For almost two decades, Final Fantasy has existed as the paragon of console role-playing games, reaching millions of gamers internationally across four hardware generations. The series has garnered a much deserved place of love in many of our hearts, existing as an unshakable icon from adolescence to adulthood. With wide-eyed wonder we saw the creation of rich, vibrant worlds filled with compelling characters and their amazing journeys. Thus far, RPG enthusiasts have savored eleven chapters of legend; each an original flame that burns brighter than the next. Today, after literally years of anticipation, we open the bittersweet pages of a twelfth chapter as we bring a console generation to a close. Today, gamers across North America will step into the world of Ivalice with awe and trepidation. In the spirit of this celebration, allow me to bring you an exposition on majesty: a humble view of Final Fantasy XII.
A Time of War
In the year 704 of the Old Valendian Calendar, in the royal city of Rabanastre, capitol of the kingdom of Dalmasca, we witness the joining of two souls in holy matrimony. Princess Ashelia of Dalmasca and Lord Rasler of Nabradia lovingly exchange vows under their gods. Sadly, the joyous event is a prelude to sorrow. Shortly after the nuptials, King Raminas and his council receive news of invasion. The massive Archadian Empire to the east makes a play for power against the Rozzarian Empire to the west by swallowing all nations in-between. Lord Rasler's beloved fatherland of Nabradia had fallen with the unholy destruction of the city of Nabudis. Now, the Empire had pressed to the Nalbina-Dalmasca border, threatening Nalbina Fortress. Fearing for his father, Lord Rasler, under the company of Captain Basche fon Rosenberg of Dalmasca's Order of Knights, sets out to meet the enemy head on. Faced with overwhelming odds, the defense of the citadel is a failure, and under ghastly glow of the engulfing flames, Lady Ashe's husband meets his end.
With Nabradia a wasteland, and the bulk of Dalmasca's forces decimated at Nalbina, King Raminas concedes to an unconditional surrender. Sadly, his attempt to sign a treaty with the Empire is thwarted at his murder by the hands of one of his most trusted knights. In grief over the loss of her husband and her father, Lady Ashe takes her own life, leaving Rabanastre to the whims of the Empire. The defeat of the proud people Dalmasca is now absolute.
We enter this tale three years after the tragedy of the royal family, into the life of a street urchin of Rabanastre. Having lost his parents to the plague in his youth, and his brother dead in the war, the young Vaan steals to survive. With the company of his childhood friend Penelo, he longs for the day when Dalmasca regains her lost pride and pushes from beneath the boot of the Archadian Empire. Trapped as he is; caught in a web of solitude and poverty, Vaan longs for freedom. In his daydreams, he idolizes the carefree nature of the sky pirate. Upon learning of a banquet to be held in the old palace for the new imperial consul, Vaan decides to crash the party and steal any items of value to give back to the downtrodden people of Rabanastre. In his ill fated attempt at playing Robin Hood, Vaan comes across a real thief, the dashing sky pirate Balthier and his Viera companion Fran. Before they could cross swords over their mutual interest in the same treasure, the castle is attacked by rebel forces and counterattacked by the Imperial air fleet in waiting. Escaping through the sewers, our unlikely trio comes across Amalia, a leader of the resistance forces. After saving her life from the pursuing forces, they become an uncomfortable quartet and escape the city. Within a space of a night, Vaan's life has changed forever. What follows is a tale of resurrection, redemption and destruction. Vaan's journey to freedom would be overshadowed by the specter of the lost royal family; an heir to the throne who would follow the path of the ancient Dynast-King in her pursuit for power to end the aggression of the Archadian Empire. Her epic journey will be filled with hope and despair, culminating in facing terrible truths and a choice that could destroy Ivalice. What lies ahead for those who embark on this adventure are lies and deception, secrets and revelations that shatter all pre-conception. To say more would be sacrilege.
