Final Fantasy XII
2001 marked the year of release for the much anticipated tenth incarnation of the Final Fantasy series, for the Playstation 2. Boasting an engaging story, beautiful cinematics, and stellar voice acting, Final Fantasy X set a new high for role-playing games, even if it stuck very closely to the RPG rule-book. Final Fantasy XII set out to change all that, and with it being six years since the last ‘proper’ Final Fantasy title – Final Fantasy XI was essentially an online breakaway from tradition - it held tremendous weight on its shoulders. While Square Enix’s latest Final Fantasy offering displays many of the features that make the series so renowned (massive production values, high quality video, a dedicated orchestral score and an epic storyline), it delivers just as many new ideas, with considerable success.
Final Fantasy XII follows a boy named Vaan in the world of Ivalice (a world that debuted in 1998’s Final Fantasy Tactics, and later in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and Vagrant Story). Sharing similarities with Star Wars in terms of story and cast, the world of Ivalice shines. Stretching far and wide, the amount of variation on offer is inspiring. From the snow-covered mountains of Paramina Rift to the enchanted tree tops of Eruyt village, Ivalice is truly beautiful, and a perfect showcase for Square Enix’s quality design and imagination. The detail and scope of Ivalice enhances the story and characters, and is a joy to explore. The story, while initially daunting, soon comes into its own and grips as much as it intrigues. Instead of the usual ‘emotional love and hate’ themes of previous Final Fantasies, Final Fantasy XII centres itself on political unrest. The main characters set out to free their country of Dalmasca from the growing Archadian Empire, which took it over by force. As you progress through the game you learn all about the world of Ivalice, your characters, and the ever-changing positions of good and evil. As ever, the game’s story is told through the use of eloquently scripted and highly produced cut-scenes. The FMVs are not as frequent this time around as in Final Fantasy X, but are nevertheless breathtaking, and provide you with useful snippets of information with immaculate conviction and execution. In-game cut-scenes are just as well implemented yet a lot more frequent, and effectively break up the gameplay. Interestingly, the script is suitably in tandem with the setting and time of Ivalice, and so contains the use of archaic and historical language that can often confuse and intimidate. While this use of language is well-written and believable, there are often times when you are unable to understand what is being said because of words unknown to you. With this said, the real star of FFXII is its world, and in this respect the characters do not hold as much importance as before.
The main character of Final Fantasy XII – and your character of control in cities and non-battle areas - is a friendly orphan and Rabanastran street urchin called Vaan. He displays many of the attributes that any Final Fantasy protagonist would; pretty-boy good looks, an inspired hairstyle, a dress sense that wouldn’t look out of place in a British music festival, and a likeable personality – in essence, he epitomises the Final Fantasy brand and its fantastical ideas. Filling the role of little sister, and moral advisor is Penelo, a cute and cheery fellow orphan who was brought up alongside Vaan, and has since formed a great friendship with. Later on in the story you are introduced to both Balthier, a charming sky pirate, and Fran, his rabbit-eared accomplice. These two characters serve more secondary roles as far as the main cast goes, but are nonetheless entertaining and worthwhile additions. Arguably, the pivotal character in FFXII is the beautiful and determined Princess Ashe, who becomes increasingly important as the story unfolds, and as the various twists and turns are unravelled. A disgraced but honourable captain named Basch fills the last spot of the main cast, whose suspicious past exploits are expertly revealed. You are introduced to many other characters in the story - with some even entering your party as a guest to help you on your adventure - and the villains are depicted in a suitably sinister light. The hundreds of NPCs that inhabit the many lands of Ivalice bring the world to life, and give an incredible air of authenticity as you wander from area to area. Each area is defined by its population, and you are sucked in to believe these worlds exist; such is the level of detail and craft gone into Ivalice.
