Welcome back to our Game In Progress review of Far Cry 5. This week, we wrap up with a harrowing trip to the Whitetail Mountains, and an examination of the game’s controversial, head-turning ending.
How much damage can an ending do? If it swerves heavily enough from what’s come before, how far back can the dissatisfaction it causes reach? These are the questions Far Cry 5 raises in its final, bewilderingly dark moments, and the answer it suggests is “pretty damn far.”
At the center of it all, of course, is Joseph Seed—a.k.a. The Father—the David Koresh-like leader of the cult known as The Project At Eden’s Gate. He is the spider at the center of all the game’s narrative webs, popping in to check in from time to time while you’re fighting his sibling-lieutenants and delivering a heartbroken, raging messianic monologue every time you bring one down. Played with commendable charisma by Greg Bryk—and animated with a commitment to detail that includes the only instance of beautifully rendered grief-snot I can recall in a modern big-budget game—Joseph is an enduring, infuriating presence throughout your time in Hope County. He’s the idea man, the top of the pyramid, the reason for all the kidnapping and killing and drugging and brainwashing you’ve had to struggle through at the hands of this fucking cult.
And he wins.
It’s a Pyrrhic victory, maybe, but an unequivocal one: Sitting at the bottom of a bunker, protected, as the world above him burns, a smile creeps across his agonizingly serene face. All your combat prowess, all the thousands of Peggies you’ve gunned down, all the Seed blood on your hands, can’t change one thing: The Father was right about the Collapse. And by fighting against him every step of the way, the implication follows, you were the one who was wrong.
Far Cry 5’s ending is definitive (even as I see people across the internet attempt to chalk it up as a drug-powered nightmare as a way to dodge its nastier implications). It aggressively states the time you’ve spent in its world was pointless, maybe even harmful for its inhabitants. While you were busy dicking around in Montana, trying to keep a cult from kidnapping and brainwashing a few hundred people, events a thousand miles away were conspiring to make everything you did moot in the most dramatic, explosive way possible. Worse: You’re at least partially responsible for the fact that only a handful of Hope County’s residents are likely to survive the damage when it comes. There’s an admirable audacity to the Twilight Zone heights the game goes for with this final twist, but it also casts a shadow of futility over all the cultist-shanking, bomb-throwing activities that came before it. There’s an implication of punishment, of moralizing, of having somehow brought this on yourself by meeting the cult’s violent activities with violence of your own.
That scolding, “Fuck you for having fun with our violent video game” attitude is nothing new for this series. It dates all the way back to the relatively somber and thoughtful treatment the idea received in Far Cry 2 and has been repeated in every main-series installment since then to increasingly lesser effect. It’s never been more hollow and disorienting than it is here. Joseph Seed is a murderer and a kidnapper, one whose lieutenants openly delight in killing, terrorizing, and torture. The game’s suggestion—both here and in the secret “ending” brought about by inaction at the game’s beginning, à la Far Cry 4—that leaving him to do his bloody work in peace would ultimately serve the greater good is asinine and contrarian to the extreme. Credit to the developers, at least, for finding some kind of actual, bona fide political message to express in their closing moments. It’s just a pity they landed on “let the extremists have their fun, or you’re only going to make it worse.”
The ending hollows the game in ways that extend past its nihilistic narrative, too. Because the game’s major reward for playing through missions, fighting cultists, and completing other activities around Hope is filling the meter that tells the game when you’ve pissed off Joseph’s heralds enough to trigger the next mandatory kidnapping sequence or boss fight, it’s left with precious little carrot to lure you into playing more once the story is complete. In my case, that meant I finished taking down the cult outposts and a few more prepper stashes and then found myself feeling utterly unmotivated to do anything else. Each individual region already suffered from this problem once their kingpin was dead and they’d been emptied of gunfights and life-giving chaos, but with the specter of Joseph’s unavoidable victory looming over everything, I found myself asking, “What the hell’s the point?”
One thing you can turn to at this point is Far Cry Arcade, the game’s suite of content creation and distribution tools. Although I never dipped into the editor proper, the overall impression I got was one of chaos; a few of the single-player/co-op experiences I downloaded showed promise, but most were so amateurish as to be borderline unplayable. Meanwhile, my few forays into multiplayer were deeply unsatisfying: Guns that work perfectly well when blasting away at A.I. opponents don’t have the same feel when you’re trying to fight other human beings. At least the actual infrastructure of the project seems solid. Finding, downloading, and voting on maps was a breeze, so hopefully fans will start pumping out more satisfying content for players looking to extend their time with Far Cry 5 in the coming weeks.
