With Square’s fortunes in jeopardy and his own career in doubt near the end of the 1980’s, Hironobu Sakaguchi probably did not expect that the game he had helped to create as a final farewell would found a dynasty. He would eventually depart from Square-Enix to found Mistwalker years later, the franchise that he had started continuing to tell stories and create unlikely heroes eagerly anticipated by countless players around the world. Final Fantasy XII salutes the PS2 as Square-Enix proves that they still have what it takes to deliver a solid RPG experience that by taking its newest epic into several new directions. Just as Panzer Dragoon Saga had bid a fond farewell to the Sega Saturn by providing one of the best RPG experiences to be found on any console, FFXII looks to have done the same thing for Sony’s system.
Final Fantasy XII has spun a tale of deceit, treachery, and unexpected heroism between two empires on the PS2.
Flights of Fancy
FFXII‘s story takes place in Ivalice, a world that had been mentioned before in titles such as Square’s Vagrant Story as well as Final Fantasy Tactics. It shares a few trappings from both with a story that is somewhat more mature and darker than previous titles with less of an emphasis on fantastical fairy tale trappings, focusing more squarely on the epic struggle between two nations and the people caught in between them, the intrigues that they must play, and the stories that each one faces as they come up against the darkness beyond. In several ways, it’s an echo of FFIII/VI in which a powerful empire wages war for reasons that aren’t entirely clear until much later.
On Ivalice, the powerful Archadian Empire has pushed its war machine to the borders of a kingdom called Dalmasca, a neutral state that sits between Archadia to the east and the Rozarrian Empire to the west. When the game begins with a narration that brings the player to a night mission at a place known as the fortress of Nabradia, the king of Dalmasca has decided to treat with the Archadian Empire after a devastating defeat to avoid further war and is there to begin talks. Reks, a young man with a unit being led by a knight named Basche from Dalmasca, intend to infiltrate the negotiations in order to save the king from a possible plot by the Archadians.
Things go horribly wrong when Reks fights his way through the fortress at Nabradia and history marks this as the end of Dalmascan independence as it becomes occupied by the Archadian Empire. Two years later, Dalmasca is still under Imperial rule, and we catch up with two street thieves named Vaan and Penelo who do their best to eke out a life beneath the yoke of forced occupation. After a series of misadventures and a daring attempt at Robin Hood-like thievery within the Dalmascan palace itself, Vaan and his friends find themselves pursued by the Archadian war machine. They’ll meet allies and enemies in the most unlikely of places, travel to the edge of the world and back, and delve into the mysteries of the past as they stand at the threshold of a decision that will shape Ivalice…or destroy it utterly.
Final Fantasy Tactics
In what has become something of a tradition with the Final Fantasy series, Square-Enix has taken advantage of this new chapter to introduce a dramatic change to their third person gameplay formula. Changes, especially in character development, aren’t new to the Final Fantasy franchise which has taken risks in introducing new ways in how players go about readying their party to save the world. This time, it looks like some of the lessons learned from their MMORPG, FFXI, have also made it into the single player experience of FFXII. The resulting mix has created a seamless world when it comes to both exploration and combat. Although fans taking a break from FFXI will likely feel at home, other fans might be surprised to see how extensive these changes are.
Various real-time engines for party based RPGs have been used in the past by many other titles such as that found within Bioware’s Baldur’s Gate or Gas Powered Games’ Dungeon Siege, both on the PC. On consoles, Game Arts’ Grandia series have a system based on timed actions once characters are dropped into a dynamic 3D battlefield. Namco’s longstanding Tales series have allowed players to take a direct hand in button mashing their attacks while assigning AI orders to their team mates…after the random encounter loads up within a closed space. Chrono Trigger cut to a combat scene without having to load a separate area, keeping the player in the game. FFXI, and now FFXII, have continued to develop their take on the concept into the Active Dimension Battle system that features a seamless blend of freeform tactics and traditional archetypes that retain some of the old school flavor while keeping the player immersed. Hiroyuki Ito and his team have created something that has made the experience within FFXII unique within the series.