Penned by Yasumi Matsuno (Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story), Final Fantasy XII weaves a tale encompassing all the virtues and faults of humanity. We have a story that deals with individuals, their nations and their government, illustrating with keen insight the capacity of the human soul for good or evil. After all, isn't benevolence and malevolence merely distinguished in the eye of the beholder? The all encompassing lore woven through FFXII is impressive and engaging. Players will find themselves transfixed, though at many times befuddled, by the ever spiraling circumstances of our adventurers. From the Machiavellian manipulations in the Archadian Senate to the half-truths told by virtually every character, the tale never stales. Rest easy, however, the storyline is complete in climax and denouement, with several hours' worth of storyline related cinemas. There are no staggering plot devices thrown in from left field. Aside from a major revelation in the final 20 hours of the storyline, players won't have to worry about FFXII pulling a rabbit out of its hat at the last minute, to confuse and disappoint. What remains is a thoroughly engaging, and surprisingly captivating experience unlike any other: simply remarkable.
The Beauty of a Botticelli
Final Fantasy XII's world comes to breathtaking life under the artistic direction of masters. With character designs by Akihiko Yoshido (Vagrant Story) and image illustration by Yoshitaka Amano (Final Fantasy I-VI), Ivalice and its denizens are startlingly portrayed. Even on the aging PlayStation 2 hardware, players will be marveled at the intricacy. By using much more robust high resolution illustrations for the polygon texture maps, Square Enix was able to get more visual appeal per polygon than with the already impressive FFX and FFX-2. While still bogged down by a lack of anti-aliasing, this new technique lends to a much crisper and infinitely more detailed game world and characters. Many of the creatures themselves look like 3D paintings when up close and personal.
Yoshido's designs in particular are wed immaculately to this new technique. Each character is startlingly beautiful, though not as close to the androgynous as previous artists of the series. Thankfully, costume design forgoes the ridiculous over-accessorizing of previous FF characters. The amount of character detail apparent in cinemas using the in-game engine rivals, and sometimes surpasses, the slick CG that is interwoven. The design theme of Ivalice is that of perfect synergy between the classical and modern. We have airships and evidence of advanced technology held in loving embrace by architecture inspired by our own Renaissance. The several ruins that the player encounters throughout the game bear strong ties to the Babylonian and Sumerian. The sheer variety and size of the artistic palette of Ivalice, from locale to inhabitant, is staggering. One could go on forever about how well the artists have drawn inspiration from our own world to breathe life into theirs, but for the sake of brevity we'll simply say that the aesthetic appeal of Ivalice is vast. One could only imagine the visual impact if FFXII was displayed on stronger hardware.
Despite the resolution shortcomings, there is another aspect of the graphics that bears noting as almost a series first, weather. While familiar to those who play the massively multiplayer online RPG FFXI, there has never been such convincing and purposeful use of weather in the entire series. Why, an entire region of Ivalice undergoes dramatic visual changes during a monsoon, with hills turned to bridges across river and stream. From heavy rains and blustering snowstorms, this added touch provides even more substance to the fact that Ivalice is a fully realized world.
Concerto Della Principio
For years, the music direction of Final Fantasy has been firmly at the hands of Nobuo Uematsu. As Final Fantasy XII marks a new direction for the series, a new composer has brought refreshing new sound to the series while honoring its timeless themes. Hitoshi Sakimoto is no amateur however. Having worked on the score for a number of well-known "Tactics" titles as well as Vagrant Story, he's also the man responsible for the amazing music in the coveted shooter Radiant Silvergun. His love of string, brass and drum bring new elegance to the classic FF Crystal theme and his original works within FFXII are commendable. There are never any moments where the score seems overdramatic, drowning out the dialogue or dramatic impact of a scene in cacophony. The music itself is downplayed to be an enhancement, not a distraction, to each event or experience. This is a wonderfully considerate approach to the music, but the downfall is that there are no truly memorable original tracks in the entire collective. Rather we have a fresh revitalization of old favorites and enjoyable originals, but nothing quite as gripping as Uematsu's "One Winged Angel." The tragedy of this is that Sakimoto is a composer of immense talent, but seems to be forced to emulate Uematsu rather than breaking the mold. Still, his work in FFXII is to be lauded, especially considering how covetous we are of the original themes.
