There is little doubt that Final Fantasy XII is this year's most anticipated RPG release. After almost two years of delays and the replacement of a producer, many series devotees were concerned we would never see the game's completion. Finally, after all this time, the commercial release is on the horizon. RPGFan had the pleasure of spending a great deal of time with the game, and our impressions so far are a mixture of shock and awe.
As the last scion of Final Fantasy on the PS2, FFXII is a visual delight, sporting one of the most impressive polygon veneers ever seen on the aging console. Akihiko Yoshida's character designs (Vagrant Story) lend a much needed maturity to the series' protagonists. The characters are older, leaner and undeniably beautiful – thanks to incredibly high texture resolutions. If not for the limited resolution of the PS2 and lack of anti-aliasing, players would be hard pressed to think this title wasn't on a next gen console – it is that good. The sprawling bestiary is just as impressive, bringing many familiar as well as esoteric monsters into play. The world itself is startlingly complete, with the depth, size and design detail that rivals most modern MMORPGs. Not content with feeling like a sterile planet with a handful of interactive locations or a string of linear locations along a hirsute map, FFXII was created with much higher ambitions. In all honesty, the game rivals the size of FFXI's Vana'diel and World of Warcraft's Azeroth.
So far, we have the makings of greatness... but what’s the catch? The much publicized change to the ATB system is the real turning point and can make the entire experience a love-hate relationship. Final Fantasy purists will be outraged and debate the validity of the fast-paced combat system. I myself was a little bewildered at first, but found myself enamored with the mechanics in short order. Unlike previous FF games, combat in FXII takes place where you encounter an enemy, not via random battles. The game does not switch to a static combat arena; rather the combat UI appears and battles begin in earnest. The player can control one of the three party members at any time, and move freely around the area while in combat. Since these engagements are rather mobile, players will be introduced to what MMORPGers call "aggro." This essentially means that additional enemies that are in range of you and your party, regardless of what you are fighting – will attack you post-haste. Therefore, players have to use strategy in how they choose to engage and enemy. Do you run into the pack and fight them all, or do you wait for a stray to pull with a ranged attack or spell. The concept is old-hat for online role-playing, but a completely new experience for single player RPGs.
Players can issue manual commands a'la classic FF; however due to the nature of the system you won't be doing this unless you're in complex situations like boss fights. All characters can be given a set of rudimentary AI instructions called "Gambits" that determine their actions when not directly under player control. For the supremely lazy, you can even set Gambits for the party leader- that is, the character directly under your control, and go full-auto. Players must be warned however, that Gambits frequently need to be tailored for every new kind of encounter due to extreme differences in enemy ability, because this FF is a status ailment nightmare.
One of the appealing aspects of this system is that during combat you can switch between active and reserve characters easily, as long as active characters are not in the middle of executing an action. This includes swapping out a dead character for a living one – very cool! While the game gives the player the option of adjusting battle speed as well as pause the action while making menu choices, the speed and intensity of the battles are awesome. While there is a learning curve to the system, once mastered, combat is simplified and incredibly fast paced. While this might seem to trivialize battle, the sheer amount of enemies you encounter make this brevity a blessing.
Character progression takes place using the License Board, which is similar to FFX’s sphere grid, but more comprehensive. Everything about your character is determined by the Licenses purchased on the board. Which weapons you can use, what armor you can wear, special attacks etc. are all tied to this massive chessboard. Players can customize their characters to a startling degree, but the License Board costs for the extremely powerful enhancements are expensive, so players won't be able to build an overpowered party without serious legwork.
Final Fantasy XII is also graced with one of the most impressive storylines the series has ever seen, filled with a massive cast of fully developed characters. The tale thus far is one of murder, betrayal, intrigue and love. While this might seem par for the series, the mature presentation of these themes makes it quite clear than this is Final Fantasy for grown-ups; which is refreshing beyond words. The voice acting is hands-down, Square Enix's best endeavor yet.
In closing, Final Fantasy XII might initially appear to be an attempt at re-inventing the wheel, but nothing could be further from the truth. After spending some time with this behemoth title, I came to realize that the experience itself was more an amalgam of the best ideas gathered from over two decades of titles. While the experience so far has not been perfect (details to come in the final review), the journey has been the most fulfilling I've had in the last several years. After 81 hours of playtime and only 70% completion, I can say with impunity that Final Fantasy XII is definitely worth the wait.