Enemies are visible on the screen allowing the player to decide whether to risk running past them or take them on, but FFXII has dropped the jarring effect of random encounters sweeping players into a closed combat zone now allowing them now to run, fight, and summon their way through the very environment that they are in. That means no more loads between fights in order to keep the player immersed as much as possible within the experience. The third person camera that watches over all of this is easily controlled using the right thumbstick, although it does have trouble when the characters find themselves close to some of the walls in the game as the camera basically kicks up along it giving the player a top down skew on what’s going on. Fortunately this is not something that happens all the time and if it does, all you really need to do is just move the character.
All of this is handled in real-time, pausing only when you want to give commands. By making the environment part of the battle, players can now watch as their characters distance themselves with ranged weapons, circle around behind a foe to draw it away from attacking weakened party members, or run for their lives with the enemy hot on their heels. Retreat is no longer a menu choice as the player can now simply try to ‘run’ from most battles and foes will take advantage of this open space to dodge attacks by teleporting about, fly, or simply run to get some distance between them and your best warrior’s sword.
In a nod to FFX, you can also swap out characters on the fly if they’re not actively doing something, checking in your spellcasters for a good sword arm to bolster your fortunes in the fight when needed. You can even change equipment while dishing it out which adds another layer of strategy. Sacrifice the shield to kick in two-handed damage as the enemy is on its last legs? Tough it out with protective armor or defend yourself with a layer of spell resistant clothes? You can also change party leadership, switching out to someone that isn’t the focus of whatever you are fighting and having them come from outside with healing, buffs, or simple heavy handed spellwork as a surprise. Or try and maneuver them in so that they become the life of the party instead of someone else.
During the fight, the time needed to perform requested commands is displayed with a gage that fills before executing with the exception of party or equipment changes which take effect as quickly as you can flip through the menus. But juggling commands and keeping up with the momentum of combat can be tricky, especially when powerful bosses summon helpers of their own. It can be aggravating, even to the most hardcore general, to flip through menus and assign special orders to everyone especially at the quick pace that combat can often take. This is where the Gambits come in. Players may not have the MMO advantage of teaming up with experienced players as they do in FFXI, but gambits help fill in the gap.
Gambits allow party members to do what the player thinks they should do best, allowing more time to concentrate on the flow of battle as opposed to having to handhold everyone through it. Outside of the regular housekeeping tasks that players can assign such as healing up after battle or curing conditions, gambits can also specify roles for your characters to make the best use of their skills by allowing players to string together conditions that they want them to follow. But as the game will remind the player, their direct orders will always override whatever gambit a character will be following before returning to it. Players even have the option to turn gambits off, flipping the AI switch in case players feel the need to take a more direct hand in their actions.
While titles such as Dungeon Siege, Baldur’s Gate, and even Namco’s Tales series had also made use of this concept, the canned options the player had to work with could feel somewhat limited. FF12‘s iteration tries very hard to avoid this with a large and detailed array of options. It is possible to create a detailed string of conditions to cover a variety of possible actions from how heals are handled with spell or potion, to assigning certain characters to attack weaker enemies while allowing the player to focus on the strongest one, or support roles that trigger as soon as someone is blinded or near death creating a party that performs like a finely tuned engine. The learning curve can be awkward at first, but once players get a handle on the system, the experience can be a deeply rewarding one. The only real downside is that not all of the options to create your gambits are available once you can make them. The player will need to seek out and find or purchase many of the conditions that they can use, although those that can be bought seem more like an excuse to simply spend tiny amounts of Gil. And not all of the conditions are available in the beginning for purchase, with more becoming unlocked as the player delves deeper into the story.
Speaking of Gil, money is also handled differently. Instead of finding rats to kill for the Gil that they hide inside their fur, they’ll give up loot items instead such as pelts, fangs, and other items that you can sell for cash. Some items that are sold as loot will also unlock special items in the Bazaar option for merchants as certain combinations are crafted into unique pieces of equipment or provide batches of otherwise expensive sundries such as restoratives. The economy actually makes a lot more sense in tune as it is to the somewhat dramatic and serious nature of the world and its characters.
