Each character has a set of classes called Paradigms, and the universal rule for every fight is “stagger the enemy.” I do this by filling a special meter, and some Paradigms are better at it than others. Hitting L-1 activates the Paradigm Shift, which changes the classes of each character on the fly. Since I don’t control my squad at all, I can’t worry myself with what spells or skills they’re using or not using. It’s best to focus on the bigger picture and time my Paradigm Shifts accordingly. If someone’s hurt? Switch to healer. Want to stagger? Make a Ravage. If I can spare a second, buff the party or debuff the enemy.
Combat is about controlling the flow of battle, not picking ability X from a menu; I’m a general now, not a soldier. In this way it’s a radical shift from every other RPG. And boy, does it speed things up.
There are a couple more subtle, genius changes to combat: I’m healed completely after every fight, so status ailments can no longer screw me over in a boss fight because I don’t have a “soft” or “eyedrop” to heal the affected character. This leads to less frustration but harder enemies because now the developer knows I’ll be entering every fight in prime condition and they take advantage of that. However, if I do die in battle I’m not kicked back to a save point. Instead, I get the option of retrying the fight right away. I then respawn on the map with the enemy unaware of my presence, giving me a chance to change equipment or Paradigms, before charging in again. I love being able to retry fights right away — the worst part of any RPG is being forced to redo dungeons.
So far I’ve encountered two Eidolons, the “summon magic” of Final Fantasy XIII (I’ve got Shiva and Odin now), and both fights were miserable experiences. I had to fight each Eidolon in a specific manner, and the game told me to use Libra to get a tip, but the tip was always, to paraphrase, “fighting them in a specific manner.” Thanks for nothing, game. I refuse to demean myself through idiotic trial and error, so I just used Google. Thank god for Google. Also, apparently “eidolon” is a real word meaning “phantom” or “an idealized figure.” That actually makes a lot of sense. Kudos to the localization team.
Despite my advancing understanding of the battle system, the story is still the main draw. I was surprised that the characters all met up so early in the game, but now they’re split up again and I couldn’t be happier. The game is at its best when it’s telling these parallel stories because it allows the developers to jump all over this fascinating world fairly quickly. In addition, the characters separated of their own volition. I love that each person is motivated by different desires and that they act on those individual feelings even if that means going against the party. They don’t act like a single hive-mind, they act like unique individuals. Dividing the party furthers character development, and that clever method of storytelling, are reasons enough for me to keep playing.