoon.

“Until now, he has been seen as a conservative leader, never forcing the direction of the council, and always having the best interests of the people at heart. But with the discovery of the Pulse fal’Cie in Bodhum, his leadership becomes ruthless and oppressive, with the Purge policy being instigated over the span of a single night.”

That really seems like the sort of thing we should have learned through the storytelling… but I suppose without any TOWNS, FFXIII couldn’t really show us how people viewed the Primarch. (Imagine how Tales of Symphonia would struggle to introduce us to the Desians without NPC townspeople to guide our impressions. We’ll get back to this.)

Clunky though its handling is, FFXIII’s structure has shown us a villain. From this point on, he should be a major, compelling villain, right? So, when’s the next time we see him?

Gotta give him a little credit–Dysley really wants to be sinister here. I think he might even want to be Chancellor Palpatine executing Order 66. Since we’ve seen him for all of 30 seconds, though, it fails to carry the same weight.

All right, time for the big reveal!

There is a major problem here. This is supposed to be a huge twist–Primarch Dysley is actually the fal’Cie Barthandelus. But why should we CARE? It would be one thing if he’d been presented as a good guy or at least an antihero. It would even work if he’d had a strong role in the story as a villain before this, a long-running nemesis suddenly revealing his true power. Or maybe if we thought the fal’Cie were the good guys, it would be a shock to realize the villain is one of them.

But this? An evil human we’ve seen only twice before reveals himself as an evil demigod. The biggest twist in this scene is that he kills his own second-in-command (because… uh… evil?), which doubles as a disappointment since Jihl Nabaat already had the potential to be a more interesting villain than him.

So, Barthandelus has manipulated us into becoming l’Cie to force us to kill the fal’Cie Orphan, which will bring about the destruction of Cocoon and revive the Maker. This leads to the crux of the plot–trying to find a way to save Cocoon even though we’re being forced to follow Barthandelus’s plans. I actually like that. For all I complain about FFXIII’s story, I think it had real potential. This plot premise should put us in a real moral quandary and make us hate Barthandelus.

And maybe it would if the game made us care about Cocoon.

Cocoon_ExteriorDestroying Cocoon is a bad thing. Lots of people will die. That’s bad.

I just wish the game had made me more attached to Cocoon, so I could feel something other than the objective knowledge that people will die and that’s wrong. Remember how I said Tales of Symphonia’s towns help us understand the Desians? They also make us care about the world.

Without towns, without notable NPC actions, without exploration, I felt no connection to Final Fantasy XIII’s world. I had no personal stake in the fight against Barthandelus. Even in his subsequent appearances, he never did anything to make me care.

Now, I’m not saying every game needs a compelling villain. Some focus on gameplay instead of story, and then it’s just fine to have bad guy you fight just because it’s the bad guy. However, Final Fantasy is a story-driven series in a traditionally story-driven genre, and Final Fantasy XIII is no different. It even sacrificed gameplay to lock the player into a rigid plot structure (essentially the opposite of what Sticker Star did), but it didn’t follow through with a worthy story.

Final Fantasy XIII’s Barthandelus is not a complex enough character to make us care about him, and the game’s storytelling fails to make us care about his actions. All in all, he’s one of the worst villains I’ve ever seen. Someday, I’ll play Final Fantasy XIII-2 and see whether its villain is much of an improvement. He certainly couldn’t be worse.

All right, Barthandelus fans, feel free to tell me how I’m wrong. Everyone else, share with us the villains that have disappointed you the most. In the meantime, I’ll go back to playing Tales of Symphonia.

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