Orchestrations aside, we look now to the most tenuous aspect of any modern role-playing game: the voice acting. In fine fête, Final Fantasy XII shows the best performance yet. With a distinct Victorian flair to the dialogue and a profound respect for language of classical literature, the actors probably had no easy time. Thankfully, almost every character pulls of their roles with near immaculate grace, and some are unerringly perfect in style and form.
While almost every voice actor was on par, there were a few exceptions. The most glaring contrast, however, is that of the sky pirate Balthier and his Viera companion Fran. The voice talent behind Balthier is simply uncanny, with such a devilishly dashing performance that Ian Fleming's 007 would turn green with envy. Fran on the other hand, as the most exotic member of the cast (in more ways than one), is painfully monotone and subdued. I was expecting someone with a sultry Slavic or mysterious South African accent, or even something as passé as French. Sadly, all we got was some indecipherable accent and near mumbling. What a waste...
Reinventing the Wheel with a Rocket
Final Fantasy, as a series, is no stranger to innovation. Across almost every chapter, the developers have tried to refine every aspect of gameplay. From the introduction of the vaunted Active Time Battle (ATB) system to Materia and the Sphere Grid, it is little surprise this latest installment would go untouched. However, never in the entire collection has there been such a departure from the norm as with Final Fantasy XII. It would take me volumes to explain in clear detail the nuances of the Active Dimension Battle (ADB) system. I will leave that to the almost 400 page strategy guide that's bursting from newsstands now. I will do my best to provide merely an overview and how these changes make FFXII unlike any that has gone before.
For starters, the ADB system is merely an evolution of the tried and true ATB system. Combat itself, no longer takes place randomly in designated areas. The player and party can see all enemies quite clearly as they roam the countryside and dungeons. Once within sight distance of the enemy, or if the player chooses to attack, the battle begins immediately. Unlike the old ATB system that shifts from exploration to a battle screen independent from the overworld, ADB takes place on the exploration map, and isn't immune from the dangers therein. Any enemies who meander across the battle are likely to join in. The player is able to move freely around the enemy in real time, acting accordingly based on preset AI (called Gambits) or via your own commands at any time, executing when their action bar is full. An important distinction to make is that the player is able to choose Active or Wait mode. Wait mode allows you to input commands to your party members while freezing the action as soon as the command menu is opened, Active mode keeping things moving in real-time, irrespective of menu diving. In this respect, the nuances of the old ATB system is preserved, however running in Active mode with its unabashed real-time gameplay is truly a battle of speed and wits.
The character AI or Gambits, are the real core of this system. Because of the extremely mobile nature of combat and the complexity of enemy attacks, it would take days to complete even the simplest dungeon without Gambits. This is due to the sheer number of enemies and their re-spawn times. Gambits allow the player to fashion a hierarchical collection of actions based on either player or enemy variables, and make each engagement a trial of strategy and logic. Many might see this as letting the game play itself, but this couldn't be farther from the truth. For one, setting Gambits takes a great deal of forethought and planning, and have to be readjusted for many different monsters. Since status ailments are a major combat concern in FFXII, being able to anticipate and plan countermeasures appropriately is a big part of the strategy. All enemies are not created equal, so it is not uncommon to change a characters entire Gambit tree every few encounters. This is especially apparent in the first few hours of the game when you do not have access to many Gambit slots or Gambit variables. In this experience, players have to "master" Gambit sequences for different dungeons. And while this might seem confusing at first and somewhat tedious to the impatient, being able to hammer out a collection of Gambits that allows your party to cut a swath of destruction through an encounter and react appropriately to most situations is satisfying in the extreme. With several hundred Gambit variables to find, the level of customization is limitless, though with only 12 maximum Gambit slots per character, it is impossible to prepare a perfect party, though you'll love trying.