In previous Final Fantasies, a recurring criticism has been random battles. They were described as annoying and obtrusive, and didn’t help when all you wanted to do was reach the next area unharmed. Final Fantasy XII scraps random battles, and in its place introduces a revolutionary new system. Creatures can now be visible to the player instead of waiting for a random encounter that stalls gameplay and often frustrates. As you enter a new area, a multitude of creatures roam before you making for a more flowing and connected experience. You can now choose whether to ‘flee or fight’, as it were, so if you need to regain health or magic, it can be done without question. Everything is done in real-time, so turns are gone, though elements of these are still exhibited, with menus brought up by your characters stopping everything in the battlefield, so that you can choose your plan of action effortlessly, without worry (unless you choose to run everything in battle seamlessly – for veterans only). This system plays and looks very much like that of an MMORPG, and it is clear that Square Enix has taken influence from their time on FFXI. The battle system on its own, however, would become arduous under its real-time roots (having to choose what each individual character would do after every turn would in real time involve a lot of repetitive switching and selecting) and this is where the gambit system comes in, another modern innovation that is completely satisfying.
“Creatures can now be visible to the player instead of waiting for a random encounter that stalls gameplay and often frustrates.”The gambit system makes life a lot easier when engaged in battle, and is surprisingly deep. It principally gives your characters orders so that you can leave them be and they can get on with their job of slashing and destroying. Each character has an amount of gambit slots, which can be increased with the help of the License grid (more on that later). These slots can then be filled with a particular action – this can be anything from a cure spell to an attack, or using a potion – and then a target space must be filled – ally’s health < 30%, use cure etc. While at first glance you cannot help but be a bit wary of it, the learning curve soon eases you in and before long your characters are battling away without you ever having to lift a finger. Of course, this means that you’ll often be put into a hand-off position regarding battling the monsters in the game, deciding whether this would mar or improve your gaming experience is up to you. Helpfully, any manual actions override the gambit system, so if one of your characters is waiting to attack and you want to cure someone of their poison, for instance, it can be done simply and efficiently. The gambits can also be toggled on or off if you want to be more involved in battle.
Recreating the genius of the gambit system is the license grid, and as before, it takes a while to get used to. A major part of Final Fantasy games has been the levelling up of characters, and each and every iteration changes the ways in which this can be done. Final Fantasy X introduced the beautifully implemented sphere grid, and proved a worthwhile addition. The license grid is equally successful, and provides the player with an abundance of choice and options. The license grid makes character development more defined; now you can mould your character as you see fit. The license grid is split into five sections; weapons, armour, augments, technicks, and magicks, and each section holds a number of tiles that can be unlocked with the use of license points obtained in battle. It starts off a confusing experience but once you learn its ways and start to shape your characters into whatever you desire it becomes incredibly useful. Want a mage in your squad? Stick with the magicks section. How about a blade-wielding, heavy armoured warrior? Then use up the sword weaponry and heavy armour tiles – it’s entirely up to you, the freedom you are given by this grid is refreshing.
All these features add to the experience, and make your adventure through Ivalice something special. The graphics especially, are outstanding. The world of Ivalice is just asking to be explored, and thankfully each area is filled with variety where monsters and treasure can be discovered. The art style of Final Fantasy XII is as much in a class of its own as something like Okami, or Viewtiful Joe. It shares the same graphical style as 2000’s cult favourite Vagrant Story, thanks largely to returning art director & visual designer Hiroshi Minagawa. It’s without a doubt one of the most visually interesting and striking titles in the series, avoiding the cyberpunk themes explored in the likes of Fantasies VII or X, and never straying into the cutesy, almost manga-esque ideals of VI or IX.. Textures have an impressive natural beauty; houses are suitably worn, cobblestone streets enchant, and vibrant plant-life shines in the sun. FFXII conjures up visual imagery like poetry does - it’s hard not to forget each and every location you visit, and makes for an unforgettable visual experience. Similarly, creatures are just as memorable. The design for them is flawless, and each area is memorable for the creatures that reside there. Square Enix’s experience in this field is clear to see as you the player can only admire their craft and imaginative styling. While their scale has obviously had to be reduced due to the battle system, you still get to fight some mammoth opponents, and in this area you won’t be disappointed.
