Quick thoughts, gotta go to bed:

I’m a little over 20 hours in. I really like the story thus far. I got past the “WIRED Review Guy” ‘s progress when he posted his mini-review. I went to gamefaqs.com forums for some strategies on some particularly badass boss fights before backing away slowly from all the nerdrage and going to www.ff13.in instead.

Recent revelations/likes

* Experience: This is the big one. Fixes all my issues with earlier games like FFX, where if your member wasn’t in the party (or got knocked out before the battle ended) that character didn’t gain XP. Basically, this led to a situation where your weak characters stayed weak (Khimari!) while your strong core characters kept getting more powerful… eventually leading you to need to grind and grind the “other half” of your party at some point for balance.

I dunno why I didn’t notice it at first, but I finally caught it when I was able to choose my own battle members (about 15 hours in?): Basically, if the three dudes that I’ve been playing with for an hour get into a battle, 2 get knocked out at the end and only Lightning is left standing, and I’m awarded “1000 CP” (xp), then not only does every member of my party get those CP, but so do the people that aren’t in my party. This is awesome. Looks like they took note of how the game Valkyria Chronicles did levelling, and did it Right. This means I can kick as with my chosen dudes for 60 minutes, then later switch to other party members and have the fun of basically spending a mountain of amassed XP in any way I want.

* Grinding is entirely optional to beating the game. It helps, and you can do it if you want, but in the long scheme they crafted the experience so that if you just want to experience the story, you don’t have to spend 10 hours wandering up and down Mt. Gagazet killin’ doodz.

* I was about 16-17 hours into the game until I saw the classic “We will reuse the skins of earlier monsters, slightly changing their abilities and sending them back at you again” thing. There’s toooooons of monsters, including tons of “puddings” never seen before, including Rust Pudding, Guear Pudding (complete with siren-helmet), and on top of that some puddings will merge together into larger puddings.

* Attention to detail in plotting enemy battles. Because of the “killing tunnels” effect, your battles are pretty well laid out for you. But they don’t throw the same thing at you over and over: It might be 2 Robots. Then 1 Rust Pudding. Then 4 Rust Puddings. Then 2 Robots and 1 Rust Pudding. Then 3 Rust Puddings and 2 Robots. Each one of the encounters above requires a slightly different strategy to beat well: Using “Defenders”, arranging Attacker-Blaster combos, etc.

* The AI is pretty smart, but there are some dumb things (see below). Overall, I think the combat is the most tactical of any FF game to date. I know it’s not saying much in the light of reaaaaaally tactical J-RPGs like Shin Megami Tensei and the like, but still it kicks FF X and all the way back in the jimmy.

* The auto-attack button will plan out the best attacks for you… or does it? I’ve recently found myself inputting commands myself for better strategy: Using “Ruins” (think “magic missile) on enemies I want Lightning to stay far away from rather than rushing up with “Basic Attacks” which might be more powerful. Or choosing exactly which heals or buffs to use, etc. So later into the game, I think most people will give up the “auto-attack” button in favor of using the commands themselves.

* Another mote of strategy: Your ATB bar fills up (with 3, 4, 5, or 6 attacks depending on how powerful you are), then you do that chain of attacks. If you hit Triangle, it breaks your chain early and you just unleash whatever small amount you built up. Knowing this is useful, because often you have to break out of a chain of attacks in order to quickly revise your strategy. That little element was an interesting note.

* Characters: All the characters that I found utterly unlikable are now pretty much my favorite characters because of how they change, ‘reveal’ etc throughout the game. All except for Sazs, though (the black guy): He was my favorite in the beginning, and in the later game he’s still my favorite. The most human of all the characters, he’s basically in it all just to help get his son back. Others might do crazy magic powers and the like, but Sazs is the most human character, to which the others are scaled against. He evokes the most empathy, I think.

* Levelling: Sure enough, at around the 18 hour mark, levelling gets blown to pieces: Every character can pick up every ability in every paradigm/optima. New optima (from scratch) cost a ton to pick up, though, but it’s still an option. And here’s the thing: Unlike FFXII’s grid system where everyone can do what everyone else can, it’s more like FFX’s sphere grid: Both Sazs and Hope are “Enhancers”, but the enhancements that Sazs can do at the beginning Hope can’t do until waaaaay later, and vice-versa. At level 3 Healer Vanille can do “Raise”, but even as a level 4 Healer Lightning can’t gain that ability yet (must be a higher tier). So while everyone can learn every role, the route in which they gain their powers is totally different and unique.

* Plus, everyone has a kind of “core role”: Lightning: Attacker, Snow: Defender, Sazs: Enhancer, Vanille: Healer, Hope: Enhancer, Fang: Attacker. If you stay on that core role’s optima grid, you get access to better general abilities like additional ATB slots, additional accessory slots and the like. So while any character can eventually become anything, it still encourages you to keep to your characters’ defined strengths. That allayed my concerns that the characters didn’t seem different enough in ability. In truth, I should have simply noticed it when early on Vanille’s Jammer role was doing all sorts of debuffs, while Fang’s Jammer could only do Slow/Slowga for a long while.

