After a dozen sequels and countless spin-offs, the Final Fantasy series has decided to reinvent itself in almost every way imaginable. Final Fantasy XII takes almost all of the RPG clichés and turns them on their side, creating a fresh take on the series that works surprisingly well. Gone are Final Fantasy's tried and true formulas, all of those standard conventions have been reinvented for this brand new adventure. With its amazing graphics, epic storytelling and brand new game play, Final Fantasy XII is the role-playing game you've been waiting for all year.
But all of you Final Fantasy fans shouldn't be too worried about this twelfth outing, the game play may have changed, but the overall feel of the game remains intact. You're still going to spend forty plus hours trudging through enemy filled battlegrounds. The story is just as long-winded and convoluted as it ever has been in the past. And yes, you're going to spend a lot of time leveling up your character in order to bring down the huge bosses found in the game. In a lot of ways this is the same old Final Fantasy you've grown to love over the past twenty years.
Final Fantasy XII begins with a lengthy cinema and back story, involving a large-scale invasion, an assassination and a suicide. Fast forward a couple years and we're introduced to Vaan, an orphan boy who spends much of his day stealing from soldiers and practicing his combat on giant rats. Vaan dreams of one day becoming a sky pirate, but for now he must settle going on doing simple tasks for the townspeople and staying out of trouble. Unfortunately staying out of trouble is not Vaan's forte, he's a curious guy who will do just about anything to obtain the treasure he is after. One of his daring stunts involves him breaking into the royal palace while they are hosting a giant welcoming party for city's new government. Unfortunately Vaan isn't the only person who had this idea; after dodging guards, fighting sewer creatures and finding the treasure, our hero is met by a couple of real life sky pirates that really want that treasure you found.
After running for his life, avoiding a few close calls and witnessing a giant explosion, Vaan ends up teaming up with these sky pirates and finds himself in the middle of an amazing adventure that will take you dozens of hours to get through. Along the way you will meet fascinating characters, do battle with huge enemies, and learn what it's like to be a real sky pirate. The game is full of adventure and intrigue that will have you on the edge of your seat the entire way through, but there's no reason for me to sit here and spoil the story for everybody. The plot hits on a lot of popular Final Fantasy themes, including political upheaval, religion, love, hate and revenge. It's a complex story that is ultimately darker and more mature than any Final Fantasy game that came before it.
The story works because you never really know what's going to happen next. You may have an idea of where the plot is headed, but every step of the way the Final Fantasy storytellers flip things and take you in directions you would never have predicted. Even though it touches on familiar themes, Final Fantasy XII comes off feeling fresh and original. The story is unpredictable and almost impossible to explain to somebody, you really have to experience for yourself to get the gravity of the situation.
It's also worth mentioning how fully realized every character is in Final Fantasy XII. While the game features a few characters I didn't care much for, none of them are so bad that you would want them completely left out of the game. Even the worst character ends up growing on you by the end of the game. Better yet, just about every character is introduced within the first few hours, which gives the game plenty of time to flesh them out and explain their motivation. There are more than a few times in the game where you'll actually have to reevaluate the people in your party because of the new information you get, people that you once thought were selfish and evil actually have a heart of gold, and vice versa. While I'm not a big fan of Vaan (who is the closest thing to a main character in this game), I did end up being surprised by how his story played out. Final Fantasy XII isn't about just one or two people; it's an ensemble cast that ends up getting a lot of screen time.
Interestingly this game takes place in a world you've probably been to before. Most Final Fantasy games seem to set up a new world for every sequel, but Final Fantasy XII takes place in the land of Ivalice. If that name sounds familiar then it's probably because that's where all of the action took place in Final Fantasy Tactics on the original PlayStation. The name may be the same, but the world of Ivalice is completely different than it was a decade ago when it was 32-bit. The Ivalice of today is full of amazing locales, European architecture and a whole lot of flying machines. In fact, the first few minutes of the game reminded me more of the recent Star Wars movies than Final Fantasy Tactics. Either way, you will not be disappointed by Ivalice, the diversity of the locations alone make this one of the most interesting games released this year.
I could spend ten pages simply raving about how deep and complex the storyline is, but most people are going to be far more interested in the new combat system than the plot (at least at first). Final Fantasy XII does not play like your average Final Fantasy game, they've completely retrofitted the turn-based system and created something that manages to be easier and more difficult all at the same time. Gone are the random battles, you will never again be taken away from the world map and thrust into a turn-based battle. Instead you do all of your combat on the map itself, similar to how things worked in the online (and incredibly dull) Final Fantasy XI.
