Final Fantasy XII
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As always a grand story and the ever slightly changing battle system pulls you in more and more. The large maps that you battle in especially can make you lose track of time because of its appeal. It's amazing that a single player game can make you feel like you're playing with team mates!
It may feel awkward at first for FFX players since the battle system takes ques from the FFXI battle system, but the Gambit system will make getting used to the system a smooth transition. The freedom that can be achieved is great, even if the gamer's skills are limited. The story is great as usual and the acting is impressive.
A very generous game in how it's built. The story is rock solid but offers a great sense of freedom. The battles are a joy to play once you're used to the transition-less nature. There are times when you may just die instantly, so caution is to be taken at all times. This nervousness also makes the game a lot more exciting and fun.
Visuals that take your breath away, a complicating looking yet easy to play system, a balanced experience that fits all playing styles -- there are no faults in this game. You'll somehow get really into the game at one point and won't be able to stop. Even compared to the classic FFs, this can be ranked right alongside of them.
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October 27, 2006 - How often can one say, "The wait was worth it" and truly mean it? When is it okay to claim that, "This is one of the best examples of [insert genre here] ever" and not just say it for cliché's sake? But most importantly, when does a game with momentous hype and anticipation actually live up to media, consumer, and competitor expectations? The answer to all three of those questions is a simple one, "When you're playing Final Fantasy XII."

Granted, Final Fantasy XII may not seem like a game deserving of that level of prestige in its beginning -- it starts slow (slower than your typical RPG) and can take upwards of three to six hours to get going. In this day and age of videogames hitting the ground running the moment you press start, asking users for an extra layer of patience can certainly prove trying. Nevertheless, like most great things worth experiencing, big effort means big rewards.

And big rewards are what you'll get when you travel to the world of Ivalice. Final Fantasy XII is a massive, multi-character adventure with the darkest and most mature storyline the FF series has yet seen. But unlike past titles in the franchise, there isn't a single major character pressing the action (despite what commercials or FMV introductions might have you believe) -- this is a true ensemble piece that weaves multiple webs filled with every descriptor in the book: misfortune, treachery, love, hatred... you name it, it's in there.

And it all begins with an invasion. The powerful and militaristic Archadian Empire has continued its martial campaign into the previously neutral kingdom of Dalmasca. Only wanting peace for his people, the King of Dalmasca has agreed to sign a treaty granting Archadia occupational rights in exchange for the war's end. On the eve of the signing, however, Dalmasca's king is assassinated under terrible circumstances and his daughter, the princess, kills herself as a result. Flash forward to two years later and Archadia occupies Dalmasca and its people are none too happy about it. Among them is Vaan, an energetic young store worker who moonlights as a thief on the city streets. As the brother of a solider who fell during the murder of the king two years earlier, Vaan feels compelled to take back Dalmasca from the Archadians one purse at a time.

As you might imagine (and as setups like these usually go), Vaan bites off more than he can chew the day he decides to break into the royal palace during a welcoming banquet for the city's new Consul. As it happens, the Dalmascan resistance decides to take that opportunity to do the very same thing, as does a Sky Pirate (Balthier) and his companion (Fran). It's all one major snowball from there of course, and we'll leave the rest of the craziness up to the storytelling wizards at Square Enix to tell. But know this: Final Fantasy XII's plot has more ups, downs, and surprises than any other title we can remember this year.

One of the reasons the story works so well (besides the support it garners from its adult dialogue, excellent voice acting, and multiple red herrings) is thanks to its inspiration. Borrowed from the offshoot Final Fantasy Tactics universe, the world of Ivalice is completely different in theme to those of previous installments. Though it still has its own brand of Chocobos, Moogles (which have been redesigned, by the way), Airships, and other Square Enix staples, its flavor is decidedly European. This newfound direction and influence goes a long way in making old hats feel new again, and this fresh approach affects everything from the style and sound of the game to what would normally be recognizable character archetypes. It's somewhat evocative of what a videogame would be like if Terry Gilliam was involved... sort of an "Adventures of Baron Munchausen on Magicite."

Perhaps the most admirable trait of Final Fantasy XII's narrative, however, is that its depth of character and sheer quantity of surprises continues to hit all the way to the end. Despite how much attention Ivalice has garnered in the several years since it was first announced, most players will have no idea what to expect when going in. This simply isn't the game you probably think it is, and that's goes for you even if you've seen every screenshot, watched every trailer, or read every preview. Final Fantasy XII is whole lot more than what Square first let on. That kind of surprise is truly a rare thing to behold in an era dominated by Internet spoilers and the availability of 10,000 import FAQs before software even comes out.

