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SummaryBuilding a bridge to Western RPGs
The GoodWhen I finished Final Fantasy X-2, I thought it was time to say good-bye to Final Fantasy. It's not that the game was bad, but its lack of charm and charisma made me think that perhaps the creators of the series have finally run out of creativity. I say "finally", because up to that unfortunate installment, every single Final Fantasy game was blessed by artistic inspiration, no matter how peculiar its results could seem in the end.
I felt that there was a need for a radical change. A change that would take Final Fantasy onto a whole new level. The gameplay innovations of Final Fantasy X-2 were too superficial and didn't make up for the lack of story-telling quality. I dreamed of a departure from the conservative, static battle system of Japanese RPGs, of expanding the game world and making it more seamless.
And then Final Fantasy XII came, and it was almost like a miracle. All those things I was hoping for were there.
Final Fantasy XII borrows vital gameplay elements from Western RPGs. Japanese RPGs have always suffered from limited battle systems that confined the players to separate "battle screens", artificially disrupting exploration process. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter was one of the very few Japanese RPG with real on-screen combat. But Final Fantasy XII goes further, constructing a large, coherent world free for exploration. All the action takes place in the same world you're exploring.
The game's battle system is very similar to that of Knights of the Old Republic games. This system originated in Infinity Engine games, which were initiated by the great classic Baldur's Gate. Basically, it is a turn-based system cleverly disguised as a real-time one. The turns are so quick that the player has an illusion of participating in a real-time combat. You can simply assign actions to your party members and they will perform them automatically. If you want to change something, you just pause the game and issue new commands. Of course, if things get really difficult, you might want to pause more frequently and micro-manage all your actions. You are not confined to a separate screen, but can run around as much as you want. The system is flexible, entertaining, and fast-paced at the same time. It was never used in a Japanese RPG before; I was often thinking what a wonderful combination it would be if we had this progressive system coupled with typically Japanese heavy focus on character development and emotional story line. Final Fantasy XII is exactly this combination.
Should I list the advantages of the new battle system? I think most of them are obvious to anyone who likes RPGs. You get all new possibilities that would be unthinkable within the frames of the old system. 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, 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.
Final Fantasy XII also has a "gambit system", which is basically a programming tool. You can program the actions of the characters for as long as you need them; this way, provided everything works well, you won't even have to interfere. The programming possibilities are vast and include such precise actions as using a Vaccine immediately after a character has been inflicted with a Disease status, or casting Dispel on a foe who has helped himself with a Haste spell. It gives you a great satisfaction if you set up the gambits wisely before a battle and see how the characters do what you like, without requiring you to go through the tedium of entering commands at each turn. The gambit system is completely optional. You can opt for having full control over all your party members' actions at any time, just like in a turn-based game.
It still retains all those traditional Final Fantasy gameplay elements that made their battles reasonably fun even within the limitations of the old combat system. Only now it makes a better use of them. Spells like Haste, Protect, Shell become nearly indispensable now. Since you shouldn't re-cast them at the beginning of each battle, you can just buff yourself and see how those pesky monsters start falling down quicker. The enemy AI has improved drastically. Enemies will very often buff themselves as well, but you can obtain the handy Dispel magic to get rid of their protections. They will help their weakened friends in battles. There are many enemies who can inflict you with bad status changes. Some enemies will for example cast Oil on you (a status change that makes you vulnerable to Fire spells), and then in the next area you'll encounter Fire-using enemies who will pound you to death if you don't take care of that status change.
There is challenge even in regular battles here; boss battles are intense and dramatic. I remember literally shouting at the characters: "Come on, people! You can do that!", when I saw I was running out of MP and had to finish off the boss quickly before he would decimate me. Bosses will change attack patterns, buff themselves, inflict you with bad status, raise their defense when they run low on HP, summon regular foes, save their strongest spells for the final part, and do all kind of things to provide challenging, yet rewarding battles. I must also say that there is no "difficulty jumping" here, no final boss who is suddenly million times stronger than the wusses you've defeated before. I actually found the bosses of the first part of the game much harder. I like this "hard in the beginning, easier afterwards" approach more than the opposite one.
Character customization system is also very good. You have a large board with all kinds of abilities you can unlock. The difference is that here every possible ability can be gained from this board and you are not restricted to a certain path, allowing a totally open-ended customization. You decide what kind of weapons and armor your characters will be able to equip, what spells they will learn, what enhancements they will get. Everything is up to you. 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. 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.
