"The original Final Fantasy launched in December of 1987 in Japan, and was expected to be SquareSoft’s swan song. Twenty years and a merger later, Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy has become one of the most successful and inappropriately named franchises in gaming history. As the Playstation 2 enters its final months, Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy XII is undoubtedly one of the biggest games at the tail-end of the PS2’s life. A significant switch in tone and game play provides the series with a breath of..."
The original Final Fantasy launched in December of 1987 in Japan, and was expected to be SquareSoft’s swan song. Twenty years and a merger later, Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy has become one of the most successful and inappropriately named franchises in gaming history. As the Playstation 2 enters its final months, Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy XII is undoubtedly one of the biggest games at the tail-end of the PS2’s life. A significant switch in tone and game play provides the series with a breath of fresh air, though the quality that is synonymous with Final Fantasy still shines through.
The world of Ivalice is home to Archades, a merciless empire expanding its borders using military muscle. Two years ago, the desert nation of Dalmasca fell under Imperial rule. To this day, its capital city of Rabanastre has been occupied by Imperial forces, and time has not yet healed those wounds. There are many Rabanastrans that resent the Archadian Empire, and you take the role of one of them. Vaan, an orphaned young thief who dreams of becoming a sky pirate, does whatever he can to cause the empire trouble. Vaan gets more than he bargains for when he steals a relic from the empire, and in doing so, embarks upon quest which will decide the fate of the world.
One of XII’s most distinguishing features is the style and presentation of its plot. It has a very mature feel, with undertones of political struggle. The Archadian Empire is a more believable antagonist compared to an individual with incredible power, as is the case with more of the recent games. The story-progressing cut-scenes have a very cinematic feel to them, thanks in part to the characters and their voice actors. In general, the plot is more feasible and less fictional than we are used to. It wouldn’t be impossible to imagine some of the elements hinted at in the story to be happening in the real world.
The changes don’t stop at the story, and continue deep into the core elements of the game. Navigating the world has become far less frustrating, thanks mainly to a revamped map system. A mini-map inhabits the top right corner of the screen, displaying Vaan’s immediate surroundings. Points of interest, such as weapon and armour shops, are marked with universal icons, so you know where to rearm as soon as you step into a new city. Pressing select will bring up a more detailed area map, covering the whole of the city or dungeon you are in. As well as displaying shop icons, story specific locations are marked with a flashing exclamation mark. You will never be clueless as to your next destination, as it might have been in earlier Final Fantasy games. However, most of the map (particularly in dungeons) will not be fully uncovered, and will require exploration or a fee to fully view.
Non-combat environments, such as towns and cities, are bustling with life more than ever before. There are more non-player characters (marked on the mini-map as a green dot) populating the world, and serve to make locales more interesting. They are also presented in a range of different ways; some may be walking the streets, others huddled together chatting, etc. It is a great change from the static NPCs of the past. Unfortunately, a great deal of them can’t be interacted with, and are just for show. Still, XII contains more than enough NPCs that you can talk to. Unfortunately, they still respond with the same line of text no matter how much you chat with them. You have full control over the camera with the right analog stick, although the decision to lock the camera controls in inverted is baffling.
Perhaps one of the most drastic changes is in the combat system, and thus combat environments. Unlike in towns and cities, where Vaan is your sole avatar, your full party of three is visible on screen. Random encounters and battle transitions are a thing of the past; when you see an enemy on screen (marked on the mini-map as a red dot), you can run over and start attacking it. This is the basis of the new active dimension battle system, also known as ADB. Pressing X will freeze the action and bring up a menu, allowing you to select battle commands for all of your party (attack, magic, item, etc). When you’ve selected a target, the action will resume. A timer bar will build up, and once full, your character will perform said command. The freedom of movement in battle will feel very new to experienced Final Fantasy gamers.
The switch to ADB has changed some concepts that are central to the series. The main examples of this are limit breaks and fleeing from battle. Dubbed as “mist quickenings”, XII’s limit break system is dependant on magic points (MP) instead of soaking up enemy attacks. When a character has learned a mist quickening from the license board (more on this soon), they can unleash a brutal attack provided they have full MP. An elaborate attack sequence will unfold, reminiscent of past Final Fantasy games, and hit the enemy for massive damage. You’ll also get the chance to chain quickenings together by pressing certain buttons within a small period of time. Fleeing, performed by holding R2, has also undergone a transformation. By initiating the flee command, all characters will stop performing actions and sheathe their weapons. This allows you to run away quickly, although you are liable to attacks during your getaway.
