Final Fantasy XII
7.5 / 10
After a brief stint in the world of MMO gaming, the Final Fantasy series makes its way back to single player gaming in its twelfth installment. Given that this game was supposed to be incorporating FFXIís engine, and have Yasumi Matsuno at the helm (Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story), things looked good on paper. Unfortunately, the reality is far from appealing. While the visuals look great, and the story is absorbing, the battle system is oversimplified to the point of being boring, and later in the game Final Fantasy XIIís narrative pacing falls apart. Itís a shame that the game turned out this way, as there is a lot of potential here. Sadly, the execution is terrible.
The game does start off on a promising note, as the visuals are quite nice. In terms of detail, they arenít a huge leap forward over that of Final Fantasy XI, but the level designers have done a fabulous job of putting together very, well, fantastical environments. It really does feel like Ivalice is full of magic and mystery, and there is a decided (and welcome!) lack of cyber punk, which has polluted far too many recent Final Fantasy games with irritating moodiness. The characters, too, are well done, more so for the villains with dark demeanors, armor, and appropriately flowing robes (the unofficial emblem of evilness the world over). The heroes, while still nice to look at, are a bit too similar to that of Final Fantasy X. The detail is there, but itís as though fashion has barely changed at Squaresoft over the last four years. Nonetheless, the overall atmosphere that is laid out by the visuals in Final Fantasy XII are well done, and go a long way in trying to draw players into the game. Moreover, players can enjoy these environments in a slightly less linear fashion than is the norm for JRPGs. The quests are still fairly on the rails, but there is a lot more opportunity to wonder off and find something hidden somewhere, and not just a dead end.
While ogling all of these visuals, thereís actually a decent story being told in Final Fantasy XII. Itís multi-leveled, as the narrative discusses a kingdom that was recently conquered, an internal power struggle within the empire that conquered this kingdom, and the threat of a much larger war between this empire and its greatest rival (another equally formidable empire). In
the meantime, there are smaller stories interlaced that discuss personal issues many of the party members are dealing with. There are a lot of levels to the story, and itís difficult to discuss without giving too much away. Helping to make it so compelling is that the narrative doesnít try to be more than it is. Past Final Fantasies have had a tendency to come off as a tad self-important, but this one stays grounded as an epic with a lot of political undertones. Compared to the vast amount of childish animu pap that typically pollutes the realm of Japanese RPGs, this is a big step forward in storytelling. However, for as well written as the story is, as the game progresses, the pacing begins to fall apart. It's as if the developers suddenly realized that it was taking them forever to finish up this game, and kicked it into high gear to get things done. The story still touches on a number of the issues discussed above, but the pacing is shot to hell. There becomes more and more grinding, and more and more tedious dungeon crawling that contributes to the content than actual story telling, making it difficult to want to bother continuing.
The combat itself is surprisingly dumbed down compared to other RPGs. Usually developers try to find ways to make the action more engaging, but in Final Fantasy XII, Square opted to create a highly automated approach to battle via what has been coined the Gambit System. Here, players can give party members a set script of things they should do under certain circumstances. Characters may be told to attack the nearest enemy, use certain black magic at a specific time, heal wounds and conditions at certain times, and so forth. By doing this, players donít have to deal with the tedium of constantly telling their characters to heal and fight at the end of each round. However, in the case of this game, that also leaves players with little else to do but twiddle their thumbs. With the exception of boss fights there is no reason to get terribly involved in battles for much of Final Fantasy XII, which begs the question of why bother even playing the game? The series has been criticized a number of times over the years for being more a non-interactive film rather than an actual game, and this move to automated battles just cements this sentiment. Sure, players could turn off the automation, but then theyíre back to square one with the tired old process of selecting the same attacks, spells, and so forth each round of a battle. After the joy that was the battle system in Final Fantasy XI, with combo systems, technique, and a necessity for skill, this latest battle system feels like a huge step backward for the series.
makes this lackluster battle system all the more frustrating is that
Square added a couple of new features that would have worked well in
combination with well thought out combat: visible enemies, and hunting
rare monsters. The first is
something that has been around for years in other RPGs, and only
recently came into Final Fantasy via the seriesí MMORPG, but this
marks the first time that such a feature has entered the single-player
side of the series proper. Itís
a welcome change, given the oft-frustrating nature of random battles.
Now it is much easier for players to pick where and when they
want to fight. However, given the tedious state of combat in the game, most
people with an ounce of sense will spend more time avoiding the enemy
rather than engaging them. The
other feature is the ability to take out contracts to hunt specific,
rare monsters for fun and profit. Itís
almost like hunting optional quasi-bosses.
However, why bother with these if the combat is uninteresting? The doldrums of the gameís battles are not just boring in and of themselves, but take away from a number of other new, and
potentially welcome features. Ultimately,
they are spoiled, though, by the battle system.
far as character progression is concerned, Square has once again opted
to slap together a fancy new way for players to make their party members
stronger (with the exceptions of temporary guests to the party). As the game progresses, players not only gain experience
points for defeating enemies, but also technique points that can be
spent to unlock new abilities on a large grid.
Players can only unlock blocks that are touching previously
unlocked blocks, and from there slowly snake around the grid, getting
more abilities, and fine tuning each characterís specialized skills.
As time goes on, players can have specialists, or generalists.
For the particularly patient, one could potentially unlock just
about every skill in the game, but then how players perform in battle
can be further fine tuned by the types of weapons and armor that they
equip. At times the whole
process can be a bit bit of a grind, but those who like hands-on, nuts and
bolts styled character maintenance will have a lot to keep themselves
busy with here.
signing off, the aural side of Final Fantasy XII deserves some
attention, as it is actually quite good.
The sound effects generally add a lot to the atmosphere of the
various environments. Thereís
little sound cues that pop up at all the right times to make the game
feel a little more lifelike. Also,
the musical score is very well done, and has more of a cinematic quality
to it, with atmospheric music instead of some of the more ďvideo
game-likeĒ tunes in previous games of the series.
Previously, the gamesí scores had a far more noticeable
presence, but now it blends in better with everything else.
This could be a reflection of the departure of the seriesí long-time composer,
Nobou Uematsu, although it is interesting that when old series themes
crop up in Final Fantasy XII these songs resonate just as much now as
they did when first appearing in the series. In terms of the voice acting, performances are solid, but at
times the game suffers from poorly written dialogue. It sounds like the translators were trying to convey certain
dialects, social standings, and so forth, but some of how it is executed
sounds more like bad fan fiction. Thankfully,
this problem is largely found in only a few characters.
Ultimately, though, Final Fantasy XII is a game that begs to be liked. The presentation, sound, and much of the story create a very lush, vibrant world that is waiting to be explored. However, the monotony of the battles, and how the story falls apart near the end make it more difficult to enjoy the game in the long run. Itís frustrating to see, as there is a lot about this game that brings the series in an exciting new direction, but all of this is stymied by Final Fantasy XIIís aforementioned faults.
(January 7, 2006)
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