Final Fantasy XII Review
Square Enix, 2007
Final Fantasy XII is graphically ageless. It’s perhaps the only case when Square’s CGI movie sequences feel unwelcome. Textured hair, immense costume detail and broad landscapes under a washed out lens of warm water color, the in-engine palette is so much more inviting. It seems natural, then, that this installment is the first to adopt a macro management style of play. Instead of the menu flicking of the past, Final Fantasy XII wants you to watch the action unfold, wholly. It does this — throughout its savannas, woodlands, and mountains with fields populated with roaming enemies — with a party of 3 A.I. controlled combatants, their behavior yours to program. If planned correctly, the characters will heal and support each other, and dispatch the dangers around them, appropriately and automatically. This leaves you to pan the camera around your own intelligence, and the game’s beauty.
On the streets of Rabanastre, you begin as Vaan, a street urchin dealing with rat infestations and making deliveries down the bustling alleys of the city. The world of Ivalice is built with a kind of snazz players of Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics may find familiar, and Final Fantasy XII is really something you ought to see if you fancy RPG town layouts. In cities such as this capital, the density of NPCs and their individual animations is unprecedented. Shops are fully furnished, bars have cute little creatures hopping onto counters to order drinks, and in the style of the citizens and architecture, a mix of medieval Europe, Mediterranean warmth, and a Star Wars splash of Tatooine grunge can be seen throughout.
Dialogue prompts gently click at your attention as you pass by city goers, nearly everyone with some stream of thought to interact with. A small nation under occupation and the royal family treacherously ousted from power, ambivalence fills the air as Rabanastre awaits its new rulers. However, Vaan is up to his own ideas. A rash infiltration of the royal treasure chambers lands him into a more epic play of events, and into the company of a couple sky pirates with equally misled intentions. They team up, reluctantly, freeing a shamed knight doomed to rot in a dungeon, and bumping into a rogue princess — long thought dead — who would lead a resistance against the occupying Empire. Surprisingly, if only because the genre is so keen on making younger character the centre of things, Vaan takes a backseat to these new personalities. In sophisticated, suave, and lovely dialect, the other characters serve to drive the story, not the young layman.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism, because the cutscenes are acutely aware of the situation. In many shots, Vaan and his peer Penelo are purposely put off to the side or in the distance, shown teasing, bickering, and playing with one another as the adults discuss matters in the foreground. In a couple instances, Vaan is told flatly to shut up as quickly as he opens his mouth. An attempt to reclaim a princess’s birthright along with her family heirlooms of destructive power, a story of vengeance forms with the two youth as its backdrop, representing the innocence that is overlooked by the heroes, often failing to see the futures they hold at stake.
But for all that sensibility, the execution isn’t entirely effective. Vaan and Penelo are still forced into the unforgiving machine of character development. They interject at strange moments, their age difference between your other party members creating no chemistry at all. In some of the best scenes, Vaan pops in for a few words and effectively demolishes the intensity of an incredible script between knights, royalty, and wiseman.
Leave them out of things, then, if you wish. A limit to three on screen party members, travelling the multi-field zones of Ivalice can be enjoyed in the company of only your favorite actors. Balthier, the sky pirate, is sure to win over many fans in this regard. Ammo satchels dangling at his sides, a studded vest over loosely fitted long-sleeved cloth, cuffs open, and tapered leather pants over exquisite gladiator heeled boots, he is but one example of Final Fantasy XII’s incredible, if other worldly, character design. The handsome pirate paces round packs of enemies, shoulders relaxed and shotgun in hand, and when his action bar fills he’ll extend the gun outward and cooly absorb its recoil, a pop and glorious puff a smoke to deliver a smattering of armor piercing damage.
If you fancy the look of a character, that’s really all that matters. In fact, the game cheaply incentivizes that you bench half the characters for its entirety, whether because it’s too costly to equip everyone with proper gear, or the result of unorganized character progression called the License Board. Every board identical, it’s just a matter of how you build them with the points you earn. Regions of the chart pertaining to certain kinds of stat upgrades and equipment unlocks, the idea was likely to have the player create a kind of useful variety of mages, melee, rogues, and ranged archetypes. Many problems reside in that logic, however.
First of all, magic isn’t potent until late game, namely because you barely have enough mana to effectively cast valuable protective magic, let alone the offensive kind. Scratch that section off the board. Next, a fun set of skills called Techniks allow you to do all sorts of gimmicks, like do damage modified by the amount of steps you walk to a creature, and are effectively useless. Eventually, players will realize that all the hitpoints, attack damage, and action speed augments (the good stuff) on the board are grouped together. Grab those, and now everyone is quite interchangeable, a safe strategy of powerful, 1-handed swords and shields, accompanied by a light dose of learned healing magic to sustain the journey. This makes the programmable A.I. starkly less enigmatic than it sounds.
Even still, as just a melee mix of swords and spears, the system is fun to work with. The behavior macros you set for characters are called Gambits, an accessible priority list of orders. Put Ashe, the warrior princess, on point and have her set to ‘Targets Nearest Visible Enemy’ as her #1 priority. If she decides to cast useless spells in the face of danger, chances are you set something wrong, and back to the menus you should go. If an ally drops below 30% health, have Basch, the withered but loyal soldier, preset to cast ‘Cure’. With the right Gambits, if someone gets blinded or confused or silenced, your party can automatically react with the proper medicine. The object is to avoid menu interaction wherever possible, letting your Gambits streamline the experience, where clearing plains of wolves and wyvern is best enjoyed uninterrupted. For emergency situations, the combat can be paused and individually commanded, but those who rely on such a thing will absolutely miss the point of Final Fantasy XII.
Some aspects will interrupt you, regardless. Characters acting on live time bars, there is this tiny but infuriating pattern of readying weapons before each enemy. You kill a pack of steel claden unicorns, and even though more can be seen up ahead, weapons must be rearmed for them. It’s a constant half second of unsheathing and sheathing weapons before the action timers begin to roll, an insane sounding nitpick but one that you will notice. On top of that, invaluable buff magic that you should try to keep up at all times is set to tediously short timers. Casting ‘Haste’ to make your actions come out faster is offset by the fact that ‘Haste’ will have to be recast by each party member, over and over after every few encounters because it simply doesn’t last a convenient amount of time. Stop and recast. Fight. Stop and recast. Fight. When smooth, it’s easy to get lost in the system and the many opportunities to complete rewarding hunting marks, but when annoyed, the plot’s objectives can feel just as burdensome.
Essentially, you’re always after some such artifact, traveling awkardly with a party to various dungeons as more interesting political strife takes place elsewhere. Occasionally, however, the two instances do cross paths and give off a wonderful intensity. The Judges you meet are the best of it, imperial officers clad in heavy ceremonial armor, who give your party glimpses of how power corrupts and curiosity poisons even those with the best intentions. Their thick European accents deeply reverberate beneath their beastly helmets, intimidating, but still giving ear to the shakiness of their voice, talking in such a grandiose and poetic script that you’ll wonder how this could possibly be a Final Fantasy game. And then Vaan speaks up, and you remember that it very much is.