"Final Fantasy XII was an unusual experience. At first, I hated it. After trudging through several hours of playtime, I learned to tolerate it. Eventually, I came to enjoy it. This wasn't a fast process — were it entirely up to me, I'd have stopped playing early on."
Final Fantasy XII was an unusual experience. At first, I hated it. After trudging through several hours of playtime, I learned to tolerate it. Eventually, I came to enjoy it despite myself. This wasn't a fast process -- were it entirely up to me, I'd have stopped playing early on.
The thing that initially caused me so much irritation was the semi-automated combat. Final Fantasy XII rejects the turn-based or action-RPG variants that J-RPG gamers are used to and adopts a method most similar to an MMORPG. Monsters with unusual names such as "malboro" and "bagoly" wander murky dungeon corridors in real time, aggressively pouncing on any poor adventurer who draws near. Players might wander through an ancient temple, looking for valuable treasure, only to attract the attention of flying stone moai heads. No "white flash", no "swirling colors" -- battle is seamless and unexpected... but avoidable. That part's pretty cool. What irritated me were the actual mechanics of fighting. Unlike Phantasy Star Online, players don't even press a button to attack! Just walk near a monster and combat automatically ensues.
Watching a meter fill up, waiting for the character to swing a sword of his own accord, and then watching the meter fill again, is not entertaining. Playing Final Fantasy XII felt kind of like watching someone else play Dynasty Warriors in slow motion. For the first five or six hours, I kept thinking to myself: "This would be awesome if I could walk up to monsters and jam out on the Dual Shock." The jarring discrepancy between perceived freedom and actual freedom annoyed me; since Final Fantasy XII let me wander around opponents as I pleased, it felt like I should be able to attack them as I pleased, too. But I couldn't. Sure, I could briefly interrupt the automated combat and manually order the hero to attack or cast a spell, but I still had to wait for that damned meter!
When additional characters joined the party, the process changed a bit. Instead of watching one meter fill up, I got to watch three. Furthermore, the automation got even sillier. While wandering a densely-populated mine tunnel, I initiated battle and then walked away to eat a snack. Over the next ten or fifteen minutes, my trio of freedom fighters (only three characters out of six can be used at a time) slaughtered a bunch of skeletons. I'm not sure how many; I just know that they had earned a lot of experience and loot when I came back to the PS2. I left that particular screen, waited five minutes for the area to re-populate, then returned and repeated the process. This time, I read a chapter of the Basara manga while they fought. (It was the bit where Tatara falls into the water and fights a shark.)
All of that being said, I actually think Square is on to something. Each character -- even the main character -- can be pre-programmed with specific and detailed artificial intelligence routines, allowing for some pretty dynamic party behavior. By the end of the game, my characters all knew which creatures to focus on, which friends to heal, which enemies to attack with lightning magic, and when to cure blindness, petrification, or confusion. Even though I wasn't actively controlling the heroes, the customization process kept me personally invested in their performance. It also made it easier to focus on the main character for those rare occasions (bosses) when I felt manual intervention was needed. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to purchase or discover the multitude of AI routines ("gambits") needed to make full use of this feature.
Note to Square: Just because you can make something unlockable doesn't mean you should. Next time, give us all the keys from the start; that way, programming and tweaking the AI would be a fun, full-game process. I don't need to discover the "cast fire spells at ice enemies" routine after I've already finished exploring the snowy canyon.
The most interesting aspect of combat -- because it actually requires close attention -- is the "Mist Combination". Basically, a Mist attack is a really strong magical spell. One character goes through a ridiculously long cinematic routine, such as freezing the enemy and then blowing a kiss that causes it to burst into shards. Pressing specific buttons at the right time can cause another character to launch their Mist attack. While hero number two hurls fireballs, a few more button presses can invoke hero three's Mist attack. It's even possible to recharge magical power during these Mist Combinations. Fast button-tapping, combined with a keen eye, can lead to some crazy huge destruction. My record is 16 consecutive hits, for a total of over 54,000 damage!
54,000 damage is a nice amount. Now consider this: after expending the entire party's Mist potential... I opened up the status screen, swapped in a fresh character (with a full Mist gauge), and repeated the process. Afterwards, I swapped in another fresh character. And then YET ANOTHER. In total, it's possible to launch four consecutive Mist Combinations. With the use of mana-restoring ether potions, make that six or seven. End result: many bosses -- even later ones like a crazed bionic scientist -- are easy to kill, as long as you're patient enough to sit through forty or fifty consecutive cinematic sequences.
Sitting through forty or fifty cinematic sequences is not particularly fun.
Fortunately, there's more to Final Fantasy XII than Mist Combinations and semi-automated combat. The plot basically follows a Twan named Vaan -- an orphan who believes himself powerless to stand against the Empire, but discovers himself trapped in a conflict much larger than he ever imagined. At first, it's kind of like Star Wars, but without Darth Vader. There are alternate versions of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewbacca. There's even a dubious ally who lives in the sky city, similar to Lando Calrissian (but without the instant charismatic appeal of Billy Dee Williams). Fortunately, as Final Fantasy XII progresses, it breaks away from that mold.
