My Review: Final Fantasy XII (PS2)
There is little I can say about the Final Fantasy franchise that hasn’t already been said. Square’s flagship series has been around for fourteen main installments and countless spinoffs, gaining both fame and notoriety with each successive installment. Indeed, the only constant with the series is that with each new game the series’ fanbase will be split into opposing camps of ardent supporters and vicious detractors. In my opinion, the detractors are often mistaken in their feelings towards each game, their thoughts mired in the series tradition and failing to recognize the benefits in the series’ ever-evolving gameplay. Final Fantasy XII was, in it’s time, one of the most frequently derided games in the main franchise. It made significant changes to gameplay, some of which were loved and some of which were hated. Does Final Fantasy XII preserve the series’ spirit or mutate it beyond recognition?
The world of Ivalice has been used before in Square games- it was the setting for Final Fantasy Tactics (easily the finest example of a strategy-RPG outside of the Fire Emblem series) and for Vagrant Story. This war-torn world has reached a turning point in history at the start of Final Fantasy XII. In a bid to gain advantage over the rival Rozarrian Empire, the Archadian Empire starts a campaign to subjugate neighboring kingdoms. One such kingdom is Dalmasca, a small desert nation caught right between the two warring nations. It just so happens that, on the day Archadia launched it’s fleet against the kingdom of Nabradia, the princess of Dalmasca, Lady Ashe, is marrying Prince Rasler of Nabradia. As his homeland has been conquered, Rasler leads Dalmasca’s army to the fortress of Nabudis to halt the Empire’s advance, but is killed in battle. As war rages around them, a small group of soldiers, led by Captain Bosch von Ronsenburg, fight their way through the imperial forces to defend their king, who they fear will be assassinated by the treacherous Archadians as he signs a peace treaty. Believing that their king is selling their country to the Empire, Bosch slaughters his own king and most of his soldiers, leaving few survivors as he is subdued by the Archadian army. One such survivor was a Dalmascan soldier named Recks, who would bear witness to Captain Bosch’s treachery in the moments before his death. In grief at the loss of her father and her husband, Princess Ashe takes her own life, and thus Dalmasca is conquered by the Archadian Empire. Fast forward two years later, and we meet Vaan, a young orphan who is also Recks’ younger brother. Vaan bears a deep grudge against the Empire for occupying his homeland, and against Bosch for killing his brother. One day, when Vaan attempts to steal a valuable treasure from the Empire (an artifact the Enpire appears to be seeking), he encounters Baltheir and Fran, a pair of sky pirates who seek the artifact he stole. They are forced to ally by the presence of Archadian soldiers, who are defending the castle from an attack by a resistance force led by Ashe, who faked her own death in order to hide from the Empire. Along with Vaan’s friend Penelo and Captain Bosch, who was framed for the murder of the king and is in fact innocent, the ragtag group of rebels seeks to uncover the mysteries of these artifacts the Empire seeks so desperately and to unravel the schemes of Vayne Solidor, one of the Emperor’s son’s who seeks power for himself at any cost. If they fail, Archadia and Rozarria will attack each other, and Dalmasca will be destroyed by war.
Square has always told great stories in their games, but Final Fantasy XII shows more than any other entry in the series just how far storytelling has come in this medium. Simply put, the story is amazing, and could easily give several fantasy novels a run for their money. Gone are anime stereotypes and trifling situations, replaced by a majestic tapestry of friendships, betrayals, loyalty, power, and war. The characters are complex and three-dimensional, with engaging personalities and believable motivations (the weakest character, however, is unfortunately the main character- Vaan is more or less along for the ride). The stakes are also extremely high, which is usual for the Final Fantasy series, but the horrors of war help make the story relatable to the player, more so than most RPG stories. Ivalice itself is a massive world filled with lore, and it feels like a living world. The return to a high fantasy setting is also refreshing after the several pseudo-science fiction worlds used on other Final Fantasies like VII and X. Finally, superb writing and dialogue carry the weight of the story perfectly, much better than the usual awkward translations one finds in Japanese games (hello, Final Fantasy XIII). The tale of Final Fantasy XII is easily the best thing about the game, and is one of the best in the series.
