Final Fantasy XII is the latest addition to the epic series of role-playing games for the PlayStation 2 console. The hugely successful series is renowned for its iconic characters, airships, chocobos and pointy-hatted mages, but RPG staples aside – the series always delivers an emotionally thrilling tale of humanity in the face of adversity, which is one of the strongest appeals of the series.
The game takes place in the land of Ivalice, in an age where "magic was commonplace" and "airships piled the skies, crowding out the heavens". During this time, Ivalice is beset in a pending war between the forces of Rozarria and Archadia. The game begins in Dalmasca’s capital city of Rabanastre, where the union of Princess Ashe of Dalmasca and Prince Rasler of Nabradia is interrupted by the Archadian Empire’s invasion of Dalmasca. From here you assume the role of a young street urchin and thief named Vaan, an energetic yet distinctly androgynous orphan of Rabanastre who dreams of becoming a sky pirate.
Vaan, like many others in the World of Ivalice lives under the constant oppression and discrimination of the ruling Archadia. Characters drift in and out of your party throughout the first few hours of the game and provide a simple tutorial on how the new combat, license and gambit systems all work. Soon after, the witty sky-pirate Balthier and his exotic ‘playboy bunny’ partner Fran from the species known as Viera join your party. Subsequent characters are quickly introduced including; Ashe a princess of Dalmasca, Basch a disgraced knight charged with treason for slaying the king and Penelo, Vaan’s childhood friend who accompanies him in his journeys to keep a watchful eye over him. Other characters leave and join your party from time to time keeping the gameplay fresh and exciting.
With the wide range of characters comes some surprisingly good voice acting. After numerous hit-or-miss moments with the voice acting in FFX, Sqaure seem to have got the voice acting spot on. Apart from the bizarre (Icelandic?) accent of the Viera character Fran, the voices were truly entertaining. From the moment the game’s opening scene began with the haggling scene in the Rabanastre Bazaar and throughout the entirety of the game, it was apparent that a great deal of effort was put into the voice acting. Most notably for me was Gideon Emery’s performance as Balthier and Tom Kane’s performance as the Marquis Halim Ondore IV.
With the story and characters established, you then start to begin to get the grips with the battle system. The game utilizes a completely new battle and encounter system unlike any of the final fantasy games before it. Random encounters have been entirely removed from the game and in their place a mini-map is used to indicate where monsters are in relation to your position. For the first time the player can choose to completely avoid encounters by ensuring a safe distance is kept from the enemies visible in the terrain around the player’s characters. The enemy’s strength is indicated by the size of the red dot on the mini-map, though large dots are typically few and far between, being typically only represented by marks which are rare game which can be hunted for special rewards.
If you decide to attack a target, a red line is drawn between your characters and the enemy target and the battle begins. However, if you stray too near an aggressive NPC (non-player character) they will often be the ones to engage you! Players can choose to use the more traditional pause and play fight system or the new ‘active’ mode which allows players to continue using the battle menus even whilst automatically attacking. This mode can enhance the flow of the battle, removing the unnatural stoppage from the game, but sometimes it is often not advisable against the trickier enemies, who can quite quickly overwhelm even a high level party. This system work surprisingly well, and at first the removal of random encounters feels uncomfortable but as the game progresses it just feels far more natural and intuitive.
Another new feature in Final Fantasy XII is the "gambit" system, which allows the player to program each character to perform certain commands in battle in response to specified conditions. Sounds confusing? Well not really. Basically using gambits, the player may set reactions to different events, ailments or foe types for each character. Each gambit consists of three parts: a target, an action, and a priority. The target specifies which ally or foe to act on and the condition for applying the action. For example, the target "Ally: HP < 70%" causes the character to target any ally whose HP has fallen below 70%. Players can then junction this with a Cure spell and the power of automated gambits suddenly becomes clear. This rudimentary AI programming scheme allows the characters to act on their own, although player-inputted commands are always given main priority
Traditional Final Fantasy ‘Summons’ have been replaced by ‘Espers’, a highly cinematic, but relatively unpractical addition to the battle system. Whereas games like Final Fantasy VII and VII harnessed summons to great effect and power, the Espers in Final Fantasy XII are weak and relatively useless compared to the power of character controlled magic and physical attacks. Relatively few times do they ever offer much use, although later in the game obtaining some of the more powerful Espers can provide a great deal of entertainment in itself. However, they do have their occasional uses and are at points are key to progressing through the game. A skilled and patient RPG player may find more opportunities to make use of them than others, but typically on a first play through or for Final Fantasy newbies they are far less effectual to be of much use.
‘Quickenings’ are the latest re-brand of the traditional Final Fantasy Limit Breaks, otherwise known as Overdrives/Special Arts and Trance attacks in previous FF titles. They must first be unlocked on the Licence board and each character can obtain up to three each. Every time a new Quickening is learnt an extra bar of Mana (magic power) is added to the characters stats. Quickenings as you may have guessed therefore require lots of Mana (one bar each to be precise) and can be chained together for extra damage across the whole team of characters. Get enough of all the different types of quickenings chained together and you will perform a ‘black hole’ the most powerful quickening in the game, for devastating effect.
In FF XII the character development system called the License system is fairly straightforward (at least for a Final Fantasy game). It is composed of a strangely shaped grid resembling a chequers board and is composed of two sections; the upper part containing Magick, Technick, Accessory and Augment [stat-raising] licenses, and the bottom part being filled mostly with Weapon and Armor licenses. Players must obtain both the licence from the grid (done by obtaining License points by defeating enemies) and purchasing the corresponding license from merchants using Gil (the currency of the game).
On the down side – FF XII takes levelling and side quests to ridiculous extremes, (even for a Final Fantasy game), but this is not always a bad thing, unless you are unwilling to put the time and effort in – which if is the case you probably should not be picking up a Final Fantasy game in the first place! Taking around 40-50 hours to complete the main story line, players can expect well in excess of 100+ hours of gameplay available if they choose to attempt to complete all the additional side quests. These range from killing every single type of monster in the game (quite a challenge), defeating all rare marks and unlocking all the additional Espers, to solving the simple problems and troubles besting the characters of Ivalice.
The game is very well put together and contains very few flaws. However, the game does contain some issues, for example the amount of running between locations often verges on the ridiculous. Also, occasionally the dungeons and caves become incredibly confusing and awkward to navigate which again is annoying. In addition to this an unusual ‘loot’ system (a way of selling items for cash) is in place which is an unintuitive way of accruing Gil. If you value your time then you should steer clear (Only World of Warcraft could eat up more) but as a value for money proposition you really cannot go wrong with this game. Lastly some hardcore RPG fans might be disappointed by the difficultly level which is not too challenging, but this should not be used as a reason to avoid this game even if your middle name is Nomura.
Overall FF XII is an entertaining and hugely rewarding game, offering fantastic value for money for role playing game fans. If you haven’t already bought this game you definitely should, and if you don’t have a PlayStation 2, go and buy one right now! This is a fantastic game, and not only trumps all other PS2 RPG’s such as Kingdom Hearts, Devil Summoner, Xenosaga III and Tales of the Abyss but also stands as one of the greatest games in the Final Fantasy series. If you can’t wait for Final Fantasy XIII or even if you can – you should definitely save up some Gil and spend it on adding this game to your collection. It would be a wise purchase and you will not be disappointed.