In the time between my preview and this review, seemingly no generalized perception of Final Fantasy XII has developed. I was expecting this to be an extremely polarizing entry in the series, eclipsing FFXI as a subject of controversy (because really, even the lower-level gaming drones easily wrote that game off as "Final Fantasy Online" and left the bulk of the arguing to the MMO crowd). Just thinking of how radical a departure FFXII truly is, I'm surprised I'm not writing this overwhelmingly positive review from behind a riot shield.
Then again, maybe I'm not giving Square Enix enough credit. This game could have ripped its battle system straight out of Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest, and it would still rate as one of the most epic, gorgeous games of all time, and most of us would have bought the game anyway. FFXII is far beyond any expectations I ever had for it; I should note here that I am not a FF fanboy by any means - not by a long shot. I'll also take this opportunity to note that, in my eyes, the cut-scene-heavy FFX was a blemish on the creative path of Japanese RPGs. Yet it is a cut scene - an amalgamation of cut scenes, at that! - that elevated FFXII beyond the fancy departure from the world which was introduced in the Dragon Quest pack-in demo. As soon as the beautiful orchestration comes rumbling in and those great, dramatic scenes rhythmically follow it, it's hard not to have a chill swing down your spine.
The upcoming DS spin-off notwithstanding, it's a shame that producer/director Yasumi Matsuno, who dropped off FFXII toward the end of development for as-yet undisclosed reasons, is no longer a Square Enix employee. Ivalice, the world of FFXII as well as the Final Fantasy Tactics series, seems to have just come to fruition with this game. The city-state of Dalmasca, both the setting and the main subject of contention, is rendered beyond compare, and begs to be seen again once the game is through. Without Matsuno, a FFXII-2 seems very unlikely; but perhaps I am getting ahead of myself here.
Very early on, an important character is revealed to be a completely different person than originally presented, so it shouldn't be surprising that the story will evolve into a daunting, multi-faceted beast. Granted, if you've paid any attention to the press this game has received over the past few years, you'll see right through this early deception, but it's indicative of the type of storytelling FFXII offers. Whether you expect it or not, things get much more interesting as the story moves forward. Nothing is content to remain exactly as it seems, and nothing plays out as console RPG conventions dictate.
In a Dragon Quest-like move, without actually going too far in that direction, the fight for Dalmasca is primarily seen through the eyes of a young street urchin named Vaan, who is undoubtedly intertwined in the events of the story, yet not in the same way most FF leads are. The main characters in the series have been the center of the storytelling for just about every entry since FFIV, but Vaan serves mostly as a vehicle to pull players through the political and action-driven twists and turns that more involved players take him through. If this seems counter-intuitive, just think of famous silent characters like Chrono, or even, to take this example into a slightly different genre, Link from The Legend of Zelda. Their silence serves to subconsciously pull the player closer to the adventure at hand.
By giving Vaan a speaking role, the cut scenes and sprawling dialogue are unhampered by an awkwardly silent character; yet, in many cases, Vaan is decidedly quiet, simply because certain conversations are not his business, and he knows it. This is a brilliant interactive storytelling device, and while it isn't unique, I hope FFXII will prove the impetus for developers to use this method more often.
FFXII isn't packed with high-concept allegories like Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga, but it's got similar meta-thinking behind it, if you look between the high polygon count and ultra-sharp, beautifully detailed cut scenes. There's a wonderful charm to meta-gaming, and I'd never want to play a Metal Gear Solid game where Snake doesn't ramble on about pressing the 'Circle' button, but maybe this is the proper way it should be done. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious charlatan: FFXII doesn't knock down the fourth wall, but installs a small window instead.
I promise I won't mention the words "meta" or "fourth-wall" in a game review ever again. I'm just far too excited to play an AAA game that actually takes the fact that it is a video game into account. The fact that I can't immediately compare Vaan's character to any counterparts within the medium is incredibly exciting. Better yet is the fact that Nick Carraway (The Great Gatsby) is the name that keeps popping into my head whenever I think of how Vaan is used. Perhaps a couple decades after Matsuno's death, FFXII will have a sudden second wind and become required high school curriculum, as well.
Disclaimer: I'm joking.
