Ah, Final Fantasy, Square Enix's flagship series that divides many, even those who are faithful to the series like I am. Personally I have never been a fan of post-SNES Final Fantasy games, but just saying that would draw in the wrath of Cloud and Sephiroth fanboys. Oh no (/ducks). Anyway, having bought into the hype that Square Enix's marketing gurus unleashed on us regarding the latest in the numbered series Final Fantasy XII, and then actually playing it; I find myself wondering, why did it took them so long to finally release a true masterpiece?
Before I continue I would like to complain a little bit here.
There is a terrible notion out there that Final Fantasy games are sequels. Which isn't true, at least not necessarily, but it is still a terrible myth often believed by fanboys and haters alike. The main numbered games are certainly not. Sure Final Fantasy X-2 is a direct sequel (more like a spin-off) to Final Fantasy X, but Final Fantasy X itself isn't a sequel to Final Fantasy IX. The reason why Square (and then Square Enix) named these major projects as such is pure marketing (a Final Fantasy numbered game will draw the attention of media and fans) as well as due to the common ethos (such as chocobos, moogles, orphans and airships) that binds them. Now with my pet peeve aside you can continue reading my review of Final Fantasy XII, the most controversial Final Fantasy game since, er, Final Fantasy XI.
Final Fantasy XII takes place in Ivalice, which I am sure some of you may recognise as appearing as a location in Vagrant Story, as well as serving as the main geographical location where the plot of Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (Europe, this is a ******* great game) takes place (though in a different timeline). Yasumi Matsuno, the original director of the game, happened to be the producer to Final Fantasy Tactics, so it was inevitable that Final Fantasy XII featured an intricate political plot similar to that of Tactics. Okay on surface the game appears to be a slight rip-off of Final Fantasy VI, which itself was a slight rip-off of Star Wars, but no matter, at least it does much better than George Lucas's recent efforts. Plus Princess Ashe can actually wield a sword. Can't say that for Princess Leia can you?
The Empire of Archadia and Rozarria are in a middle of a war and the innocent kingdom of Dalmasca, situated in the middle, holds a great geographical strategic importance to the Archadians. Like any good Empire they decided to lay siege on the peaceful nation, for the better good, apparently. A couple of royalty members passed away and Dalmasca soon became the property of Archadia. Princess Ashe, who was the sole hire to the Dalmascan throne appeared to have commited suicide (although we all know this to be untrue). A resistance group is soon formed by the exiled Princess who aims to liberate her Dalmasca and drive the Empire out of her nation (sounds familiar, no?).
Back in Dalmasca in the Royal City of Rabanastre lives a young kid by the name of Vaan. He is an orphan (big surprise there) who makes a living by being a thief. He does harbour the dream of taking his hobby to bigger things by commandeering his own airship while Sky Pirating around. Oh, and he plans on avenging his brother who died during the invasion of Dalmasca. What do thieves do when security is beefed up in the royal palace because of a fete? Well if you are Vaan you will consider breaking in. Which was what he did. After an interesting Metal Gear Solid'esque gameplay where Vaan runs around corridors distracting and dodging guards in order to get to the secret treasure chamber, he bumps into a couple of real life Sky Pirates called Balthier and Fran (whose characters are probably based on the Han/Chewie characters from Star Wars - although do be frank I rather ogle at the Viera bunny girl more than a Chewbacca)...
I won't spoil it for you so you will just have to play to find out more, but seriously if you are expecting enormous singular character development as found in other Final Fantasy games you will be sorely disappointed. This isn't IV or VI or even VII. If you are expecting that Final Fantasy XII would be centred around Vaan's desire for vengeance, then you are in for a big surprise. Unlike previous Final Fantasy games, the plot does not centre around any of the protagonists. The game's plot revolves around something much grander than love triangles, dead families or squabbling teenagers.
