Players: 1 Player Game | Genre: RPG
Release Date: 10/31/06
The latest entry in the Final Fantasy series is looking to be a unique success. With MMO-esque fight sequences and old-school RPG character building, this RPG brings back memories of Yasumi Matsuno's other past masterpieces such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story. While some may debate the series' new turn from traditional turn-based fighting, the gameplay still captivates and offers the player a deep storyline.
I got my copy of FFXII a few months ago and have been playing it ever since. At first I was concerned that it was going to be a bad combination of Final Fantasy XI and .hack. But, as it turns out, it's a surprisingly enjoyable experience. I've been a fan of Final Fantasy since playing the first entry into the series back on the NES. I've literally grown up playing the games every couple of years and still love the turn-based battle systems of old-school RPGs. But I can also appreciate the company trying to do something different. I mean we are talking about the 12th iteration of the series here and with Squeenix (Editor's Note: What the cool kids call Square Enix) now one glorious conglomerate, they have the Dragon Quest series to keep old-school RPG fans happy. Also, they're losing all of their good talent. Matsuno himself quit halfway through FFXII and the creator of Final Fantasy, Sakaguchi, is of course working on the upcoming Blue Dragon (expect a preview of that once it hits Japanese stores) and Lost Odyssey under his Microsoft front-company, Mistwalker. With essentially Tetsuya Nomura of FFVII character designer fame and the Kingdom Hearts team left, the company needs to keep the games fresh. Let's hope their Fabula Nova Crystallis project can deliver.
From Button Mashing to Gambits
The biggest new addition to the series is of course the Gambit System. Remember back when you were playing FFVI (FFIII US) and you were leveling like crazy in the river raft sequence? Ok maybe you went outside during your youth, but basically FInal Fantasy used to consist of me mashing the A-button as many times as possible and then curing. And now you don't have to! Does that mean you don't have to play the game anymore? No. It means that you give your characters a basic plan to follow during the course of the game. Much the same way you would have a macro or pre-loaded command set in an MMO, you have a basic AI set up for your characters to follow. Want your white mage to cure when someone has half their health? No problem. Want your rifleman to shoot the flying creature that is trying to slaughter your black mage? We can do that too. The Gambit system is unlocked in the game like any other skill, you have to unlock each condition and action on the game's License Board system, and then buy the corresponding skill in a store. Once you have an action and a condition, you just put them together and voi la, you have your ultimate leveling strategy. It's the same thing you've been doing since the 80s with your all-white mage party, only now the game helps you out. But you still have plenty to do, I assure you. For any of you that have played World of Warcraft (all 8 million of you) or any other MMO, you know what its like to play one character in this environment. Now imagine trying to play 3 at once.... Yeah, it can get a little frantic. That's where the Gambit System comes in to help.
For example, you have a party of 3 characters (and sometimes a guest character who takes care of him/herself) each with their own gambit slots (you unlock more on the License Board). I usually have each character have a gambit that heals characters when they get to a critical state in those Oh Sh!t moments as well as a revive fallen characters with a Phoenix Down. It's something that I would normally do anyway, but now I don't have to switch my characters in the thick of things to heal when I accidentally attack the T Rex outside the starting town.
You still, however, have to manage your characters very effectively to survive. I would dare say that the difficulty of battles is higher than most FF games. Often you will find yourself switching characters on the fly to issue specific commands that your gambits just aren't set up for. It's similar to playing a real-time strategy game like Warcraft 3. Your characters can move and attack by themselves through gambits, but without your helping hand they won't truly be a team that can survive the various dungeons in the game.
Building Your Characters
If you've ever played FFX you'll be right at home here. The License Board works similar to a Sphere Grid, only it looks like a chess board. Your characters start out with some skills already activated, like Vaan starts with Steal. For each activated square, you can activate the adjacent squares if you have enough points (which are earned by killing enemies). Any squares that aren't adjacent to an activated square are not only unable to be activated, but are also blank. So exploring the board while building your characters is part of the game. Of course if you want to build your characters to their fullest potential in the shortest amount of time, you should probably find a map of the License Board online and plan things out.