Final Fantasy XII’s gameplay features several changes to the Final Fantasy formula. While many of the basics are the same, such as leveling up via experience points and equipping new weapons and armor, the game’s combat has received a significant overhaul. Combat in FFXII is in real time, with no transition from field to battle. You control your party leader’s movements, while the other two party members in the field follow you, and can issue commands to any of your party members at any time. Any enemy in the area can join in the battle if they can see you, which can cause skirmishes to escalate quickly. To ease this, you’ll need to use the Gambit System. Gambits are AI commands that can be assigned to different characters. Each character has a certain amount of gambit slots, split into a section for the skill used and for the target of the skill. For instance, Ally HP < 50% = Cure means that, when an ally’s HP reaches 50%, the character with the gambit equipped will cast Cure on him. Gambits can be switched on or off, and while they help to automate tough encounters, input is usually necessary in a pinch. When fighting, selecting a skill then a target will cause a blue line to connect to the enemy as your character readies his command, similar to the ATB systems in previous Final Fantasy games. Items, however, are used instantly. Only characters who were in the field when the enemy is killed gain any experience from battle, so it’s usually best to keep a ‘core’ party leveled and a ‘secondary’ party around for special uses. You can flee from battles by holding down a shoulder button, or avoid them entirely if you are riding a chocobo. Navigation, however, is usually done by foot- the massive overworld is at times a hindrance, therefore, as you will often travel for a long time to reach your destination. You can teleport to different save crystals (which also fully heal your party), but doing so requires an item called a Teleport Stone.
The other biggest change is the License Board, FFXII’s character growth system. Basically, every skill, spell, weapon, piece of armor, and augment has it’s own ‘license’ on a chessboard-like grid, and in order to use the thing on the license you need to acquire it using License Points earned in battle. This system allows a great deal of customization, but it’s annoying to have to earn license points in order to use needed skills- better skills require more LP, sometimes an inordinate amount. Every character has their own Board with the same stuff, so every character can access everything in the game, with the exception of Quickenings and Espers, which can only be bought by one character. Quickenings are the Limit Breaks of FFXII, and each requires a full bar of MP- for every quickening a character knows (up to three), they have one MP bar called a ‘Mist Charge’. When a character uses a Quickening, every character in the active party can join in, creating a Quickening Chain that deals more damage if they join in within the 5 second time limit. Using Quickenings can give you an advantage in battle, but they eat through MP, so it’s often best to switch to a different party if in a tough boss fight so that you can heal. Espers, on the other hand, are the summons of FFXII- once defeated in battle, they can be used by whatever character gains their license. When summoned, an Esper replaces the rest of the party and continuously assaults an enemy until their time runs out or the summoner is defeated.
The gameplay is FFXII is perfectly functional (it seems to be replicated in many other games, such as Rogue Galaxy, White Knight Chronicles, and Dragon Age), but unfortunately it isn’t very fun at times. While the real-time combat, the gambits, and the License Board are all perfectly functional, they are often tedious to advance through. The combat often gets bogged down, as sometimes enemies can take an excessive amount of actions due to a high agility stat, and healing can often come too late. As a result, combat boils down to luck and is devoid of any real strategy- the Gambits often fall apart under extraneous circumstances. Building tough enough character also takes very long, and is often necessary. The game itself, too, is far too long, easily twenty hours more than it needs to be. The gameplay in Final Fantasy XII has been said to emulate those of modern MMOs and other, more western-style role playing games, and it shows. Even though it works, it will often test the patience of a player not invested in the story.
A mention has already been made to the superb localization, and Square’s now signature production values didn’t stop there. Final Fantasy XII is a beautiful game. The environments are varied and realistically rendered, and the numerous CG cinemas look fantastic as well. The character models, however, look slightly odd during normal cutscenes, and their fashion sense is questionable (Vaan’s bare midriff, Ashe’s wardrobe disaster, Fran’s metal swimsuit). The music is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the movie like score sounds incredible during cutscenes and boss battles. However, there is no difference to the normal background music during normal battles, and the many subdued dungeon pieces are grating and only serve to add to the tedium of combat.
If you can put a little more time than necessary into a game, Final Fantasy XII will provide a memorable experience. The story is easily it’s highlight, and fans of epic storytelling shouldn’t miss out. Gameplay-wise, though, it emerges a failed experiment. To the casual player, the sheer amount of grinding and the tedious combat may be a turn off, but Final Fantasy fans and hardcore role-players shouldn’t miss this epic adventure.