That's the one-word review of Final Fantasy XII. For better and sometimes worse, it's overwhelming at almost every turn. It takes the expectations you have of one of the "main" FF games (i.e. the numbered series) and put in their own twists. You'll still reckognise it as FF, but it may be harder at some points.
The first thing to really overwhelm you is that the opening FMV is not only drop-dead gorgeous (as expected), but it's also making for a plot that seems quite different. Without spoiling anything specific, let me just say that this time, the plot is less "some superior, supernatural being wants to destroy the world", and more political scheming. THere's still a good deal of what you're associating with Final Fantasy, but the general focus this time is on humans and what they're doing. Personally, I think it's about time a console RPG grew up a bit beyond the rather overused idea that you have seen since the first FF game. The plot is also not entirely centred on your characters, but about the otherside that you'll be dealing with, and their own internal schemes.
And noteworthy is that because of this, FF XII is the first game that actually could get a decent direct sequel. Without any
other comparisons, the other FF games are like LOTR in that you have this big, huge, enormous threat to the entire world. Imagine trying to write a sequel to that, with at least some of the main heroes remaining, but with a new villain even bigger and badder than Sauron. It may be theoretically possible in an infinitely big universe, but the odds are overwhelmingly against it. So FF X-2 had a big problem even before they started making it, and it certainly didn't overcome the obstacle of topping Sin. Whereas the plot possibilites for a hypothetical FF XII-2 are many, varied, and not the least potentially plausible. I can think of four different scenarios for the opening alone.
Added to the more mature plot is also a better set of voice actors than you've ever had in console RPGs, leaving vocal tragedies like Tales of Symphonia and Grandia 2 in the dust. The character Balthier sounds like an mostly optimistic and fairly nice (for a certain value of nice) Agent Smith, and while some of the people sound strange, you realise it's because that the characters are meant to sound a bit strange. And this game's Cid... Oh man, he's the best Cid in any FF game ever. Period.
That the plot is big and not entirely centered on the characters is mostly fine, but there is a curious side-effect to this, and that is that the one person you sometimes wonder what is doing there is the lead character. It's nothing as bad as the unnamed hero in Dragon Quest VIII, but whereas the other characters in your party are part of the overall scheme, Vaan just seems to be mostly along for the ride...
..But then again, I would certainly join in for a ride in this world. Oh my, yes, the world. Heck, this is the first time that I think "world" is even appropriate
to describe your console RPG playfield. Big areas where you can see a long way, and cities with more people alone than some other games will have in their entire game. Mind you, you can't talk to everyone, but a little icon will show who you can talk to, and trust me, it's enough. More than enough. And most of them will have their own little problems or concerns to talk about. There's a little flesh to almost every NPC you can talk to. And as soon as you've done your first miniboss, you can actually explore a fair bit before going to the next plot point. It's not completely free exploration, but remember that this is a story-based game, after all; so I'm actually plenty satisified with what I get. Heck, throughout the game, there are plenty of entire areas that are completely optional to visit at all
And so we walk around in the big (and connected) areas, with monsters in them. These monsters aren't actually original, but they are so exquisitely detailed that they feel original. Take a good look at them in the "Clan Primer -> Bestiary" to see what I'm talking about. This is how you design monsters, folks: With care. Speaking of monsters, it's time to go over to the battle system. Which also feels overwhelming at first. Of course.
See, what the combat's been turned into some sort of mixture between Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts. Even at the very beginning, when you only have access to but a few of the full options for the game, it'll take some getting used to. This time, you will fight in the world instead of a separate battle screen, which will make it easier and quicker to avoid and escape the enemies... At least so the game claims, but in practise, you'll still be doing a lot of monster-killing, and escaping certain monsters that are already doing short work of your characters can be a real challenge in itself. Anyway, when you're not escaping, you'll be putting in commands just like any other FF game. It feels a bit strange at first, because you'll sort of want to just press X once for a sword-mashing, but we're not done yet.
Because, with the gambit system, you will be able to make your characters do your work for you here. Basically, what you do is that in the main menu you put up a series of conditions, such as "closest enemy", and "Ally: HP >70%". and so on. And then you choose from your available commands what your characters will do when these conditions are met. "Attack" and "Cure" are respectively the obvious choices to make here. You can also set and switch the priorities with ease, as it's a good idea to -first- keep each other healed, and -then- kick some monster ass.