Square Enix has kept the secret of its fiction hidden so well because, since all of your characters come together near the start, Final Fantasy XII capitalizes on the opportunity to tell you about them. There's no need, like in RPGs past, to rush through a sudden story arc in the final five hours of the game just because some new badass was introduced. Conceptualist and scenario plotter, Yasumi Mitsuno (Vagrant Story, Tactics Ogre) really outdid himself by capturing the elements of storytelling that TV shows like Lost and 24 have built a following on -- by evolving the personalities, histories, and motives of characters you already thought you knew, but didn't. There really is no limit to how many great things can be said about the story.

But enough about Final Fantasy XII's plot, we've said enough about its brilliance already. What about the game's biggest gamble, it's entirely new combat system? The short answer, if that's all you're looking for, is that it's outstanding. Completely different than the offline Final Fantasies before it, while borrowing a few things from the online-only Final Fantasy XI, FF12 benefits from a battle mechanic unlike any other. Sure, it'll take some getting used to, but boy is it worth it.

Now a big mistake that many have made when coming into FF12, of course, is that the new battle mechanic is action-oriented and not turn-based. In reality, Final Fantasy XII still relies on a turn-based engine (much as the old games did), but it just disguises that fact with a clever use of time bars and simultaneous character movement. This means that the camera is now entirely free (allowing users to move their view to any angle they like) and that enemies are no longer randomly encountered -- you can see them and their behaviors in real time just as you do your own.

Once combat initiates (be it your fault or your enemy's), a quick tap of the X button brings up everything you need to go. Attacks, items, magic, and techniques can all be accessed from a single HUD window, and if you don't want to engage, holding down R2 allows you to flee (though that doesn't mean you're safe... you'll literally have to run away if you want to make it out alive). Regardless of whatever commands you may choose, however, what happens next has your typical; RPG start... that is, monster damage and speed of attack are determined by the numerical stats of your characters.

But not so fast! If that's all there was to it, then Final Fantasy XII would be somewhat "by the numbers" in the combat department. What makes it different from the competition is also what makes it shine. To start, the enemies here actually have AI, unlike the standard "hit me until I die" mentality of most games in the genre. The creatures of Ivalice don't hold back at all. Even in the first few hours, players will learn for themselves that the enemies of FF12 attack in packs, run away when threatened, summon debilitating magicks whenever they can, and generally kick your ass. It's quite refreshing actually, and it adds a lot to the experience.

Another welcome addition to Final Fantasy XII is its "Gambit System." Previously, this system was compared to the preset AI commands of .hack or other titles with similar "character macros," but Square Enix has taken that idea to a whole new level. Using the Gambit, gamers can customize the behaviors of their partymates with an unprecedented amount of detail. In fact, you'll be able to program up to 12 separate situations that each individual character can react to and order them into a hierarchy of importance. So if, for example, you want Penelo to cast "Heal" on a teammate that's been wounded to the point of having only half their HP, and then immediately attack the nearest foe, you can do that. Or, you can get even more specific... if you want Basch to use Eye Drops only on Ashe once she's been afflicted with Blind, you can do that too. It's a pretty remarkable little system to say the least, and one that can be switched on and off with the tap of a button (for one character, two characters, or even all of them).

Though it may bother micromanagers, Gambits can be lifesavers in most combat scenarios -- especially those that require quick reactions and a need to focus on the conflict at hand. It's also understandable if the AI-driven behavior is viewed as an instance of the game "playing itself," thereby making it less appealing for action-minded users. But while that's a totally plausible argument in theory, that doesn't make the game any fun -- and without the input of a human who can adapt to whatever situation presents itself, it would result in far too many premature deaths to make it entertaining (which is the whole point of playing a videogame in the first place). In other words, you're encouraged to use Gambits but can't fully rely on them.

