This is Final Fantasy's funeral
Hi everyone welcome to my Final Fantasy XII review. First of all I want to say that I am a hardcore fan of the Final Fantasy series (from now on FF for short). While it's hard to say precisely what is so great with it, it's just that in some way FF games feel so superior to other games, thanks to their serious stories, cool battle systems, great music, lovable characters and awesome atmosphere. All the previous games in the series had completely different battle systems but based on the same basics, and this is what is so great with the series, it's constantly renewing itself. Not only that, but all the Final Fantasy games have their "wow" factor that is hard to explain rationally. It's true, even tough I'm a fan there is games in the series I liked a bit less than others (cough cough... FF2 NES) yet although they have few in common at first glance, I really like the spirit of the series.
Now, in early 2003, after the commercial failure of the movie "Final Fantasy : Spirit Within", Squaresoft, the company behind FF games, were short of funds, and merged with their main concurrent Enix (the company behind Dragon Quest games) to become Square Enix. Other major changes were done, the release of Final Fantasy X-2, the first direct sequel in the series, which was highly controverted, and the release of Final Fantasy XI online, which is a MMORPG not related to the main series (as far I know) which ended up extremely unpopular, I haven't ever played it and I don't even know anyone that have. They also released some "Kingdom Hearts" games that are crossover between FF and Disney worlds. Some people liked it (there is even hardcore fans of it) but I hated like the concept. I like both Disney and Square but I don't like crossovers. I think it's a bad idea to crossover western humor cartoons and eastern serious games, like it would be a bad idea to eat fish with chocolate - both tastes good but separately. All this to say the series made a major twist in 2003, which I disliked personally. To me this was just like the end of Final Fantasy.
However, all the hype came back after a few long years, they were eventually releasing FF12 on PS2, which has been developed for about 4 or 5 years I think, and was supposed to be the revival of the FF series, and to push the PS2 to it's extreme limits (considering the game was released around the same time as the PS3). It was supposedly developed by the team behind FF9 (which is definitely one of my favourites in the series), and as FFX was set in a wonderful Asian-sci-fi style world, FF12 was supposed to be "back on the roots" in a medieval style world. The battle system was supposed to be a major improvement from the previous FF series, without switching between battle screen to main screen. Does it live up to the expectations ? Well I could answer the short way : "No this game was a major disappointment. Review is over, have a nice day". However I will give more details about what went so wrong.
First let's start with the good. Well one good thing in this game is the controls. Left analog stick for moving the main character, right analog stick for moving the camera, X to confirm, O to cancel, D-Pad for open the quick menu (more on that later), and triangle for the main menu. It is responsive and intuitive, like you'd expect.
The next good thing in this game is the graphics, they're pretty nice. As I've already said you can control the camera (for the very first time in the series) which is nice. This game take place in the world of Ivalice like all Final Fantasy Tactics games, and you'll meet with various races such as Vieras, Vangaas, etc... which is cool. The level of detail is very high. The towns in this game are HUGE and actually feel like towns, and make older FF towns looks like small villages. This is good, but you'll be lost much more easily too. That being said, the graphics in this game aren't that much better than anything already seen on the PS2. In other words, it has good graphics, but nothing other games released the same year on the same system couldn't do. It also lacked the breath-taking artistic side of FF10 (and previous FFs) - graphics are just good but weren't designed by deeply creative artists like those of FF10. There is not a lot of FMVs, and those there is don't look as flashy as the ones in FF10 for example. There was some noticeable aliasing sometimes, but it might have been due to my TV so I'll not clash the game for this issue.
The last good thing about this game is that the battle system works. I'm not saying it is any good - but I have to admit it works. When it game was announced that the game had no battle screen transition, I was really expecting something like Chrono Trigger (which would have been great). But man I was wrong. You give orders to the characters directly on the playfield via the quick menu that you access with D-Pad and the character executes them. However you directly control the main character with the analog stick, which makes it feel between an action-RPG and traditional turn based RPG. Other characters just follows you and move based on AI. Later in the game, you get the ability to use a system known as "gambits". That is, you can "program" AI for your characters so that you won't have to give them orders with the quick menu any longer. However you can still use the menu to override the gambits or if you just don't want to use gambits. The only good thing about this system is that it actually works, and the game is playable, so I should mention that before switching to the bad chapter.
