Of course, despite all of their differences, each game in the series has had more than its share of similarities to what had come before. Whether it's the names and effects of your magic spells, the existence of airships and chocobos or the names of a few integral characters, there's always something to remind you whose sandbox you're playing in, that this is indeed the latest in a long-standing line. That tradition isn't broken with Final Fantasy XII. Dozens of familiar names, faces and creatures from previous chapters in the saga populate this world, each altered artistically to fit within their new surroundings. Where the visual direction chosen for many earlier chapters (FFIX, for example) are decidedly cartoony, the last few games to arrive have been stunning realistic, which is a trend continued in this newest delivery. Bearing that in mind, you might be surprised just how effectively some of the more unrealistic monsters have made the transition. The floating orange creatures known as Bombs, for instance, are hard to visualize in a lifelike setting until you see them roaming a desolate, dimly-lit hallway. Traditional summons such as Shiva, Leviathan and Bahamut don't even appear in their typical forms. Instead, they're used as the naming conventions for a fleet of widely-feared military airships. In many instances, the developers at Square-Enix are continuing their old traditions while at the same time hinting that nothing is taboo.
Money is come by in a very different, much more traditional manner, as well - the days of finding a thousand dollars' worth of gil on the body of a slain rabbit are gone. If you're after riches, you'll have to grab what you can from your kill (whether it's a sturdy bone, a soft pelt, a horn or any number of more naturally-appearing items) and sell it on the market. It's a long-overdue change, in my opinion, and one that doesn't really have a big impact on the actual experience since you can sell your goods to almost every shop on the map. Where its presence is felt is in helping the player to suspend their disbelief and really dive wholeheartedly into the actual experience. It's just one less subliminal qualm about the game's believability to nag at the back of your consciousness during a session.
The entirety of Ivalice, the world in which FFXII (and Final Fantasy Tactics) is set, is just overflowing with amazing scenery. Every city has a million little things that distinguish its culture from those of the other communities on the map. Whether it's a mild difference in dialect, a style in architecture, a unique perspective on the world (from the sky, underground, abandoned in the mist) or an overlying attitude, each city is distinctly its own living being. This is an area in which the Final Fantasies have had long-reaching success over the years, first evident in their SNES-era releases, which has been allowed to progress and evolve with very little recognition. As it stands now, it's truly without peer. Exploring Final Fantasy XII is like learning about a whole new world, in a way that none of its genre-distinct rivals have even approached.
The only thing I can really compare it to is the very first Star Wars trilogy. Both stories were a merging point for several different cultures, races and personalities - where A New Hope had aliens roaming a foreign globe and blowing off steam in the same bar, FFXII has lizard-men and humans sharing the same city streets and exchanging goods in the open market. Everyone doesn't always get along. Real-world problems like racism, class-based discrimination and crooked politics are all represented in both stories, which not only makes them more realistic, but allows the viewer / player to relate with what they're seeing and immerse themselves into the story even further. And, just as soon as it's used these environments to capture your imagination and your trust, FFXII matches the breathtaking fantasy and wonder of the first Star Wars trilogy. It shows you things that you'd never accept in another game / film, but because it had first based its world in reality, you react to them differently, more honestly. This newest Final Fantasy, however, has about thirty years' worth of special effects magic in its corner. It can show you things that Empire Strikes Back could only dream about, and you'll never question them. If George Lucas hadn't lost his marbles, this is very close to what I'd imagine the prequels would have looked like.
In fact, those are far from the only parallels between the two I could draw. The lead character, Vaan, is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed young rebel with big dreams, no family and a powerful will to succeed. He falls in with a cast of unsavory characters, including a smuggler and his furry co-pilot. Even their ship bears a resemblance to the Millennium Falcon. They meet a legendary, bearded, fallen knight who lends them his wisdom and his strength. They rescue a princess, who goes on to aid them in their resistance against an oppressive incumbent empire. A frail-bodied mastermind pulls the strings from the top, and looks to a dark-armored, concealingly-helmed black knight when the struggle becomes physical. I could go on. Maybe lots of great stories share some distinct plot devices, but the striking similarities just didn't stop as I progressed through the game. On one hand, it tells me that if you liked the films, (which I did) you'll find a lot to like here (again, I did). On the other, it had me scratching my chin and wondering if maybe the writers held a closed-door screening or two during the game's very earliest development.