One area that's not as easily forgiven, though, is the fact that there are higher level or "rare appearance" monsters that engage you when you least expect it. This means that while you're out smashing Hyenas or other inconsequential foes in the Giza Plains, for example, that a pair of ultra-powerful werewolves may show up and hand you your hairless pelt in just a couple of hits. This can and does happen with a startling bit of frequency too, so unless you're paying attention to the battlefield at all times and are understanding of the target icons and what they mean (blue targets are easy, yellow is moderate, and red is difficult), then you can expect to die with some regularity. If you listen to all the NPC advice in the opening city of Rabanastre, however (learn and use Libra right away! It shows you enemy strengths and weaknesses), and make good use of your flee button, you'll have a much better chance of survival.
One of the most compelling additions to the Final Fantasy XII world is the advent of the License Board. Built on the same concept as FFX's Sphere Grid system, the License Board allows users to customize their characters as they level up in the exact way they see fit. The difference between the two systems, though, is that there aren't any real affinities here. FFX would start each character in specific areas of the grid and leave it up to the user to go from there; whereas FF12 puts everyone's starting point at pretty much the same spot. On a personal level, I miss the focus on "playing to strengths" that Final Fantasy X offered, but still found myself addicted to building a better fighter through the license board. Regardless, it encourages frequent fighting to earn said License Points, and since combat is one of the game's strengths, we're all for it.

Don't think that the story and battle system are all that Final Fantasy XII has to offer, though. The game's visual engine is among the best ever seen on the PlayStation 2, and the incredible amount of detail, activity, and fluidity of everything seen on the screen at once is quite a technical feat. Each and every model, down to the most obscure NPC, has an immense level of attention paid to them -- from their clothes and facial expressions, to their walking and idle animations. It's truly an impressive sight.

This sort of high-end presentation isn't limited to only the visuals of course. As mentioned earlier, the voice acting in Final Fantasy XII is top notch and is supplemented nicely by a solid musical score (though admittedly, it isn't the best in the series by far -- IV, VI, and X blow it out of the water). Moreover, the load times (while appearing often) are almost non-existent in length -- making them a bit of a non-factor. There's also an absurd amount of extra stuff that players can enjoy about the world of Ivalice -- including a fully-featured Bestiary (complete with animal origins), a Sky Pirate's Den (that awards trophies for accomplishing specific feats), bounty hunting sidequests, Chocobo riding, airship flying, secret unlockable limit breaks (called Quickenings), and plenty more.

But the big question is, "With all this RPG greatness being thrown around, is there actually anything wrong with it?" Unfortunately, no game is ever worry-free and with that in mind, FF12 does have a couple of bothersome (if not miniscule) issues. The fully-rotational camera, for example, can't be customized and (by default) moves in the complete opposite direction of most 3D games -- so expect a learning curve with that one. Additionally, most of the cities in Ivalice are unnecessarily large and require a lot of navigation/ backtracking thanks to the heavy amount of fetch questing that users have to endure along the way. Throw in a slight difficulty when earning money (sell, sell, sell!) and a few bizarrely-designed dungeons, and you have a couple of points of contention. Then again, the game is so blasted good that it's easy to overlook all this when weighed against the bigger picture.

Closing Comments
Final Fantasy XII is a fantastic RPG. It blows all of its PS2 competition this year right out of the water and is among the all time elite role-players ever made for the system. Kingdom Hearts, Devil Summoner, Xenosaga III, Tales of the Abyss... none of them are on the same level as Square Enix's bold and riveting move in a new direction. Whether you're a fan of the genre or not, FF12 most certainly deserves a special spot on your PS2 game shelf... put it in the front.

by Jeremy Dunham


It's been a long time since the last proper installment in the standard-setting Final Fantasy series. While Square Enix did ship numerous games bearing the Final Fantasy brand after 2001's Final Fantasy X, it took all these years before another lengthy, ambitious, lavishly produced, traditional role-playing game would arrive. Final Fantasy XII arrives at the end of the PlayStation 2's lifecycle, whereas Final Fantasy X benefited from a presentation that was truly cutting edge. This latest installment in the series also introduces a new strategic combat system that makes gameplay more cohesive yet more hands-off than before. In spite of this trade-off, it's an evolutionary step for the series and a refreshing change. And underneath the overhauled combat and the distinctive visual style, this is still Final Fantasy. Outstanding art direction, a likable cast of characters, a lengthy quest, and plenty of challenging battles all await you in this next installment to live up to the Final Fantasy name.

