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SummaryTrying to build a bridge to Western RPGs
The GoodYou have to admire Square for trying to find solutions to the problems of an entire genre. No other Japanese RPG developer has ever felt the urge to experiment and reform as much as this one. There is a reason for the success of their flagship series in the West: they instinctively felt that the popular genre they worked in had some core issues, and went all the way with small inventions, gimmicks, and genuine artistic inspiration to make players forget them.
Final Fantasy XII innovates by borrowing vital gameplay elements from the West. Japanese RPGs have always suffered from limited battle systems that confined players to separate screens, artificially disrupting exploration process. Final Fantasy XII constructs a coherent world where action and exploration are seamlessly merged.
The game's battle system is very similar to that of Knights of the Old Republic games: you attack automatically but are able to pause at any time and micro-manage your commands. The exact level of your involvement can be determined by pre-assigning the so-called "gambits" to your characters, monitoring their actions in advance for specific cases (i.e. cast Cure when any character's health is under 20%, etc.). The system is flexible, entertaining, and fast-paced at the same time, and it was long overdue in a genre where combat boiled down to mechanical exchange of turns in a static environment.
I think the advantages of this system are obvious: you can try and lure an enemy by attacking it and running back; you can position your characters around the enemy in any way to gain advantage; you can have people use ranged weapons to avoid getting hit by area spells. Enemies will often notice you fighting and will come to help their friends. You will have to use ranged weapons or spells to damage flying enemies. You can cast any buff spells like Haste outside of a battle, and you can buff yourself before an upcoming boss battle to start it well-prepared, and so on. Not to mention that running around while fighting is simply much more fun than seeing the characters glued to their places, occasionally leaving it only to show you an automatic animation you have no control over.
There are some nice details in the regular encounters, showing advances in AI - for example, enemies may cast Oil on you, greatly reducing your resistance to fire, with which you'll be then blasted by their lurking comrades. Boss battles can get intense and dramatic: bosses would change attack patterns, buff themselves, inflict you with bad status, raise their defense when they are low on HP, summon regular foes, save their strongest spells for the final part, etc.
Character customization system is decent. You have a large board with all kinds of abilities you can unlock. Every possible ability can be gained from this board and you are not restricted to a certain path. You can turn the cute little Penelo into an axe-wielding barbarian clad in platinum armor, or you can have the powerful soldier Basch wear magician's hat and cast white magic if you so wish. There are also plenty of very useful augmentations to learn, such as automatically gaining MP when dealing damage, increasing defense when HP critical, and so on. By the way, weapons and shields are now graphically visible on the character when equipped.
The first thing you'll undoubtedly notice when you fire up Final Fantasy XII is the size of its locations. Every city is composed out of several districts, each with a large amount of NPCs walking around. You'll visit cities bustling with activity, people talking to each other, buying and selling things, etc. There is no world map, but also no horrible linear dot-to-dot path contemporary Japanese RPGs seem to favor. Instead, there are vast areas you must travel through if you want to reach your destination. Wilderness areas and dungeons are generously designed and take a while to explore. There are optional areas in Final Fantasy XII, some of which can be discovered simply by exploring (like the vast complex of Zerthinan caverns). There are monster-hunting jobs available, leading to a large amount of optional mini-bosses to fight.
Final Fantasy XII has noticeably better writing than any of its predecessors. The language in the English translation is more rich and colorful, with a nice mixture of archaic and colloquial expressions. There is also a lot of social differentiation in the dialogues. Rulers sound like rulers, simple people like simple people. On top of that, the game has surprisingly good voice acting. The "sky pirate" Balthier steals the show here, but nearly everyone do a decent job.
Much care has been put into designing the game's world, Ivalice, which feels more coherent and detailed than the environments of other Final Fantasy games. It has its own history, mythology, and culture. It has many different races, some of which are presented and described in detail. The cities have interesting, original architecture. It is anything but your standard medieval land with wooden houses and stone castles. There is some influence of Gothic style, but also elements of Indian architecture.
Final Fantasy X looked like it was going to push the console's capabilities to a limit; but compare it to this game's visuals, and you'll see the difference. Final Fantasy XII has excellent graphics, and I honestly can't imagine anything better-looking on the console. And for the first time in the series, it is done in 3D, with fully rotatable camera. I could never understand why Japanese RPGs liked sticking so stubbornly to fixed camera angles. The game still has gorgeous pre-rendered movies, one of the trademarks of the series' visual style. Animations and facial expressions are also well-made.
The BadThe story is dramatic and complex as long as new party members are being introduced and you are still unable to tell friend from foe. But at a certain point most of the questions become answered, the general outlines of the story completed, the goal clear; from that point on, story gets a backseat in the game, giving place to exploration and combat almost entirely. The good writing and acting don't prevent the plot from deteriorating into typical RPG cliches we've seen countless times before. The main villain starts as a promising character, but in the end turns into a walking stereotype. Nothing in the story is really new; the character cast is also rather ordinary, and the game generally lacks the series' peculiar charm that was last felt in the ninth installment.
The game's cities are very large and animated; but they aren't particularly interactive. You can't enter most of the houses you see, so the massive environments you'll be exploring are, in a way, just decorations. I missed the excitement of exploring every corner of a house and actually finding interesting stuff. Wilderness and dungeons tend to be somewhat symmetrical and rely on repetitive and fairly plain layouts.
Treasure in Final Fantasy XII is largely useless. I still can't quite fathom how they let such a flawed mechanic into the game. On a good day, you can expect to fight your way through a horde of status-changing enemies only to find 21 gil in the chest they were protecting. Even the supposedly better treasure is randomized, and the odds seem to be against you most of the times.
I wish I wasn't forced to buy spells in shops in addition to mastering the necessary "license" in order to learn them. At least, I wish high-level spells were available at the shops at all times. They could have increased their price or the amount of license points needed to master them to prevent people from over-powering themselves, but I felt cheated when I realized I couldn't buy that handy Haste spell anywhere, even though I sacrificed lots of license points to finally discover it on the board.
The new battle system is not exploited to the full. There aren't enough enemies that compel you to use positioning tactics - area attacks don't play much of a role, and most foes can be easily defeated simply by ganging up on them. Despite the absence of random encounters, the game still feels too combat-heavy. Overpopulation problems in the dungeons coupled with a low difficulty level tempt you to put the whole thing on auto.
The real problem here, however, is the fact that no amount of tweaks and updates to the battle system can radically reform a Japanese RPG if it keeps refusing to incorporate defining elements of true role-playing. The game tries to be expansive but is, at its heart, unable to break away from the overbearing formula. Its structure is still rigid and largely linear, there are no meaningful side quests, and dialogue choices are still unheard of.