A good thing is that I noted that the AI of enemies is really evolved. To consider this is the first time in the series they implemented enemies who move in real time, they feel really alive. They will see you and then attack you, if you try to run away they will chase you, and some will try to flee if you're stronger than them. It really feels like the enemies are alive and this is a good thing.
The bad news is that this battle system is NOT FUN AT ALL. You simply don't have ANY pleasure to play the game with this system. Before you get the gambits it feels kind of awkward to enter commands and see the guy do nothing while his attack charge up, as you're still controlling him. So as soon as you get gambits, I was exited to be eventually able to play this game to it's fullest. Unfortunately they don't make things any funnier. You can just control the main character with your left thumb, and everything else happens automatically. This is the less interactive battle system in any game ever, so this implies the less fun as well. It got to the point that I was able to study my courses while playing this game. Just an occasional glance at the screen to make sure you're still alive and going into the right direction every dozen of seconds is all the interaction that is needed for a good part of this game.
As if that wasn't bad enough, there is some serious annoyances with the game. When you are close to a treasure chest or a door, a exclamation mark appear on the head of the main character, and you have to press X to open it but you have to press it like 10 times for it to work. The treasure chests are placed randomly. Most of the time they contain something like 12 gil or a potion. I'm sorry but this SUCKS HARD. I want true treasures. Another thing I hated is the traps. If you walk on the wrong spot, you can trigger traps which can do very heavy damage to your party or cause alteration states. Those 2 elements alone (random chests with crap content most of the time, traps) makes all dungeon and overworld exploration very annoying instead of being exiting like it is for almost all RPGs in existence as they really add a significant random factor to the game.
This game is quite difficult. This should normally be a good thing, but here it's not. The reason it's difficult is for one thing traps (that you can't predict when they will trigger), and that they purposely placed some really strong monster you have no chance to defeat, and expect you to run away. But this time you have to ACTUALLY run away. If you try to fight them you're dead, so you'll have to play stealth in many places, and this mean very frequent Game Over screens and reloading previous save.
One thing which is really questionable is the licence system. Whenever you want to equip a weapon, armor, accessory or use whatever spell you have to pass a licence for it. The licences are placed on a gird, and you can pass a licence only if you passed a licence that is on a neighbour tile and have enough license points (that you get when you defeat enemies). Not that it was that bad, but if you already go trough the trouble of buying or finding a piece of equipment or a spell, it sounds annoying to pass a licence for it, right ? Don't worry it is. What makes the least sense is that you play the game as rebels/bandits, but they have to pass licences.
Because all playable characters have an identical licence gird, the only difference between them is what licences they passed. So they are basically all identical, so there is no point in using more than 3 characters overall. If you use more you'll have back-up in case of one character is dead, but they'll gain less experience than if you only use 3 (because characters that are left out don't gain ANY experience) so it's up to you.
Now the story of this game.... You start the game controlling a knight guy, who gets killed 5 minutes later, and after that you take control of Vaan his little brother. He's a thief but wants to become a sky pirate. Then you met with other characters, but all of them are just bland and soul-less bodies which are all alike and have no character development, no charm or any cool factor overall. Again I admit I didn't love ALL characters from previous Final Fantasy games, but at least the major part of them were cool and interesting characters, and at least they were all different, both physically and in their battle aptitudes.
Maybe it's just me, but a serious annoyance is that many proper nouns in the game are so hard to remember. When everything is like "We should go to Castle Ihavansa to meet king Bjunaksuh and princess Cbaodjriu", how am I supposed to make any sense of the story in conditions like that ? Well I can't and nobody can, unless you are taking notes as you play (and nobody wants to do that).