When Yasumi Matsuno took the stage in a cinema in Roppongi Hills on November 19th last year, he promised the invited guests and the gaming community a title that would re-define his company's flagship series, Final Fantasy. Ever since the game's official debut, a steady stream of information has flown out of Square Enix headquarters in Tokyo. While director and producer Matsuno has only recently mentioned he would like to keep some features secret until before the game's Japanese release, the currently available information on the third main series installment for PlayStation 2 seems to suggest that said promise was by no means an exaggeration.
On the character front, protagonist Vaan, the female lead Ashe and the unlikely duo of Fran and Balflear will be joined by Pannelo and Basch. The former is Vaan's girlfriend. After having lost her parents in a previous conflict, she helps out in the bazaar to make her living. Despite this supposedly hard life, the 16-year old gifted singer and dancer is still bright and cheerful. The happy-go-lucky attitude of her boyfriend occasionally tends to trickle her maternal instincts, though. This in turn results in heated discussions between the two. Despite having not taken part in actual combat, Pannelo has learned a lot about fighting from her brothers, who are members of the military. Unlike Fran and Balflear, she and Vaan will not get caught up in the struggle over who will rule their country. A key figure in Damalska's surrender to Arcadia is Basch, a formerly popular Damalskan general revered for his boldness and bravery. For reasons unknown, it was him who negotiated the surrender, thereby handing the keys to power in Damalska to the Arcadians.
The game's villains, the Judges, have not always been their fear-evoking current selves. Originally this group of knights holding all the power of a judge was established to speed up court proceedings, but as time passed the former guardians of law and order turned into - literally speaking - a Judge Threat. In an environment where fear rules, many residents of Dalmaska view the sky as last remaining symbol representing freedom. Hence, it should come as no surprise that the latest technical invention in the world of Ivalice - airships - have become so popular.
Regardless of all the changes, Yasumi Matsuno and his team are implementing at least two series staples in Final Fantasy XII: Chocobos and moogles will be back, reminding everybody of what series the game belongs to. On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether summoned creatures like Ifrit, Shiva and Bahamut will return. The game's field map will feature a small radar/map in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, similar to the one seen in Final Fantasy X. Non-playable characters whom the player can talk to can be easily recognized by a talk icon, which will appear over their heads.
The most obvious change regarding the battle system saw Square Enix's fourth development team do away with the long-standing tradition of random battle encounters. Just like in Final Fantasy XI, players can see their foes on-screen, and apart from event-related battles, avoid an encounter. Like its two predecessors, Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XII will take a new approach on battles. Instead of the famous Active Time Battle (ATB) system, which was a key feature of the series until Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy XII will see players taking on Behemoths, Tonberries and other unfriendly inhabitants of Ivalice in so-called Active Dimension Battles (ADB). Unlike previous installments, the transition between field and battle map will be seamless. During battle, the environment's terrain will play a major role, as different height levels as well as distances between party members and enemies will effect the efficiency of attacks, hence forcing players to alter their battle strategy depending on the game's various terrains. Enemies will also be equipped with an enhanced artificial intelligence this time. Character progression remains, but according to Matsuno will stay a secret for the time being.
In battle so-called 'target lines' connect party members (blue-colored lines) and enemies (red-colored lines). Target lines do not only allow the player to target an enemy character, but also show which party member an enemy is currently targeting. Upon selecting a target and inputting a command, a Wait Time Bar will appear below the respective character's name. Once this gauge is full, the command will be executed. If no command is selected, characters will automatically keep targeting their opponents with standard attacks in Final Fantasy XI fashion. During command input the game will switch into Wait Mode, allowing the player to consider his options without any time limits. While the game is by default set on Wait Mode, the development team is implementing an Active Mode option, reminiscent of previous series' installments. In Final Fantasy XII, the selection of a leader (the character who is heading the party members on the field map) will also have an in-battle significance: He or she can make the other characters join in and execute a combination attack on one particular foe.
Last but not least, a new command called "Gambit" will be introduced. "Gambits" are basically command schemes similar to the ones seen in Kingdom Hearts, which after being assigned to a party members, will be executed automatically in battle. Depending on the assigned scheme, party members will either support the lead character with healing spells or take a more offensive role, thereby allowing the player to focus his entire attention on controlling the lead character.