Unlike most previous Final Fantasy games, this latest game takes place in a particular fantasy setting that's already been established by some of its predecessors. Final Fantasy XII's world of Ivalice, first seen in 1998's great Final Fantasy Tactics and later again in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, is like a Japanese take on Star Wars' galaxy far, far away. Men and women walk the streets of Ivalice's impressive cities together with hulking, lizardlike creatures and other strange beings, and political unrest and war threaten their livelihoods as a resistance movement mounts to overthrow an empire that's taken over much of the land. Ivalice is more fantasy than science fiction, yet the air battles featured in the game's opening cutscene, and the decidedly high-tech airships that figure prominently throughout the rest of the game, give this Final Fantasy its token sci-fi flair. The story follows a cast of characters who set out to free the country of Dalmasca from the clutches of the Archadian Empire, which took it over by force. During the journey, you'll learn much more about the history of Ivalice, the strange forces at play behind the scenes, and, of course, about your characters.

The ragtag group of characters you'll be guiding throughout most of the game are as unlikely a lot as you've probably come to expect from a Final Fantasy game. Vaan is the token androgynous male lead, sort of an Aladdin-type with a good-natured personality and strong instincts. He might look a bit like a girl, but he's your typical good guy. His childhood friend, Penelo, somehow gets swept up into everything along with him, and soon enough Vaan also runs into a smooth-talking sky pirate named Balthier and his stern-but-stunning companion, a rabbit-eared woman named Fran. A strong-willed princess and a disgraced captain of Dalmasca's defeated military round out the main cast, though they'll be joined by other companions at various times throughout the game. Much like the cast, the story itself is similar to previous Final Fantasy games in a lot of ways, resulting in many implausible but exciting sequences and some dramatic, emotionally charged moments later on. It's a very good story overall, especially once the Empire's true intentions become clearer and the real villains are unmasked. The plot unfolds through lots of beautifully produced and expressive cinematic cutscenes and plenty of well-written dialogue. In between all this, expect a lot of combat, exploration, and character building--the hallmarks of Final Fantasy gameplay.

The biggest difference between this Final Fantasy game and its predecessors is in how the combat works. These changes fundamentally affect the overall flow of the game, not necessarily making it flat-out better or worse than past Final Fantasies, but certainly different. Combat occurs seamlessly in the context of the areas you'll be exploring, rather than in random battles that sporadically force you out of exploration mode and into combat mode. As a result, you'll almost always see your enemies on the battlefield (or on your map) before you engage them, and there's no longer a discrete difference between the exploration mode and the combat mode--they're now one and the same. The benefit of this is that the frustrations of constantly running into random enemy encounters, a feeling that's common to Japanese role-playing games, is simply not there in Final Fantasy XII. Combat is still frequent and unavoidable, but not having to constantly switch between fighting and exploration helps make the game flow more smoothly.

The downside of the new combat system is that it's often on a smaller scale than in past games. Final Fantasy games are known for pitting you against some impossibly big and imposing-looking enemies, but since combat in this game takes place within the same environments you'll be exploring, it doesn't have quite the same larger-than-life sense of scale as before. Don't worry, though--you'll still get to fight plenty of fearsome, powerful-looking opponents. But you'll be looking at the bigger ones' feet as you hack away. Yet it's the real-time nature of the combat that's bound to be the most controversial aspect of Final Fantasy XII. This game's combat system is about managing your characters' battle plan, rather than micromanaging their individual actions, though you can micromanage if you really want to. Interestingly enough, the combat system draws a lot of influence from online role-playing games, like Square Enix's own Final Fantasy XI. This means that while the combat will seem much different from what you might have played in past single-player Final Fantasy episodes, chances are it'll still feel pretty familiar.

The key to the combat is something called the gambit system, which is like a simple programming language for your characters. And if you think "simple programming language" is an oxymoron, chances are you'll find the system to be pretty complicated. Basically, you can give each character in your party his or her own set of conditional, prioritized orders. A simple example is a gambit that causes one of your characters to automatically attack the nearest enemy. But you might prioritize casting a healing spell on allies at less than 50 percent of their health ahead of that. Or, if any enemies are down to critical health, you can make sure they get finished off first and foremost. As you play through the game, you'll be able to create increasingly longer, more complex lists of gambits. Being limited to just some vary basic gambits at first helps keep this system from being overwhelming, even as you'll naturally think ahead to what you'll do as more options open up. But this system still comes down to you programming the artificial intelligence for each of your characters. If you use gambits properly, in many battles all you'll need to do is sit back and watch as your characters automatically attack their foes and use healing and support spells to keep each other in fighting shape.