The next major facet of gameplay is a retooled revenant of the old Sphere Grid of FFX, the License Board. The License Board provides certain statistical boosts, abilities and spells much like the old Sphere Grid, but takes it several steps further. All character equipment, weaponry, accessories and Quickening (special techniques which can be combo'd into massive Area of Effect attacks) are determined by the License Board. Advancement on the License Board works in many ways like the Sphere Grid. As you defeat enemies you gain LPs (license points) which are then used to purchase tiles on the board and their corresponding attributes/abilities/etc. When access to the License Board is available, it is completely blank save for one cross of tiles on the north board and the south board. Each character starts in the same place, and as you branch out, definite patterns emerge. For example, following the NE path on the southern board yields access to higher levels of guns and daggers that evolve into katanas and crossbows. Since each character can only advance tiles adjacently, which consequently makes the concurrent adjacent tiles visible, players have to chart their courses carefully. The beauty of the system, unlike the old Sphere Grid, is that every character starts in the same place, so you can customize each character to your liking, instead of being pigeon holed. While it is entirely possible to train everyone the same way, some characters are more adept at certain roles and certain weapons than others. Thankfully, the choice is left to the player and not the game; build an army of generalists or create a coven of fine tuned experts.
Now one of the mainstays of Final Fantasy since the earliest days was that of the great elemental Espers, and FFXII is no exception. The classical Bahamut, Shiva, Ifrit, Odin etc. are present, but in name only. A new zodiac of elemental Espers has been born, and all from various legend and previous FF games. During your quest to defeat the Empire, players will encounter and defeat several of these new creatures, capturing them for use against the enemy. Their power is formidable, but the cost of utilizing them is quite high. Once obtained, they must be purchased via License Board by one character, and only one character. Each individual Esper cannot be shared between characters, so choose wisely who will inherit each new power. Completing the Esper zodiac and obtaining their King is a major side quest in itself.
Speaking of side-quests, the major boon of Final Fantasy XII is the player's complete freedom of activity. You can choose to dive head first into the epic storyline and be led nose first on the path to intrigue, or you can explore the cities and towns of Ivalice and engage in a staggering multitude of mini missions. The most overreaching optional activity is becoming a bounty hunter. After joining Clan Centurio, you can pursue bounties on various notorious and legendary monsters that are plaguing the people of Ivalice. As you complete these Marks, you gain ranks within the clan, and obtain access to unique loot, certain privileges, and additional storyline content. The beauty of this massive mini game is that it can be done parallel to the main storyline at the player's discretion, and offers challenges and rewards above and beyond the regular content. In addition to the bounty hunter and Esper hunt events, players can also embark in fishing, racing and even crafting of sorts among other gameplay opportunities. The sheer size of the world itself is frightening, though thankfully there are many methods of transportation, including the beloved Chocobo. Thus far I've witnessed over 110 hours of content and there is still more yet to do. Staggering, isn't it? Without a doubt, Final Fantasy XII is the largest game in the series, save FFXI and its three expansion packs.
The Precision of a Surgeon, with a Head Cold
Usually the control scheme of most Final Fantasies are elementary, and user friendly. Final Fantasy XII, however, is no run of the mill title. The experience brings much more information management to the table, and players need to be able to react to what's on screen at all times, and with incredible speed (if playing in Active Mode). Also, since the gameplay involves a lot of movement in real-time, players must also be able to navigate their avatars as well as the camera to maintain an optimal position. Movement is uncomplicated in most situations, but when faced in tight corridors in a fight, the inability to pass through your other party members makes repositioning a pain. Also aggravating is that the other characters make no attempt to get out of your way. In open fields and large arenas, this isn't an issue, but in many instances you will be attempting to navigate cramped areas and trying to fight multiple enemies at the same time. This makes combat somewhat cumbersome, but not entirely impossible. The camera however is more bane than boon in these situations. Again, while in an open outdoor environment or a much more vacuous dungeon, this is ne'er an issue. In cramped spaces, the camera gets stuck in walls while trying to rotate and invariably becomes a tug of war when trying to view the action from a proper perspective. The complete lack of a zoom function also confuses me, as this would have completely rectified the issue, but alas. These problems are completely workable, and seldom cause lasting damage to the experience, but it is a blemish on an otherwise flawless facade.
