First of all, the combat is pretty hit or miss, which is a serious issue, with it being ninety percent of the game. There's the nucleus for a good experience there. Several of the smartest voices in JRPGs were pretty big fans of the combat. Jeremy Parish and Kat Bailey on the sadly now defunct Active Time Babble podcast come to mind off hand. I couldn't ever get into it though. There are several reasons for that. The combat tries to be streamlined and fast paced, but the way you have to constantly press X through the auto battles completely kills the breezy pacing they were going for, as it ends up feeling more brain-dead than tactical.
And they only give you rare drops when you S-Rank fights? That right there is where the auto-battle system truly stumbles, as the AI team mates never do what they're supposed to. It's like even when you know what you're supposed to be doing, the game still goes out of it's way to burn you.
And when you don't have auto battle set, it takes forever to unlock enough abilities to have any sort of freedom of choice in how you handle enemy encounters. The game is so slow in revealing its features that you can be forgiven for not realizing it even has some features at all. It's so horribly slow that it compels you not to even think during battles and just press X over and over instead.
And that inevitably leads to you getting worked over during certain battles because you weren't using the new ability you got correctly or you weren't grasping the underlying tactic of the specific battle. It's a game that is devilishly clever at convincing you that there are no tactics to grasp in the first place. So when the game smacks you down for not grasping those tactics, it can feel more than just a little cheap. The game is easy enough to play wrong, which is really boring, and inevitably leads to serious exasperation when it finally expects you to play it right.
And given how the game spends around twenty hours tutorializing, you would think it would teach you something worth while. But the way the game tutorializes is by simply taking forever introducing features, so that you will have presumably mastered each new feature by the time the next one is introduced. None of the features are ever adequately explained. Until your characters get their crazy super powers, the extent of the tactics is 'hit guys with swords to do damage.' And once you get your crazy powers, it doesn't evolve much past that. You get your first summon like, four or five hours into the game, and then it sets you off with two other characters that don't have summons, and you have to play for a few more hours to unlock another one.
And that goes on well into your time on Gran Pulse. But you will periodically be faced with situations where a certain enemy type will punch your shit in with no remorse if you don't have the right setup to beat them. But the game, for all its tutorializing, never explains the tactical depths you need to understand in order to plan around that.
Even though the game gives no indication as to how having a Synergist as opposed to a Ravager style character will do any more or less good against a specific enemy type, that tactical depth is there, and you can learn it. In fact, you kinda have to learn it if you want to make real progress in the game, but it never bothers to explain it, despite the fact that if there was something that needed to be explained in the first twenty hours of the game, it would be that. Nonetheless, that depth is there, and assuming you can figure it out, then there's every chance you will enjoy yourself playing it. But that's definitely not the sort of thing they should have left to chance.
I can see why they chose to handle the combat the way they did. It's fairly in-line with what they were doing with Final Fantasy X-2 and XII, and on the whole I think both of those games worked a lot better, but given how much more depth there was to the gambit system in XII, I can understand why they might be inclined to simplify and streamline that.
Now, that theory kind of falls apart when you consider this was the people behind Final Fantasy X, as opposed to the team behind Final Fantasy XII. It seems awfully cynical of them to dismiss one of the series greatest innovations simply because they didn't think of it. If they'd had all their ducks in a row, the combat we ended up with probably would have worked too. But as it stands, it's awkwardly done at best and a bad idea at worst.
The chain gauge mechanic is pretty hit-or-miss. It's a cool idea to make the combat more interesting, but it seems like it's either too easy to finish a battle before it even becomes an issue, or it's so hard to actually stagger the enemies that you're likely to kill them by attrition first. It's not like it never happens, but it just feels so irrelevant. There's no clearly defined means of speeding up the process aside from using a Ravager, and that only seems to work part of the time.
The way they funneled all the characters toward specific roles was pretty awkwardly done as well. I mean, this isn't some kind of unheard of concept in RPGs, but as strict as they are about it, you would think they wouldn't even bother letting you choose in the first place. On top of the game funneling your characters into specific roles, they aren't even consistent with what abilities each character has with the same roles. The idea here was to make them feel more unique, and make combat feel different depending on what characters you have in your party, but it's mostly just a pain in the ass not having access to the abilities you want, which ties back into the lack of player choice in combat.
One feature of the game that never pans out is the crafting system. Assuming you ever did get a lock down on what weapons were good to upgrade and were able to stick with them, it's still just garbage. Probably the most egregious problem with it is the number of sub menus between the screen where you buy scrap to level your weapons and the screen where you apply said scrap materials to your weapon. Which is a real shame, because the store fronts in the shop menu are really cool and modern looking. There's really no silver lining to find on this point. It's not like you have anything else to spend your money on in the game, but it still totally sucks.
