So a lot has happened since I last posted, about 20 or so hours ago. Enough that I can't always remember exactly what I thought of it at the time, so pardon any gaps or repetition. Interesting that most reports have 20 hours of gameplay getting you to the mythical Chapter 11. We might have left a save screen running for a couple of hours here and there; let's call it more like 17.
I have been intrigued by Lightning from the very beginning, and nothing has happened to change that. Her realization that her drive for pure revenge is foolish and destructive, not only to herself but especially to Hope, was well-realized. I also must admit that I enjoy having a female lead who appears not to have a single maternal instinct. First she tries to get rid of the kid, then she tries to toughen him up in the only way she knows, and she doesn't realize until too late that her plan backfired. For me, it works.
Snow immediately reminded me of Zidane: cheerful, boisterous, a little oblivious, a self-styled hero and champion. Now, I like Zidane, so that's mostly a good thing, but I find that Snow does get a little one-note at times. If he says "I'll do whatever it takes!" one. more. time...
Hope is whiny, bratty, and in all ways a realistic 14-year-old boy who saw his mother die before his eyes and is having a hard time dealing with it. I don't know if I like him, exactly, but he's been growing on me, and it's nice to watch him growing up under pressure in ways that a real kid would. Maybe a little fast, but not beyond the bounds of believability. I like that they didn't make his father a Bad Dad. I really like that Lightning and Snow are more of big sister and big brother to him than surrogate parents. All of his talk with Snow about family in Chapter 7 makes me think that they may be well on their way to developing into a family of choice.
Sazh... Sazh is awesome. And his story is breaking my heart. Chapter 8... oh my god. My heart, in little pieces on the floor. So tragic for him, for Dajh, for Vanille. I'm assuming he's not actually dead, given that the game just went to all this trouble to get him an Eidolon, but it was still a shocking and wrenching moment when he pulled that gun on himself.
At this time, the character I'm most conflicted about is Vanille. She's the bouncy chick with a dark secret and an overdeveloped sense of empathy, which is fine, but haven't we seen this before? Said dark secret was telegraphed with a bullhorn -- T and I guessed that she was from Pulse and already a l'Cie before the end of Chapter 2 -- so why the attempt at mystery? Unless we were supposed to guess it.
Fang, now. Fang I'm not conflicted about at all. She is fast becoming my favorite character in the game. I love her drive, her no-nonsense attitude, her apparent devotion to Vanille. I love that she is just about the purest female fighter I've ever had as a main party character in a Final Fantasy game (maybe since Freya in FFIX?). I loved playing her with Lightning in Chapter 7, kicking ass and taking names, and if I 'ship anything at this point, it's probably the two of them. I'm looking forward to seeing more of her.
Secondary characters: Serah is intriguing and I hope we get more of her, in flashback or in game. Snow delivering her to the Vestige... OOF. My heart, again. I am bummed that the Quistis look-alike seems to be evil, and disappointed that the silver-haired Colonel, who seems more likely to be turn-able, is dead. Cid is a mystery to me, and I don't know whether it's my denseness or poor storytelling, but I didn't realize until Snow and Fang showed up to rescue Lightning and Hope that he was not on the side of the Cocoon military.
Since I complained about Hope's mom before, I feel that I should acknowledge that they gave the character a name, and that the name had quite a bit of significance for Hope's character and for the story overall. So I partially retract my complaint, although as I discussed with imadra_blue in comments, I think it's still a fair criticism of the character's introduction. If Hope had initially been introduced as "Boy", as if both he and Nora were only named from Snow's point of view, it would have a) felt more equitable and b) not telegraphed the fact, in retrospect, that they were hiding her name for a Big Reveal later.
The story is interesting, although not as deep or complex as I would like for a Final Fantasy game. Only Sazh's story came as a real surprise -- everything else was telegraphed in the storytelling or by the game's marketing. I hope that some real twists are coming, and soon.
The battle system is growing on me. Now that I'm used to the idea that I will only ever be able to control one character at a time, I've gotten better at switching paradigms. I look forward to the time, coming soon I hope, that I can choose my own party, especially my own leader, and will always have three characters to play with, which should give me a lot more flexibility.
If I'm disappointed in anything, it's the character development system. The Crysterium is pretty, but it's not intuitive at all. I really hate the way the game doles out new pieces of each character's development path rather than showing us the whole thing, and how the characters' paths relate to each other. I don't mind that the game blocks characters from developing past the role level before certain milestones are reached, but at least let me see what's there. How far are we from higher-level spells, better upgrades, etc.? I feel like I could plan a lot better with that info. Right now it feels very deterministic, and it's dull. Give me the flexibility of FFXII's licensing system any time, or even the big-picture overview of the FFX Sphere Grid. There's weapons upgrades, I guess, but that's such a trial-and-error based system that I don't find it appealing at all.
I'm also feeling the lack of puzzles and mini-games, but maybe that will change eventually.
In the end, I play FF games for story and characters, so if the gameplay is a little simplistic, I can live with that (shades of Kingdom Hearts 2, anyone?). Especially for a game as beautiful to look at as this one.