There were a lot of great games on display at Square Enix's booth in South Hall this year. Not all of them were easy to enjoy in the Expo environment, of course. Square Enix is basically a company about console RPGs, which are one of the last bastions of gaming as a purely solitary experience. The impossibly bright and loud E3 atmosphere isn't quite conducive to immersing yourself in the story of a fantasy world. Despite all that, fans and journalists alike kept lining up to have a go at Final Fantasy XII. The game was easily making its third E3 appearance, but at long last it was finally finished, in English, and dated for North American release. The question on everyone's mind, though, was inevitably, "Is it better than the demo?"
It was hard to know exactly what the answer to that question should be after spending some time with the game. Final Fantasy XII in finished form is still unlike any previous console entry in the series. It's still a game where your control over your characters feels hands-off, even though you're able to directly control any single character in your party at any time. In MMO-like fashion, you set your characters to take a particular sort of action, and then try to position them so that their attacks connect with the target. Somewhat similar to Kingdom Hearts, your other two party members assist you as you play and support the main character, in a way determined by the way you set up their AI, equipment, and abilities. From there, it's typical Final Fantasy stuff: epic plot, awesome cut-scenes, and killing monsters to power-up your characters.
The big change from the demo is that, simply, Final Fantasy XII is finished now. All of the game systems are in place, all the English voice-acting ready to go, and the cut-scenes finished. Having all of the game systems complete gives a significantly different picture of how the final game plays than the demo version of the game did. With the Gambit and License systems in place, Final Fantasy XII emerges as a game where the gameplay emphasizes high-level, long-range strategic thinking over the usual turn-management style of thinking that console RPGs favor. The most critical decisions you make as player will be outside of combat, when you decide what kind of build you'll go with for a given character, and what kind of weapons you'll have them become proficient with. Combat sequences, boss fights, and dungeon crawls serve as the staging grounds for testing your creations, more so than acting as the core of the title's gameplay. This is in part why the Final Fantasy XII demo feels so pale; it disables all of the character customization tools and presents the game's laid-back approach to combat out of context. It's easier to imagine enjoying the demo had it been played with Summons, spells, items, and weapons that the player had selected.
Your tools for character creation in Final Fantasy XII are Gambits and Licenses. Licenses let you customize the abilities of each individual character, while Gambits are powerful AI customization tools that dictate the behavior of your two NPC allies. The strategy a player employs in using Gambits and Licenses is the main factor that determines success or failure during Final Fantasy XII's combat sequences. Of the two, Licenses seem more important, although ignoring Gambits in a game that focuses so strongly on AI allies can certainly be ruinous.
The way Licenses dictate character customization is very similar to the way the Sphere Grid worked in Final Fantasy X. As characters defeat enemies to gain Experience Points, they also gain License Points that can be used to buy special attacks, skills, Gambits, spell casting, and other abilities for characters. You also have to buy Licenses to make characters able to use certain kinds of equipment, and to use increasingly more powerful types of equipment. Licenses are unlocked via a License Board, with each square opened on the board via a License Point purchase opening up access to the purchases available on adjacent squares. Each character has their own start point on the grid, but they're relatively close together. Players are free to make their characters as similar or as different as they like, and to load characters down with as few or as many Licenses as can be purchased. Some abilities are absolutely essential, though, such as Steal. Enemies no longer drop money upon being defeated, so players want to have Steal on as many characters as possible to increase Gil yield.
Gambits don't really have any parallel in previous Final Fantasy games, or even in most RPGs that feature AI allies. Essentially they represent ways you can customize the AI, so that it knows to take certain actions when placed in a certain context. The more Gambit slots you purchase for a character on the License Board, the more detailed instructions you can give the character. It's worth noting that it is possible to simply turn off the Gambit system for all characters, and directly control the behavior of every character. FFXII's combat system is balanced with a party using Gambits in mind, however, and combat gameplay becomes slow and choppy when the player directly controls every character. Even the default two Gambit slots a character begins with allows for a smoother experience in combat. The risk of using Gambits, though, is that a poorly chosen Gambit set-up can render a character basically useless during critical moments like challenging dungeon crawls or boss battles. When you have enough Gambit slots, you can set up incredibly detailed instructions for your allies, like "Steal from the enemy until its HP is below 80%" or "Cure allies whose HP falls below 30%". Using Gambits efficiently takes a lot of the micromanagement out of combat. Once you adjust to the AI handling so much micromanagement, it makes for rather smooth and quick battles.
Still, even on the E3 floor, there was a certain "hands-off" feel to playing Final Fantasy XII. Part of that disconnect could be that on the show floor, you couldn't play the game from the beginning and weren't using characters that you'd customized yourself. Still, the lines were long, and it's obvious that players who enjoyed a sense of top-down strategy were definitely enjoying themselves. Final Fantasy XII is easily the most beautiful game in the series, and possibly the single best-looking PS2 title. With music going and the kind of top-notch localization Square Enix is known for fully in place, Final Fantasy XII may just be a game that Americans can love as much as Japanese gamers did. Regardless, it'll be something very different.
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