Of course, in any serious battle--and there are a lot of challenging fights in this game--you'll get wiped out if you just sit back and watch. During combat, you can step in to manually issue orders to any party member whenever you wish and may also swap in defeated party members with your alternates (only three of your main characters can fight at a time). In the end, the combat feels highly strategic, because poorly planned gambits will bring disaster. But you can easily change your gambits on the fly or toggle them off for any character if you'd prefer to. You can also adjust the speed at which battles unfold, though the default speed seems ideal. And even if you do find yourself at an impasse with a particular battle, it's usually possible to go off someplace else and come back to it later, after having replenished your supplies, grown stronger, and adjusted your strategy. In the first hours of play, the rather passive combat sequences are somewhat disappointing, since there's really not much to do. But once you've assembled the entire party and the gambit system starts opening up, the combat becomes quite interesting and involved. In short, rather than task you with controlling the specific actions of your different characters, Final Fantasy XII puts you in a more strategic, commanding role.

Ironically, the nature of the underlying combat is the same as ever, which means you'll constantly be trading hits with foes whose own attacks will frequently bring your characters to death's door, just in time for a healing spell to restore them. Many foes will also use status-changing effects in different combinations, like poison or sleep spells, and Final Fantasy players will need to contend with these in familiar ways. You'll also learn special abilities unique to each character and get to summon creatures called espers to temporarily fight for you, elements that will also be familiar to Final Fantasy players. What helps make all the fighting feel meaningful and interesting is Final Fantasy XII's licenses system, another fairly convoluted but ultimately good addition to the game. Your characters all earn license points with each enemy you defeat, and these points are then used to unlock new upgrades and innate abilities for your characters. Much like the combat, the license board gives an odd first impression, because you need a license for literally each and every equipment piece, magic spell, and special ability in the game before you can use them. So you can't equip that crossbow as soon as you find it, and you won't just magically learn the cure spell once you hit a certain level. You need to spend license points on the license.

The license board works kind of like Scrabble. You can only acquire licenses next to other licenses you've already acquired, and the licenses along the edges of the board (farthest from your starting points toward the middle) are often tied to the strongest items, spells, and upgrades. Each character starts off with some basic equipment and ability licenses, and the board is roughly split up so that weapon, armor, accessory, magic, combat, and special ability licenses are all grouped together. Licenses for more-valuable abilities tend to cost more points, and the license board also lets you unlock additional gambit slots for adapting your characters' behavior in combat toward increasingly complex battles.

Much like the combat, the license system introduces some trade-offs. The good news is that the intricacies of this system are far more interesting than annoying, and it gives you an incentive to fight just about everything you encounter, even the weakest creatures that are barely worth any experience points anymore. The bad news is you might find yourself getting hung up on trying to figure out the "best" way to unlock licenses for each character, and since the license board is the same for each character, that means each character is also the same, and it's entirely up to you to define their differences and specializations. This may come as no surprise to those who've been keeping up with Final Fantasy for a while, since recent installments in the series have all done this. But it still seems strange that Basch, the captain of the Dalmascan guard, is inherently no better in a sword fight than pig-tailed Penelo. In fact, you could turn Basch into a pure healer / magic user while developing Penelo as your single toughest fighter. This open-ended system adds sophistication and replay value to Final Fantasy XII, but some sort of "autolevel" system probably would have been a good option.

Final Fantasy XII caters to the series' dedicated fans with numerous references to past installments and with plenty of tough battles. Even once you're comfortable that your characters can all operate like a well-oiled machine thanks to the gambits system, you'll still need to spend a good amount of time going out of your way to level them up, earning enough license points to purchase some important upgrades for all of them. Earning money in the game is no simple matter, either. In a slight move toward greater realism, most of the foes you fight don't actually carry any money, but they'll drop trade goods that you can then sell in exchange. Stealing from foes can give you more of these precious items, and throughout the game, you'll be faced with a lot of tough decisions about which weapons, armor, and spells to buy and not to buy. This is to the game's credit, since having to choose which characters will get the best weapons or best armor is more interesting than simply snatching up all the best new gear in each new town you visit. And remember: You'll need to get the necessary licenses for these upgrades, too.

