FINAL FANTASY XII (2006) – SQUARE ENIX
Considering that it had a record development period of five years and the budget of a small Hollywood picture ($48,000,000 if reports are accurate), the first word that comes to mind when I consider Final Fantasy XII is…disappointment. It reviewed very highly upon its release, but after a recent playthrough I simply couldn’t understand the hype. No doubt it is a finely produced game, one of the best that you can find on the PS2; but for sheer gameplay it falls well short of the lofty heights reached by its predecessors.
First point of contention – the plot. Final Fantasy XII marks a return to the setting of Ivalice (featured in the popular Final Fantasy Tactics), and the story is centred around the fate of Dalmasca, a small country caught in the middle of a war between two bigger nations. After a brief prologue that explains how Dalmasca became subjugated by the evil Archadian Empire, we meet Vaan, a street urchin from the city of Rabanastre who wishes to become a sky pirate and get revenge on the Empire who took his brother. After infiltrating the Royal Palace during a ceremony for the new city consul, Vaan learns that Ashe, the Princess of Dalmasca thought dead two years prior, is very much alive and leading a resistance against the Archadians. After joining Ashe and a ragtag bunch of individuals including Balthier (a roughish sky pirate) and Basch (a disgraced Captain of the Dalmascan army), Vaan embarks on an adventure to restore Ashe as the rightful ruler of the land and to save Dalmasca in the process.
In theory, there is nothing wrong with that setup, but on closer inspection the flaws of the plot are made much more obvious. When you play through the game, you would be forgiving for thinking that the writers found the script for Star Wars and simply changed the names (young urchin/farmboy meets royal female resistance leader and sets off on journey with lovable rogue + furry sidekick and wise old man to defeat evil empire) – there is little drama to be found and the plot slowly but surely gets more convoluted to the point that you forget why the hell you set off in the first place. It also doesn’t help that Vaan takes a backseat for ¾ of the story and that the main villain is arguably the blandest in the entire Final Fantasy franchise. It’s a shame, because the world of Ivalice is a well realized environment with plenty of clever references to the series and deserves a better story. I suppose on the plus side, Balthier is a likable throwback to the charismatic characters of old such as Edgar and Setzer from Final Fantasy VI.
What really gets my goat with Final Fantasy XII however, is the gameplay. From its inception, the developers wanted to move away from the random encounters that had been an integral part of the system in previous games, and so they decided to remove them altogether. Instead, you get a system that has more in common with an MMORPG than a Final Fantasy title: enemies are present on the overworld and you can choose to engage them at your own discretion. Choose to fight them, and the all new ‘Gambit’ comes into play. Gambits are action commands that you set up in the main menu that your active party will carry out when you get into a battle, all of which are composed of a target, an action and a priority; for example, if you set up the ‘Ally: HP < 60%’ gambit, in battle when a party member gets their health taken under the 60% threshold, the character with the gambit will automatically act to heal that character. You can set up multiple gambits on your entire party to deal with all sorts of situations, although one must be aware that if one gambit is placed above another in the menu list, then certain actions won’t be carried out (for example, if you set the command ‘Foe: Attack’ ahead of the healing command, your character will mindlessly attack and never heal until the enemy is dead).
The Gambit system is not the only change to the battle system – as well as accruing traditional experience, defeating enemies will build up ‘Licence Points’, which can then be spent on the Licence Board. The board is made up of hundred of squares which are all permits for certain spells, abilities and weapons, all of which cost a different amount of licence points to unlock. Think of it like a more flexible version of the Sphere Grid system from Final Fantasy X; unlike that system which held your hand for a while, the Licence Board allows you to customise the roles of your party as you see fit. Bear in mind though even if you have the permit for say a high level spell such as Curaga, you will have to buy the spell from a shop before you can use it in battle. This isn’t particularly problematic as enemies drop loot which can be sold for plenty of gil in bazaars around the game world.
My problem with this system isn’t that it doesn’t work, it is in fact the opposite – it works too well. If you manage to set up a few essential Gambits early on and get them in the right order, the game will play itself without any effort on the player’s behalf except to walk from one destination to the next while invisible mechanics in the background kill everything in sight for you. From about 18 hours in up to my completion of the game after 40 hours, I never had to change my party members, and the only tweaks I had to make to the gambit system was to upgrade spell strength of curing Gambits. Now this works fine in an MMO where you may find yourself farming for loot for hours, but for me it doesn’t work in Final Fantasy XII – its less despicable than the complete auto-battling that would be exhibited in Final Fantasy XIII as you actually have to work your brain to set up the Gambits in the first place, but one of the strengths of the series has always been the tactical element brought in by real time decision making. You can turn gambits off and play by manually inputting commands, but it causes the game to pause every time you select an action which makes battling horribly start and stop in nature.
The autonomous nature of battling is also not helped by the fact that outside of the main story, there is actually very little to do. The main side quest that you can undertake are ‘Hunts’; special contracts that you can carry out by joining the hunting guild in Rabanastre headed by Montblanc the Moogle and then seeking out individuals across the world who need an extra powerful beast taken care of. These beasts offer a far greater challenge than normal battling, and there are a few standout hunts that pay homage to classic characters (plus one hunt that has become infamous for the ridiculous amount of HP the monster has and acts as the true challenge of the game), but the process of finding a hunt, then completing it and returning for a reward becomes incredibly tedious very quickly. Put simply, if you don’t enjoy the method of fighting in this game, then a good 70% of Final Fantasy XII instantly becomes meaningless.
The remaining 30% however is praiseworthy in any sense, considering the oft splendid presentation. Final Fantasy XII is one of the most polished games that you will find on the Playstation 2, exhibiting stellar graphics and a pretty seamless transfer between in game events and battling. The voice acting is also quite a bit better than it was in Final Fantasy X, and there’s a full orchestral soundtrack to enjoy as well (the standout track being a fantastic version of Clash On The Big Bridge that plays during a particular fight). Clearly, this was where most of the budget for the game went, and to be fair to Square Enix it does shine through.
And so we close with the tricky business of approximating a score for this game. Perhaps I’m being harsh with the marking, but just like I penalised XIII in my review for its auto battling, for consistency’s sake XII receives a pretty low score. If you like the MMO-style combat, then go for it – it’s not exactly a rip roaring ride, but it’s a highly competent and solid RPG. If like myself auto battling puts you off, give Final Fantasy XII a miss.