Final Fantasy XII Review

My first exposure to Final Fantasy XII, like most people, was through the demo that came with Dragon Quest 8. Did I buy Dragon Quest 8 just to get ahold of the FF12 demo?  I’ll have to plead the 5th on that. I played the demo for about 10 minutes and my first thought was “That’s different.” My second thought was “That’s really different” as it felt like an MMORPG instead of a Final Fantasy game. Once the game was released I did succumb to the initial excitement and bought it right away, played it for several hours and shelved it. It seemed like a good game but it wasn’t like the other Final Fantasy games I’d played and liked.

Then I restarted the game a little over a month ago and flew through its 62 hours in a caffeine-assisted haze. It’s very rare for me to play a game this quickly, particularly one this size. Here are my final thoughts on FF12 but if you want the short version: It’s different from other games in the series and it’s brilliant.

Story

All recent Final Fantasy games have had an interesting cast of supporting characters but ultimately focused on a single protagonist, usually with funny clothes, bad hair, a whiny personality or a tail. FF12 turns this upside down. At the start of the game we are introduced to Reks, through whom we learn the game’s basic mechanics. But just as soon as we get comfortable with Reks he’s gone and Vaan takes his place. He does have the trademark funny clothes and bad hair and looks a bit like the young lady who works down the hall from me but he’s a likeable enough guy. We spend most of the game seeing things from Vaan’s point of view but, oddly enough, he’s not the main character.

You see, the story in FF12 is much larger in scope than other games in the series. It concerns itself with politics, empires, invasions and rebellions. There are actually several similarities to Star Wars including a princess without a throne, a swashbuckling rogue and his non-human companion, villains in dark suits of armor with breathy, deep voices and a final confrontation against a Death Star-like fortress. In many respects, Vaan takes on the role of C3PO in that he is present for all the major events that take place but isn’t really the acting force that moves the plot forward. This was a bit jarring at first as I kept waiting for big revelations about Vaan and instead the game kept giving me glimpses into the inner workings of the empire and its enemies.  If anything, the main characters are Princess Ashe and Basch, a man who may or may not be guilty of regicide.

Freed from any prior expectations, the story in FF12 is quite good. I was interested in what was happening and there were several plot twists I wasn’t prepared for. The game is so huge, with so much to do (more on that later) that there were some points toward the middle of the game where I felt the plot meandered a bit too much. There were a lot of minor and major characters and it was easy to lose track of who they were and why they were important. I wish the developers had added a story summary or glossary of the important people you met and a bit of their background just to make it easier to keep on top of all the characters. I mean the Marquis Ondore was great and I appreciated seeing him at the end of the game but it had been 20-30 hours since we last met him and it took me a moment to remember who he was.

The other problem was this grand, sweeping story that was able to pause while your characters completed a dozen or more hours of sidequesting.  Once you had enough optional questing you could return to the story right where it left off.  It’s not realistic but I’m not sure how else they could handle it.

The six primary characters were great. Vaan was successful in not being a whiny douche which is notable for a Final Fantasy protagonist. Basch was very cool and had a fantastic story arc. Ashe, as the princess without a throne, was well-realized. I enjoyed watching her struggle with the question of what a person will do and won’t do for the nation they love. Balthier was far and away the most fun character. He’s Han Solo with a better voice and cooler clothes. His partner Fran was very exotic. I would have liked to know more about how they met. The only character I didn’t appreciate much was Penelo. She never seemed to have much of a role other than being Vaan’s friend. I would have liked to see her developed more but I am glad they ended the game from her perspective.

So yes, the story in FF12 is very different from the games that precede it. I think it’s a good thing and I was happy to see the storyline move in a broader, more mature direction.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Gameplay

Much has been said of Final Fantasy XII’s battle system so we’ll deal with that right off the bat. Battles are similar to MMORPG’s in that you will see the enemy as you are walking around but it will only become aggressive if you get close to it. At that point battle begins with no separate “battle screen” and no flashy battle transition. I can’t tell you how jarring this was for me at first.  I’m so used to the Final Fantasy battle screen in all its various forms.  Once battle is done you collect any loot the monster drops and you move on. Because of this, there are no random battles and you can actually avoid a lot of combat just by not getting too close to the enemies. It’s refreshingly different and made me wonder why Final Fantasy hadn’t done this before.

Hand in hand with the new combat system is the gambit system which is also completely new to the franchise. It turns the traditional turn-based battle systems from previous Final Fantasy games into a quasi-real-time strategy game. You select what you want your characters to do from the Gambit menu (i.e. If the enemy is flying then use Thundaga, If the enemy has 100% health then attack him first) and, in battle, they follow your commands. If you’re not happy with what they are doing you can select a different action, rearrange or re-do gamebits or you can turn gambits off altogether. This is similar to PC RPG’s like Baldur’s Gate or World of Warcraft where your characters have default actions they will carry out in real-time but you can step in at any point and give them specific instructions.