Eventually, both sagas fell into a similar pitfall. FFXII's story is very, very politically themed, not to mention excruciatingly detail-oriented. If you sat through the first hour of The Phantom Menace and wondered why they were wasting so much time talking about free trade, the senate and the maneuverings that usually precede a full-scale war, you'll be in the same boat for a good portion of this game. Ultimately, that excess of information during crucial scenes is one of the game's greatest drawbacks. If I've just spent half an hour on a boss and I'm full of adrenaline, I want a quick, cool payoff. Instead, you're more often greeted with a thorough discussion about the big picture, the policies of the current government and the problems they're generating among the people.
Of course, with many of the negatives inherent with such a rich, detailed story also come many positives. To start with, the game is just incredibly, unbelievably deep. It's not quite to the level Morrowind reached, where you could spend hours next to a bookshelf, catching up on the game's backstory and terminology, but it's very, very close. Besides, I can't imagine any sane being pouring over every word contained on that game's disc... a lot of it is redundant and dull. FFXII trims out much of the fat and leaves behind the interesting and / or important stuff, with little personal touches, anecdotes, hints and accents thrown in that are above and beyond anything you get from even the main story in the Xbox title. If details are your thing, this game has them in abundance.
All of those details add up, which means it's lengthier than anyone could possibly have asked for, with well over 100 hours of gameplay... closer to 150 if you take the time to finish all of the sidequests. Amazingly, there's also never any shortage of things to do - there's never a point where you find yourself mindlessly levelling up. An almost bottomless collection of sidequests and character interactions keep you entertained, and are perfectly spaced out. That means that regardless of your level, there's always quest you can be entertaining yourself with. Once you've completed that mission, chances are good that you've leveled up enough to tackle another one.
This chapter also marks a real return to prominence for the series as far as level of difficulty is concerned. It's the toughest nut I've tried to crack since Final Fantasy VII, although the final stages are a joke if you've made more than a halfhearted swing at any of the tougher sidequests. The roughest bosses in the game break ten million hit points, and I spent over an hour in battle with a sub-boss that had a million and a half. We're not talking about any kind of a cruise control fight, either - this was a mentally taxing, strategic war. Where, in a game like Gran Turismo, you'll reach a point on some of the endurance races where it all becomes automatic, in this boss fight I was constantly confronted with a new problem to solve, a new weapon to look out for or a critical hit that nearly obliterated my party. It was no easy feat, but when I was finished, I felt like I'd genuinely accomplished something.
In comparison, the final level (cutscenes, navigating the dungeon, preparing for the fight and defeating all four final enemies) took me about the same amount of time. The final incarnation of the game's end boss tops out at about 200,000 HP. I've never understood how a game could do that to its players - grant the sidequests ridiculous amounts of difficulty and detail, then allow the final enemy, the guy you've spent months of your life chasing, only a fraction of that same attention. In a way though, it once again remains true to what's come before by doing so. I remember jumping for joy when I finally defeated Ozma in FFIX, only to go on, conquer the end boss and ask myself aloud if it was some kind of a joke. FFVIII had Ultima and Omega Weapon, who were both many times more challenging than the final showdown with Ultimecia. FFVII offered up dozens of Weapons of its own, each more powerful than that last clash with Sephiroth. As one of the trademarks for the series, it's hard to complain about its continuation here, but it's been amplified to an almost ridiculous extent in this latest release.
Historically, the actual gameplay experience is where the similarities between Final Fantasies end. Every game in the series has introduced a new mechanic or twist on the series' existing gameplay system, and the most noteworthy of FFXII's innovations is the gambit system. Gambits, which are basically conditional, pre-assigned actions which you can assign to each member of your party, almost completely sever this game's ties to its forefathers. Sure, the "fight", "magic" and "item" options are still hanging around in a menu somewhere, but they've been significantly deprecated. The game actually encourages you to experiment with gambits as a replacement for these more traditional options, which makes for a much more lifelike, real-time battle system.