The leveling system feels similarly irrelevant. They give you the illusion of choice in how you spec your character, but that choice is so extremely limited that it borders on being nonexistent. Furthermore, it deals with the whole proceeding in such small increments it's maddening. You have to wait till you're most of the way through a level before going into the Crystarium will progress your character by any tangible degree.
And the points on the Crystarium are all like plus five magic or plus three strength. At some point those tiny numbers add up to something worth giving any thought about. Eventually the game stops being such a bore too, but it seems like everything good about the game play is diminished by taking so long to materialize and the leveling system is front and center on that point. It's really not all that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things though. It really just adds a little needless legwork to the proceedings, annoying though it may be.
Another thing all my friends who played it have requested that I mention is how you get a game over screen when your party leader dies. Now, I didn't find this to be too huge of a problem personally, but given the way battles work in this game, it does seem kind of pointless. And when you're stuck with, say, Hope as your party leader, with his super, baby HP levels, it can be a real hassle having to worry more about healing than dealing damage.
The Eidolons are all dumb looking as all hell. Remember when summons were the most badass things to happen to JRPGs ever? Well these sad looking, poor man's Gobots are a far cry from that. By themselves, the designs aren't terrible. The Shiva sisters, for example, look pretty cool and whatever. It's when they transform that everything turns to pot. All of the designs just don't make any sense and aren't really all that cool to look at. On top of that, the whole transforming conceit just feels like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon, which feels super out of place in this otherwise mostly serious game.
The Bad: Story
The story gets off to just about the worst start you could ask for. Assuming you serendipitously did everything exactly right the first time, you're still looking at a good four hours plus before every character and every word that said characters speak doesn't seem like the stupidest thing you've ever heard. All of this on top of the most hand-holding and monotonous hours of game play in the game makes for a pretty rough first several hours.
Now that's just bad form. The opening hours are where you secure the audience's interest, not where you weed out those of lesser stomach. The early story beats feed you revelations and character development devoid of any context or possibility for connecting with any of what's going on on-screen, not that most of it isn't completely inscrutable even with context.
I mean, what the hell is this garbage even supposed to be? Are they supposed to be in a tooth-and-nail fire fight? Because it damn sure doesn't seem like it with that shrill voiced dip-shit flopping around on the ground like that. And thank you for explaining to us that you are the heroes. On second thought, it seems more like he was reminding them as much as he was informing us. It's almost like they know as much about the story going in as we do.
It's almost funnier when you realize they're doing all this goofy bullshit just minutes before explaining that this little skirmish is part of a state-run genocide of an entire city's inhabitants. That maybe could have been a halfway harrowing idea if it wasn't punctuated with goofy haired teenagers posing and talking like idiots, but, you know, Final Fantasy guys. In fact, Snow seems like the only one who is even remotely close to being aware of where he is and what's happening around him in this scene.
The story is worth the effort though, and that makes the opening all the more egregious. The trick to understanding anything of what's going on is intimating yourself with the datalogue feature in the game. Any time the game alerts you to a new entry in the datalogue, you should immediately read through it. After about four hours or so, you will have a pretty solid grasp on the story that was once complete and utter nonsense. Once you do sort of understand who all these people are and what the terminology they keep using is in reference to, you can play through the opening hours with a new found understanding of everything they're saying. Suddenly everything makes reasonable sense.
It goes without saying that you shouldn't have to do all this outside reading to understand the opening hours of any story though. If it were engaging despite the confusion, that would be one thing, you might be able to make an argument for that, but it isn't. It's hard to forgive such clumsy narrative technique, especially when its clear that the writing beyond the opening hours is above such amateurish nonsense.
All these cons are ultimately pretty difficult to overlook when you put them all together. So many are attached to the game play, which is the part that you actually have to play at the end of the day. When you aren't having trouble feeling engaged with the poorly paced game play, you're probably dealing with the poorly implemented side features or struggling to understand what anyone is talking about. Every hour is one step closer to not hating the game anymore, but it stumbles its way there so slowly it almost ends up not being worth the effort.
Now, some of you reading this might think that this many problems is justification enough to dismiss the game entirely, but a game's merits aren't somehow magically canceled out by every flaw there is to match them. I mean, if you're just looking for excuses not to play every game that comes out, you're probably not gonna have very much fun. So what all fun things are there to see in this mess of a game? I did say I would come back around to that, and I think I've talked all the mess on this game that I wanted to, so what's good about the game? I've already mentioned more than once that they story is where this game truly shines, despite being very nearly stupid at several points.
One of the laziest and most common complaints lodged against the story is that the characters don't have any personality or development. Now, I've already covered how one might come to this conclusion, given the way the game handles its story in the first several hours. But if you didn't bother looking for character development in the first place, then what would posses you to proclaim that it isn't there other than simple confirmation bias? Well, we'll take a look at that later.
Man, that was a whole lot of smack talk, maybe even too much smack talk. In part 3, we'll do something to fix that and turn the focus instead on what all the game actually did right. So, stick around for that I guess!