Battle director Hiroyuki Ito has basically rewritten the single player Final Fantasy rule book in terms if gameplay battle with this game, by tossing out many gameplay features normally associated with a traditional JRPG. Out are random battles, transitions between battles and exploration and (most) victory jiggle/themes. Monsters and enemies now roam on the field map and you can choose to fight them if you wish to. Any enemies wondering nearby can potentially join the battle at any time - which is why it is almost always prudent to lure enemies away, at least when your level isn't up to standard just yet. To escape from dangerous enemies your party has to literally run away by pressing the R2 shoulder button while enemies behind give chase. There is no shame in doing so, as Basch wisely offered wisdom during the short tutorial.
The battle concept was born out of Square Enix's own MMORPG Final Fantasy XI called Real Time Battle (RTB) giving Final Fantasy XII what some might argue an offline MMO feel. Melees and most actions (Magick, summoning Espers etc.) are still turn based and are governed by the ATB-like gauge (also created by Ito) introduced in Final Fantasy IV, but you can change or cancel action at any time as well as changing targets. Using items requires no charge time. In summary, the gameplay is still menu based, but in pausable real time. While the gameplay seems to have changed so dramatically, in theory it is actually pretty similar to the ATB system. So really the new system (called Active Dimension Battle) is a naturally progression from the marriage between ATB and a MMO based gameplay.
Blue lines indicates the party member's target
With up to three people in the party, selecting through the menus can get tedious, but the introduction of the Gambits system remedies that. It is sort of an auto-pilot system that defines the A.I. of the party members. It does sounds complicated and I cringed when I first read about it, but after tinkering with the system I find it indispensable. It is easier to give a couple of examples rather than delve into a lengthy explanation on computer programming and the inner working of A.I.
Here's one. You set a Gambit command on your party leader to [Foe: nearest visible -> Attack]. Basically this will tell your tank (party leader) to automatically attack any enemies wondering nearby. Another example is by fixing one of the party member's Gambit to [Ally: any -> Arise], he or she will resurrect any K.O.ed party member. Later on in the game you will be able to set more advance Gambits like [Foe: lightning-weak -> Thundaga] where enemies who are more prone to certain spells get targeted with specific Magick. You can unlock additional Gambit slots through the License Board (see below) and buy new Gambits and set different Gambit priority for each party member.
With Gambit set to the appropriate tactic, you can literally play most of the game with just one hand. It is a fun system once you get used to it, and makes levelling up and boss battles less of a chore. Another example I can think of was while roaming around Ogir-Yensa Sandsea early on in the game trying to harvest gil, I set the tank's Gambit to steal from any foe whose HP is still full (in this case trying to steal Succulent Fruits from the Alraunes). Because the tank is always leading the way, it almost always assure that he or she will steal from an enemy before the other party members kills off the enemy. The tank will then automatically steal from other nearby foes whose HPs are still full while the rest of the party members continue slaying about.
You can turn off Gambit if you are too proud an old school gamer who just wants to micro manage everything the party does.
The License Board works in a similar manner to the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, but it now looks more like a giant (and uneven) Chess board. It is where you assign new skills or abilities to your characters such as new melee weapons or Magicks. Note even if you managed to trade in License Points (which you gain by defeating enemies, most of which will only award you a single LP) to unlock a new license such as the ability to use a powerful Masamune weapon, you are still required to purchase one from the shops. There are a total of six License Board for all six characters.
It is theoretically possible to unlock the whole License Board but you will need a massive 13180 points to do so, and that not include points to unlock Espers. Early on in the game it would be wise to try to trade in LPs for +HP (up to an additional 1000 HP, Swiftness and Battle Lore (all permanent stat boost). Such augments comes real handy as with the stat boost a level 20 character has roughly the same stat as a none boosted level 30/40 character.
Personally I think that the License Board is a slight pain (on par with Dragon Quest VIII's annoying Alchemy Pot), but it is an interesting concept nonetheless in letting us chart the skills and develop each characters - although sadly without any distinct customisation. Once you unlock the whole board every party member has the exact same skills as the rest, with just the odd variation in stats. I prefer if they went for a more simplified system to developing skills, like the skill point system from Dragon Quest VIII or even the good ol' Job system. Maybe in future titles, hopefully.