While it feels far more action-oriented than any of its predecessors, upon further experimentation you'll discover that the system delivers a much more strategic, hands-off approach. Simple battles can be completed without even touching a button, while longer battles are much more tolerable than ever before. Monotonous commands such as attacking, healing injured comrades, removing status effects and checking an enemy's level can be completed automatically, leaving your mind and your screen free to think ahead and develop a longer-reaching team strategy. When I'm wandering aimlessly or traveling on foot from one location to another, I'll turn on my "attack any enemy in sight" gambit, steer my party into the same general area as a cluster of weaker enemies and sit back as they automatically destroy anything in sight, heal each other, gain experience and await my further command. The ability to heal your characters' status afflictions are particularly helpful, because the enemies use them much more frequently than in the past, and because curing them usually means a lengthy jaunt through a series of menus. After the first handful of hours, I never had to stop and think about which item cured which status effect - by the time I remembered, my supporting characters had already used it.
What's more, your party never actually leaves the overworld screen. Whether you're fighting for your life, talking to a commoner or wandering through an empty plain, you're seeing it all from the same perspective. What does this mean to the player? Well, for one it makes your perspective of things much more familiar. I don't think I ever really appreciated the size of most of the cities in previous FFs, but upon comparing them to the jungles and meadows of the outside world, those tall structures are twice as impressive. More importantly, however, it means there are no more random encounters! You can see an enemy in the distance, decide whether you're ready to face it, prepare for the battle and charge in replenished, rather than diving headfirst into the unknown at half-strength.
There isn't really a whole lot to say in the way of controls. The on-screen menus function flawlessly and the buttons are mapped as logically as can be. Seeing as how there's no need for a specific Attack, Dodge or Magic button, much of the PS2's controller is used as an auxiliary piece, meant to enrich the experience without getting in the way. Holding the L2 button, for example, changes from a traditional overhead "floating camera" to a tight shot directly over the party leader's shoulder. Very helpful on the few occasions where the camera gets stuck behind a wall or facing the wrong way.
For most of the game, though, your fingers will be exclusively hovering on the analog sticks, the X button and the O button. Naturally, the analogs move your characters around the screen and navigate the menus, the X button is used to bring up the in-game menu or make a selection, and the O button is your "back up one step" or general cancel button. When you're in a menu, L1 and R1 serve as a page up and page downThe layout really is remarkably simple, and makes a marathon session of gameplay much easier on the knuckles, not to mention how much easier it is to learn in the first place.
Occasionally, this simplicity does cause problems, however, as the buttons are infrequently asked to perform too many functions at the same time and result in an overlap, which means missed commands and multiple excessive presses. Picking up a special item or pulling a level, for example, can be problematic unless you're standing in precisely the right spot. Otherwise, the screen will be prompting you to hit X and perform the action, when actually pressing the button will only bring up the battle menu. A minor flaw, but a flaw nonetheless.
The game's graphics are best thing going on the PS2, which means they aren't the biggest and baddest going on the market today. Many of the cities' lush environments, beautiful views and incredible architectural sights are obscured by long stretches of distractingly jagged, pixelated edges. Occasionally, changing your camera angle at a graphic-intensive moment will cause the machine to really chug and slow down the in-game experience, which only serves to remind the player that (s)he's in the middle of a game. After all of the work that the story, culture, overtones and gameplay have done to break down that wall, it's really a shame to see the system itself break that illusion. This game probably would have been breathtaking on the PS3 or 360, but just can't accomplish what it sets out to do on the dated hardware of the PS2.