Licensed to Skill
As characters improve their statistics when they level, licenses turn the characters into more than a sheet of numbers. There’s no license bureau to report to, just a license board that the player has to use. Dropping classes entirely, FF12 allows the player to build the characters into whatever role they want them to play. License points accumulated from every monster the player puts to rest are used in purchasing licenses allowing the use of certain armors, weapons, spells, and techniks (techniques). Special abilities such as receiving magic points from the damage that a character inflicts to spells becoming less costly, to hit point boosts are all there for the taking as long as you have the points to purchase them on the license board. Characters in reserve also earn license points, although it would have been nice if they could have also shared in experience as they do in Namco’s Tales series.
One downside to this system is that adjoining skill squares are not revealed until you purchase the license square next to them making long term planning difficult as it can sometimes become more trial and error. FFX‘s sphere system would at least give players an idea of what lay ahead, but expect no advance planning here unless you use a more developed character’s board as a comparison…or reload from before you had spent too many points on something you didn’t want. This can also make the characters feel somewhat generic given how flexible the system is in allowing them to be virtual savants in most anything with enough license points.
Each character also has a set of three Quickenings that are available to them. Quickenings are the new Limit Break for FFXII and have to be purchased as the characters move around on the license board. Once purchased, that square disappears from everyone else’s. Being careful about what a player has to focus on for a particular character is even more important now if they want to avoid having to purchase their way through to another Quickening, but they are well worth it. Quickenings are not only the ultimate attacks for each character, but they also go towards adding in bonuses to their ether (magic points) which is especially important for spellcasters. A separate Quickening gage appears beneath the main bar for a character’s ether. Up to three Quickenings can be learned for three of these small gages. The first Quickening uses a third of your ether, the second 2/3ds, with the last consuming every drop of magic that the character has for a single devastating attack.
When the character begins their Quickening, a clock starts ticking giving the player time to chain another Quickening from someone else as soon as it finishes and as long as they have the necessary ether. It isn’t as simple as selecting another Quickening, though. The list that comes up is randomly selected leaving the player to scramble the choices for what they might want. There’s even an option called “Mist Charge” that can appear which fully recharges a character’s ether allowing them to perform another Quickening as long as the player’s fingers are fast enough. And with every successful chain, there is even less time to scramble and pick out the next one.
But this can result in brutal chains which can end in an additional super attack depending on how far it was strung. Add to this the ability to swap out characters during combat and in giving each one the chance to earn all three of their own Quickenings and players’ chances in battle can improve dramatically. It is also a gamble as a missed Mist Charge can leave a character without any ether after burning it all, or a bad roll can chew up precious time needed to keep the chain going, but it adds a fun dimension to combat as well as a fantastic light show with something to do instead of just watching it.
Espers, when found and defeated, are also added to the license board and are treated in much the same way as Quickenings without the chains. Instead of replacing the entire party in battle, the caster and the summon are both onscreen at the same time. Although players can’t control their Esper aside from dismissing it, they can support it since the summoner is still on the battlefield. Many of these powerful creatures are found hidden away in the corners of Ivalice with only a small number discovered through the story itself, giving the player an opportunity to test their mettle and their party in following scattered clues. But while they looked cool and were fun to battle, several of which were far harder to fight than the final boss of the main story, they didn’t seem as useful as I had remembered them to be. Not only were they expensive to summon, but by the time this dungeon crawler had made it to the last battle, my characters had a mix of spells and skills that did the job just as easily.
Thunder and Lightning
Akihiko Yoshida, one of the character designers for FFXII, had stated in an interview that the title has probably pushed the graphical limits of what the PS2 is capable of producing and in looking at the game, one cannot help but believe him. Square-Enix’s artists have taken inspiration from a wide variety of architectural styles and natural wonders to bring Ivalice to life with incredible detail. The cities and villages scattered across the world are overflowing with the kind of activity and life with many different races intermingling with each other. It can almost overwhelm the player with the number of NPCs that they can interact with to learn more about the world or to find a particular side quest that might be hidden in idle conversation. There’s a distinct feeling that there is almost something to do or see around every corner. The cyclopean dungeons also share in this kind of detail ranging from ancient temples to sprawling underground caverns, several of them filled with hidden areas, puzzles, or special encounters. Random treasures are also found everywhere, making it not so certain as to what might be in that pot lying next to a sleeping dragon.