Sony's PlayStation 2 is the weakest of the last generation console hardware but with extremely high quality textures and all sort of clever tricks with programming, the graphics of Final Fantasy XII is breathtaking. While it lacks anti-aliasing and proper shadowing during exploration, the game still looks impressive. Rabanastrae, with its unique Arabian and Islamic architecture, just looks brilliant. The conversion to PAL seems to have gone well with no black border issues as well as the adding of widescreen support. Sadly the game does not support progressive scan output.
As with any Final Fantasy game, cut scenes features aplenty, but thankfully they decided to cut down on those slick pre-rendered content. Pre-rendered cut scenes (or mini movies as I call them) still exists, but only reserve for very very important events (such as airship battles and stuff that the in-game engine can't possible do, or Squenix are just too lazy to do - look at what Rogue Squadron II was capable of). Most of the cut scenes are now told using the in-game engine, which looks just as wonderful as those pre-rendered once, just slightly more jaggy. I actually prefer the character models as shown through the in-game engine as a common mistake of pre-rendered scenes are they looks too clean and doll like.
In-game engine! Square Enix finally learns.
There are slight niggles with the camera as it doesn't always work the way you want it to, especially during boss fights. Final Fantasy XII bosses are massive and it makes sense to have a wide view to see what is going on. The problem is because of the way the camera pans, you rarely get to see the whole boss. An early fight with the Mimic Queen in Barheim Passage highlights the problem quite significantly. At the most all I can see are my three party members and guest Basch hacking away at its feet. This can be fixed by moving the camera closer giving a third person camera view behind the party leader, but this is hardly ideal in some cases, especially during the more chaotic battles.
Having said that the new camera system works great in the dungeons as well as the more open field map especially when the camera is pulled back giving an almost classic top-down viewpoint.
The developers has made exploring Ivalice even more memorable by introducing weather based effect. Step into the Dalmasca desert surroundings and you may or may not catch a sand storm. Weather also play an important part in side quests such as hunts. Stronger enemies as well as elemental ones would only appear in certain seasons such as the Giza Plain's rain. Previous area that were inaccessible may become accessible during certain weather conditions. Tiny details like these are very Hideo Kojima inspired, and kudos to the developers for taking on such an idea.
Final Fantasy XII is the second main Final Fantasy game to use voice acting. Thankfully Square Enix has decided to follow the successful dubbing of Dragon Quest VIII and employed a fair amount of voice actors capable of the many British and more exotic accent varieties. While there is nothing fascinating to write about the soundtrack, the music composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto sounds just as wonderful as most Final Fantasy game music. Each dungeons or areas have their specific themes and sometimes it is refreshing to play a JRPG that doesn't change themes every time you enter into a battle. It isn't as dramatic of some of Nobuo Uematsu's best work, but the soundtrack is equally as memorable. Seriously.
Victory jiggle/theme still exists but only limited to when you win major battles such as boss fights.
Doing away with the outlandish 3D Final Fantasy character design of Tetsuya Nomura, Square Enix wisely gave the job of designing characters to Akihiko Yoshido of Vagrant Story fame (he also designed those kawaii characters in the remake of Final Fantasy III). No more distinct Nomura-style moody teen-angst protagonist! The new characters design are clearly one of the better designed ones. Female characters for example, while still sexualised (at least in the way they dress - particularly Penelo and Fran), at least doesn't receive the same crass makeover that a certain Final Fantasy X-2 had.
Most would probably associate the effeminate and Aladdin like Vaan as the main protagonist, though like Terra (Tina, whatever) in Final Fantasy VI, Vaan is just a tag along, an observer if you like. The decision to sideline Despite being so similar to Final Fantasy VI, the party consists of a grand total of six characters, which is fine. Juggling around 14 playable characters during my fifth playthrough of Final Fantasy VI was just overkill. Along with Vaan and Ashe, there is Vaan's sixteen year old friend Penelo, the two Sky Pirates Balthier and Fran as well as Basch.
And seriously, Balthier (despite the rather reserved design) - coolest Final Fantasy character since Kain from Final Fantasy IV! Also a small note on the main villain Vayne. He isn't an archetypical JRPG villain, in a sense that he is absolute evil, you know, like Kefka. Rather Final Fantasy XII's villains is based on a corrupt senate (see the Star Wars reference?). As I mentioned before the plot is a political one, hence the villain being a political villain made absolute sense.