Another thing that is new is that you do not directly control all of your party members. Actually, that's not entirely true, if you want to you can micro-manage the various people fighting at your side, but the game seems to point you to simply controlling the party leader (which you can switch to whatever person you feel the most comfortable with). But just because you aren't telling everybody what to do, that doesn't mean they are just going to stand there and do nothing. Final Fantasy XII features a Gambit system that allows you to program in what each character will do before a battle. This means that you can give them tasks, such as only attacking the enemy that is closest or healing a team member when they are low on life. That's the simple explanation of the Gambit system, but as you play through the game you can program in a lot of extremely complex characteristics. You can really narrow in on what you want out of your party, which frees up your time to do what you need to with the one character you are controlling.
Even with a lot of different enemies on screen, it's usually pretty easy to figure out who is fighting what character. When a character is getting ready to attack a blue line points at the enemy they are going to attack, which means that you will some times have three or four blue lines pointing at once. A red line points from an enemy to the character they are planning on attacking, which means that you can get ready to defend, attack and prepare a healing potion for that player. When you push the "X" button you freeze everything, giving you some time to figure out who (and how) you're going to attack. At first this all seems a little confusing, but it won't take long before you are using the lines to your advantage and have a real sense of the combat. I'm still a bit mixed on whether I prefer the old style of turn-based combat or this new style, but I have to give Square Enix credit for trying something new that ends up working surprisingly well.
I cannot stress enough how refreshing it is to not have to deal with random battles, instead you will see the enemies long before you actually get close enough to battle them. If you don't want to deal with these battles then don't, all you have to do is hold the R2 button and run for your life from one area to the next. It's easy to see the influence Final Fantasy XI (and all other MMO's) had on this newest installment, but thankfully the enemies, quests and locations are a lot more interesting than the last online outing.
Another thing that is new to the series is the License Board. In Final Fantasy XII you don't just upgrade your weapons, armor and magic by leveling up your character, instead you have a Chess board that allows you to select what you want to spend your LP (License Points) on. You gain LP for every character you defeat, and you can spend that on everything from the ability to wear new armor to the level of your magic. Along the way you will also uncover different spaces that give you Quickening attacks, which work as limit breaks in Final Fantasy XII. When you use this Quickening attack you will be transported to a different screen where you have to push the button at the right time to trigger a more powerful attack.
The Quickening attack is not the only large attack you have in your arsenal, as you progress through the game you will find a number of different Summoning spells. Summoning works much like it does in other Final Fantasy games, but instead of one creature killing everybody and then going away, your summoned beast sticks around for awhile and helps you out in any way it can. While this is pretty cool, I found that the summoned creatures weren't always as effective as I wanted them to be. I ended up using the much more practical Quickening attacks more than anything else.
Although you will have access to more people, a party in Final Fantasy XII can only consist of three "controlled" characters. This means that you will have to sit a few people out until you need them. There are times when you will have more than three people in your party (and on screen) at the same time, but they are guests and you cannot control them in any fashion. While these guests are normally people that move the plot along, many of them end up joining your party at some point (so that you can actually control them). For the most part the three person party is adequate for what you are doing in Final Fantasy XII, but when you get that fourth person going it's hard not to get spoiled by the added power he (or she) brings.
All of this combat wouldn't be any fun it you didn't have great enemies to battle, and Final Fantasy XII has them in spades. Even the simple enemies you see around the world of Ivalice are well detailed and a lot of fun to do battle with. As you progress through the game the enemies only get bigger and more impressive, ultimately turning into enormous beasts that require a lot of patience and strategy to take down. Even more impressive are the numerous boss battles, all of which will wow you in one way or another. While not all of the bosses are huge, they do put up a good fight and will generally take more than one try to beat them. There are some bosses that are so large and menacing that you'll wonder if you will even beat them. Of all the Final Fantasy games, this twelfth installment has the best enemies you will ever see.
