I just finished up the main game and future arc finding most of the sidequests and skits (I'm going to run through NG+ with a guide now) and I agree with most of your points, you're right that the skits fleshed out the cast a lot more than the main story did. The future arc alone was fantastic for that, if only for Malik and another character constantly winding everyone up about romances.
I can't believe they got that "painful finish" skit in though, that's probably the dirtiest thing that's been in a localised Tales game!
The combat took me a while to get used to having not played a CC Tales game before, but eventually I got the hang of it. It's definitely more rewarding about dodging/guarding and being able to spam the hell out of attacks in burst eleth was super satisfying. Oh and the Eleth Mixer is amazing, having the cooking options set to triggers mid-battle and the item production on the field was great. I hope they put something similar back in after Xillia.
Which guide did you use for your playthrough? The one on the Tales forum looks comprehensive enough so I was going to go with that.