* The setting is still strong. The land of Gran Pulse is as wild and untamed and scary as they’ve been evoking all this time.

* You level your weapons for additional power. The levelling system is easy and has a few quirks to getting through it quickly. I like this, because there is no “most powerful weapon” that you have to do 4-hours of mini-games to unlock, you simply pick one of about 6-8 weapons that fits your playing style (for example, I use physical attacks with Lightning the most, so I’m staying with the “Gladius”, which has the highest physical attack and lowest magical attack: Other weapons are more balanced, favor magic, or do special things like add an ATB bar, status upgrades, etc).

* The background music is awesome. The “Fifth Arc” area was a little repetitive, but the background music was awesome enough that I didn’t really care.

Recent revelations/dislikes

* I just said the above about liking that there’s no “ultimate weapon” because I normally hate the hoops you have to jump through to unlock them. Well, I kinda miss knowing that there’s an Ultimate Weapon out there, that it’s really up to me to decide which weapon I want to level up. The agony of choice.

* Sometimes the AI is dumb: OK, I said before the AI usually does what you were going to do anyway. Well, I take that back on two counts: Sometimes the other characters wander to close to the big monster, or wander too close together (which means a sweeping attack hits both characters, whereas if the character moved away on their own they wouldn’t be hit). It’s all part of the randomness of battle, I guess, and that’s OK, BUT…

–Curera (the one that casts the Low-Level spell cure on multiple friends) was the spell that made the AI stooooopid. I almost wish it was possible NOT to take that spell. Without it, your AI companion will see you (the party leader, like Lightning) in the Red for damage, member 2 in the Yellow, and herself in the Green (little damage taken). Without Curera, she will cast Cure on one character several times, taking them from Red to full health quite quickly (this is the behavior I like/want). However, once she/he learns Curera, she will take more time to cast that instead since the other member is in the Yellow. Which means that it takes longer for the party leader to get to full health. I think it’s for that reason that they made Lightning a Healer as well, so you can heal yourself up if you need to. Still, I almost wish I could force a “FFXII”-style “Gambit”, telling party members to Never Ever Ever use Curera, Ever.

* Most boss battles are challenging and fierce. That’s cool. The boss battles against the Summons are just annoying, frustrating and twitchy. That is, there is a very very very specific strategy to win the summons boss battles in the limited time you have (the leader in each battle is cursed to die in about 1-2 minutes if they don’t win), and if you deviate from that strategy slightly you’ll either suffer a total party kill (game over) or a time running out (also game over). The regular boss battles were challenging, and on one MAJOR boss battle I died about 8 times on a 10-minute battle before I succeeded, and it was challegning/interesting enough, and enough in my hands to deal with, that I didn’t mind. However, I was dreading the last few Summons battles, because I had to replay those over and over until I went online and figured out the Perfect Strategy to beat them, and even then I would misfire and get a TPK, or be on the road to success with the time ran out. On each of them I beat the Summons with seconds to spare.

In short, the “time limit” of the Summons battles should be increased to 33% higher or something. I could deal with the TPKs but the timeouts just were a kick in the nuts.

* Killing Tunnels: OK, I admit, once I got to the first “open area”, about 18-20 hours into the game, where you wander around a giant area (think Calm Lands from FFX), and then went back into the linear-style format, I too was like “Hmmmm, couldn’t they have given us at least a few more open areas earlier in the game?” It’s not enough to denounce the game as linear and pointless (all of the games in the series are guilty of that), but it does feel claustrophobic after a while. Oh, at least in the earlier parts of the game (13-16 hours in) there were often multiple routes to take to get to the same destination, so that was a little open…

* I like the story and the characters a lot. In the end, I don’t think it can “beat” FFX: Sin, and the love story between Tidus and Yuna is too strong. There’s a love story in FFXIII, but it’s between the main character(s) and a non-playable NPC who you don’t see except for a few cutscenes, so it’s just not as abjectly powerful. Still, though, the world has drawn me in and I’m excited to see what comes next, which puts it so far above 8, 9, and 12.+

* Exploration: A lot of folks online deride it because there’s no “towns to explore”. In reality towns usually equal a chance for the design team to pad the game by making you run all over the place getting items or fetching things. Still, a part of the early series has been “wandering around on a big map, filling it out and pushing the edges out”. FFXIII simply doesn’t have that sort of thing. It doesn’t mean the game sucks (it doesn’t!), just that the exploration thing is missed.

Anyway, just some thoughts so far. I’ll have to play light for a few days as I have other real-life goals to work on, but I’ll play lightly for the next few weeks and post some irregular updates.

-Andy

+ BTW, if you really want a JRPG with a good story, the best is still Shadow Hearts II: Covenant for the PS2. The most epic story, the most engaging setting and background, and very empathetic characters, even the bad guys. Best story, system, and overall game that I’ve ever played in the genre. Only downsides are lots of random battles (ala Final Fantasy) and a “ca-raaazy French gay duo” who follow you around with double-entendre. Still, it’s a phenomenal game, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone. Note: DO NOT PLAY 3/”From the New World”, it’s crap. Also, I never played the first “Shadow Hearts” (which takes place in Asia), but you don’t need to to fully understand the story of 2/Covenant.