Final Fantasy XII pushes the edge of the mainstream, a paradoxical term I nonetheless find suitable. It tells a complicated story, but you don’t need to care for it to enjoy the game. The graphics are detailed, luscious and realistic. The music is fitting. The combat is, all at once, innovative and yet also a refined refrain on things we have seen before. Everything jumps out at you and immerses you in the game, oftentimes surprising in its perfected execution, but never does it step into territory so unfamiliar that the casual gamer might find it discomforting.
The story has three levels of play: political, personal, and philosophical. On the political level, the game revolves around the struggles in the land of Ivalice. Two empires, Archadia and Rozzaria, vie for control of each other’s empires and the intervening kingdoms. Archadia makes an overt grab for power, taking the three kingdoms between the empires. The kingdom of Dalmasca is the last to fall, and it is there that a resistance against the Archadian Empire begins. From there, the story really begins, as the resistance enlists allies, often from surprising quarters, to create an effective front against Archadia. For the first half of the game, this story takes center stage. It drifts away about half way through the game and, unfortunately, is never really recaptured. There is a resolution, to be sure, but the politics of the game become muddled, with the characters making some questionable decisions that are inadequately explained and questionable at best.
On a personal level, the game follows the adventures of a band of sky pirates seeking to overthrow Archadia. Although this part of the story is ostensibly about Vaan, a war orphan turned thief and would-be sky pirate, he becomes a sidekick to one of the other characters. It’s rather funny seeing him trying to take center stage here and there, as though he were one of those secondary actors constantly trying to show up the lead. Rather, one of the party members plays a key role in the resistance, and it is that character whose presence, decisions, and actions guide the course of the story. The rest of the characters serve as varying degrees of supporting cast, and it must be said that Vaan has one of the lesser roles. Still, the adventures of the true main character are rather intriguing, and as the political story falls away, this character becomes increasingly intense; the main character’s climactic decision in the penultimate dungeon is preceded by one of the greatest build-ups in gaming history.
On the philosophical level, the game asks a question: What price would you pay to control your destiny? The aforementioned main character struggles with this throughout much of the game, presented with two methods by which to gain power. One of the game’s other factions focuses on this question in a realized-metaphysical manner, with consequences that influence the events of the story from the background, but which do not come to light until the game’s end. Several members of the supporting cast get involved in this question, sharing their own experiences: Balthier’s revelation, and that of Reddas, are of striking note.
Visually, this game is amazing. The locations are open and detailed, often resolving background details that would usually go unremarked. For example, stand on a hill outside of Rabanastre and you can look in on the city at some detail. Go to the Giza Plains and you can actually see details of the connected areas. Visit Giruvegan and look across the lake to see ruins of this ancient place. The processing power of the PS2 was put to great effect here, such that the world feels real; after all, no matter where you are, you can usually see the rest of it.
The monsters, races and machines also look fantastic. You won’t find many direct palette swaps here; certainly, monsters from the same family tend to look similar, but you can usually tell the difference by more than just their coloration. In fact, their appearances never grow tiresome. I sometimes found myself, even at the end of the game, pausing and rotating the camera so I could get every angle on a monster whose appearance I thought looked amazing (the Abysteel is one of my favorites). The game’s several civilized races all look fantastic, and the fantasy races really do not resemble those of common mythos; even the humans (called humes here) have a variety of dress and appearance based on culture and geography, and I might as well say here that different cultures (and, to a lesser extent, races) have their own manners of speaking. Finally, the game goes for an arcanopunk look, by which I mean that the world has modern conveniences such as trains and airplanes (here called airships), all manufactured via magic. It’s such that swords are still the by-line for most ground combatants (with guns present and powerful, but slow to reload, and lacking the presumably magical edge of a master-forged blade), but airships fly through the air shooting lasers or bullets.
I do have a few minor complaints about the visuals. For one, most of the character’s look like they haven’t slept in a week. They have heavy bags under their eyes, making them look sleepy or old (or maybe a bit like sharks). I can’t imagine why this is, and it is glaringly obvious in any of the many scenes in which you see close-ups of their faces. At least it’s not as bad as the eyeless horrors of Suikoden Tactics.
The other complaint is Vaan’s reverse abs. It seriously looks like somebody shaded his abs so they are in reverse. It’s even creepier than the eye thing.
Now, about the audio: it’s okay. None of the tracks really stood out to me. Not even the boss music. Most disappointingly, neither the final boss or any of the optional bosses have special music. If you are looking for grand orchestral music with vocals singing dark Latin hymns, you’ll be disappointed. It’s not bad music, by any means; just uninspired.