While noting FFXII as a status-quo shifting trigger, now is probably the right time to delve into the battle system. If you haven't read about it hundreds of times already, I am pleased to inform you that the traditional turn-based and Active Time Battle systems have been left behind. This may prove to be the anomaly in the series, especially with Matsuno out of the picture, but I can't help but hope that a great change will take place in the Japanese RPG landscape. With so many Japanese games going for fast-moving, non-traditional takes on traditional RPG gameplay - Devil Summoner and Contact being the most notable recent examples - it does seem as though a widespread change is occurring.
FFXII takes the concept far beyond what would be expected from this title, or any console RPG not developed by Bioware or Bethesda: The battles, along with the entire world, are completely seamless. Oh, yeah, and in case you didn't hear, a menu isn't going to pop up and ask you to press "attack" every single time your character's turn comes up. It does it for you, and with the Gambit system, so you'll have unprecedented control over what your characters decide to do, even if you aren't directly telling them to do it every single time.
This is without a doubt the most radical moment Final Fantasy has ever had, besides the 11th iteration being a slow-moving MMORPG. FF games have always been about very obvious seams, with many different ways to manipulate the characters, or not manipulate them at all, depending. The very existence of FFXII seems to be to dismantle that precedent. The old standard requires six layers of presentation: world map exploration, city/town exploration, battle mode, menu tweaking, dramatic cut scenes, and text-based dialogue sequences. The former three are now a single unit, with only a minor change when in a town, where attacking is usually not possible. This means that monsters and even NPC allies unrelated to the story progression roam Dalmasca freely. They will run away on-sight if they are so inclined. They will cast protective spells on each other before even considering attacking your party. They will attack each other, and become so wrapped up in their battle that they won't bother to pursue you.
If a certain amount of an enemy is defeated, a few extra pages of information on the creature, as well as general FFXII knowledge, are unlocked in the profile. I'm so wrapped up in this game that I actually sit and read each and every creature's profile, and go out of my way to unlock the extra content for each one. It's like getting DVD extras for performing well, and I love the idea. There is also a clan record trophy section, which gives avid players little hand-drawn rewards for things like using a spell 100 times and 50+ combo.
Instead of dropping directly useful items or cash - and really, what were Bombs and Cacutars doing with straight-up cash in the first place? - enemies sometimes drop Loot. These are items that monsters might actually carry with them, and if you focus your rage on a single genus of enemies, you'll get greater bonuses depending on how many have been killed in a row up to that point. So, once you've killed 70 wolf-related creatures, you'll be getting much better Loot, including some that cast positive status-effects on your party. This is all the more reason to go back to dungeons that were hastily run through, even if the experience points aren't entirely worth it.
However, the License Points are pretty much always worth it, making almost any run a good idea in FFXII. LP is more important than EXP itself, which is usually the driving force of console RPGs. These points are spent on the License Board, a modified (and better!) version of the Sphere Grid from FFX, if it could even be called that. The main similarity between the two systems is that they both offer complete customizability for all party members, with the single limitation of their base stats. Balthier (who has the best voice actor out of the entire exceptionally talented cast) starts off with a pistol, and his partner, Fran (who has the most annoying voice out of the bunch, although the actress still comes off as a professional), with a bow; a few hours later, these characters could specialize in Great Swords and Hammers, respectively, and still retain their long-range skills when the need comes up.
The License Board is also where specialized skills are obtained. Many of the skills, spells included, are present on all of the characters' Boards, but have to be purchased in shops to be used. To use Steal, you must have purchased the skill, as well as unlock it on the Board. The same goes for Cure, Fire, and so on. The upside to this is that a skill only needs to be purchased once for all characters to be able to utilize it.
Mist Knacks are the FFXII equivalent of the limit break system. In this case, they can be used as long as MP is at 100%, and in the end, it will always result in magic being fully drained. Mist attacks appear on all party members' Boards, but each individual attack can only be assigned to one character. It took me a few tries to fully grasp the Mist system, but it had more to do with not being prepared for such a twitch-based method than anything. Simply, a bar appears and quickly drains, and the button that flashes on-screen has to be pressed before time runs out. If pressed on time, it either repeats what just occurred with a different button and moves on to any other Mist-ready character, thus adding their attack into the combo. This continues until a mistake is made, or there are no more phases of the Mist available for any of the characters performing the attack.
