This is an odd one. Professional reviewers everywhere loved it. Final Fantasy fanatics however were split down the middle. The legacy of Final Fantasy VII is that every time a new Final Fantasy comes out, it’s judged by how far it fell below that high water mark. Personally, as someone who preferred Final Fantasy IX, I try and remain open to wherever the franchise goes. I fall on the side of the reviewers. Here’s why:
Once upon a time there was a game called Vagrant Story, which mixed a complex but subtle story painted in mute earthy tones with an odd battle system and almost impenetrable weapon customisation. I got nowhere near the end of this one, but it stuck with me as a game that stunk of awkward wonder. I’d be fighting off goblins with a massive hammer on the end of a 9 foot pole that I’ve named Tiny Tim in a cramped brown dungeon corridor, and loving it. This is why I love Final Fantasy XII. It may as well have been Vagrant Story II.
A lot of the complaints about FFXII are that the story is lacking, not as epic or interesting as before, and I have to say I agree to an extent. The problem is that it’s very political and muted. On the other hand, I loved that about it. I’ve personally had quite enough of the young spikey-haired lad who gets swept up in a personal quest to save the world. In this case the spikey-haired lad has only peripheral involvement in freeing a kingdom from colonial rule.
The other main complaint is the Vagrant Story style battle system, which I quite frankly loved. It takes a bit of getting used to at first because it’s no longer the turn-based bash-X-until-dead system. Using the gambit system, you basically set the character up to automatically attack within range, so you don’t even need to bother with the X-bashing. It’s also worth noting that since it’s entirely in 3D and there is no battle cutaway, you can and do pick and choose your fights.
The gambit system is simple hierarchical program of actions that characters will perform under given conditions. For example, you might set up one character to automatically use cure should any character fall below 50% HP, or cast fire on any enemy with a fire weakness. There’s some irritating work you have to do in order to collect all of the options, but once you have them, the system is extremely useful, and of course, at any moment you can jump in and issue a direct command. Another helpful new game system is the free character switching. Even if all of your current field party members are KO’d, you can replace them with your surviving members. Oh, and all your characters earn experience even when they don’t actively take part in every fight, so you don’t have to worry about grinding the characters you use least.
In terms of character advancement, the options are quite complex. Beyond the levelling system, there is a license grid which controls every aspect of your abilities and potential equipment. Every license you buy grants you access to the adjacent licenses, allowing multiple linear paths. Eventually, every character will end up with every license, but early on, you prioritize and essentially carve out chains to create a white mage or a thief or even some combination of the two. It’s certainly more flexible than previous job systems. This, in tandem with the gambit system allows you a great deal of tactical options, though the number of characters available to you (six) limits your options quite heavily.
I never played Final Fantasy Tactics until recently (currently 10 hours into A2: Grimoire of the Rift on DS), but given the shared director between the original FFT, Vagrant Story and FFXII, all three exist within the same world of Ivalice (though different regions). The world has multiple species and interesting cultures that colour the towns and cities with a strange semi-medieval, almost middle-eastern feel. The starting town is in a desert, and there’s obviously grassy plains, forests, snowy hills, swamp, beach, and all the other stereotypical RPG environments, but all of them have a sense of character that’s really intoxicating.
Outside of the linear main quest, a lot of the game is an optional Final Fantasy Tactics style string of monster hunt quests – essentially optional boss fights which you undertake for the reward of fame and fortune. Given how tactical the battles tend to be, it can take multiple attempts, experimenting with different strategies and techniques until you find the perfect combination. The joy of setting up a perfect Gambit chain to take out a big dragon is surprisingly addictive, and always rewarding. This aspect of the game absorbed probably half of my total time playing, and only a few tough hunts at the top of the chain prevented me from completing the set.
If there’s one thing that is lacking in the game’s combat system, it’s the Espers, who are daringly different from the traditional summons of Ifrit, Shiva, Leviathan, Bahamut et al (those names appear in game as airships). They are also fairly poor in combat and are rarely worth summoning. But the new limit break system works fairly well, in an unpredictable and slightly risky way. Chaining multiple quickenings together in succession is a matter of timing and strategy.
A second or two to note the incredible visuals are warranted. Interestingly, since this is the first single-player Final Fantasy to use fully 3D environments instead of pre-rendered backgrounds, the player models have less polygons than Final Fantasy X. In fact, there’s scaled-up models for the in-engine cutscenes, but despite this downgrade, the game as a whole is strikingly pretty. Architecturally, it is a blend of eastern and western influences in a way Final Fantasy has never seen before. The wonderfully earthy tones of Vagrant Story are present and give the world a grittier more believable feel. As for the FMV sequences, well, it can be taken for granted that they’re pretty incredible, since this is Square we’re talking about.
Add to that a sweeping orchestral score, and surprisingly competent voice acting, and this is easily one of the best presented games on the Playstation 2. They even seem to have re-done the lipsync for the western voices, unlike X. It’s also worth noting the presence of Vagrant Story (Oh would you just shut up about that game?) translator Alexander O. Smith, who scattered the script with complex archaic terms that, much like Deadwood or The Wire, create a unique dialect that makes the world that much more believable.
Overall, Final Fantasy XII is probably second only to IX in terms of my enjoyment, and to my surprise, the enjoyment came primarily through the combat system and the tactics of the game. No offence to Final Fantasy nuts everywhere, but the really hasn’t been a particularly interesting change to the battle system since IX’s re-introduction of a fourth party member, and this change was one that was extremely welcome in my eyes. Criticism of the story is partially justified, but I loved the feel of the world, and the fact the party is just a single component in a much wider conflict actually appealed to me.