Final Fantasy XII seems a lot more open-ended than the previous entries; you can backtrack at just about any time and go wherever you want even if it's not part of the story. This means that you will be able to explore uncharted territory long before there's a reason for you to actually go there, and if you ever need to get back to the town (for supplies, weapons, etc.) you can take the time to retrace your steps and find your way back to the start of the game. The story itself is still linear, but the game gives you quite a bit of freedom to go around and do whatever you want to. While you shouldn't confuse this with a Grand Theft Auto game, Final Fantasy XII does offer a lot of reasons to backtrack and explore the world of Ivalice.
Since you are exploring a (mostly) open-ended world you will have to deal with the camera. Gone are the fixed camera angles, now you can circle around your character and see everything that is around you. There's no denying how cool it is to finally be able to have this freedom in a Final Fantasy game, but this also means that you are going to have to fight the camera more than you normally would. This is especially true when you're fighting in close quarters, if your character gets too close to a wall you are going to have a hard time seeing anything. For the most part this isn't that big of a problem, but Final Fantasy fans may get a bit annoyed at how unruly the camera can be at times. Assuming that Square Enix continues to build off of this game's formula, I can only hope that the camera problems are fully resolved by the time Final Fantasy XIII is released on the PlayStation 3.
The game's massive scope isn't the only thing that is impressive here; you will also be surprised by how good the graphics are. The Final Fantasy games have always had great production values, but Final Fantasy XII goes well beyond anything I was expecting. The pre-rendered cinemas are on the same level as real CGI movies, full of detail and cool effects. After the cut-scenes in Final Fantasy X and X-2 I never thought I would see a PS2 game with the same level of detail, but Final Fantasy XII blows them away. Better yet, there are a lot of these amazing looking cinemas.
There are also a lot of regular cinemas, which end up looking a little flat when compared to the pre-rendered stuff. But even then, the regular (read: more common) cut scene is still impressive looking. That goes for the in-game graphics, as well. While there are people that will no doubt complain that the game features some background pop-in, the graphics are actually quite amazing when you consider the game's massive scope. No matter what kind of environment you are in (be it the jungle, snow-covered mountains or the desert) there's plenty of detail. With a game this size it would be easy to skip some of the finer details and focus on the bigger picture, but Final Fantasy XII doesn't skimp. The in-game graphics don't look nearly as good as what we've seen on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but there's no doubt that the game looks stunning for a current generation PlayStation 2 game.
There has always been a lot of emphasis on the music in Final Fantasy. The music in past games has spawned CD soundtracks, remixes and even full concerts with orchestra arrangements. The music in Final Fantasy XII is good, but certainly not on par with some of the previous games in the series. There are a few songs fans will immediately recognize (such as when you first turn on the game, when you are riding a Chocobo, and when you defeat a huge boss), but most of the music here is brand new. Unfortunately the music in Final Fantasy XII isn't nearly as memorable as it has been in the past, but there's plenty of it and it rarely gets annoying.
Final Fantasy XII also features voice acting for every character in the game. That's not to say that every line in the game is accompanied by real speech, but most of it is and it's mostly good. The actual acting itself is actually quite strong; many of the characters have great sounded voices and deliver the dialog with a lot of passion. Unfortunately some of the voice work is hampered by the way it was recorded, some of the actors sound like they did their recording in a tin can, which sounds terribly unnatural when you're supposed to be out in the middle of a giant landscape. Also, the woman that plays Fran (the female magician with large bunny ears) has an accent that is either really cool or terribly annoying … I kept changing my mind with every line she read.
There's more to Final Fantasy XII than just great graphics, a lengthy story and an open world to explore, there are also a bunch of mini-games and side quests to complete. You could spend more than a hundred hours working on all of the extra stuff in this game, which is good if you want a game that will keep you going for days (and months), but bad if you're looking to for something you can just rush through as fast as possible. The game packages a lot of cool extra content, and even features its own set of Achievement Points (yes, achievement points on a PlayStation 2 game). There is so much extra content in this game that it's hard to say anything back about Square Enix or Final Fantasy XII.
While there are a few minor problems with the game (such as the camera controls), Final Fantasy XII is the single best role-playing game of 2006. It changes the Final Fantasy formula enough to feel fresh and exciting. It also features one of the best stories I have experienced in a long time, full of highs and lows (not to mention a number of exciting surprises). Even if you're not a fan of the Final Fantasy series there may be enough changes here to make it worth your while to actually give this game a chance. Everybody else should definitely pick up Final Fantasy XII; it's easily one of the best games I have played all year.