While the critics have been generally unanimous in their praise of Square Enix’s latest Final Fantasy, the fans themselves haven’t been more divided since X-2‘s Charlie’s Angels spin. For this installment, Square Enix has implemented a huge departure from the usual Active Time Battle system, a change that makes a far greater impact than you might think; it’s both a blessing and a curse.
Let it first be made clear that I actually enjoyed Final Fantasy X-2, even moreso than its forebear. The episodic missions and flashy costume-changing allowed a nice change of pace from the dull pilgrimage and blasé combat of X, and it introduced the witty biotch Payne, probably the best female character in the series since Aeris Gainsborough. I love the cast and story of Final Fantasy XII for a similar reason—like the best of the series, it creates strong roles for female voices. Okay Penelo is a glaring exception (as will be detailed below), but Ashe’s predicament as the heir to a kingdom’s power is a refreshing plotline. Unsure whether she should keep flying under the radar to protect herself from her would-be assassins or reveal herself and declare war on the oppressors of Ivalice. Unfortunately, while the character is strong, her voice actress is a little weak, diminishing her overall impression.
Of the six central heroes, only half resonate as truly great, and they would rank with Final Fantasy‘s best if only they were given more screen time. Basch, the misunderstood knight framed for the “assassination” of Ashe and her hubby, balances noble dignity with a tragic sense of disgraced failure, and commands our attention with every word. Self-centered air pirate Balthier and his devoted bunny-eared partner Fran do as well, as a pair who may seem like comic plot devices in the early proceedings, but slowly reveal that they’re much more invested than we thought.
Penelo and Vaan, for their part, aren’t terrible characters, per se; rather, they’re just not very interesting. Vaan is your typical street-smart, etiquette-challenged rascal who gets caught up in a plot larger than his homegrown life. Penelo is his girly-girl comrade-in-crime, his whiny voice of reason and perpetual stowaway tagalong. As the story unfolds, it grows more and more distant from these two, making their clichéd existence all the less forgivable. Toward the halfway point, Vaan really only functions as a dramatic foil to Ashe, who sees the innocent boy as someone she can trust to voice her insecurities and fears. Penelo does nothing more than provide irritation-relief one-liners around the more serious cast members (a la Neelix to Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager, only less amusing). Sure we all claim to be sick of the epic PG romances that blossom in Final Fantasy games, but these kids were clearly designed to hook up. Since when do two fit and attractive teenagers of the opposite sex only remain friends in a game like this, unless the male in question is gay? Anyway, the bright side is that these two distract very little from the core story of warring kingdoms, political intrigue and delectable backstabbing.
Final Fantasy XII introduces a real-time combat system much like the one seen in FFXI. First off, the enemies prowl the same world that you explore, with no transitions into ‘combat mode’. Depending on a series of customizable but pre-set ‘if-then’ A.I. commands called ‘gambits’, party members, including your current avatar, will destroy the enemies, heal your allies and steal rare goodies without so much as a button tap. Granted, the reality is, it won’t be until very late in the game that players have discovered enough gambits to truly sit back and let the grandiose Auto-Battle play its course; even then, the difficulty is so steep (assuming you don’t power-game by over-leveling the party) that you’ll constantly need to pause the action to rethink your programmed strategy.
Particularly in the early stages, these new mechanics are very fresh and keep you on your toes. However, it doesn’t take long before you realize that by incorporating this brand new system, Square has made sacrifices in terms of complexity. Presumably because this is the first (only?) manifestation of Square Enix’s real-time combat overhaul (MMORPGs don’t count), the system is simpler than outward impressions imply and can become overly frustrating and unbalanced in parts. As far as abilities go, there isn’t much you haven’t seen implemented in the past. Fire, Ice and Thunder still come with only three grades of power, while Water, Wind, Earth and Holy get shafted (either only one or two spells each or in the case of Earth, not a single spell beyond the dirtywork of one of the Esper summons). These limitations reveal themselves as annoyances when one considers how many enemies seem to be weak against Earth, Water and Holy.