During combat, players will feel right at home with the variety of options available, however, they will notice a few important and welcome changes. For one, the game now has a battle log that prompts you when an enemy is preparing a special attack or spell, and also notifies you of any particular resistances or weaknesses they have using a Technick called Libra. Magic is broken down from the familiar two schools to five. Technicks are special abilities onto themselves outside of the Quickening and Summons. Looking over the massive grimoire of actions at your disposal, it becomes clear that practically all abilities in FFXII have been gleaned from previous Final Fantasies including Final Fantasy Tactics. The GUI effortlessly gives a description of every spell in a running tapestry to the top of the screen when selected. Because of the amount of options available to the player, the game doesn't allow you to jump in, both feet first, without holding your hand. Through a series of small tutorials, mercifully spread out across the first few hours of the game, familiarity will give way to understanding and hopefully eventual mastery.
The game also sports a fantastic party menu interface that gives the player seamless accesses to not only the rudimentary tasks of avatar management, but is host to an incredibly detailed world map as well as the Clan Primer. The Clan Primer is itself a collection of menus that track bounty Marks, in-game achievements (similar to Xbox Live) and a comprehensive Bestiary. The map system is truly worth accolades due to its utility in such a massive game world. During regular game play, there is a mini map available on the screen which fills out an area map, which can be viewed in its entirety (if completed by hand or by purchase) with the touch of a button, or via zooming in from the world map in the party menu. The area map is usually marked with devices that can be interacted with, and is especially helpful in towns by marking specific vendors and NPCs. They even go so far as to give you a reminder of what your next goal in the main storyline is at the bottom of this screen. A collection of these area maps make up an area zone, and all the zones (30 of them) make up Ivalice. And while some area maps are rather small to traverse, others like the Sandsea take over an hour to travel. Thankfully, there aren't any areas that escape auto mapping, as many quests will have you revisiting previous places. I haven't experienced such a well designed location system in a standard FF, ever. The setup is very similar to that of an online RPG, which helps sustain the illusion of a living breathing world. One look at the completed cartography and you can truly say you've traveled a continent.
Definition of a Masterpiece
What else can be said about Final Fantasy XII that wouldn't degenerate into abject praise or wanton fanaticism? The experience falls well beyond the bounds of initial expectation, having met with such skepticism due to constant delays and development problems. Looking upon the legend woven throughout the dozens of hours spent amid the lives and hopes of Ivalice's denizens, I am in awe of Matsuno's grand vision of this journey. The tale is a literary marvel on its own, though some of its final laurels degenerate into a surprisingly atypical fight of good vs. evil. The voice acting is truly top-notch with characters that inspire our belief and affection. Though there are some obvious rough spots in both dialogue and acting, they do little to detract from the overall performance.
Visually, the game shatters all preconceived notions of the capacity of the PS2, though like a caged beast, cries out for release on stronger hardware. Acoustically, Sakimoto has preserved the integrity of Uematsu's legacy and added some originality to the score, though doesn't manage to break out of his footsteps and claim the soundtrack as his alone. The creation and integration of the Active Dimension Battle System is an earmark of the future direction of the series, and is an excellently conceived mechanic in every way. Though the learning curve is a bit steep, and the logic required for appropriate use of Gambits might be much to ask, the fact that this is a thinker's RPG is deliciously appealing. Though the action is mired by some camera and movement issues, there is ‘nary a moment where I regret the experience. The enormous amount of ground the player has to cover, and the staggering amount of gameplay content held within was well worth the years of delay.
So with due reverence, I state that Final Fantasy's final swan song for the PlayStation 2 is a complete masterpiece. Square Enix's attention to detail and love for their craft is embodied through and through. This is an adventure that will, without a doubt, stand the tests of time.