Final Fantasy XII PlayStation 2
Published by Square Enix
Developed by Square Enix
Release Date: 23/2/07
It's been a long time since we had a Final Fantasy game on the PlayStation 2. After the success of Final Fantasy X (way back in 2002 here in Europe) all we've had is Final Fantasy X-2 (2004), a game that most consider more of a side dish rather than a proper sequel. In those three years since Final Fantasy X-2 there have been other Final Fantasy games appear on other platforms such as Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles on the GameCube and a couple of remakes for the GBA. Final Fantasy XI (which in my opinion should have been called Final Fantasy Online and kept apart from the main series), the MMORPG, never appeared on the PlayStation 2 here in Europe so we've had to sit tight for Final Fantasy XII. Of course the game has been available for ages in Japan and it was released in the US in the latter part of 2006 but in Europe we've had to wait much longer. On the twenty-third of February the wait will be over though and Final Fantasy XII will finally be here.
Final Fantasy XII sees us return to Ivalice (the location for Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance). At the start of the game all seems well as we see Princess Ashe marry Lord Rasler. It doesn't take long for it all to go pear shaped though. Lord Rasler is killed in battle against the Archadian Empire and Dalmasca, home of the royal family is soon conquered. The King is killed and the blame for his murder is placed on Captain Basch who everyone believes to have been executed for regicide. To make matters worse we are told that Princess Ashe has taken her own life, although you'll soon find out that's not exactly what's happened. Initially you'll play as a 17-year old boy by the name of Reks. As Dalmasca is attacked Reks will accompany Captain Basch as they attempt to locate and protect the king from the Archadians. As they are close to the king's locations Basch leaves Reks and when Reks finally makes his way to the king he finds him dead with Basch being the apparent murderer. Basch then stabs Reks in the chest and Reks later dies from his injuries. The story then picks up with you controlling Reks' younger brother, Vaan in the city of Rabanastre.
If you're a Final Fantasy enthusiast you'll know that every new title in the series makes some slight adjustments to the tried and test Final Fantasy formula. Final Fantasy XII doesn't take this subtle tweaking approach though; in fact it makes some wholesale changes that some Final Fantasy enthusiasts are not going to appreciate. That's not to say the changes are unwanted. In fact Final Fantasy XII is an excellent game that may even appeal to those who have disliked previous titles in the series. The changes are quite numerous and whilst I loathe going into too much detail in a review I feel it's only right to talk about the main changes.
The first thing you're going to notice is that the battle system is no longer turn-based. It would be more accurate to describe the battle system (called the Active Dimension Battle or ADB for brevity) as a pausable real-time battle system. The game also does away with random battles. During areas in which you can battle you'll wander around with your party (Vaan and two other party members are visible at all times in these locations) and fight the enemies that you target or that target you. There are no loading screens for battles. They occur seamlessly as they would in a MMORPG such as World of Warcraft or in games such as Neverwinter Nights. Some enemies are not aggressive and will not target you. You'll see a red arc going from an enemy to your party if an enemy has targeted you and a blue arc going from you to an enemy if you target an enemy. As soon as you have chosen to attack or perform an action, a bar then fills (in pretty much the same way as the ATB bar in previous Final Fantasy games did) and once filled the action is carried out. This prevents the game from turning into a button-bashing hack 'n' slash experience but it's quite a difference from the turn-based experience you had in previous games in the series. That said for the most part it works really well and the game flows much more fluidly as a result of not waiting for a battle screen to load up. However, I do have some problems with the new battle system. For one the camera has a nasty habit of going crazy when you're backed into a corner, which makes things awkward. At times you'll have to flee rather than fight and your enemies stick doggedly to you taking shots all the time. Whilst you can move around freely in battle it doesn't make a great deal of difference. Engage in combat with an enemy, attack and then try to move out of range of their attack would seem a sensible plan of action. However, for the most part this is a flawed strategy as enemies rarely have trouble hitting you no matter how much you try to make evasive manoeuvres.