Exploring, fighting, watching the story unfold, and managing your characters using the gambits and licenses systems are where you'll be spending most of your time with Final Fantasy XII, and there's a lot to it. Expect the quest to last you a good 40 or more hours the first time through, and on top of that, there are many hidden and optional areas to explore, bounty-hunter missions to undertake, special rewards to unlock, and more. The game even features a surprisingly well done bestiary, which provides some lively remarks about all the hundreds of different creatures and foes you'll encounter. Overall, the world of Ivalice feels quite big, especially since you'll traverse so much of it on foot. There's definitely a lot of straight-up running around in this game, but since the visuals are so impressive, all the sightseeing is part of the fun.

Final Fantasy XII's art style is different from that of previous games in the series, but longtime fans of Square's role-playing games will note that it bears a clear similarity to the memorable look of 2000's Vagrant Story. In fact, Final Fantasy XII borrows not only the visual style but also some of the sound design from that game, and the results are truly impressive. The game's characters portray genuinely lifelike emotions during the cutscenes, on down to some very subtle changes of expression and use of body language. And the imaginative characters and scenery of Ivalice make it exciting to enter each new area of the game. You'll see some objects just pop into the environments as you explore them, but there aren't a lot of other rough edges to the game's visuals. This isn't the technical marvel that Final Fantasy X was in its day, but it's by every means another gorgeous-looking game in the series, featuring probably the best art style of any Final Fantasy game to date.

A beautifully composed soundtrack is there to accompany every moment, and while it still uses synthesized instruments like the old Final Fantasy games, it sounds fantastic. Some of the familiar themes are in there, along with lots of original compositions that fit the mood and the setting very nicely. Indeed, one other advantage of how the game's combat all takes place seamlessly within the environments is that you don't get stuck listening to the same battle theme all throughout. Final Fantasy XII offers support for widescreen displays and surround-sound setups, and it generally looks and sounds remarkably good even by today's standards.

The quality of the game's voice acting deserves special mention, as well. Not every performance is spectacular, but the main characters' voice actors are great fits, and they deliver their lines well. There aren't many recognizable actors in the lot (not unless you count Simon Templeman, who voices Kain from the Legacy of Kain series), but this cast does an excellent job of helping bring the in-game characters to life. Note that Final Fantasy XII isn't fully voiced, as most of the conversations you'll have with townspeople are done in text. If there are any minor issues with the presentation, it's that the characters' lip-synching doesn't quite match the English dialogue and the subtitles often don't exactly match the speech in the cutscenes, but these issues are easy to ignore.

Final Fantasy XII has been a long time coming, and it shows. Thankfully, all the time in development hasn't dampened the quality of the game's presentation, and in spite of however many hundreds of people must have worked on this game for all these years, the end result is a more cohesive game than its predecessors from the series' 3D-graphics era. There's still a disconnect between what happens during gameplay and what happens during cutscenes, but by integrating the combat and exploration, Final Fantasy has come one step closer to being more immersive than before. And while Final Fantasy XII takes some liberties with the series' conventions, it sticks closely to most of the good ones, delivering another memorable and highly recommended experience in the process.

By Greg Kasavin, GameSpot

Posted Oct 31, 2006 6:17 pm PT


Square-Enix's Final Fantasy XII has been so long coming that gamers have gone through not just a period of anticipation, but anticipation cycles. Interest picks up and hold steady with new information, months pass, attention shifts to a new game on the horizon or another solid RPG hits the market. With the game's release in Japan over half a year ago, you may feel that the game is now old news and you simply missed out on it. Now that the game has finally hit North America, players can come out of their daze, slap themselves in the face, and enjoy one of the best role-playing games to be released in years.

The game begins by focusing on a young thief in a subjugated country, and expands to include a varied cast that includes a dapper air pirate, a deposed princess, and a fallen hero among other interesting characters. Cities are sprawling and densely populated, environments are expansive and just as densely populated with things that want to kill you. The world actually seems to be going through the motions of existing. People and things both walk around and do their own thing, and you can approach enemies physically in the same way as you'd approach a townsperson. After a brief introductory system gives you a taste of the gameplay and hooks you into what will become an grand journey.

Although you're caught up in an epic adventure, there are hundreds of monsters and adversaries between you and a satisfying conclusion. Defeating of scores of foes is part of the pleasure in RPGs, and the "gambit system" is XII's big innovation in monster-slaying. By using gambits, players create battle strategies for each character, removing the need to select each individual action from a menu. The result is that you don't need to bring up a menu for every time you want to attack an enemy or cast a spell; although you can play that way if you like (you don't have to use gambits at all if you don't want to). The gambits aren't there to take away your glory, they only mean to take away some of the busy work.

