I’ve played through to the beginning of chapter 10. Arriving in the Fifth Ark threw me for a loop, since for whatever reason, I had it in my head that chapter 10 was when the game opened up. The Palamecia, while a cool setting, felt padded out and light on story. I like the combat system, but there were a bunch of combat areas on the Palamecia that felt like MMO zones to me — giant areas filled with re-spawning enemies. In the absence of side missions and secondary objectives, fighting through hordes of identical enemies just fees like busywork, and I’m concerned too much fighting is going to leave me burnt out too early. It happened to me with Xenoblade, and I don’t want it to happen here.
Despite that, the combat remains engaging, and I feel like I’m still learning new stuff and evolving my approach to battles. Now that I’m constantly fighting with three-member parties (and in chapter 10, allowed to change party members), I’m no longer hamstrung by the limitations I was running into when stuck with fixed two-member groups. Synergists and saboteurs are starting to come into their own in longer battles; I’m getting a better handle on when and how to use sentinels, especially now that I know they come with a guaranteed damage reduction and lesser reduction for party members; and I’ve come to optimize my use of commandos and ravagers — sometimes using a few commando hits to slow the gauge, bombing the chain gauge up with RAV-RAV-RAV, continuing more (depending on health and what their stagger threshold is), then switching to COM-COM-MED to finish them and heal up.
The battle system feels satisfyingly rhythmic when you’re fighting effectively. Ideally, everything has a proper time — you’re renewing buffs as they expire, healing when there’s an appropriate lull, trying to push the enemies into stagger when the party is in appropriate condition, and keeping the timing of dangerous attack patterns in mind so you’re not hit on a bad footing. When you mess up, it feels awkward and desperate, and when you’re nailing it, it feels smooth and effortless.
Barthandelus was a great boss battle in this respect. His difficulty level was such that I couldn’t afford to screw up, but when I died, it was my fault for getting greedy. If you weren’t healing, buffing, defending, and bombing at the appropriate times, he punished you for it. The one weird thing about that fight was the fact that his charging attack reset his chain gauge. It felt a bit cheap, as the game teaches you to focus on staggering enemies then makes staggering him kind of pointless. It’s entirely possible that I just missed something or was under-leveled — I got a zero-star rating on it.
One more thing about Barthandelus: I was a bit disappointed when the villain (at least for now) turned out to be a old, condescending Pope-looking man who can summon giant robots — it feels a bit too obvious and easy. I liked the way the game had no obvious, evil-for-evil’s-sake villain for the first 9 chapters. There was no clearly-defined end goal, and no easy solution to their problem. The Sanctum’s fear of and zero-tolerance policy toward l’Cie was fairly justifiable, especially with the populace on their side, and I thought that made for an interesting dynamic. I suspect there’s going to end up being more to this (please don’t spoil anything), but at least for now, having such a cliched villain is a bit of a let-down.
P.S. I think I may have just spoiled something fairly major by googling Barthandelus. Vague spoilers have been an unfortunate side-effect of writing these articles.
It’s been a while since I’ve listed some of my favourite pieces, so here’s some catch-up. I’ve made note of more, I just don’t want to blow them all at once:
- Can't Catch A Break. I like jazz music, so maybe I’ve got my own reasons for liking this piece, but I’m a big fan of this and Sazh’s theme. They’re give Sazh a very distinct musical calling card, and are a nice change of pace.
- The Vile Peaks. This fits the area very well. In tonal shift and musical influences, it kind of reminded me of Ocarina of Time’s Fire Temple theme.
- Lightning's Theme. I love the way various tracks in the game play with the same melodies.
- March Of The Dreadnoughts. I can’t figure out if I’ve actually heard this in-game. I think I have, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Regardless, it’s a great piece — it conveys a great sense of adventure.
- Chocobos of Cocoon. Look, I’m not going to claim I like this, but I like that it exists — it’s just so endearingly earnest. When it started playing (and even more-so when the vocals kicked in) I thought “ugh, here we go,” but it melted my cold, icy heart.