This seems like you'll be losing control and turn the game on "play itself"... But counter-intuitively enough, it actually brings you -in- control. Like I said, this is a hybrid style between FF and KH, and unlike the -other- kind of hybrid (represented by Tales of Symphonia), you'll never get frustrated over the characters you're not directly leading doing whatever they feel like. For one thing, at any given moment, you can override the gambits with a manual command. And unless you're seriously overpowered, you'll need to do this whenever you meet a boss, as well as certain areas which will most likely have very tough ordinary monsters the first time you visit them. This is especially true early on, because you don't have a lot of gambit options available then. Not to mention the optional bosses, of which there are more than you shake a sword, knife, spear, pole, bow, staff, staves, axe, hammer crossbow, gun, or throwing-bomb-device thingie at. Yeah, you got a lot of different weapons, which attributes are more different than simply the Attack stat it affects. It'll take some time figuring out that one as well.
So basically, the system is designed to make the random battles flow very, very smoothly (and quickly), while still making the boss battles challenging. Which for the most part succeeds. But there's another factor to it, and that's Licence Points.
Now, Licence Points is another way of saying Ability Points. But either way, you're on a checker-patterned board with lots of squares. Each square has either a command ability, an equip ability, or it'll do some other stuff (increase stats, increase potion effectiveness, stuff like that.) You earn licence points by defeating enemies, and then you spend them here. As far as the commands and
equipment goes, you also need to buy them from stores, which stock will depend on how far in the game you are
It's pretty OK, but it's also a bit easy to abuse, in that you will keep on earning 1 LP for most enemies defeated throughout the entire game. So you realise that the part of the board that raises stats and stuff (Augments, they're called) might as well be filled up right away, especially because it'll do more good than simply raising levels will. And after that, you can then play through the game normally without caring too much about making different fighter types (healers, tanks, black mages), instead just making sure they all learn the important stuff, such as Cura, and then have a fairly short set of slightly different gambits.
For the advanced player who's really delving into the game, there are some things you need to do differently with each character to truly optimise their potential as a team. But apart from that and some serious under-
powering, the characters will mostly have the same equipment, save perhaps one ranged weapon. Especially armour and helmets will be the same, because the Defense and Magic Resist stats are (almost) purely based on those two types of equipment. And because Def and Mag-Res are very important to survive this game, you'll end up choosing the armour and helmet that give you the best ratings for those two stats, no matter what else they may be doing. And apart from raising other stats, they seldom do anything at all.
Leaving the finer details and getting back on the main review track, there is also a certain price to pay for having such a big world as you have it here. One is that while most things look good, some things only look good from a certain distance. Close up, the characters' faces are in fact very rough, and with less polygons than the faces in FF X. And the tall grass is the same tall grass as the tall grass in the first PS2 games.
Another price is while the voice actors are perfectly fine, the quality of the recordings are not. It's especially noticeable when the female characters use the "s" letter. And finally, the loading time for each area can sometimes be a bit on the long run. But again, these are trade-offs because it's such a big game, and they obviously had to shave corners somewhere. You'll live with it. At least the menu and submenus are all loading instantly, unlike f.ex. Dragon Quest VIII.
Perhaps more important than this, though, is that apart from talking to people and fighting monsters, there just isn't that much to do. Oh, there's that "Hunt" sidequest, which includes a lot of hunts, and which always makes sure to also add in a little story for the NPC(s) involved in each hunt, but what I want is something -different- to do. (I just don't want to have to do this different thing for a million years to get the best weapon in the game.)
Also, while I understand and appreciate that such a game will need ingame tutorials, I'm starting to question Square's trend of including a lesson on how to move your character. First Kingdom Hearts 2, and now this... Hey, Square, considering it's rated 16+ (in Norway), just assume that whoever's playing it will know that using the left analog stick makes your character run, OK?
And finally, the battle system isn't instantly fun. It takes getting used to. You have to work with it, and it's not before the first -real- boss battle (a firey horse in a sewer) that you'll know for sure whether you like it or not. And it's not at all certain you'll like it, especially if you're a bit of a purist when it comes to Final Fantasy and how you feel it's supposed to be.
So, basically, the main question is: How much of a Final Fantasy purist are you? If you demand some things to be done in this exact way, you may well be rather disappointed. But if you're up for something new that doesn't forget its old, and if you're willing to work with it, then you'll most likely have a satisfactory experience. I had a very good - if not great - time with this game, and I haven't yet mentioned stuff like Quickenings and Espers, and the detailed Bestiary, etc., as well as some minor controller issues probably nobody but me will care about; because this review is getting long and overwhelming enough as it is.... And I'd rather you found out about all that by playing a long, overwhelming, and also good game.