Review by Seraphimon
"A terrible waste of potential that nevertheless manages still to entertain"
As we all know, when Final Fantasy XII was released, it was to a storm of fans either thoroughly hating the changes it made to its predecessors, or thinking that the game was the best thing that happened to the series. I can't help but think that both groups had a point: Final Fantasy XII is ultimately a mixed beast, with both its extreme highs and with its terrible lows. This makes for a unique game, though I wish it could have been a game that was instead uniquely good.
Final Fantasy XII is the most beautiful game on the Playstation 2, and its visuals are as good as the best looking games on the other consoles of its generation. First, it's a technical marvel. Character and landscape models are both intricately detailed. Even random, unimportant characters don't look obviously generic, an improvement over Final Fantasy X which constantly left me puzzled for how that particular game's universe had developed such that only the main characters were genetically distinguishable from anyone else. Model motion is likewise amazing. Lighting and shading? Fantastic. Best of all, all of these are situated within absolutely massive environments, unlikely the relatively small areas of the previous single player Final Fantasy X or of Vagrant Story, one of the current game's spiritual predecessors. Thus the game is not only beautiful, but also expansively beautiful.
Second, the art design is astounding, which is why this game is visually competitive even against the high-tier games of the technologically superior Xbox. Primarily, the art style is cohesive and adds to the environment by giving it a notably Mediterranean feel, especially in the city in which you start, Rabanastre. This is contrast to say, Ninja Gaiden, which looked pretty but seemed contrived due to the visual stylings of medieval Japan, modern artillery, Egyptian culture and practically everything else being mashed together into an unholy mix. The artistic cohesion of Final Fantasy XII, on the other hand, makes the game basically as immersive as you could expect.
The plot of Final Fantasy XII is incredibly hard to rate.
To give a brief outline, the game is set in the fictional world of Ivalice. The premise of the game is that your characters, most notably the orphan Vaan, the princess Ashe, and the disgraced knight Basch, are all citizens of the kingdom of Dalmasca that was brutally conquered two years ago. Your aim is to find a way to liberate your nation from the oppressive empire Archadia.
Now given, as I've noted, that the plot is hard to evaluate, it seems helpful to assess how enjoyable the story is at each stage of the game. That stated, Final Fantasy XII has the most exceptional opening sequence I've ever seen in a video game. The opening FMV is not only outstandingly beautiful, but sets the premise of the story very well. More than that, the introduction/prologue gameplay sequence, which functions as a tutorial of sorts, is both incredibly chilling and suspenseful.
However, it goes downhill from here. The remaining first quarter of the game is fine. However, right until about the last quarter of the game, the gist of the story is to go somewhere and do something, and the player tends not to sympathise strongly what the 'something' is. In other words, the game has an extremely tedious middle half.
The story picks up in the last quarter or so, but by this point it's too late: we don't care. The deep and profound character and plot revelations seem neither deep nor profound, because we've been trained to be indifferent towards both the characterisation and the plotline throughout the rest of the game.
So, with some notably good points, and some notably horrendous points, what happened?
Nothing wrong happened with the setting of the game, or the plot premise. Final Fantasy XII has created a beautiful, believable world, and besides, it has a behemoth of lore from the Final Fantasy series from which to draw. In other words, it is incredibly immersive. And the storyline premise, revolving around the freedom-motif, is more than fine, and in fact a breath of fresh air from the save-the-world quests that tend to dominate Final Fantasy games and Japanese RPGs in general.
However, I'm split about the characters. While I thoroughly approve of how, like in Final Fantasy X, the main characters don't conform to the overdone angst-filled teen stereotype, they're not that well done anyway. This is because the characters have potential, but never fulfill the potential. I'm not talking about some persons' disappointment that the character whose perspective you take in the game, Vaan, actually doesn't end up to be the chosen Destroyer of Worlds, unlike so many JRPGs. It's that he doesn't develop. He has a static personality, and since he doesn't grow, the player doesn't grow to like him. More disappointing is Basch, who is set up by the introduction to be one of the most interesting RPG characters ever, but quickly turns out to be a dud.
