"After beating the game's final boss, I remembered a fight with one of those trophy enemies — a zombie mage named Disma. That dude was rough, able to take off obscene amounts of hit points with both his physical and magic attacks while getting far tougher as you close in on killing him. It was a fight only a masochist could love and winning it gave me more of a sense of accomplishment than I received from the final boss or any other storyline encounter. And that's considering my "Disma-killing" tactics would likely be looked at as cowardly and cheap even by the hardcore fans who've dedicated an ungodly amount of time to figuring out the most efficient tactics for virtually every battle in the game."
Final Fantasy XII drowns players in its excess and seemingly revels in that fact. While there is an actual plot to this game, the bulk of my playing time had little to do with it, as there are a seemingly-infinite number of optional fights strewn through an oversized world, making it easy to spend dozens of hours doing things that had nothing to do with beating the final boss and watching the credits roll. Hell, I've beaten the game AND logged well over 100 hours in its world and there still are a number of high-powered foes I've yet to eliminate.
Like I said, there is a story, but at least for me, it had little significance. You control a group of six people (with the occasional temporary hanger-on) who have assorted reasons for wanting to take out the new empire in town. So, you go all over the world to gain power and support for your rebellion while having many a conversation revolving around the perils of harnessing great power for the reason of causing mass destruction. Will you be able to topple the empire without essentially trading your soul for power great enough to wipe everyone off the face of the earth? I know the suspense has to be killing you....
It was hard for me to not be apathetic about most of the plot, as Square-Enix put so much energy into creating all those optional fights that I felt compelled to take the occasional long hiatus from advancing the story in order to get my fill of challenging battles. Oftentimes, I'd find myself moving forward in the actual game solely to unlock a few more mark hunts or to be able to seek out the 30 well-hidden trophy enemies. All that stuff was just more interesting to me and for good reason. After beating the game's final boss, I remembered a fight with one of those trophy enemies -- a zombie mage named Disma. That dude was rough, able to take off obscene amounts of hit points with both his physical and magic attacks while getting far tougher as you close in on killing him. It was a fight only a masochist could love and winning it gave me more of a sense of accomplishment than I received from the final boss or any other storyline encounter. And that's considering my "Disma-killing" tactics would likely be looked at as cowardly and cheap even by the hardcore fans who've dedicated an ungodly amount of time to figuring out the most efficient tactics for virtually every battle in the game.
These fights are done in real-time with all three active characters moving independently. Attempting to control more than one person manually would be an exercise in frustration, but you can gain a good degree of artificial control over them by purchasing gambits and plugging in up to 12 of them for each party member. These gambits can tell characters which enemy to attack, to steal from certain ones, to heal wounded party members, dispel status effects and so on. With wise use of these things, a player can cruise through many fights, as their party will be set up to instantly rebound from any adverse situation. To add to the amount of control you have over how characters act, killing enemies gives you license points used to obtain the ability to use various weapons, armor, spells and other abilities. While, by the end of the game, you'll likely have every character able to do just about everything, the license board does give you the ability to give each person a specific role in the early going -- which if combined with the right gambits, can make them far tougher than you'd expect a low-level person to be.
Fortunately, there were enough situations throughout the game where I had to jump in and input "emergency" orders to one or more party members that combat didn't become too boring with me just blankly staring at my characters manhandling everything in their path. It also didn't hurt that Final Fantasy XII is possibly the most beautiful RPG I've ever played, boasting a number of aesthetically monsters ranging from gigantic beastmen to ghostly horses. And these enemies, as well as more friendly characters, are strewn over vast regions. You'll journey through vast deserts, immense cities, swampy ruins and other exotically awesome places in what at least feels like the largest world I've ever had the pleasure to explore.
The problem is that a lot of those places are essentially as pointless as they are beautiful, many seemingly with no purpose other than to hide a couple optional enemies. Places like the Phon Coast, Cerobi Steppe and the Nam-Yensa Sandsea are, for all intents and purposes, little more than obscenely large regions for you to walk through on your way to more important destinations. They might look pretty, but they feel like gigantic pieces of filler created to give Final Fantasy XII's world more of a vast feel.
Which led me to believe all of those optional encounters I was talking about were put into the game to give players a reason to explore these places or journey to optional locations in the game like the foreboding Necrohol of Nabudis or the back reaches of the Lhusu Mines. You can be assigned a number of marks from people all over the world to unlock a series of progressively tougher boss fights including such series favorites as Gilgamesh and Deathgaze. After getting a good ways into the game, a group of bounty hunters in the Phon Coast give you permission to hunt down a number of supercharged (and near-impossible to find without either a lot of dumb luck or a guide) beasts and collect the trophies they drop. And scattered throughout the world are a number of espers (summons). Some are fed to you via the plot, but many are hidden in out-of-the-way places. While they're next-to-useless as offensive weapons (especially compared to the far more powerful Quickening combos you gradually unlock), they are fun to fight and subjugate to your command.
Simply put, many of these battles are intense and challenging, forcing players to actually delve into the gambit system and come up with strategies -- which is more than I could say for most of the adversaries populating the main quest. You have to take some bad with the good, though, as a number of them artificially extend battle with their love of casting a paling which prevents you from using either physical or magical attacks for a set period of time. If one or two monsters pulled that stunt, I'd call it a good trick that made those battles a bit more hairy. When many late-game bosses, as well as a number of upper-tier marks and trophy-bearing beasts, can pop one up when under duress....I start looking at it as a cheap way of increasing a fight's difficulty.
Final Fantasy XII struck me as a flawed game, but a fun one. The world is obscenely large and there are an ungodly number of optional foes more challenging than much of anything you'll fight to advance the story -- hence, it drowns you in excess. But for much of the time I was playing it, I found myself content to lay back, let the water fill my lungs and drift away. I doubt I'd want to go through the game again. Hell, I don't know if I'll ever get the ambition to take out the handful of marks and espers that are still standing. Still, it was a fun ride to get through the bulk of the game, even if I can barely remember the plot because I had more fun hunting down powerful marks than I did overthrowing the empire or whatever I was supposed to be doing.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (October 15, 2008)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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