The downside to the gambit system? Well it does create a certain distance between you and the battles as, once you’ve set your gambits up, your characters can handle most battles quite well without you, thank you very much. At no point did I feel like I was playing Dungeon Siege (“it plays itself!”) but I can understand how some people might not like the system. Also the developers decided to slowly trickle out gambits to you so you start the game with only the most basic commands and add to them as the game progresses. It helps prevent being overwhelmed by all the options but also felt silly and restrictive.

Another change is the license system. You learn how to use weapons, cast spells, etc by purchasing licenses for them. Odd, right? If I found a great sword and didn’t have the license for it then I couldn’t use it. You get more license points by fighting battles and eventually you can specialize your characters. Vaan became a melee fighter, Balthier became a thief and shot enemies with his pistol of doom and Ashe became a mage and an archer, alternating fire attacks with arrows. It’s not a bad system and you can make any character learn any ability. Want to have three female melee fighters equipped with axes and heavy armor? You can do that.

One complaint is the necessity of stealing from enemies. You do get items from battles that you can sell (called loot) but you never seem to get enough unless you steal from enemies. As the game progresses and spells and weapons cost more and more I found I was stealing from every battle.

Final Fantasy XII is a huge game. I finished the main storyline in roughly 62 hours with only a little time spent doing sidequests. And there are a *lot* of sidequests to do. For one, there are hunts which are new to the series. These are elite or sometimes boss-level monsters that you contract to find and kill. They are completely optional but once you do dispatch a hunt you are rewarded for your services and can accept another hunt. There are several dozen hunts in the game and as you progress through them they increase in difficulty. They also open up other sidequests and reveal bits and pieces of the side-story and help to flesh out the game. Now that I’m done with the main story, I think I could reload my last save and just concentrate on hunts and sidequests and probably have over a hundred hours worth of gameplay.

One of the biggest compliments I can give to an RPG is that it is addictive and FF12 became very addictive for me. I had a clear idea what I wanted my characters to be like and watching them increase in level and ability was very compelling. Several times I’d be close to stopping for the night but wanted to keep playing until I could unlock a better black magic spell or build a long chain of enemies so I could get some really nice loot drops.

Gameplay gets a 9.0 out of 10

Presentation

Square seems able to squeeze fantastic visuals from older hardware.  From Chrono Trigger on the SNES to Final Fantasy IX on the original Playstation, Square’s designers and programmers excel at using the limited resources available to them.  As the last Final Fantasy title on the Playstation 2 I expected this to be a great-looking game and I wasn’t disappointed.

The opening CG movie is a fantastic start – breathtaking visuals and a sweeping score combined to draw me into the game.  There are several CG movies sprinkled throughout and they are all well-done.  We’re used to amazing cutscenes from Final Fantasy games and FF12 offers no surprises here.

What is surprising about Final Fantasy XII is the change in perspective.  Instead of a fixed overhead camera with mostly static backgrounds, the game has changed to a movable, behind-the-back camera.  This third-person view makes an enormous difference.  Many times, while playing previous entries, I’d wished I had the ability to look around and admire the beautiful scenery and FF12 delivers in spades.  Cities, ruins, other characters all seem more alive and realistic when you can look at them from “eye” level.  My only gripe is that you can’t change the camera rotation controls.  This would have been very easy to incorporate and its absence is inexcusable.

Also realistic are the character models.  FF12 continues in the tradition of FF8 and FF10 in giving us realistically proportioned (well, for the most part anyway) characters and they look great.  It doesn’t really need to be said but the Playstation 2 is an old beast and yet the visuals in this game are fantastic.  When held against the standard of the best-looking PS2 games, FF12 lands near the top.  Widescreen support is a nice addition and is present but apparently progressive scan was not possible.

Final Fantasy XII also is notable for the absence of long-time composer Nobuo Uematsu.  Taking his place is Hitoshi Sakimoto, who previously composed the scores to Vagrant Story, Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter and Final Fantasy Tactics.  The differences are notable but Sakimoto’s score is suitably majestic and full of hooks.  I had the Rabanastre song playing in my head for a good week or two after I started the game.

After the voice-acting fiasco that was Final Fantasy X (remember this?), I was nervous about the performances here.  As it turns out there was nothing to worry about – Final Fantasy XII has the best voice-acting I’ve heard in a console RPG.  Every character could have been silent except for Balthier and I still would have loved it.  The actors turned in amazing performances that helped to root the characters in my mind as people, not just animated figures on the screen.

All other aspects of FF12’s presentation are top-notch as well.  I want to give special appreciation to the translation as it is phenomenal.  There is no Engrish to be found anywhere and the text descriptions of the creatures in the Bestiary are clever and frequently funny.

Presentation gets a 9.5 out of 10

Conclusion

The Final Fantasy games have always balanced upholding certain traditions with their ever-changing battle and character development system.  Final Fantasy XII is yet another fine entry in the series.  Is it the best Final Fantasy game?  I’m not sure about that but it certainly can stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of them.  It was an enjoyable, lengthy and compelling experience.  There’s a part of me that wants to replay the whole thing again.

Final Score: 9.0

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