The first thing you'll undoubtedly notice when you fire up Final Fantasy XII is how massive the whole thing is. Each city is composed of several districts, each with a large amount of NPCs walking around. You'll see cities bustling with activity, people talking to each other, buying and selling things, etc. Once again, this is a clear step towards Western RPGs, in which city exploration takes a considerable portion of the gameplay.
The design of wilderness areas are a part of what makes Final Fantasy XII such an addictive game. There is no world map, but also no linear paths most Japanese RPGs are composed of. Instead, there are huge areas that you must travel if you want to reach your destination, much like in Baldur's Gate games. You really feel the sensation of traveling to faraway lands when you play the game. It feels like a journey, like an adventure. All those wilderness areas are very open-ended in their layout. Typically, each area has several exits. You'll just want to explore more and more. I wonder where that path leads to? Wait a second, what's this cave? Have I been here? Let's see what's inside... Oh, that structure on the far end of the field looks interesting... I wonder if it's too dangerous to approach? Those are the comments you'll be making to yourself when playing the game, none of which are typical for Japanese RPGs with their linearity.
There are many optional areas in Final Fantasy XII. Some of them can be discovered simply by exploring (like the huge complex of Zerthinan caverns), others can be reached only if you complete side-quests before or defeat optional enemies. There is always something to do and to discover in the game. You'll want to try and find somewhere the key to that locked door in a dungeon, come back and deal with the rare tough monsters you couldn't defeat before, and so on.
The game's narrative is closest to Final Fantasy IV among all the games in the series. On the surface it is just the old "evil empire" story, but there is also a fairly complex political intrigue that gradually gets revealed. The story focuses on two countries, one of which was conquered by the other, and gives you a detailed insight into the minds of the leaders of those countries as well as simple people who got caught in the conflict. There's less melodrama here than in most previous Final Fantasies, and more focus on political conflicts.
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 did a good job, there wasn't even one voice that was below average.
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, which can hardly be comparable to anything we see in the real world. It is anything but your standard medieval land with wooden houses and stone castles. There is 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 marvelous graphics, and I honestly can't imagine anything better-looking on the PS2. And for the first time in the series, it is fully 3D, with fully rotatable camera. I could never understand why Japanese RPGs liked sticking so stubbornly to fixed camera angles. In Final Fantasy XII, you can finally explore the world in a proper way, zooming in and out, and adjusting the camera the way you like. The in-game graphics are great, but the game still has magnificently-looking pre-rendered movies, one of the trademarks of the series' visual style. I should also mention the excellent animations and facial expressions. It's a joy just to watch Balthier raise his eyebrow with an arrogant, sarcastic expression in his eyes.
Final Fantasy XII also has an appropriate soundtrack. As much as I loved the musical style from earlier Final Fantasy games, I think it was a great decision to replace those melancholic Japanese pieces with a much more "epic", orchestral, Western-sounding score. The soundtrack here seems to be taken out of a blockbuster fantasy-themed Hollywood movie. I love this kind of style, and I think it fits the game's setting perfectly.
The BadI don't want to descend to fanboy level and ramble about how they took out my favorite feature X from Final Fantasy Y and how it utterly ruins the game. Yes, I also loved Nobuo Uematsu's music, but this game has a totally different musical style and nothing can change the fact that it is excellent in its own way. Instead, I'll try to concentrate on the game's real flaws.
The game's cities are very large and animated; but they aren't very 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, like in some earlier Japanese RPGs.
There are other gameplay-related annoyances. I can't say I loved the random nature of treasure chests and their contents. It wasn't particularly rewarding to fight my way through a horde of tough enemies only to find 21 gil in the chest they were protecting. Also, I wish I didn't have to buy spells. Or, at least, I wish high-level spells were available at the shops at all times. They could've increased their price or the amount of license points needed to master them to prevent people from over-powering themselves, but I felt a bit sorry I couldn't buy this handy Haste spell anywhere, even though I sacrificed lots of license points to finally discover it on the license board.
The narrative 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. I wish they would maintain the pace of the story they had during the first half of the game.
The good writing and acting don't prevent the narrative 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, forcing me to come to the sad conclusion that the series has been unable to create a truly charismatic cast since the ninth game.
The Bottom LineFinal Fantasy XII refreshes the Japanese RPG genre with free-flowing combat and exploration possibilities taken from Western RPGs. If Knights of the Old Republic made a step towards Japanese RPGs from the side of Western ("PC-style") games, Final Fantasy XII is the game that reaches its hand from the other side.
It is not a complete revolution; but it's the only Japanese RPG today that tries to do something to pull the genre out of stagnation. For that, it should be remembered and praised.