The announcement of a new Final Fantasy game and the months ahead of its release are always accompanied by a high level of anticipation. The fact that the Japanese release of the last (offline) main series installment will be 3.5 old years by the time Final Fantasy XII is going to be released, will only add to level of anticipation and correspondingly high expectations. From what Square Enix has revealed and shown of the game so far however, Yasumi Matsuno's current project looks like it can live up to these expectations. Following a strategic delay related to the release of Dragon Quest VIII, Final Fantasy XII is now scheduled to be released in Japan between winter 2004 and spring 2005. Fans on this side of the Pacific will be able to play the North American version sometime next year.
Following several recent firsts in the series, ranging from a heavily J-POP-inspired direct sequel (Final Fantasy X-2), to an online game (Final Fantasy XI), and a very action-oriented GameCube title more reminiscent of Seiken Densetsu than Final Fantasy (Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles); one could have assumed Square Enix would steer its flagship series into calmer (read: less experimental) waters again. However, with Ogre Battle, Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story mastermind Yasumi Matsuno heading Final Fantasy XII's development in a double role as director and producer, the game is shaping up to become what president Youichi Wada called "experimental" at its official November 19th presentation in Tokyo. More than once, the word "change" was mentioned in this context; so far however, Square Enix representatives have been deliberately tight-lipped regarding what kind of changes specifically will be implemented in the title.
The Final Fantasy series' most striking feature has always been its state-of-the-art visuals. Since Final Fantasy VII, pre-rendered CG sequences and the beautiful 3D in-game backgrounds have become a trademark of the series, and with every new installment the various production teams managed to push the envelope ever further. It did not exactly come as a surprise, when even before the official presentation, highly detailed screenshots of the title surfaced. Detailing the technique behind the visuals, Youichi Wada explained that facial animations will consist of 1400 polygons; however the graphics engine will push fewer polygons than its counterpart and main competition, Final Fantasy X-2, from Square Enix's first production team, headed by Yoshinori Kitase. This trade-off became necessary as designers were taking a route similar to Vagrant Story, by implementing fewer polygons but finer textures. Another similarity to Ashley Riot's epic adventure in the world of Lea Monde will be the freely rotating camera, allowing players to choose which ever perspective they deem appropriate. Judging from the media released so far, it seems like Final Fantasy XII will become what its predecessors have been at their release: The RPG genre's reference title when it comes to visuals.
As little discussion there has been about the quality of the visuals, Akihiko Yoshida's character designs have already trigged off countless heated debates. Critics argue the designs of main characters Ashe and Vaan were mere copies of Tetsuya Nomura's popular style. In an interview, Yoshida refuted the criticism, pointing to his use of new colors as the possible reason for the comparisons. Generally, the world of Final Fantasy XII will have a Mediterranean flair to it and just like all Matsuno titles; with more western influences than Final Fantasy X or X-2. These influences will not be as dominant as they were in his 2000 PlayStation One title Vagrant Story, and as a side effect of the Mediterranean environment envisioned by its creators, the characters will logically show more skin than in Vagrant Story or Final Fantasy IX. Locations in the game will also be more varied, contrasting the one world feeling emphasized in Final Fantasy X. Air ships of a size of up to several hundred meters will also be seen throughout the game.
After leaving the composition of Final Fantasy X-2's and Crystal Chronicles' soundtrack to the duos of Noriko Matsueda, Takahito Eguchi; and Matsueda, Kumi Tanioka respectively; Nobuo Uematsu returns to resume his work on the series. Joining him is another familiar face: Hitoshi Sakimoto of Ogre Battle, Final Fantasy Tactics (Advance), Vagrant Story, and Breath of Fire V fame. While he will be in charge of the soundtrack's overall composition, Uematsu will focus his attention on one special song, which Sakimoto likened to a main theme. He also mentioned that it will be more than just the usual vocal theme played during the game's ending sequence and staff role; who will be perform this key theme has yet to be announced. Similarly, Square Enix has yet to release any information regarding the voice talent behind the characters, with one exception: At the official presentation event, the company introduced Vaan's motion actor Kouhei Takeda, who in the tradition of Final Fantasy X will double as the protagonist's voice actor.
To date, little is known about the game's battle system. On more than one occasion, staff members refused to comment on details, saying they were not allowed to give away any details just now. During battle, Final Fantasy XII will feature a party consisting of three active members. Both HP and MP bars were visible in the first screenshots. Asked about one of the main features of every Final Fantasy installment since IV, the ever popular monsters summoned by magic to aid players in battle, the answer of character designer Akihiko Yoshida and art director Hideo Minaba was short and simple: "no comment". At least, they confirmed the return of everybody's favorite yellow means of transportation: Chocobos will be back at the player's service.
