I have a confession to make: I only own about twelve Play Station 2 games. While the console was one of the best-selling of all-time, and I did own one from day one, I basically used it as a DVD player while being more drawn to the graphically powerful competitors like Gamecube for real gaming experiences. Now that some time has passed and PS2 games are uber-cheap, I decided to start building a library.
One of the games I picked up was the Collector’s Edition of Final Fantasy XII. (Admittedly I bought this because it came in an awesome steel case.) I’m not entirely sure why I never heard much about this game when it came out in 2006; maybe because the next generation was already upon us, maybe because it was the first non-Sakaguchi FF title, or maybe because it eschews some of the series’ traditions. Whatever the case, it’s a shame, because this has rapidly become one of my favorite games in the franchise.
Final Fantasy XII starts out similarly to its predecessors; that is to say, with a beautifully rendered CG cutscene, the familiar prelude, and a spiky-haired young protagonist. From here the similarities become fewer. The game makes clear to you that this is not a tale of medieval kingdoms, dragons, and love. Instead the world takes place in the more Arabian setting of Ivalice (which fans will recognize as the setting of the Tactics series of games) and centers around that kingdom’s politics, which include stories of conquest and assassinated leaders.
The setting is one of my favorite parts of the game. As you walk around the main castle town (which, like the rest of the world, is absolutely huge) you get a very Star Wars-y feel. Reptile-like men are selling wares out of booths, large crowds consisting of all different races roam the streets, and guards patrol every corner. Ivalice is pretty obviously a center for trade in this world, which makes for a very diverse cast of characters and a very fresh feeling for the series.
Freshness is not scarce here and it oozes from every orifice of this game. The battle system is the most noticeable change, and it works wonders. Those familiar with MMOs will feel right at home here (many even said the game played like a single-player MMO, and while I see the resemblance, I give this game much more credit than typical MMO fare). Approaching enemies (which are all clearly visible in the field) no longer takes you away to a battle screen like FF games of old. Instead, you choose your actions from the battle menu in real time as you simultaneously move around with the left analog stick. No one is locked in place, and fleeing is done on the fly by simply holding R2.
The changes don’t stop there though. A new, and completely optional ‘Gambit System’ allows you to essentially program your partner characters’ A.I. so that they behave in battle as you want them to, but without having to manually choose every move for them. If you want one character to heal your partners when their health gets to 70%, and otherwise focus on attacking, so be it. Perhaps another character will be programmed to focus on helping out the leader by attacking whichever monster you happen to have targeted. Some diehard fans might miss the Japanese-sensible system of turn-based battling, but for my taste this is the perfect blend of old and new.
Another new system which I didn’t like at first, but grew to enjoy once the game picked up, was the license system. This time around weapons, armor, and spells cannot be equipped as soon as you buy or learn them. Instead they must also be unlocked on your license board, which looks a bit like an expandable scrabble board. To unlock a Level 4 javelin, you must have already unlocked Level 1, 2, and 3 javelins. At first this turned me off, simply because it was hard to unlock anything at all, but the game does a good job of providing you enough License Points to unlock your items as soon as they become available in shops. Additionally, once you get most of the board cleared, you’ll be offered perks such as a higher total HP, more gambit slots, higher attack, and etc. It’s a cool feature that you’ll end up spending a lot of time on as soon as you figure out how it works.
Speaking of such, it should be noticed that this game is not exactly accessible. The new battle system and license system seem on paper like ways to appeal to more Western gamers, but in fact they are complicated at their core, which requires even more of a learning curve to get into than the standard JRPG. This isn’t a bad thing; once you learn these differences you won’t want to go back to the old way for a while, but it means we’re a while away from having a Final Fantasy game for the Wii Sports crowd. (Good thing?)
The story is something that I won’t spend too much time on, because I want to avoid any spoilers. Even events which occur early on have pretty big twists within the initial few hours of gameplay. What is important is the quality of the tale Square is telling, and yes, it is a good one. This isn’t a love story; it is something more; something substantial. I found myself genuinely caring about the characters very early on. Final Fantasy XII gives you most of your main characters very early on instead of swapping them out for new ones every few hours. As a result each one is fleshed out properly and explored. Don’t worry if a character leaves you for a while–they’ll probably be back with stories to tell.
Graphically speaking this is one of the best-looking titles to grace the Play Station 2. Unfortunately it doesn’t support 480p, and it barely lays a finger on some of the Nintendo-produced masterpieces of the GameCube era. Metroid Prime, The Wind Waker, Super Mario Sunshine–they all look better than FFXII, but by no means is the game hard to look at. The art direction is solid and it is substantially different from what we see in the other games.
Every ounce of this game is refreshing to play, and I genuinely hope the eventual Final Fantasy XV returns to the traditions this game set. Considering I picked up the Collector’s Edition for a mere $20, there’s no reason not to own the game. By no means is it perfect, but it does a lot of things right.