Keeping up with tradition, the sound design for Final Fantasy XII is exceptional. The music that accompanies the FMVs and cut-scenes is at the highest level and is used brilliantly, adding to the atmosphere. Original compositions go along with the game world, and recognisable jigs appear when battling, for instance, and this only goes to confirm you’re playing a Final Fantasy game. The voice acting is unsurprisingly fantastic, too, and while minor NPC conversations in towns and cities are all text, you are still treated with hundreds of lines of dialogue all perfectly spoken and fitting. Each main character is voiced superbly without them grating on you or sounding odd.
One big part of Final Fantasy games has been what could be done away from the ‘main quest’, and, while FFXII may not have as many options as previous games, there are still things to do to divert your attention from the main adventure. Hunts matter a lot if you want bounty and experience, and involve a ‘search and destroy’ mechanic. You are asked to accept the request put up by a civilian of Ivalice and are then given a location in which this hunt can be found. The opponent you will face is more powerful than the norm, and generous bounty is on offer once you kill the beast. There are lots of hunts to indulge in, and there’s a great thrill in seeing the creatures for the first time – they often have something special about them. These hunts can be tracked in your Clan Primer, a neat and tidy book that compiles your achievements. There’s a bestiary which lists all the creatures you’ve faced with details and unlockable data (as well as a section that lists any rare monsters you’ve felled), a Sky pirate’s Den, which artfully displays your gaming related feats (walked 10,000 steps, for example) as well as a handy part on your hunts and a help section. The clan primer is ordered cleanly and proves essential to your gaming experience. It extends the world of Ivalice with a wealth of information, and is indispensable to completists – where completing all hunts and finding all the creatures in the game would prove intensely satisfying.
“The world of Ivalice is just asking to be explored, and thankfully each area is filled with variety where monsters and treasure can be discovered.”As close as Final Fantasy XII is to perfect, it narrowly misses out with its fair share of moments that mar the overall experience. The license grid and gambit system, especially the former, can take a while to fully understand, and can leave you messing around, not utilising its full potential until you realise it’s too late. This in turn can lead to level grinding (not that there isn’t much of that anyway). The whole game is full of level grinding - bosses often outmatch you and you are left having to return to areas and killing creatures in order to level up and become good enough. Hunts ease the grinding pain, yet you will have to spend many of the forty/fifty hours it takes to complete the game repetitively attacking all creatures far and wide. If you like level grinding, however, you’re in for a super sized treat. The rejuvenated battle system is for the most part successful, however, you are often just physically attacking the opponents you face, chipping down their HP with your lunges, and in this case a lot of strategy is lost. The urge to just attack and let your characters to do the work is too much and so the use of black magic, for example, is less than in previous games, which again loses some of the fantasy magic. The story can be quite a lot to take in, and with its thousands of lines of dialogue, there really is a lot to take in. Younger gamers especially may have trouble, and although the story is great and a welcome break from Final Fantasy tradition, it is less personal and more political, so you are left feeling less connected with and caring for the characters. All things said, Final Fantasy XII is still an essential purchase, and entirely worthy of your time.
Final Fantasy XII is a masterclass in game design. Through expert sound, storytelling and gameplay you are enwrapped into the world of Ivalice. The aesthetic facelift raises the bar yet again, and the variety in the levels offers a new wave of immersion. Its downsides are completely overshadowed by its achievements, Final Fantasy XII deserves to sit next to today’s greats.
Nine out of ten
- Breathtaking visual style
- Fantastic sound design
- Real-time battle mechanic means no more random battles
- The world of Ivalice is entirely captivating and truly a joy to explore
- A considerable amount of level grinding awaits if you are to progress through the game
- Story can become over-complex, especially for younger gamers