Just as I suspected, I was about 10 minutes away from a big boss battle and major cutscene that basically set the game’s plot in motion, tying all the characters together in a tight party.

* The role system: Introduced about two hours into the game. Each character gets a number of “roles” which define their abilities. You can read about this elsewhere, but this system, and the mechanic of switching role loadouts in the middle of a fight, is the core tactical element of the game. Even more so than “firing fireballs at monsters weak to fire” or other ability-based stuff.

For example, there’s this wandering monster called “Barbarosa”, a kind of mechanical freak with a high damage resistance and tough attacks. If you just traded blows with it normally, it would take forever to take one down. You need to do enough combos on it to hit a “Break”, so that you can do double and triple damage on it. So in a small party (for example, an episode where you play only as Satz and Vanilla) you have to keep mixing up your Optima roles mid-fight: I start out with Satz:Blaster/Vanilla:Jammer in order to start racking up combos on the monster (Vanilla’s Jammer abilities make combos easier to rack up to the “Break point”), then after a round or two I switch to Blaster/Blaster. Then, when the monster hits its break point and I’m doing 200-300%+ damage, I roll over to Attacker/Blaster to finish off the creature. If I take too many hits I need to go to Attacker/Healer in order to recoup health while still keeping the heat on the monster.

All in all, not doing the right Optima (role) Changes can cost you a battle. Unlike other FFs, the little dudes you fight between one boss and the next are often pretty brutal. Not “Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne” brutal, but still pretty bad. Even though in this game you have the ability to restart the battle if you lose it (and not roll all the way back to the last save game), it can still be pretty tough. I got in one fight with 3 “Bombs” and 2 “Barbarosas”, and died about 7 times before I found a winning strategy. And it wasn’t even a boss fight.

* The levelling system: Kinda like FFX in two ways:
–It’s cool and pretty, and gives you the illusion that you have a lot of choices as to which ways to go with your characters’ progress, but
–In the end, you pretty much stay riding along the tracks the whole time, and the choice is kind of an illusion.
In FF-X International, a game released in Japan, they retooled the sphere system to make it really cool: They laid out the grids from scratch so that there was true choice and meaning in which direction you went. For example, at one point I opted out of Yuna’s mid-level heal spells in order to jump over to Lulu’s black magic path and ride it for a while, and it turns out that while Yuna didn’t have as many MP as Lulu, her black magic was far more badass at the same equivalent level. I did the same between Tidus, Auron and Wakka’s abilities.

In FF13, you level your characters by their roles, in kind of a similar fashion to the FFX sphere grid. So, for example in my current game, Lightning has the Optima roles of Attacker, Blaster and Healer. I haven’t used her for squat with Healing, so I pretty much am dumping all my XP into Attacker first, then Blaster. Each “node” of the leveling system again reminds one of FFX: “+4 physical damage” “+50 hp” “ability x” etc.

* Since the game has no random battles (yay!), and they even enhance that fact by some items you can use when you know a battle is coming up (“smoke” items to sneak past enemies, be stronger in the next fight, etc), I found that I’m not interested in avoiding combat. In fact, there’s one place early on in these ruins where if you search this wall, Lightning will find a path over a high wall, avoiding a switchback of about 5-6 small battles. However, I went back and fought all those battles anyway: Since there’s no random fights, and I’m moved to want to level up my dudes as much as possible, there’s really no incentive for skipping battles. In other words, they basically found a way to get rid of oft-frustrating random battles, but at the same time leave you some room to grind if you want to. I also notice that in the space of one map, if you travel a long way, then retrace your steps, the monsters will return.

* About 4 or so hours in, and they finally introduced one of the antagonists, Cid Raines. Apparently not one of the two main antagonists, and in fact it might be one of those cases where he acts all bad but later we find out he’s a good guy. Still, kind of interesting, as usually by now in other FFs the antagonist would have been introduced.

My theory is because in FFXIII, the antagonist is “The System” (like how in FFX, there was the humanoid antagonist Seymour, but in reality the main antagonist was the giant monster Sin). The strings of power that keep the Fal’Cie in almost godlike power with the ability to issue geas-es and control humans like puppets, the system that keeps the holy army and PSICOM in power and giving them the ability to rule the Cocoon and exile (“purge”) citizens to the hell-world of Pulse. So while there might be humans pulling strings somewhere, I bet before the game is over it’s all going to come tumbling down. It’s definitely racked up some Epic Sauce to be smeared all over the game.

* They introduced the second Shokanju/Summons, which was Lightning’s Odin: You summon him like a “Stand” from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and he whacks at dudes for you. You can also make him transform (yeah, all the summons are basically Transformers) into a Horse, and unleash all sorts of crazy attacks on the enemies for a short time, using a stick-button-combo-masher system that I’m just getting used to.

So far (since the last update):

Major Change: I thought Vanilla’s perkiness was totally dumb and out-of-place. Now, it’s totally grown on me, and they’ve dropped some serious fucking clues that there’s a storm underneath that happy exterior. Like she might have something to do with Everything, maybe. At least, there’s something going on that’s keeping her from sleeping comfortably.

Good/Impressed: Story is still cool. Setting is pretty gripping. Satz (“the black guy”) is a much cooler character than he looks at first, and is totally not The Comic Releif. Some of the protagonists that I was iffy on are shining. Non-linear timeline storytelling is in the hizzy, and so far it’s not done poorly. Battles are strategic and nail-biting, even on small frys (so while you heal all your HP between battles, and there’s no MP really to speak of, the small battles are far more brutal than any of the previous FF games: I’ve died far more times on 4-7 enemy encounters with small frys than I have on boss battles).

Bad/Not Impressed: Hope is still a whiny little bitch. I don’t like Shinji Ikari in my epic RPG. :-)
However, having said that, a few events have happened which indicate that he wants to change, to grow stronger, to whine slightly less. I approve of that, and we’ll see what happens later. If things change, I’ll start adding spoiler tags or something.