Fetch this quest.
You know that feeling when you buy a new car, where you expect all the bells and whistles to blow you away, but as you drive off the lot you realize that despite the modern engine and magenta trim your new purchase is, in fact, still just a car. That’s what playing Final Fantasy XII feels like. It also feels a bit like switching from an automatic transmission to a stick shift. You’ll stall out sometimes, but the greater level of control is definitely worth it.
This iteration takes place in the world of Ivalice, where the clash of massive empires is sweeping small nations under the tides of war. Dalmasca is one such country, having been invaded and subjugated by the Archadian Empire two years prior. The story begins with Vaan, a young thief whose brother was killed during the war with the Empire. I won’t go much further into the very well written plot, but it’s full of mature themes and twists, many of which are hard to see coming. Simply put, it’s probably the most engrossing and grown-up tale of the series thus far.
A large part of what makes the story so easy to fall into is the integrity and majesty of the world’s overall design. I had a chance to sit down with members of the development team during E3 this year, and through a huge language gap I managed to learn that the aesthetic portions were handled by a relatively small staff, in order to keep their vision as pure as possible. It shows.
The exclusively British and Scottish voice talent is superb, and really nails the fantasy vibe. The FMV is some of the best Square-Enix has come up with so far, and for a game company with two full motion pictures under their belt, that’s saying a lot. There are a few so-so tunes, but for the most part your ears are treated to the series’ great musical themes.
Anyway, you may remember Ivalice from the two Final Fantasy Tactics games. Expect to see Espers, Moogles, magicite, and airships woven together with lore and technology into a science-fantasy tapestry. The sheer amount of costume detail alone is worth high praise, and monsters, especially bosses, are a visual treat as well. It may be on its way into the sunset, but this is about the best visual sendoff the ol’ PS2 could ask for.
Final Fantasy XII doesn’t just look big, it is big. The quest is dozens of hours long, and there’s a ton of side content to keep you up well past your bedtime. From collecting espers, to hunting rare monsters to advancing the intricate plot, Final Fantasy XII presents a huge, accessible world, with a ton of things to do along the story’s path.
Your characters present equally epic internal landscapes, as you can completely program their A.I. routines with the Gambit system. Gambits are “If / then” commands that determine how your party members behave. A slew of contingencies are available, from enemy, ally, and self conditions, and with up to twelve gambit slots per character, you can program some pretty complex instructions for your members once you’ve put in some time.
And that’s the rub. You’ll end up spending hours experimenting with and adjusting gambits to find something that works, just to have to change things up completely for a new fight. You can’t save behavioral patterns and swap them in and out on the fly, you have to completely reprogram them piece by piece. We like the system, we just wish it were a little smarter.
Instead of cookie-cutter characters meant to fill specific roles (i.e. meat shield, healer, thief, etc.), Final Fantasy XII introduces the license board. Essentially a gigantic tech orchard, your choices here determine everything from what spells and skills you can use to what types of armor and weapons you can equip. This provides an unprecedented level of flexibility, but it’s also a lot of work. We’d like to be able to just buy the “Sword” license, rather than purchase one for every single sword we ever find.
Money is tight in Ivalice and equipment is expensive, so you have to pay close attention to what you’re buying, who can use it, and how much it costs. This requires a ton of flipping back and forth between license, vendor, and equipment screens, which feels like a waste of time. For a new car, Final Fantasy XII gets pretty clunky.
Your normal monster encounters, on the other hand, are Porsche smooth. You’ll freely run your three member party in and out of battle with all the familiar commands (Attack, Spell, Technique) accessible at the tap of a button. The underlying mechanics still rely on action bars filling up and turns being taken, so what you’re playing is actually a hybrid of real-time action and turn-based strategy. By default, bringing up the menu pauses the action while you sift through commands, giving you time to plan out your actions.
Changing to Active mode, on the other hand, really makes the fights fly by like never before, because the action doesn’t pause while you fish around in menus. This, in combination with your Gambit settings, makes grinding through weak monsters a breeze.
Bosses are much harder on multiple levels, and require intense menu acrobatics to simply stay alive. They’re extremely aggressive, hit hard, and spew all manner of status effects. The good news is they’re extremely challenging, and you feel great when you beat them. The bad news is the battle system doesn’t allow for quick heals or status ailment fixes, so you’ll have to spend what feels like eons flipping through everybody’s menus for spells and potions to execute acts that, in game time, take moments. My kingdom for a heal button.
The quickening system replaces limit breaks, and can be helpful in rough boss brawls, but not without a cost. If multiple characters have quickenings, they can be chained together for seriously massive damage. However, where limit breaks became available as characters took damage, quickenings require entire mana bars, which they completely consume. Unless a quickening kills your opponent, you’re better off not using it.
All in all, Final Fantasy XII is a great looking, well-written beast of an RPG, though some of its technical aspects could’ve operated more smoothly. We don’t like the fact that everything feels unorganized, or that we still have to spend so much time with menus, but we love the story and the world and the humongous levels of customization. This is definitely a kingdom worth saving for.