This is not an easy game, and the scripted introductory battle and subsequent easy random encounters might give you a deceptive sense of security as to Kaim’s combat prowess. The result is that the first few bosses come as a harsh reality check for many players. It’s a steep learning curve, but things gradually get easier as your characters learn new abilities. Just make sure you’re diligent about doing that and equipping the right rings to maximise your damage output. Things may get dicier again come Disc 3 when you temporarily have a party made up entirely of mages (and Ming as your only immortal) but, on the whole, the difficulty eventually plateaus out.
As far as the game’s Big Bad is concerned, I must admit to being disappointed. Gongora might as well have a giant neon ‘I am evil’ sign above his head from the moment you first meet him, so you know that nothing he proposes is going to turn out well. It doesn’t help that he looks like a discount Dolph Lundgren and progressively starts chewing more and more of the scenery as the game unfolds. Theoretically, there would be an advantage to knowing the Big Bad from the outset, as you have an entire game’s worth of exposition to round out his character. The problem? There’s just not that much to round out…Gongora is a cardboard cutout of a villain, and none of the background information about him adds any depth or ambiguity to his character. So it’s just a case of grinning and bearing it. Provided you’re adequately levelled up and have cleared the optional dungeon before taking him on, the final confrontation should pose no problem whatsoever.
The optional dungeon in the vanilla game is called the Backyard. It’s located in Gohtza and basically consists of a series of cage fights, grouped together in categories of increasing difficulty (Light, Medium, Heavy and Super Heavy Class), which you need to work through to reach the optional superboss, aptly named The Immortal One. Each battle also has a hidden requirement you need to fulfil to obtain extra rewards and achievements. The Immortal One itself is pretty nasty (and nasty-looking), especially since you have a time limit to defeat it, but just toss your four immortals plus Sed at him, and you should be able to prevail. The Seeker of the Deep DLC also adds a whole other optional dungeon and superboss, for your fighting pleasure.
In terms of other optional activities, most major sidequests open up on Disc 4 once you obtain the White Boa. As already mentioned, each character has their own personal sidequest, among which the Temple of Enlightenment stands tall as a real challenge due to size, complexity and enemy difficulty. Other than those, you’ve got a few game-spanning sidequests such as the Cubic Music (which rewards you with glasses that allow you to find invisible treasure chests). You also obtain a treasure locator when you first get to Tosca, and, from then on, you can get treasure tips from certain NPCs, which will make a treasure chest appear in a certain location. There are also locator upgrades in the Great Ancient Ruins and the Pirate Fortress to allow you to find the higher-grade chests. If you miss any regular treasure chests in areas which you can’t return to, they will appear at the Auction House in Saman for you to bid on (but NPCs will be bidding too).
When you enter certain locations (usually houses), you may see a cute bunny-like creature called a pilot peeping out of a…pot. It’ll hide once you get closer, but if you examine the pot, it will pop out again. You can give it seeds that you’ve picked up on your travels. Every 20 seeds, the pipot will give you an item. Later in the game, you can also distribute special seeds to different pipots, with an accessory as a reward.
There are also a couple of somewhat counterintuitive sidequests which require you to let enemies steal stuff from you (either money or key items). You can then track down their leaders and defeat them to get your money/items back, and curb their kleptomaniac tendencies once and for all. Money-Moneys, as the name implies, will steal money from you, provided you don’t kill them in one hit. You can then battle their leader in the Terrace Cave. As for Elmons and Trookies (which look like white Gremlins), you need to let them steal the Elmon Crown and Trooky Talisman, respectively, to be able to face their leaders.
There’s also a bunch of shorter fetch quests in every city and town, and some other locations as well. These are usually very quick to complete, and some of the rewards are really good (e.g. spells).
One thing that players frequently complain about in this game – and with good reason – are the loading screens, each featuring one of the characters and their stats. Get ready to see them a lot. Entering a new area? Loading screen. Entering a battle? Loading screen. Cinematic kicking in? Loading screen. That being said, while the interruptions can get annoying, I wouldn’t say they’re deal-breaking (because they apparently were in the Japanese version of the game). You can also improve the loading issues by installing the game to your Xbox 360’s hard drive rather than playing it from the discs. This also helps to preserve the discs, as they are rather fragile and get scratched easily.
Conversely, the one aspect of the game that players almost universally praise are the dream sequences. As already mentioned, most of them are about Kaim and serve as his de facto personal sidequest, but Seth and Ming get a couple as well. They can trigger from speaking to certain NPCs, examining certain objects or simply walking into a given area. They appear as text against a stylised background, accompanied by music and sound effects, and they are beautifully written. Most of them are sad or melancholy, as befits the theme of immortal characters struggling to find meaning to their lives. Some might give you goosebumps, make you tear up or smile. Naysayers will say that they interrupt the flow of the game, but I find that the quality of the writing makes up for any such minor annoyances. Now if they’d only showcased more of Seth’s or Ming’s life as well (especially Seth)…Sarah’s complete lack of dreams also sticks out like a sore thumb. Given that every immortal has become amnesic due to a traumatic event (this isn’t really a spoiler), but then recovered by finding something they cared about, it makes zero sense that the character who is presented as the most caring and motherly of the lot never manages to do this. Surely, she should have the strongest memories and the most empathetic response? But I digress.
Transportation in this game occurs predominantly at sea. Early travelling happens on foot (you can notably sprint while exploring cities and dungeons to speed things up), but, when travelling between locations, you don’t actually have access to the World Map per se: once you select a location on the map screen, the party automatically travels there. The Slantnose is the first available ship and your first opportunity to actually explore the world. It’s obtained on Disc 2, but it can only access a limited selection of destinations, as it can’t cross hypercurrents, shallows or ice fields. The Nautilus, on Disc 3, will considerably extend your range of motion, as it will eventually be able to cross hypercurrents. On top of that, it can also fly (although it will only be able to land in water) and dive. Finally, the White Boa, acquired on Disc 4, will allow you to sail anywhere, as it’s the only ship big enough to break ice fields. It also looks like a cross between an iron and a shoe. You can combine it with the Nautilus for maximum mobility, as the latter is actually berthed inside the White Boa.
Finally, I’d like to give a shout out to whomever designed the kelolon enemies, because they are adorable: little green critters in oversized helmets with a leaf on top (although there are variants in other colours and without helmets; the girls even have dresses on). They’re supposed to be frogs: “kero” is the Japanese onomatopoeia for a frog’s croak (c.f. the kerotans in Metal Gear Solid III), and the “r” and “l” sounds are interchangeable when transliterating Japanese.