Combat in Final Fantasy XIII is pretty simplistic. Characters get many of the same abilities so there’s not a lot to differentiate them in terms of mechanics. Every class (or rather, Paradigm) learns the same moves in the same order, and the “auto battle” option during combat ensures that I never have to think too much about what I’m doing. Despite this focus on simplicity, after about 20 hours I encountered a sequence where characterization and these combat mechanics came together in a way rarely seen in games, let alone any RPG.
The sequence involves just two of the characters: Snow, a gung-ho hero, and Hope, a weak and shy kid who hates Snow. Whereas most of the other cast members share Paradigm classes, Hope and Snow have no classes in common. The most important difference in this case is that Snow can become a Sentinel, a class that can block enemy attacks.
There’s one enemy in particular that serves as a catalyst to this ludic character development: A flying motorcycle with a gatling gun that can kill you in one hit. The only way to survive the attack is to block, but the only character that can block is Snow. This set up forces the player to react in a very specific way whenever the gatling gun charges up for an attack: Snow must stop whatever he’s doing and become a Sentinel; he must then provoke the motorcycle to get its attention focused on him and then block in preparation for the attack. Failing any step results in death. If the enemy isn’t provoked, it will kill Hope. If the attack isn’t blocked, it will kill Snow, and these abilities are only available to the Sentinel.
The fact that Snow can be killed by provoking the enemy reinforces our idea of him as a selfless person. He’s willing to put himself in danger to save others. The speed at which you have to act then reinforces his impulsiveness. He must shift Paradigms quickly, which makes it seem less like a thoughtful tactic and more like an automatic need to protect others. The combat mechanics force players to act with the same natural selflessness that Snow embodies if they want both characters to make it through the fight alive.
Since Hope hates Snow, the fact that the kid acts as the main healer of the two seems contradictory at first, but that contradiction is part of his personality as well. Up to this point in the game, Hope has had multiple chances to attack Snow, but never acted on those opportunities. His role as healer and his reliance on Snow’s protection are practical complications to his plan for revenge, complications that play themselves out in the combat mechanics and that further fuel his own inner struggle.
After about an hour, Hope and Snow meet with other characters, and this sequence ends. Combat goes back to its fast-paced simplicity, but for this short sequence, Final Fantasy XIII uses its battle system in a way few RPGs ever do: as a means of character development, not just tactical fun.