Of course the new combat system raises the important question of how you control multiple party members. Whilst you can pause the action and assign orders to your party members (you can only have three party members involved in a battle although there are times when you can have a guest fighting with you) it's not really an efficient way of doing things. You can simply let the AI controlled characters do their own thing but it's not really a good idea. The best option is to use the gambit system which in effect is a method of programming the AI characters to take appropriate actions in certain situations. Each party member begins with a couple of gambit slots and each action can be assigned to a slot. For instance you could tell Captain Basch to use a potion on an ally if their HP should fall below 50% or tell Fran to attack the same character as the party leader. There are many gambit orders in the game but you only start out with a few. Additional gambit slots can be obtained from the licence board (more on that in a moment) and actions can be purchased. Each character's gambit slots are prioritised and you can arrange and rearrange the priority of the orders at any given time. You can also disable a gambit slot if you feel that's suitable. On the whole the gambit system works well and it leaves the competency of the AI controlled characters in your own hands. It's worth pointing out that you can't control the gambit orders for guest party members, which can be a little irritating at times and you're sure to end up wasting some Phoenix Downs on them during the course of the game. It's also worth mentioning that the gambit system, in certain situations, can be abused somewhat and it's possible to setup the orders in such a way that your party will fight away on their own requiring little or no attention from you. At times this can feel a little uninvolving but it's a nice way to effortlessly level-up when the situation allows. Of course for the tricky boss fights this isn't possible and on these occasions you'll need to closely monitor the actions and frequently intervene.
The new battle and gambit systems aren't the only significant changes. You'll not only gain experience points from battles you'll also gain licence points (LP). The LP you gain is used to purchase licences for all kinds of things. In FFXII you need a licence to use weapons, wear armour, cast spells, special abilities etc. For example want Vaan to equip a Silver Bow? He'll have to have a licence to be able to use it. Fancy Basch having the ability to cure then he'll have to purchase the item from the licence board. You can't simply select any ability you wish from the licence board. Only a few licences are initially available. However, as you purchase a licence new licences, adjacent to the one you've just purchased, become available. Personally I like the new licence system but I would have liked the ability to have chosen pre-determined paths for your party characters. It's great that we have a method of being able to completely shape our party characters in any way we choose but you don't always want to do this for every single character and sometimes it can feel like a chore.
Visually the game is a good as it could possibly have been on the PlayStation 2 and once again the production values are astounding. Those elaborate, pre-rendered cutscenes once again return and look better than ever. There's something about the look of the various aircraft and locations in these cutscenes that's very reminiscent of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and generally speaking the game does differ somewhat in its appearance from previous Final Fantasy games. That said I was disappointed to see that Vaan looks like a little too similar to Tidus who appeared in Final Fantasy X. It would have been nice to have a hero who actually looks like a hero for a change rather than continually having a rebellious blond haired boy as the main protagonist. From a technical standpoint it's obvious the PlayStation 2 has been pushed to the limits. Some graphical pop-up takes the gloss off what is a very good looking game and there are a few occasions when you're left to look at a black screen for a few seconds but on the whole the load times are very respectable.
Final Fantasy XII does offer subtitles although by default they are not enabled. Fortunately you have the option to enable them (as well as a variety of other things such as force feedback, battle speed etc.) before beginning a new game. The text in the cutscenes is displayed without any character names or portraits alongside it. This doesn't cause any real problems though. During the main game the name of the person speaking is placed above the text and the text is placed on a darkened overlay for maximum clarity. Any person you can talk to will have a smiley face icon directly over their heads which means you won't have to figure out who can be spoken to. All of the quest info is stored in the Clan Primer and can be recalled at any time. As we mentioned earlier the game uses colour-coded arcs to indicate who is targeting and who is being targeted. The name of a party member will turn red if they are being targeted. You'll also be notified in text if a party member has been blinded or poisoned etc. You'll receive text feedback for actions such as blocks, misses and parrys during combat. If you trigger any alarms you also receive a text notification of this which is certainly good to see even if the red flashing light also makes this clear. In fact on the whole it's absolutely fine for deaf gamers.
Final Fantasy XII is actually quite surprising in many ways. It has the excellent production values of past Final Fantasy games, weighs in with a solid 40 hours main story (and probably the same amount again in optional quests that can be undertaken) and has all the depth you would expect from a Final Fantasy game. However the battle system feels so different that it may actually deter those who've enjoyed the previous ten games in the series (FFXI not really being a true Final Fantasy game and leaving the Tactics games aside for the moment). I'm not the biggest fan of real time combat systems as I often find myself needing to level-up more than I would in a turn-based RPG and I definitely found myself having to level up quite a lot in FFXII. That said the battles flow much more quickly and I was glad to see the back of random encounters, which have always annoyed me in previous games in the series. Is it one the greatest games in the series? I would have to say no. However it is one of the best RPGs on the PlayStation 2 and is an essential for both fans of the series and fans of RPGs in general.
It's been a long wait for Final Fantasy XII but the wait has been worth it. The game does make some significant changes to the successful formula and not all of these changes will be appreciated. However, it still manages to be one of the finest RPGs on the PlayStation 2.