FFXII smoothly blends both the in-game engine and pre-rendered cinematics to tell the story. The special effects used for the Quickenings that each character can perform and in showing off an Esper’s ultimate attack are typical Square-Enix thanks to a fantastic mix of graphical tricks that push the PS2 to its limits. Players can almost feel the screen roast from Vaan’s Pyroclasm attack as time and space collide. It almost begs the hope that the player will feel some sympathy for the poor foozle that is being attacked. Almost.
Characters come alive thanks to a strong cast of voice actors that lend exotic accents and diverse talents to the production, helping to support the story through superb virtual acting. The excellent translation, with the language making great use of stylized speech for many of the key characters and NPCs, colors the story and the world around it. Coupled with motion capture and traditional animation work, they help to give life to the scenes that see Balthier with an exasperated look as a leading man when faced with an impossible situation, Vaan and Penelo teasing each other as childhood friends are wont to do against the serious backdrop of the unfolding drama around them, Doctor Cid’s madness as the camera takes in his grinning face, and an old knight’s promise to the past. The details even go as far as the NPCs themselves, as they gesture and appear to mouth the text that is being displayed. It really comes together well, even in those parts of the story that might have players scratching their heads.
Another change is the relatively open endedness of the world itself. While it is still a linear progression from one milestone to the next as far as the story is concerned, the player is given more leeway in exploring larger swaths of the world in between them. Previous iterations had revealed the world through one area at a time as they passed through the story arc, granting the player the freedom to go where they wanted after attaining their own airship which has become something of a symbol of that freedom within the series. There’s some of that here in the beginning, but the curious will find that they are a lot freer to go out and see how far they can go. There are also airships everywhere, but while the player may eventually be able to ride them as a passenger, other options also make travel much easier allowing for more time spent in simple exploration. Certain crystals let the player revisit ones that they may have discovered during their travels, opening the way to hop from one end of the world to the next as long as they have teleport stones for passage. But traveling on airships also has its benefits as the player can mingle with NPCs on board and perhaps find a side quest or two.
Nobuo Uematsu’s music has become a trademark of the Final Fantasy series and although he is no longer with Square-Enix, his influential musical style continues to be a part of the franchise he helped to define. Hitoshi Sakimoto, who has composed music for Square’s Vagrant Story and Treasure’s Radiant Silvergun among other titles, has created arrangements that not only compliment Uematsu’s work but reassures fans in bringing a great deal of colorful sounds to every scene. An epic chorus heralds a confrontation with one of the title’s powerful Esper summons, familiar tunes softly follow you on the back of a chocobo, a soaring choir descends deep underground to the Sochen Cave Palace, and the the close of this chapter of the series is celebrated with a song contributed by Uematsu.
There are also plenty of extras such as a bestiary that is available to the player, detailing the foes that they’ve fought as a descriptive entry. Some of these have numbers next to them, showing how many more of a certain enemy they have to kill to unlock special bonus knowledge that might give clues as to what loot can create what objects for sale to the player in the Bazaar. Or simply add to the extensive lore behind the world of Ivalice. There’s even a special “Pirate’s Den” that fills up with trophies, marking secret achievements that the player may discover during play. There are also Hunts that they can take part in complete with a clan where they can rise in the rankings depending on how many marks are taken down. Add to this the odd side quest or two, and there’s a lot to do. Mini-games are also found in the game, although not to the same degree as they were in previous chapters. Some challenges that the members are confronted with are in the form of small games that aren’t hard to get through, but veterans looking for a Gold Saucer-like experience might be disappointed.
