Final Fantasy XII Review (PS2)

It took five years, and almost US$35 million to develop, but it was those last six months before the game’s European release that really hurt.

The license grid isn’t quite the sphere grid, but it works well enough Character design is simple and memorable

Still, at least it’s here now. No doubt there will be plenty of people who don’t like it, simply because that’s what Final Fantasy fans do. The people who liked Final Fantasy VII view the people who liked Final Fantasy X with suspicion; the people who liked the first game think those who liked Final Fantasy VII are shallow graphics whores; the people who liked Final Fantasy VI agree, but don’t like the first one because it’s too shallow in comparison to the innovations in gameplay that the 16-bit era ushered in; and no one liked Final Fantasy X-2. So, as ever, there’s bound to be all sorts of fans of the series telling you that this latest iteration is not up to scratch, and that the changes made to the game ruin everything that the series stood for, and that the series has gone downhill since whichever game is their Final Fantasy game of choice.

Put simply, though: they’re wrong. Final Fantasy XII is everything the series needed, and more.

Yes, there’s plenty of changes, but in a series that has always thrived in reinvention, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Plus, these are some of the most welcome changes the series has seen in some time. The overworld map is gone, replaced by a constant 3D view that allows you to really get a good impression of your surroundings, although the camera can take a little getting used at first. There’s also no more random encounters, as battles take place right where you come across enemies. These two elements go a long way to giving the game a more immersive feel than the other titles in the series – without the swirling transition, it really does feel like your party is just exploring the game world.

By far the biggest change is the battle system itself. Instead of the menu- and turn-based combat of most of the past titles, Final Fantasy XII plays much more like an MMO – that is, you’re not directly in control of your allies, or even your own player, for that matter, unless you want to be. This is all accomplished using the new Gambit system, which allows you to set parameters for characters’ behaviour. For example, you can tell an ally to attack the nearest enemy whenever one is in range, but only if your other characters all have health above 70% - otherwise they should use Cure, or a potion. Alternatively, you can set characters to use a certain spell on an enemy with an elemental weakness, or attack the enemy attacking the party leader – the options are numerous. While you’ll need to collect the Gambits throughout the game – which does tend to leave you a little limited at the beginning – it’s an immensely powerful and enjoyable way to play once you get used to it.

The locations are varied enough to be compelling.. …yet effectively represent a coherent world

Of course, that’s one of the problems that the game has – it is different, and it’s going to take a while to get used to, which can make the game feel a little unpalatable for the first hour or so, until it begins to make more sense, and really open up. Once that happens, however, it quickly becomes obvious that the Gambit system is far from a way of taking the challenge and direct interactivity out of the game: in fact, it makes smart, forward thinking even more important, and you are still in control of movement, as well as those emergency life-saving moments that tend to creep a up rather quickly if you’re not paying attention. The whole thing actually makes the game a lot more enjoyable to play for extended periods of time, which is something that’s probably for the best, considering the game clocks in at around 100 hours this time around.

As would be expected from the series, the plot is complex, engaging and compelling, though the focus on individual characters is not there to the degree that it was in Final Fantasy X, for example. Instead, the fate of the entire world – Ivalice – is the focus, and the feeling that your party is playing a part, without playing the only part, is actually quite refreshing and gripping. That’s not to say that the party isn’t comprised of some pretty interesting individuals, though – the sky pirate Balthier is charmingly snarky, and easily rates amongst the best characters to feature in the series – but if you’re looking for a dose of focused angst, you might want to look elsewhere.

For the most part, the voice acting is well done, and the translation is clear and easily understood. The game’s sound effects are expectedly well done, but the music – by Hitoshi Sakimoto, rather than series veteran Nobuo Uematsu – doesn’t quite have the impact fans will be used to. There’s nothing that really approaches the memorability that the series is renowned for, either. The score certainly isn’t bad, though, but Uematsu’s work has set a high target, and it seems that Sakimoto might not be the one to reach it.

The graphics are more than up to scratch though – in fact, they quite easily exceed those seen in its PS2 predecessor, and are amongst the best seen on the aging system. The cut scenes, in particular, are breathtaking and in-game graphics of such a constantly high standard are hard to find, even on the next-gen systems. Designs on characters and locations alike are spectacular, and the use of colour and lighting is nothing short of brilliant.

The graphics are simply the best seen on the PS2, both in terms of CG… …and in-game as well

Of course, there will be fans who still don’t like it even after actually giving it a chance, but they’re missing out on an amazing experience. Final Fantasy XII is refreshing, lengthy and complex – more importantly, though, it’s a huge amount of fun. It’s a fascinating take on the role-playing game, and a highlight in a series that has proven a highlight for the entire genre.

Top Gaming Moment:
You’ll be grinning like an idiot once you realise just how customisable the Gambit system is – the rest of the game just falls in to place after that.