Time for another retro review. This gushing praise of Final Fantasy XII was written on November 5, 2006.
I’m really overjoyed to be able to say that Final Fantasy XII is the best game I’ve played in a long time. Had I known exactly how good it was going to be before it came out I might have died from waiting. It is so good, in fact, that I can bear to forgive its unforgivable sins. Let me cover those first, since I prefer complaining before complimenting.
FFXII’s most unforgivable sin is that it has a third person camera with no invert options. You know how every other game in existence has a “flip X/Y” toggle in case you want the camera to move left when you move the joystick right? This game doesn’t have that option. The options menu is only one screen long, and they have the inane “shake camera” option that I’ve never seen in action, but nothing to change the (by my standards) backwards camera movement. You just have to get used to it. Very frustrating.
The other sin pales in comparison to the game-wide camera sin, but it still ticks me off. When you first meet the main character, Vaan, he is whacking rats in a sewer. Not “things that look like rats,” but real rats in a real sewer. I couldn’t believe it… I wondered if I had accidentally bought Everquest Online Adventures for my PS2 or something. It’s as if Square Enix wants to show you how bad things could be if someone else was at the helm of this franchise.
That’s about it for the big sins. The only other annoyance I have with this game is that the items in the primary menu should be in a different order, but I won’t badger them about that (especially because the rest of the interface is an absolute triumph of ingenuity and usability). Oh, and the low level magic spells look really lame. That’ll cover it.
The one… umm… what’s the opposite of a sin? A mitzvah? Sure. The one big mitzvah they do that I wish more companies would emulate (it’s really easy, folks) is how the game starts up. When you put in the disc it starts playing a video: first you see a cool airship flying through the sky, then the screen goes white and there’s the Square Enix logo, then we’re back to the airship again, this time flying towards an awesome hovering city. Then it goes through a montage of other videos from the game. You can press a button at any time to get a simple “NEW GAME/LOAD GAME” menu overlaid at the bottom of the video. No three level Publisher/Developer/Dolby videos you have to press START to get through, just a gorgeous video with some soothing music that you can skip at any time if you’re impatient. The effect on the player is to say, “we’re so confident our game kicks ass that we don’t have to bend over backwards to satisfy our ‘partners’ and annoy you with their logos.” It’s a good feeling.
So, what’s the deal with this new Final Fantasy? It is absolutely unlike every other Final Fantasy title that comes before it, despite how it collects elements from previous games and sprinkles them about. And by “previous games,” I mean my two favorite titles, Final Fantasies IV and VI. The opening movie music and many royal themes come almost lock, stock and barrel from the marches in IV. The moogles, espers, and magicite (!) come from fond memories of VI. And then, uh, there’s the entire world and scenario that comes from Tactics Advance, but I’ll just ignore that for now.
The basic plot, unfortunately, also comes from Final Fantasy VI. In number twelve here, the Arcadian Empire conquers the kingdom of Dalmasca. You play as Vaan, a street urchin in Dalmasca’s capital city of Rabanastre, whose goal in life is to reduce the number of syllables in his hometown.
No, that’s what I wish it was about. Vaan wants to be a sky pirate, and eventually gets caught up with the Resistance movement when it turns out Dalmasca’s princess is still alive. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m not certain this plot summary is going to hold for long. The two princes of the “evil” Arcadian Empire are nice. Really nice. Nice and honorable and really overly handsome, even if one of them looks a lot like Seymour from FFX and the other one can’t be older than sixteen. Aside from the whole “conquer Dalmasca” part, the Empire hasn’t done anything that bad. Sure, the guards push you around a bit, but that’s to be expected. Usually they get more evil as you go up the chain of command, but that’s not the case this time. I wonder if the Judges might be the real bad guys, considering how badass they look when they all march in line.
The gameplay is the biggest shocker: it’s real time and plays like a hybrid between Dungeon Siege and World of Warcraft. With the “gambit” option turned on, you can program simple little macros for your characters, like “Attack nearest enemy” or “Heal ally with less than 70% health.” Stack them in the proper order and you can take your hands off the controller for most battles. There’s no combat screen; everything takes place in the map you run though, making it a very smooth and seamless procedure.
I’m certain a lot of people hate this change, but given the game environment it makes perfect sense. The prior games were about three or four characters taking on a heterogeneous group of three to five monsters at a time. Now the monster count is usually two at a time, plus they’re all typically the same type. If you had to press X to confirm each attack command for each character to each monster, the encounter rate would seem horrifically high (and you’d be bored out of your mind). Now you just worry about arranging your gambits properly and exploring every inch of the map. I adore it, also probably because I can lift weights with one hand and play the game with the other. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you that.
Another oddity is that the monsters don’t drop money anymore. Now, as in World of Warcraft, they drop items like wolf pelts or succulent fruit or earth stones. Those items are called, yes, “loot” and are sold to merchants for gil, the game’s currency. This certainly adds to the realism, but why is it that, when at the merchant, there’s no button for “sell all loot”? This stuff is useless, designed only for conversion into money, and yet they make you select each one and press a few buttons to confirm the sale. If those things were used to synthesize items I could imagine not selling one or two, but it’s all junk, so where’s the “sell junk” button?
The leveling system has also been completely redesigned. You still get experience points and level in the normal fashion, but all your weapons, armor, and magic upgrades are governed by the “License Board.” It’s basically a big chessboard that you unlock by buying tiles adjacent to ones you’ve already bought. Anybody who’s played FFX will feel right at home here; it’s a logical extension of the Sphere Grid from that game. Monsters drop one or two license points and you save up and buy upgrades to your stuff. The problem here is that everybody starts in the same place on the board, so there’s no big difference between the characters. You want Vaan to be a white mage and Ashe to be an archer? Doing it that way or having Vaan be a barbarian and Ashe a black mage are equally effective. I suppose this lends more flexibility to the characters and replayability for the game itself, but I prefer slightly more rigid roles.
By far the biggest selling point of this game, so big that it dominates the back of the box, is the plot. Despite the “resistance vs. empire” theme, the writing has never been better in… really, any game I’ve ever seen. Adults act like adults, not children in bigger bodies. There is a seriousness that pervades everything: nobody winks at the camera, breaks the fourth wall, or generally acts like a jackass. It sure helps that the voice acting is absolutely flawless. Well, okay, they pronounce the word “marquis” like “mar-kwiss”, but otherwise I have absolutely no complaints. I’m dying to get to the next story point, which is tough because the outdoor combat is so much fun.
If any game deserved four stars, this is it. It’s long, it’s beautiful, it’s made for adults and seamlessly blends multiple genres into a solid set. That it costs $50 is a huge bargain. Unless you’re a mini-game aficionado (there are none to be found), you should pick this one up.