The Collector’s Edition of FFXII comes in a metal case with a stylized cover and back along with a Collector’s Edition manual. Art lines the inside of the case as seen through the clear plastic of the disc and manual holders. The packaging is pretty nice to look at and the bonus disc is loaded with a variety of interviews, an art gallery, a collection of trailers, and a featurette that takes a brief, thirty minute trip through the history of the series touching on each one. The interviews are the real meat of the DVD with a variety of clips from many of those involved with the production and localization of FFXII on both sides of the Pacific, sharing their experiences. As a whole, especially for Final Fantasy fans, the package is definitely worth especially if they are curious as to what goes on behind the scenes.
FFXII has done a lot of things right, but there were moments when it could have been better. For example, it would have been nice to automatically have the leader slot shift down to the next person in the party instead of manually having to select someone, or have a gambit that allowed for equipment switching. The party management system could also use a convenient option or two, such as a setting that would allow dead characters to be automatically dropped and swapped out for someone else. You also can’t set party formations which would have helped when you were trying to get around certain traps laid out in the dungeons. There are pieces of equipment that the player can use to get around these deadly spots, but is it too much to ask for an option to have the party follow in single file?
Then there are the Hunts that players can go for when they want something else to do. Most of the hunts are pretty straightforward affairs with enough information provided to go off and do some good. But several depend on conditions that the player has no real control over, such as the weather. The weather based hunts were some of the worst timesinks in the game, forcing the player to wander around aimlessly from area to area until the conditions were ‘right’. While this added a sense of ‘hunting’, it wasn’t particularly fun.
There’s also a lot of grinding in the game. Grinds are easily be the ‘dark side’ of any RPG, but in FFXII, they can be particularly long especially if the player decides to farm for license points. By adding those in on top of loot and experience, players will probably need to grind a fair deal to get the skills and cash that they need to survive some of the more brutal battles ahead. The pacing still felt steady enough so as not too be too noticeable and it does get easier later in the game when you can farm certain areas for great loot after acquiring equipment that can double what license and experience points characters can receive.
But the grind can seem to be a bit excessive. In some ways, the title feels as if it has taken the MMO out from its MMORPG predecessor as there is a lot of fighting to be encountered in between the parts of where the story has set its milestones. There’s a lot to see and explore, and its possible to simply run from one end of a dungeon to the next as long as the party can take some of the beating, but to get to many of those skills that can let your characters use powerful spells, Espers, and other goodies, get ready to put in some time in doing so.
The openness of the system can also be intimidating, especially to players coming from other JRPGs that simply level the character and unlock whatever special skills or spells they may have for their class. The license board is pretty extensive and later additions to it such as Espers can really put a crimp in your planning when they pop up in unexpected focus areas that the player hadn’t really gone into. Add to this the gambit system’s own set of challenges, and it can seem like a lot to take in. There’s definitely a learning curve here, but at the same time, it’s easily one of the best parts of the title once the player gets a handle on both.
And as open as Ivalice seems to be, the story still follows a strict progression of events without allowing the player to really change much of anything in between the beginning or the end. One way that the title allows the gamer to do something other than participate in the main story, however, is to take part in the Hunts that are sponsored by various NPCs or explore and try to figure out some of the puzzles and side-mysteries that are scattered about. It’s still something of a linear story with a definite end, but the illusion of freedom helps to avoid this being too much of an issue by providing the player with plenty of other distractions.
Square-Enix has given the PS2 a well deserved sendoff with FFXII taking players on an whirlwind adventure through strange lands, ancient ruins, and the madness of fools. From humble beginnings to an epic end, FFXII‘s tale is a colorful mix of skulduggery, betrayal, friendship, and hope drawn up against a world teetering on the edge of a sword. It’s an exciting tale and is presented with the kind of polish that Square-Enix is known for with sweeping CG pageantry dancing on the puppet strings of unseen schemes. With a story filled with a mix of Western flavored fantasy and high magic, dark secrets and intrigue, easily likable characters, and gameplay filling the world of Ivalice with wonders and numerous side quests, players have a lot to look forward to. It’s a triumph in many ways expanding the gameplay of Final Fantasy in a direction that long time fans might like and newcomers can approach if they were curious about what Final Fantasy had to offer their favorite genre. Ivalice is calling, the skyship is warmed up, and the Mist doesn’t look too bad out there right now.
– World 1-1