One of the better characters is a fallen knight named Basch. As the instruction manual tells us, he was once a valiant warrior, but he fell from grace when he murdered his liege: the King of Dalmasca. Naturally, the Dalmascan people (including the main character) don't look too kindly on Basch after this. He's allowed his chance for redemption when he joins the player party. Too bad he can't hold a dragon shield.
You might wonder how it is that a disenfranchised knight knows how to hold a golden shield, an ice shield, a buckler, or an escutcheon, but doesn't know how to use a dragon shield. I don't have a good explanation for that. He just can't. But he can learn, as can anyone. Yes, characters have to learn how to wear armor. Everyone can master all of the equipment and useful abilities and, by game's end, it's quite likely that they all will. Because of the generous layout of the "license board", my characters -- whether princess, sky pirate, or spunky orphan -- had basically turned into clones of each other by mid-game.
They all knew how to wear leather vests.
They also all had serious family issues. "Importance of family" is Square's attempt to instill a deep, meaningful theme in Final Fantasy XII. Each of the main characters -- and most of the villains -- struggle with the responsibilities and challenges associated with their bloodline, whether living or dead. One character's brother actually dissolves into nothingness. Maybe his brother really was made of dust, or maybe it's a cinematic metaphor (like when Tidus and Yuna floated in the air). I believe this scene symbolizes the character achieving freedom from his overbearing feelings of guilt. Unfortunately, this scene occurs early in the game, and that particular character becomes very boring once he's "free".
That's pretty much the game's routine: introduce a particular character's family-related dilemma, resolve that dilemma, then push him or her to the side to make room for the next character's dilemma. I certainly prefer that to a game with no theme whatsoever, but a truly excellent game would find a convincing way to tie everything together in the end. Final Fantasy XII does not.
Even though personal guilt and political intrigue had kept the story moderately interesting, Final Fantasy XII eventually lost its steam. For a while, it didn't seem like that would be a problem. At the beginning of the game, a sub-character openly mocks the concept of fetch quests. "Before I can open this gate, I need you to visit place X, Y, and Z to retrieve all of my tools. Haha, just kidding! I already have everything I need."
That was pretty funny. And, for a long time, Final Fantasy XII avoided obvious fetch quests. The game -- and the plot -- moved fast, from raiding a castle treasury to bringing down an entire airfleet. Unfortunately, that brisk pacing was not to last. Square artificially extends the length of the game's second half by introducing several mundane chores. For example, there's a gate. To pass through the gate, players have to find nine moogle workers to repair it. As another example, to hitch a ride on a taxi and advance the plot, players are required to wander through the huge, sprawling city and do nine good deeds for random bums. These "good deeds" are lame things like telling a woman that her husband's wages have been cut, so that she doesn't waste money on expensive jewelry.
Not only is the above sequence incredibly boring, but Square actually made a ridiculous logical leap and tried to link it to Ayn Rand's "altruism is evil" philosophy. That was probably the most unintentionally hilarious moment of the entire game.
There's a reason that fetch quests always happen near the beginning of J-RPGs. They give players a chance to learn the ropes and explore their surroundings. I don't need to learn how to explore when I'm 75% of the way through the game! I had actually overcome my disdain for the combat, I was interested in watching the plot progress, and then BAM! Do nine good deeds for your hated oppressors' citizens, so that you can earn the right to ride a friggin' TAXI CAB!
To Final Fantasy XII's credit, when the main adventure grows tiresome, there's an enormous number of optional quests and fun "monster hunts". Most of these have a pre-determined reward, although a few sub-quests lead to entirely new sections of dungeons with their own treasures.
For example, I killed a really powerful (and optional) crawling demon beast, passed through the secret door behind it, crossed hidden corridors, and opened the treasure chest at the end to receive...
Apparently, the chest usually contains a really powerful sword. But since treasure chests are partially randomized, players will occasionally get something else. In my case, 48 coins -- not enough to even buy a single healing potion. THAT'S DUMB. Yes, I could just reload my game and beat the demon wall again, but I'd prefer it if the damned secret treasure box would just contain the damned secret treasure.
I don't ask for perfection, but I do expect "classics" to exhibit some single form of brilliance. Although Final Fantasy XII reaches for greatness in many ways, it falls short every time. The combat system may inspire future excellence, but it's not excellent in and of itself. The freedom to customize characters is good, but I wish it weren't so easy to turn everyone into jack-of-all-trade clones. As for the story and characters? When my children ask for a fairy tale, I may tell them of Tidus and Yuna... but I won't say a word about Vaan or Ashe.
It's a nice try, but I expected better.
Staff review by Zigfried (November 23, 2006)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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