Up to a maximum number of three characters can join the main party plus the occasional NPC guest. These guests are useful early on in the game and during boss fights, but can pose more problems than usual, especially during level grinding as they are usually keen on attacking any foes (they have Gambits set to them) - even those that you may not want to engage with yet! They also steal a quarter of EXP gained during battles so it may be sensible to kill'em off while level grinding.
Developing the character, like in any RPG, is entirely. Judging by the stats (which isn't as complicated as recent RPGs), one would wisely have one of the three female characters as either a Red Mage or dedicated Magick user whereas a character like Vaan would be a tank - attracting enemies while a Damage Dealer like Basch, the strongest of the lot in terms of physical strength, pounds the enemies from the side with melee weapons. Like I already mentioned somewhere above, character developments are also governed by the License Board as well as the personal stats of each character.
Because K.O.ed characters can be swapped with other members from the reserve team it is wise to improve their stats by levelling up as well, though probably not as much.
Nothing is perfect
No doubt like any game (or anything for that matter), nothing is ever perfect. In this game there are quite a number of niggles, such as the camera issue I pointed out earlier. The License Board, while in concept seems welcoming, is an acquired taste. The main quest is also too easy (though lengthy side quests do offer much much more, such as the clan related hunts where you can earn Gils and obtain better equipments). By running around the party members can gain back MPs, liberating the use of curative spells through Gambits. K.O.ed party members can easily be exchanged with those in the reserve team making exploring the field map a piece of cake. Even then encounters with difficult foes can easily be avoided by simply fleeing! And while exploring the field map is indeed a huge improvement over previous Final Fantasy numbered titles, I kind of wished of a more Dragon Quest VIII’esque overworld, with an almost sandbox like experience of where we can take the party to (in XII, the field map’s layout is similar to dungeon layouts).
Best game(play) ever?
After a string of average Final Fantasy games starting with VII, it was about time Square Enix reinvented the numbered series, and my god they really did. Sure the plot from the characters viewpoint seems almost basic but I see nothing wrong in that. After all the story of Final Fantasy XII, is like a story told through the eyes of Vaan and his journey. The tale of Ivalice and all its politics cannot be told in a single game (a common complaint about Final Fantasy Tactics was the complicated political plot regarding Ivalice) . Lucky for us, we will find out more when the direct sequel Final Fantasy XII Revenant Wings hits the DS platform. How else to tell an entire mythology? J.K. Rowling tells hers with seven books, Tolkein told his with many more and Lucas, the money maker he is, told his with 3 good films, 3 bad films, countless comics and non-canonical novels and spin-off TV shows, not to mention buggy unplayable LucasArt games.
I rarely say it but Final Fantasy XII's gameplay is close to perfection. It took six titles for them to get the 3D numbered Final Fantasy right, over two console generations just like it took them six titles to nail it with the 2D numbered games (VI), also over two console generations. Sure the new gameplay will scare the shit out of old school traditional JRPG fans, but if you read my Final Fantasy III DS remake review, you will know I am a huge fan of old school JRPG random battles with deformed characters, and somehow here I am just showering the game with so much praise. Times change and Square Enix as a development house as well as a business recognises that. But they sure know how to reinvent the wheel, even when they had to discard the whole concept and use a hyperspace drive instead.
Oh god, just look at the time. And all this time I wasted myself writing this I could have just gone off to play Final Fantasy XII.
When levelling make sure to kill off any guest member traveling with your party as they tend to steal EXPs but unable to level up themselves.
By creating a long-chain link by fighting the same enemies, they would frequently drop better loots and EXPs.
Once you have access to them, equip each member with a Golden Amulet (even those in the reserve team) and License Point obtained will be doubled.
Whenever you have a guest (like the excellent and reliable Larsa) try to finish up as many hunts for the clan soon as possible. Marks do not yield EXPs so it makes sense to have an extra hand to help fight as well as dishing out healing items.
Buy now from Play-Asia or Amazon UK
Update: A direct sequel in the form of Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings is due on the Nintendo DS soon. An improved International Zodiac Job System of Final Fantasy XII has also been released. It contains new jobs and dungeons.