The trick to Final Fantasy XII, however, is that everything requires a license. For example, you may have a long sword, but you can't use it until you purchase the license corresponding to it. In fact, armor and accessories work the same way. All of them come in sets, such as Sword 1, Sword 2, Spear 1, Light Armor 1, etc. Each set has 3 to 4 pieces of equipment in it, so when you purchase the set you can then use all of the equipment in the set. Basically, this serves to further customize your characters by which weapons, accessories, and types of armor they can equip. For example, I have my main character, Vaan, set up as a sort of thief/support mage that wears light armor and fights with a sword and shield. My black mage, Fran, however, uses a bow and wears cloth armor. My fighter, Basche, can use two handed swords and wear heavy armor. This is a pretty normal set up. But it also means you can mix and match the stereotypical classes or jobs that the game is based on. In Final Fantasy Tactics, my main character was a ninja with high speed, but he could also wear a knight's armor and use a knight's sword, allowing him a ninja's high speed and also a knight's high defense and attack. That same combination is available in FFXII by unlocking the respective licenses you need. Only now you aren't limited under the context of a 'job'. In other words, your characters aren't a specific job so much as themselves, a constant amalgamation of whatever you choose to make them. It's really a beautiful system, and after playing some more Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Advance, I began to really see where the system got it's roots from. They've also included the ability to make some fan favorites, such as a Calculator by using the slide rule weapons and Mechanic through the rifles.
Besides equipment licenses, there are also magic (organized into the categories: black, white, green, time, and dark), skills, and passive bonuses, such as more hit points or magic power. As per the equipment, magic and skills must both be activated on the License Board as well as bought in a store to be available for your characters to use in battle. Magic is pretty straight forward, featuring a lot of spells that people come to expect from Final Fantasy such as Fire, Ice, and Thunder as well as Haste and Slow, etc. The skills, however, offer something unique to the game like abilities who do damaged based on how many hours the user has played or how many steps they have taken.
Limit Breaks....I mean Mist Knacks
Mist Knacks are essentially limit breaks or any other special attack from earlier Final Fantasies with a stupid name. However, they must be activated on the License Board like any other skill and require a 'mist cartridge' when used in combat. Basically one mist cartridge equals one use of a mist knack. You can also combo mist knacks together for better damage. A unique thing about mist knacks, however, is that once activated on the License Board, they cannot be activated by another character. Essentially, that means that if all your characters follow the same paths on the License Board, they will not be able to activate their special attacks, thus encouraging diverse characters.
Clans and the Mob
No, not that type of clan and nothing to do with Sicily. In FFXII you belong to a 'clan' or rather a group of people performing freelance missions for the people. If you've played Final Fantasy Tactics Advance you know what I mean. The missions are basically killing specific monsters, called mobs, for one reason or another. In order to initiate a mission, you find it on the message board, of course, and then find the person that is offering the reward. After consulting with them, you go out on the hunt for the targeted monster, put the hurt on him, and collect the reward. It's an entertained side-mission that helps to replace monotonous level grinding with a specific purpose for running around the games expansive levels. Also be sure to look for a cameo from FF:Tactics Advance in the clan headquarters!
Story and Overall Gameplay
The story line in FFXII is what you would expect from Matsuno, featuring political intrigue and characters with often convoluted motivations and allegiances. It's all a back drop to a war featuring a little love story undertones and a young man's adventure; it's what you would expect from a RPG but still kept me interested in the long run. The world is also beautiful, featuring some of the best graphics the aging Playstation 2 can squeeze out. The FMV is up to usual Square quality and the environments themselves are interesting. The main back drop of the game, the city of Dalmasca, was based off of the development team's trip to Turkey and thus has a very Mediterranean feel. It is also much more populated than the environments have been in past games, with crowds of NPCs that make you truly feel like you are in a large city. Unlike past entries in the series, not all NPCs are available for conversation. Instead, NPCs with dialogue will have a little text bubble icon next to them, showing that you can speak to them. Treasure chests also have a little exclamation mark that appears when you get close to them. Overall, it feels like a MMO and FFX put together. The game is initially more on the linear side, similar to FFX, but the area is laid out to where you can back track much more easily if you want to level up or complete clan missions. The game also lets you teleport in between specific save points using Teleport Stones, which comes in very handy especially in the beginning.
This game was the 6th game to get a perfect score from Famitsu, Japan's gaming magazine with notoriously strict game ratings, and for good reason. While not the RPG your mom used to play, it is still a good game in its own right and for fans of Matsuno's past work, like myself (could you tell?), it's a must have. With the long lines and pre-order hell of the upcoming PS3 and Wii launch, do yourself a favor and spend one last time with your Playstation 2, it's served you well and you'd be surprised at what it can still do.
Note: this preview is based on the Japanese version.