Friday, March 02, 2007

Final Fantasy XII review

Just like the year before, for me the winter months were spent mostly playing an epic RPG by genre powerhouse Square-Enix. Instead of Dragon Quest VIII however, this time it was the turn of Final Fantasy XII. While arguably not as popular as the Dragon Quest series in its native country of Japan, if the whole world is taken into account then the Final Fantasy series is the leader, ever since Final Fantasy VII wowed RPG addicts and non fans alike some 10 years ago. Yet, some fans were not pleased by the changes made in FFXII, which are most radical changes the series has seen in its history. Which way do I lean? Read on to find out...

Format: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Square-Enix
Genre: RPG
Region: NTSC (USA)
Price: Around £30

How does one even begin to review a game as huge as Final Fantasy XII, which has already won countless awards, including Game of the Year from Edge Magazine? Well, firstly I will try not to be biased by what other people have said, and to be as honest as I possibly can. I will go through each area of the game and try and come to a sensible conclusion.

Firstly though, you have to respect just what Square-Enix has achieved here. Last year I found it remarkable exactly how much they managed to fit on one DVD Rom for DQVIII, and yet FFXII outstrips even that game by a considerable margin, content wise. When I had finished the game, I had almost 110 hours on the clock, and I hadn't even seen and done everything. I might go back and finish off the last few optional quests some time but other games have already enticed me with their siren calls, so it's difficult. Don't go into Final Fantasy XII unprepared however, you have to be willing to lose yourself in the game. Yes, you can finish the main plot in about 40 hours if you really want to, but to me the most enjoyable parts were the optional extras. I'll get back to those later. In the meantime here's what I think about each aspect of FFXII in turn.

Graphics: 10 out of 10
The visuals of Final Fantasy XII are easily some of the most impressive that the PS2 has ever produced, easily rivalling anything that the next generation machines have to offer. A lot of this is down to the age of the PS2 and the power that has slowly been drawn out and exploited by the more expert development teams over the years. You will explore vast deserts, gargantuan tombs and mighty aerial fortresses, all in real time 3D. There's no prerendered backgrounds (as in the PS1 games) or being locked to a particular path through an area (ala FFX), you are free to roam wherever you want, as long as you are either strong enough to withstand the attacks of the monsters or fast enough to avoid them. A lot of the cut scenes are actually powered by the 3D engine as well, and the close up shots of the characters really give you the chance to appreciate how much detail there is in the character models and how high res the textures look. Everybody looks incredibly crisp and clean instead of suffering from aliasing (jaggies) like in the early days on the PS2.

Of course it wouldn't be a Final Fantasy game without plenty of FMV sequences, and these do make a return as well. They're nowhere near as prominent as in say, FFVII and personally I think this is a good thing. The story in FFXII has been rather simplified and pared down compared to the last few games in the series, something I think it needed. That's not to say that what's there isn't good, but the changes are refreshing.

Sound and Music: 10 out of 10
First of all think the music in FFXII is absolutely amazing. As the drama unfolded during the opening FMV and the main theme of the game came in, I had goosebumps go up my arms and back, it was that exciting. The same thing happened throughout the game, mainly during boss battles, and I also remember the Phon Coast having some outstanding music. This is definitely one game I would consider buying the soundtrack for. Even though Hironobu Sakaguchi has taken Nobuo Uematsu with him to Mistwalker, Hitoshi Sakimoto has managed to fill his shoes brilliantly and is just as good, if not better in my opinion.

The voiceovers are also some of the best I heard in a game, and for once most of the performances are nice and understated, rather than being overacted to the point of being annoying which so often happens in the RPG genre. Of course it helps that the actors have such a good script to work with. The localisation for FFXII is easily one of the best jobs that Square-Enix has ever done (along with DQVIII of course). It wasn't so long ago that Square-Enix were regularly critiscised for their localisation efforts, for games such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy IV. It appears that they are finally taking the western fans seriously and giving them the attention they deserve. Some may find the style of the dialogue a little "flowery" for their tastes, but I found it suited the medieval/industrial fusion of the world of Ivalice. At time it reminded me of something like Gladiator, where the characters would talk to each other with an air of polite menace.

The voice actors include Cat Taber as Penelo, who should be familiar to Knights of the Old Republic fans as the voice of Mission Vao. Phil Lamarr who has played many videogame roles including Vamp in Metal Gear Solid 2 is also in the supporting cast, along with Dwight "Mad Murdoc" Schultz who returns from a successful stint in Final Fantasy X in a number of small roles throughout the game.