At first the gambits you can create are very simple, for example directing characters to automatically attack enemies or heal injured an injured comrade. Basic attack-and-heal strategies are enough to effectively smite the vast majority of enemies you'll come across, which really says something about the nature of fighting in many RPGs -- namely that foes aren't necessarily there to provide a challenge, but to look cool and menacing (which they do; the bestiary is creative and full of variety) and feed you a steady stream of gratifying victories and delicious experience and license points you can use to make your character even stronger. The gambit system ends up doing a great job serving up constant, compelling battles and proves to be flexible, interesting, and rewarding.

To set up these auto-orders you decide the action, the target of the action, and the condition for the action to be executed. The basic attack gambit can be tuned to beat up the closest enemy, beat up the enemy that's beating you up, or beat up the enemy the party leader has targeted. It's a tiny bit technical with various percentages and conditions, but it's all pretty logical stuff. Do you want to heal an ally when his hit points become critical or earlier when they drop to 50%? You can actually do both, since you can eventually set up to a dozen gambits per character in order of priority.

It's easy to acquire a solid command of the basics (the game does a good job explaining things without being patronizing) and the advanced stuff is really optional icing on the strategic cake. You will come across challenging foes and direly difficult key battles that tend to require a lot more direct input (or at least some leveling up and license point accumulation), but as the system expands and you're given more and more to work with, mastery of the system can translate into a nearly un-beatable automated fighting force -- which is pretty satisfying in its own way.

You beef up your characters directly not only by gaining levels by unlocking new spells, techniques, armor, and weapons via the license board, a sprawling checkerboard of connected squares. Working outward from centrally located squares, you explore and define each characters potential -- weapons, armor, spells, and skills -- as you see fit. If you're the kind of player who gets a lot of enjoyment in customizing your characters, the huge board is full of tantalizing potential. It isn't always easy to convert that potential to an immediate benefit, though.

Uncovering new squares on the board doesn't necessarily make them available for use -- you also have to purchase or find a physical weapon, piece of armor, spell, or skill to use it. There are worthwhile statistical bonuses and special attack techniques called "quickenings" available for players who push hard toward the edges of the board with their harvested license points, but it's quite likely you'll unlock scads of equipment and abilities you won't see until much, much later in the game. This means you have to move through the story to unlock more goodies and gambits, but even if you get most of your enjoyment from the technical side of things the storytelling side of things is also well-developed and well-executed.

The tale told in FFXII is impressively constructed and well-plotted, favors political intrigue over inexplicable ancient evil forces out to destroy the world, and stars a sizeable cast of characters that interact with each other in dramatic and interesting ways. Not a bad start, but it's also backed up by intelligent writing and excellent voice performances. At times the vaguely Shakespearian English and theatrical delivery you may feel like you're watching a period play that, for some reason, includes a hot bunny girl, but it's tough not to be impressed with the production or resist being charmed by a few of the characters.

The plot progresses in a traditional manner, meaning you as the player follow a kind of fated path and are propelled forward by character actions and cinematic cutscenes that are out of your direct control but still entertaining to witness. There's still plenty of room to wander off the central path in search of treasure or simply to kick around, gain some license points and cash, and do your own thing. The primary side-quest involves rising in the ranks of a hunters' clan by tracking down and slaying wanted monsters, and killing a wide variety of monsters is rewarded with item shops offering rare items for purchase. Giant birds called chocobos, airships, and a network of warp stones help you get from one place to another with relative ease, so even in the middle of an important story point you typically have the freedom to go back for something you missed or even shrug things off for a while. It's nice not to feel locked in.

Though it's without question a quality piece of software, the game may betray the expectations of some fans. If you've has played a multiplayer online RPG, particularly Final Fantasy XI, and just hated it, certain elements of the game could rub you the wrong way. The nature of the combat, the almost intimidating hugeness of cities, sprawling outdoor environments, and cavernous dungeons may rub you the wrong way though they function just fine in this single-player experience. The strange and colorful world of Ivalice might also be an acquired taste, and there's also what feels like a rather strong Star Wars influence (both trilogies) that could add to the worlds richness or just seem a little weird, depending on your personal take.