At least the game reaches a high point during the run up to that final confrontation with The Father. I wasn’t expecting much from Jacob Seed, Joseph’s knife-loving older brother, but his storyline is the one instance in which Far Cry 5 managed to fool me good. The only thing you hear about Jacob early on is that he’s into training wolves, with his area’s signature enemies being giant, mutated versions of the beasts called Judges. It turns out Jacob is interested in training, period; not gym rat routines, mind you, but the classical stuff that goes on in people’s heads.
Each member of the Seed family brainwashes you as you progress through their particular regions, generally in the form of mandatory cutscenes that take place whenever the cult’s improbably effective kidnapping squads set their sights on you. (Once, I found myself abruptly tranq-darted in the leg while flying 500 feet above the ground in a helicopter. Pretty good shot, guys!) But where Faith Seed’s good cop approach was far too passive and John’s torture porn was simply an exercise in endurance, Jacob’s efforts to turn you into a mindless killing machine actually work, at least in part because that’s kind of what Far Cry 5 was already trying to do.
In contrast to his siblings, Jacob’s brainwashing segments are refreshingly active, forcing you through a gauntlet of sometimes literally faceless foes as a timer clicks down. Echoing the third game’s memorable Trials Of The Rakyat, Jacob’s killing fields serve as surprisingly fun mini-games, even as they’re simultaneously suffused with a dread courtesy of The Platters’ “Only You,” which takes on more sinister significance as the sequences progress. In an even more clever touch, each installment of the trials is functionally the same, only faster, which means that by the time you’re doing the last one, it’s largely on reflex—which is exactly when the hammer drops.
It’s obviously easier for a game that’s fundamentally about violent interactions to comment on their appeal, rather than, say, the feelings of belonging and Bliss that Faith was semi-earnestly trying to sell. But Jacob’s brainwashing has an elegance nothing else in Far Cry 5’s story manages to match, a way of taking the things players were already going to do and turning them strange and dark. The ending to all this conditioned running-and-gunning is predictable, but in the way a car smashing into a wall five feet ahead of it is predictable; you can see it coming, but it’s already far too late to stop. It even manages to make a merit of the game’s rigid story, turning the fate of Eli Palmer and his Whitetail Militia, your allies in the region, into something close to an actual tragedy. If it’s genius only in comparison to the rest of the game’s haphazard storytelling, well, this many hours into Far Cry 5, I was happy to take what I could get.
Outside those sparks of narrative brilliance, the rest of the Whitetail Mountains are really just more of the same, for both good and ill. As far as enemies go, the Judges were a letdown; when someone spends an entire game promising me a murderous monster wolf with sin-sniffing capabilities, I can’t help but pine for something more ferocious than a big dog with a red cross painted on its forehead. That being said, this is also the region that gives you the ability to kill cultists with the help of a cheeseburger-loving grizzly bear named Cheeseburger, and that’s hard to discount as a plus.
While I’m praising the things Far Cry 5 does well, I should also take a minute to highlight the work of the game’s composer, Beasts Of The Southern Wild’s Dan Romer. Besides writing all of the blood-and-brimstone-filled hymns the Peggies sing and broadcast on the reg, Romer is also responsible for some of the best pause menu music I’ve ever heard. The string-heavy track that plays while perusing the game’s map is not only good enough to frequently keep me in the menu for a few extra seconds, letting my heartstrings get gently plucked, but Romer’s songs go a long way toward selling the grandeur of the game’s rural setting.
I can’t shake the sense, though, that everywhere I went in Hope County, that beauty was inevitably mixed with a distinct ugliness. Some of it was intentional juxtaposition—a field of white flowers, say, that’s also a brain-melting drug—but much of it felt like a violent, potentially derailing collision between competing instincts at the game’s conceptual core. Far Cry 5 wants to be a beautiful sandbox for creative violence, and a thoughtful parable about the pros-and-cons of violent intervention, and a Grand Theft Auto-esque comedy game packed to the gills with “wacky” side characters. (This week’s stand-out in the “game writers shouldn’t be allowed to write comedy” category: a right-wing, MAGA-spewing caricature of a Senate candidate who gleefully encourages you to gun down the Peggies, if only because they refuse to give him their votes.)
The trouble with those conflicts is Far Cry 5 is only good at being one thing: an often-exhilarating shooting tour of the scenic spots it offers up at its occasional best. Its approach to its own ending might be the strongest case for the game’s conflicted, self-harming nature. In an effort to serve up a final, impactful twist, it not only sours its last moments but also any number of the good and great ones that came before it.
Obviously, an ending can’t take away your experiences with a game. All the times I took an outpost down without triggering an alarm, or guided a missile into the wing of a banking plane, or just wandered into a meadow so beautiful it made my jaw quietly drop, are all safely intact inside my head. But an ending can shatter the belief that all those moments were building to something meaningful, a feeling so vital to actually caring about a world and not just treating it as a collection of well-crafted toys. Far Cry 5 destroys that illusion with one final, massive swing, and that might be its ultimate sin.