The sound effects are the icing on the cake and they do their job well, from the typical sounds of battle (weapon hits, magical explosions and so forth) to the background noise of the city (your characters foosteps, the sound of market traders promoting their wares). It all adds to ensure that FFXII gets another perfect mark.

Fran is not your typical bunny girl.

Plot and Character:
8 out of 10
For the most part, the main characters and those that support them are a pretty likeable bunch, with as mentioned elsewhere well written dialogue and skillfully delivered lines. We have Fran, the exotic looking Viera (rabbit creatures, seemingly all women) with an accent to match. I can't quite place where the actress is from but it may be a Scandinavian country. Sounds cute anyway.

Then there's Balthier, a scoundrel of a sky pirate who seems to be in the quest only for fortune and glory but really has a heart of gold. People have compared the plot and characters to the Star Wars trilogy and it's not really hard to see the resemblance. Balthier would definitely play the part of Han Solo, which would make Fran Chewbacca... except rather less hairy and certainly more attractive (unless you have some strange fetish I'd prefer not to know about).

Accompanying those two are Princess Ashe, who has witnessed her kingdom become the victim of a powerplay between to rival nations, not to mention seeing her own father and husband killed in acts of battle and betrayal respectively. Joining the party a short way into the game is Basch, formally a captain of the Rabanastran army, but stripped of his rank and imprisoned for killing Ashe's father and a young recruit by the name of Reks.

Finishing off the main cast are Vaan, who is the elder brother of Reks, and his childhood friend Penelo, who get swept along in the quest and are motivated by feelings of hatred towards the Empire which has occupied their home city by force. They long for the day that their people can walk freely again and not have to suffer the suspicious gaze of an imperial soldier on every street corner.

There are also many supporting characters that frequently fill the fourth guest spot in your active party roster, and you don't have direct control over them. These include Larsa, the youngest member of the house Solidor, which also includes the old Emperor and Vayne, his evil, scheming son. Larsa doesn't agree with the tactics that his family have put into play, and longs for peaceful cohabitation between the various countries.

No, any problems in this category aren't the fault of the characters, but rather the plot that carries them along. Everything starts off extremely well with the promise of political intrigue, betrayal, heroic deeds (dare I say "derring-do"? Perhaps not), and an epic quest. Many plot threads dangle but rather than coming together neatly at the end, everything starts to unravel because things that were started are never followed up on. This could well be deliberate, because Final Fantasy XII is just one part of the "Ivalice Alliance" series that Square-Enix has got planned, which also include Revenant Wings on the DS, Final Fantasy Tactics: The Lion War on the PSP and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2, also for the DS. The plot also isn't as spectacular as past games in the series, but to me that was actually a plus. It makes things seem more believable in a way, and the amount of background detail that Square has piled in to the environments and the bestiary keep you interested enough to keep exploring the world.

Vaan and Penelo are the young whippersnappers of the story.

Game Mechanics:
8 out of 10
The basic design of the Final Fantasy series has stayed more or less the same through its history, with the odd tweak here and there for each new game. Final Fantasy XII is the first truly radical change in over 20 years. The turn based, random nature of the battles has been replaced with monsters roaming in the field and a more hectic battle system. Those of you brave enough to attempt the game with the battles set to Active instead of Wait can expect to have quite a tough time of it.

You take control of one of the party (you get to decide who) and any other party members including your guest follow along behind you. Most enemies will be hostile from the moment they detect you and you will see a red arc of light from the enemy to the party member they are targeting. This also works in reverse when you are targeting a monster, with a blue arc denoting an attack and a green arc denoting magic or items. For those that have played an MMORPG such as World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XI or Dark Age of Camelot, combat works in much the same way.

Pressing the X button on the joypad brings up your menu of available attacks, spells and specials. There are quite a few different options here, which grow as you buy more spells (divided into White, Black, Green, Arcane and Time), technicks (special skills which are free to use), Quickenings (basically this games Limit Breaks), Espers (Summons). Being able to use anything in the game isn't quite as simple as just buying it and equipping it however, each character also has a licence board and you have to buy a licence for anything you want to use, including weapons, armour, magic, espers (once you've defeated them) and augments (which permanently give your character a boost in a certain area, such as blocking). This can be a bit of a pain at times, and in the long run it doesn't really aid character customisation that much because you can easily obtain everything on the grid with every character, meaning they become facsimiles of themselves towards the end of the game.