Objectively, Final Fantasy XII is hard to knock. The game looks great, sounds great, has great writing, offers a lengthy and satisfying journey, has a great technical element and engaging sword-swinging and spell-slinging. It would be difficult to find a game out there with better production values, or that meets its goals so successfully while still introducing new ideas and innovations. If you have it in you to enjoy a console RPG -- any console RPG -- you should have no problem enjoying this expertly crafted title.


Before we dive into the gameplay, let's talk story. The last several Final Fantasy games put us inside the troubled heads of their heroes. Although Vaan could hold his own in a pretty-boy cat fight, this is not a character-driven tale. It's a sweeping epic in the vein of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, where the characters are important for what they represent, not what they feel - and the main thrust of the story centers on war and the naked, magic-fueled ambition of man.

Though the tale is epic and the cinemas are excellent, the story is missing the emotional core that drove the previous games - even if their stories made less sense. This is probably the first time a Final Fantasy story feels like a blockbuster movie - maybe even more than it feels like a game. The tale centers on Dalmasca, a tiny kingdom caught in a huge struggle. Ashe, the beautiful, fallen princess struggles to capture the power to rebuild her kingdom, as Vayne, the son of the Emperor who conquered Dalmasca, seeks to dominate the entire continent.

The cutscenes come much less frequently than those in prior Final Fantasy games - but they always make an impact. You can read the story in the characters' detailed expressions... which is, at times, preferable to hearing it in the overwritten dialogue.

While ogling all of these visuals, there’s actually a decent story being told in Final Fantasy XII.? It’s multi-leveled, as the narrative discusses a kingdom that was recently conquered, an internal power struggle within the empire that conquered this kingdom, and the threat of a much larger war between this empire and its greatest rival (another equally formidable empire).? In the meantime, there are smaller stories interlaced that discuss personal issues many of the party members are dealing with.? There are a lot of levels to the story, and it’s difficult to discuss without giving too much away.? Helping to make it so compelling is that the narrative doesn’t try to be more than it is.? Past Final Fantasies have had a tendency to come off as a tad self-important, but this one stays grounded as an epic with a lot of political undertones.? Compared to the vast amount of childish animu pap that typically pollutes the realm of Japanese RPGs, this is a big step forward in storytelling.? However, for as well written as the story is, as the game progresses, the pacing begins to fall apart.? It's as if the developers suddenly realized that it was taking them forever to finish up this game, and kicked it into high gear to get things done.? The story still touches on a number of the issues discussed above, but the pacing is shot to hell.? There becomes more and more grinding, and more and more tedious dungeon crawling that contributes to the content than actual story telling, making it difficult to want to bother continuing.
The story is more about nations and events than people, so while it makes sense that Final Fantasy XII’s characters are underdeveloped, it doesn’t stop it from being unsatisfying. Many of the story’s other characters are more interesting than the ones you’ll actually control, as your characters’ motivations are thin to non-existent. For example, Vaan, despite being the “main” character, is apparently just along for the ride. While this does result in fewer cutscenes, the game lacks the memorable emotional core of recent entries in the series.

Despite the elaborate setup, the story is surprisingly straightforward and unsatisfying in the end, but the extensive, exquisitely-translated dialogue delays this realization until the end. There is an awful lot of talk of politics and planning, but it’s mostly backdrop and rarely affects you or your actions.

After the last few Final Fantasies, which were apparently more of Tetsuya Nomura's joint than anyone else's, Yasumi Matsuno wound up as FFXII's director. The result is a Final Fantasy game that feels more like Vagrant Story II than anything else, replacing the token romances and quests to save the world of the past games in the series with a plot mostly revolving around war and politics. (Hell, if you added a hundred and two more characters, this could be a Suikoden game.)

That hideously brief summarization of the story should tip you off right away that things have changed around here. Vaan isn't the Boy of Destiny who's fated to tip the scales in an epic conflict for the fate of the world; he's just kind of there as events unfold around him. (He is a girl-faced man-woman of dubious gender, but hey: baby steps.) FFXII is set in one part of a much larger world, with a storyline revolving around constant manipulations, deceptions, doublecrosses, and revelations. It feels a little like the series has finally grown up.

It's also worth mentioning that the translation job is top-notch, as is the writing. There are actually likeable characters here, as opposed to characters that you like despite yourself, or that you like because they make fun of the rest of the lameasses in the cast.

To put it more simply, Balthier is probably the best character in this whole damn series to date, and he deserves three more games of his own.