What it lacks in available hardware power, it makes up for and then some with sheer artistic license and glorious attention to detail. Artistic direction was never something the series has been lacking in past installments, thanks to Square's close working relationship with some of the best artists in the industry today, with the whole project helmed by the legendary Yoshitaka Amano. With Final Fantasy XII, however, they have truly outdone themselves. This game is almost indescribably beautiful. Every inch of every screen has been painstakingly detailed, and the end result is a world that lives, breathes, functions and excels as believably as any I've ever seen in the digital medium. Fine details such as the hem of a pedestrian's skirt or the wave of Vaan's hair in the wind are what makes all the difference between this game and everything that had come before. Perhaps more importantly, however, the artistic director knows when to show restraint. Sometimes a simple, clean, uncomplicated surface can be the most beautiful thing in the world, and that's something that's never lost amongst the amazing details of this world.
Of course, the cutscenes are everything you'd expect of a cornerstone Square-Enix production. While the rest of the industry has chased (and, to an extent, caught up to) the renowned developer in this respect over the years, they still know how to knock you on your ass when the moment is right. What was even more impressive to me was the title's slow shift away from using pre-rendered HD cinematics, and the in-game rendering engine's ability to take up the slack admirably. This shift is noticeable, but not nearly as blatantly as you might think. Where the pre-renders handle all of the really major action scenes, the in-game engine really excels at interpersonal relations and face-to-face conversations. Simply enough, when the emphasis is meant to be on the visuals, the pre-renders handle the job magnificently. When you're supposed to be focusing more on the conversation and a flashy animation would only serve to distract, that's where the live rendering picks up. While there's still nothing like one of those mouth watering cutscenes after a crucial turn of events, this handoff to more live-rendered scenes speaks highly for the engine that runs the whole show, and is nearly enough to make me salivate in anticipation of what's to come with the first Fantasy to appear on newer hardware.
I was scared to death when I first read that Nobuo Uematsu was not involved with the musical compositions of Final Fantasy XII, as his run of incredible soundtracks is one of the true unsung heroes of this series. Uematsu's work is underscored, but crucial. He gave each town a distinct tune that was catchy enough to make the time go by a bit easier, but never obnoxiously so. He lent a unique voice and attitude, back in a day when it was virtually impossible to do so visually, and he always did so without standing in the way of the story. His tunes were there, an incomparably vital part of the series, but much of their beauty was in their tendency to fade into the background and enrich the experience from there. It's incredibly difficult to toe that line, and he'd done it for eleven chapters running.
With that said, I was pleasantly surprised by the musical accompaniments of FFXII. It's clearly been inspired by the work that's come before, but also takes several strong steps towards establishing its own voice that's impressively at home in this world. The old master may be moving away from the series, but his replacement(s) have learned all the right lessons from his work. The compositions are beautiful in the same way Uematsu's previous scores were, unobtrusively entertaining, and don't need the spotlight to play their part. The unspoken success of the musical accompaniment works hand in hand with the outstanding voice acting which is present throughout. Both in anime and in video games, it's tough to name a universally great vocal cast, but the one presented here is very close. Each character has a unique voice, annunciation and personality that almost tells you their backstory before it's explained on the screen. Ambient sound effects and noises are present, but never obnoxiously so, and as a result only work to enhance the scenery.
Ultimately, a needlessly complex main plotline, a slow start and a few very minor gameplay flaws hold FFXII back from absolute perfection, but beyond than that it's clear sailing. Part twelve is hands down the best Final Fantasy of this generation, and ranks right alongside the three outstanding chapters released on the PSone on my all-time depth charts. If you're a fan of the RPG genre, you need to give this game a try... and I don't just mean a few minutes' worth. For the first hour or two, I was not a fan, but I persisted and found the rewards to be absolutely worth those opening moments of uncertainty.
Just don't go in with any heavy-handed expectations. Within those first couple of hours, when I was very uncertain about its direction, I couldn't shake the feeling that this was a fun game, but it wasn't a Final Fantasy. In a way, it still isn't, but it fills me with anticipation for what the new directions will mean to the next chapter in the story. This represents as drastic a departure for the series as Final Fantasy II did, way back on the NES. It's a totally new game, but one that's strangely familiar. Give it a chance and you'll fall in love with it. I know I did.
Overall Score: 9.8