The very worst thing about this game is that it is very obvious Square Enix put a lot of effort to make the story of this game complex. However, they just did it wrong. You'll go through the whole game with a party you don't care about, and in story scenes you see your party talking about some nonsense you have no idea what it is, and often some story scenes happens in some unknown places with others characters that you don't know who they are and just couldn't care less. They tried to make shocking plot twists where characters get killed, with betrayals, etc... and you can see on the face of your party members that they are shocked, but myself I didn't understand and I am not shocked at all. It just don't trigger any emotion on me. Even if a big villain would come and cut one of my party members in half (subtle reference here) I wouldn't have any feeling. Needless to say, in previous FF games, even a though guy like me have cried for less than that. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is FF12's most major flaw.
The story of previous Final Fantasy games were so great because you felt involved in some way. You could imagine yourself at the place of the main character (or one of the secondary characters), and playing the game was like if you went on an adventure yourself. Even after I turned the console off I was constantly thinking about the party members of the FF game I was playing, and asked what was going to happen next. I was also dreaming about FF all the time. Here I really can't imagine myself at the place of Vaan nor any other characters. For this reason there is absolutely no reason to keep motivated to play the game : Not only the game is very un-interactive, all playable and non-playable characters are just soul-less bodies and the story is a huge mess of non-sense where you don't feel any involvement. The very second you turn your console off, you are guaranteed to never have any through about FF12's world again until you turn it on again (this might be explained by the fact I'm getting older too, but I honestly doubt it's just me).
Then comes the music. It's really bad. Uemastu isn't here any longer, but still so many games have non-Uematsu made great soundtracks, Square Enix *could* have hired someone better than whoever did this. Okay it is not THAT bad and won't make your ears bleed. The sound quality is very good, it sounds almost like a real orchestra (despite being all computer-made), but the songs are for the most part just completely forgettable and don't have any emotion in them. There is no battle theme, obviously, and the I really don't like the boss theme. Even the cocobo theme, which had all styles of remixes in the previous FF games which are all very good, is screwed up here : It is played in MINOR ! (**) Same applies with the victory theme (that is played when you beat a boss) it is played in MINOR (which makes it sound SAD). Honestly, what the f*** ? No joke this is a blasphemy ! Nevertheless, this musically illustrate incredibly well the death of the FF series. In this regard, the music goes very well with the game - sad, bland and soulless. I'm almost asking myself if the composer played the game, saw all it's flaws and decided to recreate them musically. If that is the case, he did it amazingly well.
(**) I just figured later that there was a Uemastu's antecedent, in FF8 one of the chocobo themes is also played in minor. Yet Uematsu's minor version, while I don't think it's very good, doesn't sound as depressing as the FF12 version.
The Bottom Line
Final Fantasy died in 2003 with the fusion of Square and Enix, and Final Fantasy is not Jesus Christ - it's definitely not ever going to revive. FFX-2 was highly controversial, and I don't consider it a very good game, but at least it was somewhat fun to play at times. I don't have any opinion about FF11 Online as I didn't play it (other than the fact I'm not into MMOs). FF12 which was supposed to be the revolutionary revival of the series ended up the exact opposite : It just achieved all chances of the series to ever become back to it's previous greatness. I know, some people will say I'm too conservative, and that different is not always bad, and I fully agree. All battle systems in the main series have always different in each games since the start of the series, and almost all of them are good (the only exception is FF2 NES, which was more terribly programmed than bad altogether). I understand many people don't like turn based games, random battles or cliched/exaggerated teenage characters, but I beg you, PLEASE let people who love them live !! It's that simple : if you don't like them, then don't play Final Fantasy ! Even for those who really can't stand random battles, Chrono Trigger did fix it magnificently while staying a true RPG. If the SNES could do that, couldn't the PS2 do that too ? Square Enix SO OBVIOUSLY made this game for MMORPG fans, instead of fans of previous Final Fantasy games. So, critics keep saying FF12 fixes what was wrong in FF. But what about those who *actually* loved FF ? There wasn't ANYTHING wrong to be fixed.
So this game is definitely very different from older Final Fantasy games, but at least you'd think it would be a good game on it's own. But no, it's not it's just a soul-less and boring RPG, with bland characters bland storyline, un-interactive battle system and to sum it up the music itself is bland just as the rest of the game. At least now I will never expect anything from FF again and I'm convicted not to buy a PS3 for FF13 (which I was originally hesitating to buy), which probably was made for random gamers instead of true FF fans.