Although ADB is undeniably a major departure from previous combat systems, it’s more familiar than it might first appear. In essence, ADB is an evolution of the active timer battle (ATB) system, rather than a revolutionary new system. The most notable advantage of ADB is the lack of transition between exploration and combat. There is no load time as enemies are in the environment with you, and thanks to the mini-map, you can pick and choose your battles. This is particularly helpful when you are in a hurry and need to save quickly. On the other hand, ADB has some downfalls. The nature of the combat is relatively unspectacular. Previous Final Fantasy games had painstakingly animated attack sequences that are very pleasing to the eye. XII has lost a lot of this extravagance, with most attack animations looking slightly clunky. At a glance, XII appears to look more like an MMORPG or an adventure game rather than a full-fledged RPG.
The real-time aspect of XII’s combat means it is quite difficult to dish out orders to all three of your party members all the time. In order to make things more manageable, you have a great deal of control over party AI in the form of gambits. These are automatic commands that will initiate in certain situations. For example, you can set a gambit to cast Cure on any ally under 50% hit points or to use a Phoenix Down to revive a KO’d character. Alternatively, you can use gambits offensively, to attack the closest visible enemy on screen, to cast Fire on any enemy with the Oil status, etc. You can always override gambits by issuing a manual command or disabling them altogether. The amount of different gambits is huge, and adds a deep tactical element to the game. It is an easy-to-use system that takes a bit of the repetition out of combat, but there are layers of depth that will please hardcore gamers. If you do find yourself confused, the game’s tutorials do a good job of filling you in.
In order to use gambits, you need to have abilities, and that’s where the license board comes in. Akin to a chessboard, the license board is a grid-based ability system that allows you to acquire new magic, new techniques and augment your statistics. At the beginning of the game only a few licenses are open, but as you progress, more powerful skills and augments will become available to you. The more powerful the license, the more license points (LP) it will cost, which are obtained after battle. It is similar to the sphere grid of Final Fantasy X, although it is more flexible because you can travel around the board more freely. You can spend some LP developing your magic abilities in the top left of the board, and then jump to the bottom right to develop your statistics. As with the gambits, the license board may be a little overwhelming for new gamers to the genre. In those cases, the tutorials again do a good job of teaching you the basics.
Visually, XII pushes the PS2 to its limit. The environments are large and expansive, and each has its own distinct look. They range from the sands of Dalmasca, including the bustling market city of Rabanastre and the sand sea, to Bhujerba, an elegant city that floats in the sky. The environments seem more colourful and varied than ever before, which is a welcome feature. NPC character models are just as varied as the environments they populate. Each city’s inhabitants share a distinct look, but the variety of different races ensures that no two NPC look alike. XII’s world of Ivalice is shared with the world of the Final Fantasy Tactics spin-off series, even down to the name. Some of the races include humes; a typical human-like race, moogles; the cute little creatures that have become series staples, viera; a tall and athletic bunny-eared race and bangaa; a scaly lizard-like race. The quality of the character models is the weakest element of XII’s visuals, particularly due to the animations. However, the CG sequences are without doubt some of the most impressive on the PS2.
Modern Final Fantasy games are known for grand musical scores, epic and fully-orchestrated. XII is no different. Magnificent melodies accompany critical events in the game, dark dungeons echo somber sonatas and gentle rhythms resonate around peaceful towns. Voice acting is a key vehicle in portraying the party’s emotions, and the variety of accents among all characters is refreshing (the most apparent being the British accent of the Archadian troops). The most effective example of good voice acting is with Balthier. His voice actor perfectly conveys the charm and wit of the dashing sky pirate. The voices are well synched to mouth movements, so it doesn’t look like you’re watching a poorly dubbed movie. The only criticism of XII’s audio is the lack of a real battle theme. With the exception of some boss fights, the theme of the environment plays even when you are doing battle. Some of the best known tracks in Final Fantasy history are battle themes, and it’s a shame XII lacks this.
Final Fantasy XII is an ambitious step in a new direction for the famed series, and on the whole, it has been a success. A fresh game play system has been introduced, though Final Fantasy XII still delivers the trademarks that we have come to expect. Some traditions have been lost, mainly in regards to the combat system, but that should not dissuade you from playing this game. Veterans of the series can expect a daring new game, with elements of the past still present. New players can jump into the game without needing any background knowledge and enjoy Final Fantasy XII for what it is: a well-made and polished RPG.
Community review by PAJ89 (October 25, 2007)
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