I’ve put off writing this for the better part of a week, so I’ve got some catching up to do. My last entry left off at the beginning of Chapter 10 (The Fifth Ark), and I’m now deep into Chapter 11 (Taejin’s Tower).
I’m not going to sugar-coat this: I’m getting a little bored. Xenoblade is my only recent JRPG, so take comparisons with a grain of salt, but the parallels are many: since the Palamecia, the combat has settled into a predictable rhythm, the pace of the story has slowed, I’m being led through enemy-filled zones with questionable narrative relevance, and I’m being asked to complete phoned-in “kill X” quests.
I finished the first tier of Cie'th quests in the Gran Pulse overworld, and figuring Oerba Village was nearby and might be worth hitting up before I progressed much further, I decided to head there. It turns out that is absolutely not the case, and while I know that I’ll be able to teleport back to the overworld later on (not that I particularly want to), I’m in too deep to turn back now. Taejin's Tower, like The Fifth Ark, gives me the same lifeless MMO feeling as parts of the Palamecia — it appears to be a thinly-veiled excuse to have me run around and kill more monsters. Unlike earlier, when there was a very clear push factor, I’m not totally clear on why the group is heading to Oerba Village. The datapad gives a hand-wavey “they hope to learn more about the nature of their task”-esque justification, but I’m just not sold on it.
The Cid Raines story dump felt cheap, wasteful (in the context of how light the following 5-10 hours have been), and utterly out of left field. It was a BioShock-style “you’ve been strung along” cheap shot, and the writers should have found a way to convey all of that information in a more natural way than a character just telling you everything. That aside, I liked when the story was more about individual characters and their coming to terms with each other and thier predicament, not demigods trying to revive their god with a mass sacrifice.
There has been some good story stuff, particularly the way Vanille’s story has been fleshed out. I’m not taking back what I said about her being obnoxious early in the game, but it mostly makes sense now, and it’s a genuinely interesting scenario she was in — waking up to an unfamiliar world, having the clock ticking on her life, wandering aimlessly, and being drawn to those she had hurt even though she couldn’t bring herself to explain or apologize. This scene, in the context of her knowing what she knew, is pretty interesting.
Maybe I’m just in an uneventful stretch, and maybe I was just in a bad mood while playing. Don’t read any of this as giving up hope — I’m just a bit unenthused and disappointed with how the things have played out.
After putting off dealing with upgrades for a while, I settled on using Lightning/Hope/Fang as my primary party, and upgraded their weapons to midway through their second forms. I’ll restate that any upgrade system that encourages and rewards hoarding materials and breaking out a calculator is, I think, a badly designed one.
Now that the systems are all in place and the difficulty has ramped up, combat has settled into a pretty predictable pattern. The enemies are potent enough that having Fang in the Sentinel role has become the default, not the exception. I haven’t upgraded any accessories, so this may be on me, but I find that letting aggro slip to Lightning or (especially) Hope before most enemies are dispatched can cause things to go south very quickly, and leave me wasting even more time doing damage control. My basic combat loop revolves around switching between COM/MED/SEN, RAV/MED/SEN, and when possible, RAV/RAV/SEN. I’ll switch to COM/RAV/COM when I’m fighting something easy, have an opportunity to get off some choice blitzes, or have the primary threat staggered; and I’ll mix in MED/SYN/SAB when I feel it’s worth it.
On the one hand, this change in difficulty has forced me to be much more tactical, but constantly being on the defensive and taking calculated potshots feels less freewheeling and fun. I generally get 3-5 stars, and a lot of the enemies I’m fighting just plain take a while to kill. I know I’m not completely missing something, but the way I’m fighting just doesn’t feel right.
I feel like I haven’t been giving this game’s graphics and art enough credit. It continues to look great, and the framerate is rock solid. There’s filler — the re-use of identical rooms in the Fifth Ark was shameless — but it’s easier to forgive when the game is so often presenting beautiful vistas and great looking cutscenes. Gran Pulse is incredibly expansive, and feels appropriately lush and teeming with life. Palumpolum in particular looked fantastic, though trying to track down a good screenshot of it was not easy.