A warrior takes sword in hand,
clasping a gem to his heart.
Engraving vanishing memories
into the sword,
He places finely honed skills
into the stone.
Spoken from the sword,
handed down from the stone...
Now the story can be told...
These lines should be familiar to all those who have played Final Fantasy Tactics. The epilogue of the epic strategy classic has resurfaced with Final Fantasy XII and with it a familiar place: The world of Ivalice, setting of Final Fantasy Tactics (Advance). Despite taking place in the same world, Final Fantasy XII's setting and story will differ greatly from Tactics, as they take place in a different time as the tale of Ramza and Delita. The much discussed link between Matsuno's previous title Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and the 12th Final Fantasy installment is limited to the appearance of the Bangaa and Viera races as well as Judges. While the latter were representing order in Tactics Advance, they stand for power and authority in Final Fantasy XII; as the threatening figure towering above the game's logo illustrates. Clad in dark armor, those masked men radiate terror whenever they enter the scene. On of the story's main pillars seems to be a class system, inspired by what Matsuno referred to as a pre-dominant features of history. In the game's world, different races such as humans, Bangaa, and Viera do not just co-exist; but speak different languages and have different prejudices.
The protagonists are trying to survive in a time of war when the threat posed by an all-powerful enemy (the Judges) is omnipresent. Located in a strategically important position between the two empires of Arcadia and Rosaria, the kingdom of Dalmaska is being drawn into the bloody conflict as Arcadian armed forces invade the small kingdom. Dalmaska and its monarchy cease to exist, but Ashe the sole daughter of the king and rightful heiress to her father's throne does not want to surrender; instead she joins the forces resisting the occupation. During a wild pursuit when the enemy has already decimated her group of fellow resistance fighters significantly, she still shows the pride of a princess and refuses to surrender. In this moment of desperation, she runs into Vaan and before long becomes attached to him. This very encounter between these two youths of entirely different backgrounds will dramatically alter the future of Ivalice and set the stage for Final Fantasy XII' story.
Vaan, the main character, is a bright and optimistic young man who has cut all ties with his family seeking to find the freedom he desires as an adventurer. His greatest dream is to cruise through Ivalice's sky on an airship some day. The first character joining him and Ashe is Fran. In contrast to more recent Final Fantasy titles like VIII and X, which placed great emphasis on the love aspect in the relationships between the protagonist and the female lead, this aspect will not be as obvious in the relationship between Ashe and Vaan.
While it remains to be seen what specific changes Yasumi Matsuno has implemented in Final Fantasy XII, one thing seems to be the certain: The man, who only joined the company eight years ago, is once again proving his extraordinary status, which probably is only rivaled by Yoshinori Kitase and Tetsuya Nomura. After delivering a debut title selling more than two million copies worldwide with Final Fantasy Tactics, he created one of the most innovative and critically acclaimed PlayStation titles with Vagrant Story. An executive director and head of one of the company's most reputed production teams; joining fellow producers and company veterans like Takashi Tokita, Hiromichi Tanaka, and Akitoshi Kawazu who have joined the company almost two decades ago; it was he who was entrusted with the difficult task to set up Square's multi billion yen online service PlayOnline. With Final Fantasy XII, the 38-year old producer is sure to add another chapter to his outstanding career.
With Square Enix still being reluctant to go into specifics regarding the changes Yasumi Matsuno and his team will incorporate into the newest Final Fantasy installment, it is obviously way too early to even think about the game's overall feel and its standing within the long history of the world's most successful series of RPGs. One does not need to rely on fortune telling to predict the high production value of a title like Final Fantasy XII, which has been in development for almost two years now. The key question will be how far the fourth production team can go with its "experiments". Pointing to fans' high expectations, Youichi Wada conceded that the series will always be a challenge for his developers. While the title's commercial success is guaranteed and sales of more than three million copies in Japan a very real possibility, satisfying an audience which expects both tradition and change with every new installment will be the real challenge for the development team.
Currently 70% complete, Final Fantasy XII will be available in Japan sometime in summer 2004. Depending on the localization schedule of Square Enix USA and the exact Japanese release date, this will probably send the game on track for a late 2004 or early 2005 release in North America.