A simple strategy for tough boss fights is to keep a full reserve party (that's three characters, by the way) Mist-ready, and switch them out mid-battle in case things look dire for the first-stringers. Unleash the Mist flurry, and in some cases, you'll quickly be given the upper hand. Some bosses will shrug off these attacks like nothing more than an insect, though, so be careful not to rely completely on this system. This is where my biggest complaint comes in; many of the battles I've had trouble with have been fixed with a single three-character Mist assault, and while the aforementioned safety against Mist-reliance is there, it isn't used often enough. Of course, if I managed my MP a little less closely, I wouldn't have Mist attacks ready most of the time!
The final, and probably least important implement is the new Summon (or Esper) system. There are many summons in the game, although you won't run into a single one until at least 12 hours into it. Instead of having single attacks and running off into nothingness like a traditional FF summon, these Espers will stay with your party and pummel enemies for a limited time, then run off into nothingness. They are useful and will probably save your party a handful of times, but mostly, they don't have the power to really change the tide of a battle. Any help is good help, and anything to make running through swaths of enemies move quicker is a good concept, in my book.
So, with all of these complex systems in place, how does it all happen? Without a menu slavishly popping up between every turn, how do all these skills and Mists and spells and summons come into play?
The easy answer is Wait Mode. A familiar battle-menu pops up and freezes the screen on command, lets you make your choice, and immediately enacts your decision.
The real answer is Gambits.
A warning: when FFXII was first shown to the world - and I mean really shown, not a bunch of worthless CGI-only trailers - the word "Gambit" echoed through the console gaming community with not a little thunder behind it. The topic has been discussed so much in so many different mediums (magazines, television, forums, etc.) that you might not want to read even more about it here. Frankly, almost every time it's brought up in the media, it's explained entirely from point A all the way to point Z, and as tired as I am of seeing the FFXII manual reprinted every single time the game is brought up, it would be an injustice to the ingenuity of the system to avoid explaining it in great detail here for the minority that hasn't heard much about it. If you're one of the few that glossed over the details every time it was brought up, take the time to read it this time around, because hopefully it's the last time it shows up on a major gaming website (yes, we're tooting our own horn with that line).
A Gambit is a pre-made command that tells your character how to react in a given situation. Think of Gambits as the programming language of FFXII. If you've ever used a program that touted itself as "the easy way to make your own videogames without programming know-how!" you know exactly how Gambits work, because there is more to them than throwing as many of them as possible on each character. They must be in a logical order, as well, which may take a great deal of trial-and-error to perfect.
Also, each character has a limited number of Gambit slots (more are unlockable on the License Board), so which Gambits are used must be thought out very carefully. Finally, Gambits can be turned off without being deleted, so if a specific enemy is too weak to fire, the Gambit "Cast Blizzard ' Party Leader's Target" should be turned off, and "Cast Fira ' Party Leader's Target" should be flipped on. However, changing that Gambit setup would be futile if the "Attack Party Leader's Target" Gambit were at the top of the list, because it would take precedence over the spell-casting directives below it.
This sounds complex, and really, there is a lot more to it than the usual FF menu-tweaking; it stops just short of fighting your battles on a management screen. Think of how much time is saved when you aren't plugging in the same commands to fight the same enemies ad infinitum. Also, you can always press X and get the traditional menu to pop up at any time to make up for what your Gambits aren't set up to do, and with Active Mode switched off, as previously mentioned, you can freeze the game while you make your decision, which is incredibly useful for boss fights, which often demand a constantly changing strategy.
When all of these features and concepts come together, it's obvious that the team behind FFXII- most of whom never worked on a flagship Final Fantasy title before - was trying to change the status quo of the franchise, as well as the genre. They've succeeded. This is a nearly seamless world that feels so much more alive than the mechanical settings and story development and gameplay that we've been used to for so long. Ivalice is more alive than any other setting in Square Enix history, and in FFXII, it's taken to an entirely new level. FFXII is widescreen capable, too, so it'll look pretty good on that expensive new television or monitor you just committed insurance fraud to buy.
FFXII has my vote for Game of the Year for 2006, and I'd even go as far as to call it my personal Game of the Generation. When it comes to recognizing the true quality of a game - it does what it does better than any other game - I know that I'm going to be coming back to this game for years to come.
Final Fantasy XII, if it does not become an unpredictable phenomenon, will probably end up with a fate like FFVIII. The general fan base will buy it, and might be disgusted by it at first, but after years of analysis, I guarantee the integrity of this game will hold up quite solidly. I'm proud to be on the side that recognizes this the first time through.
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