It would have been nice to see something beyond the slew of attack and protect spells. Considering that placement of your allies and the enemies actually matters now, the game should’ve better integrated ranged abilities (giving them more distance for example) or burst abilities that spread out from a character, attacking everything nearby. Perhaps including concentration spells that do ongoing damage (thunder storms, poison mists and the like) but leave the character incapacitated or physical abilities that attack multiple enemies, all those in a line or the like could’ve spiced things up. We’ve seen these in other RPGs, so the fact that Final Fantasy XII didn’t include them is a bit frustrating.
The other big problem is that once again Square has devised a system that allows everybody to eventually reach the same developmental goal, if the player so desires. One receives so many license points (required to purchase ability licenses needed to use said abilities) that it’s possible fairly early to give everybody the same stuff, or at least divide characters into either “super mage” or “super fighter” roles. Yes, early on, it’s much more efficient to train one character as a white mage and another as a paladin, but eventually you have the option and the difficulty tends to demand that everybody become white mages and paladins. We understand that choice is paramount in role-playing, but you shouldn’t be able to choose a path that gives you both the Ultima spell and the Excalibur two-handed sword.
Characters do have “unique” limit abilities called “Mist Quickenings”, but they all do the same thing when you get past the fact that they look ridiculously cool. Basically, if you have a full MP bar, you can use a mist charge (up to three towards the end) that allows you to enter “Quickening Mode”. Here you have to press lightning quick button combinations to create a combo of high-powered attacks using all three party members, dealing a massive amount of damage to the enemy. However, they also use all of your MP, so they can be very crippling if you don’t use them as finishing moves in a tough boss fight. Esper summons also consume 1-3 mist charges and their cinematic attacks are jaw-dropping, but they’re not particularly useful, expect perhaps when farming enemies for loot.
If you enjoy exploring the far reaches of the virtual world to kill monsters for rare items, you’ll love FFXII. The game incorporates an insanely time-consuming “Marks” component, where townspeople ask you to track down rare beasties and kill them for goofy reasons (a la the quests in World of Warcraft). This might seem repetitive and tedious, and it is, but tracking down these inventive creatures is surprisingly addictive, and is a brilliant segue into the artistic lore crafted for the game. Just explore the vast bestiaries and you’ll understand what I mean.
It’s very clear that the director of FFXII strove to inject an unprecedented feeling of realism into the sweeping design of Ivalice’s breathtaking vistas. For the first time in Final Fantasy, you’ll explore fully three-dimensional environments with organic terrain and erratic weather. Deserts are hit by blinding sandstorms, while blizzards rule the snowcaps of the towering mountain passes. With changing weather comes changes in the ecosystem and the topography itself. Enormous frogs dive out of the flooded swamps when the Giza Plains are hit by the torrential rains of the wet season, while new paths are opened up by creating bridges over water with fallen debris. And then there are the lethal elemental monsters, overpowering magical beings capable of immense destruction during the earlier levels.
As far as flora and fauna are concerned, they are equally diverse and striking. Most environments contain passive creatures (with green life bars) that will only attack if provoked, giving the world the feeling that it is populated with more than just monsters you can kill for experience. The same goes for the towering cities, marrying futuristic skyscrapers with a mix of Baroque, Gothic and other European architectural influences. Each is filled to the brim with living, breathing NPCs who busy themselves in the market bazaars or put on displays of juggling and clowning in the city squares.
So if I complain about FFXII, it’s just that Final Fantasy games stand so high above their nearest competition (lately nothing on the PS2), I come to expect a lot more from them. The reality is that Square Enix has created a breathtaking world that maximizes the graphic prowess of the PlayStation 2. The music is perfectly moody and ambient (though the epic themes are a bit weak) and the story is one of the best the series has ever presented, even if it ends sooner than it should. The game reinvents the way we play RPGs (yet again), which is both exciting and refreshing, but limits the degree of complexity we’ve come to count on within the mechanical character development. Even so, while Final Fantasy XII has its flaws, any serious fan of the genre should play this title, as it’s the best incarnation of the series on the PS2.