Another aspect to Final Fantasy XII is the Gambit system. This basically acts like a very simple programming language for your characters, letting you set up various rules and conditions. So for example you could tell your characters to buff themselves up with Protect, Shell, Regen and many other spells in a quiet moment, or cast Curaga on undead creatures (who are extremely weak to White magic). You can chop and change Gambits at any time, even in the middle of a battle, and at times you will have to because one set of rules may be completely unsuited to that particular battle. It all works extremely well, and you can set up your characters to basically do most of the fighting for you, with you only stepping in in an emergency. The only major downside to the Gambit system is that for some reason beyond my comprehension Square-Enix decided to dole out new conditions (e.g. Ally HP is less than 20% or, Enemy = Undead) gradually throughout the game and they are unlocked depending on how far you are through the story.

Most of the battles against standard creatures can be fought and won without having to use the Gambits all that much as long as you are at a sensible level, but some of the optional bosses are much easier to finish off with their help. It's just a bit of a shame that on one hand Square-Enix give you this great tool to customise your characters, but on the other hand limit what you can do with it.

Innovation & Cleverness: 9 out of 10
Square-Enix should be applauded for the way that they've shaken up their oldest and most important franchise. The battle system, while not completely new to MMO fan, is at least new to players offline RPG's, and while elements like the Gambits and the Espers (which are a bit of a waste of time) don't quite work out, it's a very valiant attempt to inject some life in the flagging series. I also applaud their decision to veer away from adolescent whiny male main characters and feature a much more cheerful bunch where no one can really be considered the lead character. While a couple are left in the shadows for a lot of the time (Penelo being a good example), others such as Vaan, Ashe and Balthier all get equal time in the spotlight.

Personally, I think Final Fantasy XII is just what the series needed, but Square-Enix had better be careful because they're in danger of reaching saturation point with the amount of FF related games they're releasing. We've already had 4 games in the last 6 months, with another 6 or so on the way. Even if all of them are great games, that's still too many considering the time commitment you have to give to each one.

Value & Replayability: 9 out of 10
While it is questionable whether you'd replay such a long game, it has be said that Final Fantasy XII is phenomenal value for money. The main quest itself takes around 40 hours to finish. If you add on the major side quests, which include going on dozens of monster hunts for Clan Centurio and then tracking down another 60 rare monsters for the Hunter Club late in the game, that number can easily be pushed over 100 hours. There's even more to see though, because a good half of the Espers you can add to your party are optional and they have to be found and defeated first. I haven't even mentioned all the other little quests throughout the game yet, including hunting for lost Cluckatrice chicks and delivering a letter to every sister who each work on a different airship route.

Then we have the bestiary, which is extremely well written and will take even the most thorough player a considerable time to complete. When you defeat a monster you get a page of information about them, but when you defeat a monster a particular number of times a second page is unlocked which contains a variety of things including details on the various areas of Ivalice, hints as to what the monster may drop or other random tidbits.

While the game is enjoyable for most of the time, I must admit on occasion it began to feel like hard work as you have to level grind in order to be able to defeat some of the tougher monsters. At least Square-Enix has taken that into consideration as you are rewarded with better and better loot depending on how many monsters of the same type you can chain together. Personally I found the monster hunts to be the most enjoyable part of the game and I felt compelled to try and beat them all (which I haven't quite done yet, as the final beastie has around 5 million hit points).

Other races first introduced in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, such as the Bangraa, also make an appearance. These guys are particularly nasty bounty hunters that are after Balthiers head.

9 out of 10
While I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending Final Fantasy XII, I don't think it's a perfect as Edge magazine or Eurogamer did. When you've played for over 100 hours, the small flaws start to show themselves. I'd much rather play a game that's a fresh feeling and exciting as this rather than the same sort of thing all over again though (see Final Fantasy VII-X). Apparently, at least one of the three(!) announced Final Fantasy XIII games will be an action RPG, which has caused a bit of a stir among die hard fans. I have faith that Square-Enix can pull it off though after what they've managed to achieve here.

Note: The PAL version has only just come out, and I have no experience with it, so I don't know if Square-Enix have learnt their lesson from FFX and FX-2 and actually taken the time to optimise the game for PAL TV's. I would certainly hope so. If you have played the PAL version, add a comment and let me know.

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