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Final Fantasy XII (PlayStation 2) artwork

Final Fantasy XII (PlayStation 2) review

"FFXII is robust from a technical standpoint, it's enjoyable after acquiring a working knowledge of the game mechanics, and thereís a plethora of monster and item hunts to embark on. FFXII at least deserves some respect for what it has attempted, but itís disappointing it isnít better than it is"

The Final Fantasy series is no stranger to radical change. After years of exclusivity to Nintendo, Final Fantasy VII was a revolution when it switched allegiance to Sonyís PlayStation, enabling it to offer an unprecedented cinematic sci-fi adventure whilst retaining its role-playing game mechanics. The PlayStation 2 era didnít just build on the graphics either. Final Fantasy X introduced the 'sphere grid' to add customisability to stat boosting in favour of traditional leveling up, boasted a region that was entirely navigable on foot rather than a world map, and even oversaw a direct sequel. But as Final Fantasy made its online debut with its eleventh outing, Square's creation was never the same since. Although Final Fantasy XII returns to its single-player origins, there's still something curiously different about the series' final swansong on the platform.

Many of the changes are obvious, with many elements from Final Fantasy XIís travails online being implemented into a single-player experience. Random battles, the pet-peeve of many RPG's, have been replaced by leaving the player to choose whether to engage enemies into battle or not. Active engagement on the field is obviously nothing new in other genres, but abolishing the boundaries in set-piece combat is a significant move. Battles are aided by the gambit system, allowing characters to automatically perform commands such as attacking, casting spells, items or summons, in accordance to a gambit; battle commands accrued through the game. These can vary from an ally with a certain amount of HP or with a status ailment, or an enemy that's weak to a particular element. Considering a party of three is simultaneously running around and fighting monsters, setting multiple combinations of gambits eases much of the mundane attacking battles entail.

Other differences are present in a subtle way. The plot takes a less character-centric approach, where the small kingdom of Dalmasca is stuck between an everlasting war between the Archadian and Rozarrian Empires. As the city state gets captured by the Archadians, the Dalmascan princess Ashe creates a resistance movement to liberate the kingdom. Meanwhile, the oblivious street-orphan protagonist, Vaan, is on the run from the Imperial authorities for looting the castle, and meets up with the lethal sky pirate Balthier, and Fran of the Viera species. Imprisoned in their short-lived escape, they encounter the wrongly disgraced warrior Basch, sharing their goal to liberate Dalmasca. Vaan, unlike previous protagonists, is a cog in the machine thatís shown through his perspective. The softly spoken Ashe has the kingdom's hopes rest largely on her, whilst the charismatic Balthierís wrath of expertise and decision making proves crucial to the party's progress, at least living up to his own proclamation of being 'the leading man'.

FFXII is definitely the most ambitious single-player Final Fantasy game to date. Ivalice presents one of the most open-ended worlds a Japanese role-playing game has seen, a contrast to the linearity of FFXís Spira. Many more areas are readily accessible as a result, meaning great caution is a necessity in unknown areas where there may be some significantly stronger enemies lurking. Side quests, notably monster hunts, are almost a necessity given the punishing difficulty of this game. Theoretically the storyline can be skimmed, but missing out on powerful weapons and valuable loot with low-level characters wonít get them very far. Remarkable strides have been made to add a sense of realism to the mythological medieval setting, supplemented by some of the most beautiful visuals seen on the platform. Towns are lively with animated characters, and huge depths of imagination have gone into the detail and artefacts seen throughout. The orchestrated musical score takes a different furor than before, there may not be any tunes charged with emotion this time round, but there is a serious tone to the soundtrack that frequently screams of action.

The first 'true' Final Fantasy game since Square Softís merger with Enix is a solid attempt. The fluid delineating of the classic set battles with field exploration provides a modern solution to the archaic random-encounters, supplemented by a gambit system that can put commands most likely to be used on autopilot, making intervention for more advanced commands easier. The new license grid also allows for huge customisability. Magiks, weapons, technik abilities and esper summons are obtained through the game, once the corresponding square on the license board has been unlocked. For a Final Fantasy game though, the signature aurora is lacking. Thereís little to hold interest in the Star Wars inspired plot, with a protagonist of little importance and limited character development throughout, only Balthier is the exception. The plot may have been better suited as part of a greater canon of events. Yet sometimes a well made but clichťd team of heroes makes better entertainment than a well intentioned but under delivered narrative.

The mechanics arenít easy to familiarise with either. Having to practically decide whether a character is a healer, long-range warrior or black mage almost from the start often leads to having to 'catch-up' when allocating license points for abilities and weapons. Giving some indication as to who would be better suited for a role, with the option to diversify a character later on would have made the grid less intimidating. The gambits system is also quite fiddly. While it's justifiable a limited number of gambits can be set up, an inability to 'save' combinations for future use and having to repeatedly reinstate certain gambits is tedious. There is certainly a rewarding experience to be had in persevering, but the earlier stages can be laborious. Side quests are key for finding certain items, but innocent decisions made early on in the game (even opening a treasure chest) can jeopardise chances of finding powerful weapons later on. Itís not a game that can be fully understood the first time round without regliously following a walkthrough, but itís not one to play through again in order to do so.

There is a lot to admire about Final Fantasyís fourth PlayStation 2 outing. Only its online predecessor trumps it for activities and size, as a rebuilt battle-system makes battlegrounds far more interesting to wander through, and the audiovisual polish is fascinating. But itís just several strokes short of a masterpiece. The component parts just donít quite form a cohesive experience; the initial difficulty is intimidating, and an uninspiring plot with poor character development prevents the game from being addictive. Ivalice also feels somewhat generic, a world lacking the Final Fantasy spirit that could have been from any other game. However there is an enriching gaming experience to be had, with a lot to be commended for transposing many of its online ideas into a solo game. FFXII is robust from a technical standpoint, it's enjoyable after acquiring a working knowledge of the game mechanics, and thereís a plethora of monster and item hunts to embark on. FFXII at least deserves some respect for what it has accomplished, but itís disappointing it isnít better than it is. This is undoubtedly an industrious effort, but hopefully the hallmark style will return in the future.


bigcj34's avatar
Community review by bigcj34 (May 22, 2013)

Cormac Murray is a freelance contributor for HG and is a fanboy of Sega and older Sony consoles. For modern games though he pledges allegiance to the PC Master Race, by virtue of a MacBook running Windows.

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