I’ve come quite a long way since my last proper entry — I’m at the beginning of chapter 9. The crew has just joined up with Cid Raines, and Sazh just shot himself (though I know he’s not actually dead — he’s in Gran Pulse in the opening cinematic). I’ve got a lot of catching up to do, so here we go:
I’m generally feeling pretty good about the way the story has come together. A lot of the concerns I had earlier in the game — especially with respect to characters — have been at least partially addressed.
Hope’s one-sided, silent resentment of Snow is a poor plot device if just because it goes on for way too goddamned long, but I don’t think it’s entirely unrealistic — teenagers are angsty, irrational idiots. In a lot of ways, it would be weird if a 14-year-old boy who just lost his mother, was being hunted by thousands of soldiers, and is probably cursed to death wasn’t borderline deranged. I think we have this weird expectation that game characters should always be as rational as the player, even when making the rational choice would be totally out of character. I was cursing the game as Hope tried to kill Snow as the two were being chased around a city by cyborgs and jetpack snipers, but from his perspective, they were probably screwed anyways, and this was his chance to enact his revenge.
Vanille’s character has also turned out better than I expected. I think I’m still missing key information (and I’m behind on my Datapad homework), but if I’m reading this correctly, her childish personality was partially a put-on to get the group to take her in without asking too many questions, and partially a coping mechanism. The game hinted as much when she voiced over parts of cutscenes, but when I look back at the some of the obnoxious stuff she did earlier in the game (and even stuff as basic as her run animation), it’s a little hard to accept that she was just a really good actress.
Lightning and Snow have revealed themselves to be more complex characters, and Sazh has avoided being comic relief. I don't think this game did itself any favours with its bait-and-switch character development, but at least the switches happened earlier rather than later.
Character development aside, I’m happy to be near the end of The Corridor. It didn’t bug me as much as others, but having the first 20 hours of an RPG take place on a linear corridor with no secondary objectives seems like such a misguided idea one wonders how it happened. It makes sense in the context of the characters being on the run, but maybe Square Enix should have found a way to condense the storyline in favour of gameplay variety.
To their credit, it’s not as if things haven’t been happening. There’s been some pretty good story arcs: Lightning providing Hope with the emotional and physical ammunition he needed to kill Snow before realizing she was avoiding her own regrets; the revelations about Sazh’s reasons for joining the Purge, how connected Vanille was to what happened to Dajh, and Sazh’s confrontation with Vanille (in which he confirms what an awesome character he is); the tensions between the Guardian Corps and PSICOM; and hints about what the Fal’Cie actually are.
In all sincerity, I think this Final Fantasy XIII has been telling a better story than Xenoblade Chronicles. It’s still got time to screw everything up, but I’m much more invested in the characters, universe, and plot than I ever was in Xenoblade. Whereas I saw almost every event in Xenoblade coming from a mile away, Final Fantasy XIII has surprised me a number of times. The pacing is much better, though to be fair, it’s much easier to pace a story when you’ve got complete control over what the player does.
As with the story progression, I’m a bit disappointed with how long it’s taken for the gameplay to open up. As a novice to the series, I appreciated gameplay concepts being introduced at a slower pace, but I'm just plain sick of playing with two member parties. The paradigm system is clearly balanced for three-member parties, and it makes using paradigms besides COM-RAV and RAV-RAV awkward without completely killing the pace of battles. In particular, playing with a Sentinel feels weird, and I’ve been left relegating the role to healing cover and defence for near-guaranteed-death attacks.
Speaking of Sentinels, they take some getting used to, and the game doesn’t do a great job of explaining them. At the point they’re introduced, the game starts throwing enemies with the aforementioned if-you-don’t-block-this-you’re-dead attacks at you. To know how to handle them, you not only need to understand aggro and blocking, but you need to develop a pretty good sense of enemy attack patterns, how long it takes to generate aggro, and when to start blocking so you don’t over/under-shoot the hit. I spent a while not realizing an attack was coming until I saw it charging, which is usually too late to paradigm shift, provoke, and guard. It doesn’t help that auto-battle seems to often spend an extra cycle provoking, leading to some exasperating “oh fuck, I didn’t want to to that” moments. For a game with such a shallow learning curve, hitting you with a bunch of poorly-explained vital gameplay concepts at once is a bizarre choice.
Lastly, the equipment upgrade system seems poorly designed. I had the sense to do some research when it unlocked, and discovered that to use resources optimally, you need to essentially game the system. I don’t understand why games do this — does anyone find these sorts of math-heavy, easy-to-do-it-wrong systems fun? Unlocking a gameplay system only to be told I’m a chump if I touch it in the next 15 hours just plain sucks. This isn’t just a case of nerds over-thinking a system — the way the multiplier system is designed, coupled with the inscrutability of component multiplier values, encourages material hoarding and leaves players without vital information. In an act of defiance, I spent some materials upgrading characters weapons (weapons I’d chosen by looking at what message boards suggested), and very quickly regretted it, as the yield wasn’t what I’d expected. To put this in more general terms, the player should be able to understand the choices they’re making — and predict the outcomes of actions — without having to consult message boards and wikis.