The voice acting, on the other hand, is top-notch. Well, most of it. You can feel the emotion in the characters’ voices, syncing well with the animations and expressions of the motion actors. This game’s Cid, in particular, is the most impressive; full of theatrical airs and exuberant speeches. The only thing that I found displeasing is the villain’s speech when you meet him at the end of the game. I don’t know why, but his voice suddenly becomes really whiny.
A lot needs to be said about the game’s combat system. You control three characters, one being the party leader whom you control directly. The three characters engage enemies on an unbounded field map in real time. This means there is no break between dungeon crawling and combat; you can open chests while fighting foes, or even escape them altogether by running away far enough or leaving the area. While you directly control one character, all three characters have Gambits, an advanced AI system that gives preset orders to your characters, discussed in further detail below.
All characters can be given up to twelve preset commands, which they will follow in descending order of priority. Each command is composed of two parts: the condition and the effect. The condition is usually in relation to a creature on the field, and the effect is any of the magic, technique, item or attack commands the character possesses. For example, you can set up the following Gambit set:
Ally: KO – Phoenix Down
Foe: Any – Attack
Now that character will always use a Phoenix Down on a character whom has been knocked unconscious. However, if none of the characters needs to be revived, he will instead attack any enemy.
Commands get more complicated from there, and a command set can be very detailed and specific, with a variety of triggers. It is diverse enough that you can make a command set that works very well for any specific group of enemies. The Gambit system is so useful that, by end game, twelve commands will not always feel like enough to handle what you want.
That said, the Gambit system is not a substitute for good tactics. It’s just an automization of the tactics you use anyway. At best, it just means your characters react to the real-time situation a bit faster and more accurately than you would otherwise. If, in a game, you would normally have a character always select “Attack”, but use a Phoenix Down immediately on an ally when they go down, you would simply set up your Gambits to do the same. It cuts down on redundant button presses and removes some of the issue of hand-eye coordination, which has been a selling factor of action games, but not RPGs. Like I said, you need good tactics, or you will set up bad Gambits, and there are a number of occasions when you will hurriedly be switching between Gambit sets or diverging from them for something specific on the fly. The game is always under your control. It can’t play itself, despite appearances.
The combat system isn’t unique, but it’s definitely an improvement over its predecessors. The unbounded field combat can be found in other games like Dark Cloud 2 and Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, and gameplay without random encounters has been around for years. The advanced AI has its predecessor in games like Persona 2, where you didn’t control any of your characters directly; you gave commands to all five of them, and adjusted them as needed. Since this game, the technique has been further revised; it’s my understanding that Dragon Age: Origins’ AI system was inspired by the Gambit system.
All that said about the Gambit system, the combat itself isn’t really that tough. It is about what you might expect from a mainstream game. Stick to the plot, go straight forward, and you might have a challenge in that enemy levels are just too high for you; spend any time leveling or doing any side quests and the game is easy.’
Now, about the dubious License System. To be able to learn new magic spells, techniques, or get more gambit slots, you need to buy the appropriate license for them. If it were just that, we might call it a slightly awkward experience system and buffer. However, this same license system applies to equipment as well. Mind you, all of these things, from equipment to techniques, are bought in shops in addition to requiring the appropriate licenses. For example, this means you cannot just equip the Ribbon you loot from a monster and get its benefits. You need its appropriate license too. It really makes no sense. What sort of training teaches you how to properly wear a ribbon? You might argue that you receive some sort of mystic training, but that’s not what the board represents; it seems to represent some abstract concept, with only the most tenuous arguments for its validity. Mind you, you still get License Points roughly equal enough to the equipment you could reasonably have at that point in the game. Really, License Points amount to a redundancy that could have been dropped from the game.
Also, note that Licenses are all on a board, and all characters have access to the same board, and roughly the same starting position for their license growth. In practice, this means that every character can be exactly the same, albeit with some stat differences; but you could still have a party of three spellcasters who all know the same spells, or everybody wearing light or heavy armor. It’s a matter of taste whether you like this sort of thing; personally, I like that level of customization, but it couldn’t hurt to have customized boards (a feature they introduced in the rerelease).
FFXII is definitely a well-polished game. It sits at the head of its class, an excellent mainstream game, easy and fun to play. It has its quibbles, certainly, but most of those are so minor, they are not to be noticed. It isn’t truly innovative, but it doesn’t have to be to be fantastic.