There's also a distinctive lack of cohesion between characters. Whatever its flaws, Final Fantasy X clearly showed the relationships between characters in your party, though this itself led to the criticism that it became an interactive movie, too filled with cutscenes. On the other hand, why your characters are even in your party for the vast majority of the game is for very uncompelling reasons, and how they relate to each other is even more dissatisfying.
Furthermore, the story is deeply problematic. I've mentioned the amazingly strong start of the game's plot. This is because of the political intrigue raised. However, rather than heightening this political intrigue, the game levels it instead. Your main quests, such as to retrieve the X artifact, are indeed linked to your characters' purposes as a whole, but the link seems very contrived. This does not make for a plot that draws you in.
Moreover, like another one of its spiritual predecessors, Final Fantasy Tactics, the supernatural, epic elements of the storyline seem to be tacked on to the rest of the storyline (read: gimmicky), instead of central to it. A purely political tale, wherein the supernatural elements would be serving rather than competing with the political scope, would have been much more preferable.
Given all of the above flaws, it's hard to rate the story of Final Fantasy XII highly, though some aspects of it are absolutely fantastic. It ultimately is a case of wasted potential.
Sound and Music: 6.5
First, the quality of the voice acting is leaps and bounds ahead of Final Fantasy X, in that it's actually compelling and enjoyable to listen to, not cringe-worthy. Of especial note is Basch's voice. Admittedly, none of the performances are truly gripping, but I think this the voice actors did the best they could with an uninspired script.
Unfortunately, the music is not memorable at all, a shame compared to the excellent soundtracks created for the previous games one of the notable producers, Yasumi Matsuno, has worked on. It's not bad, by any means, and it gets the job done. It's simply not noteworthy.
Like the story, Final Fantasy XII's gameplay is hard to rate, also reaching both meteoric highs, and devastating lows.
Most notable about the game is the way Final Fantasy XII's battle system has been revamped compared to the previous single player installments of the series. The random battle system is gone, and all battles happen on the screen you were in before, not an abstract landscape void of all objects except you and the enemy. This means that you're free to move around in combat, and running takes a new depth since when you flee, enemies chase after you. However, the command menu is still very similar. There's Attack, Magic, and Item. It's rather nostalgic.
What's really different is the Gambit system. Gambits basically are premediated A.I. scripts for your characters. These can be very complex. For example, you can set your characters to attack the closest enemy, or whoever your party leader is attacking. You can make them only attack enemies with Hit Points below a certain amount. You can make them use restorative items on other party members once they've taken a certain percentage of damage relative to their maximum Hit Points.
I'd like to applaud the game designers for trying something new, since in my opinion, the only other single player Final Fantasy game with a real time component that was actually fun and not incredibly monotonous is X-2. Nevertheless, I think that the combat and gambit systems are overall a courageous experiment that ended up not working as well as that which was desired.
What went wrong? Basically, the automated combat system removes interactivity from the game, and so removes the fun.
It seems reasonable to assume that the Gambit system is necessary because Final Fantasy XII's combat is basically a MMORPG combat system, designed for one character per player, but adapted to three characters played by a single person. Given that a person can only multitask so much, and given the limited controls available because of the Playstation 2's controller, a notable proportion of your party's actions have to be automated, otherwise two of your characters would simply stand there while your third characters is getting thrashed. However, this automation quickly degrades to just running around and letting your gambits do everything for you. This gets extremely boring by the second quarter of the game.
The above problem is exacerbated by how so much of the gameplay, including traipsing around, is centred around fighting. Much of the game you spend travelling from point to point, and the only thing that keeps the gameplay becoming an exercise in how accurately you can point the analogue stick is combat. Since combat is tedious, gameplay becomes tedious.
There are times, especially when you're in cities, where there are non-combat related sidequests. These are okay, but none are particularly compelling, a consistent flaw of JRPGs.
The notable exception to this is the Hunts series of sidequests. Here combat and sidequests converge, but actually aren't that bad. In these sidequests, you have to find a powerful boss monster and kill it, in order to collect the bounty. The difference is that the boss fights are often interesting and actually make you think.
Aside from the above, the only really noticeable part of the gameplay is the License Grid system. You not only gain experience for levelling throughout the game but also License Points, or 'LP'. LP are important because without them, you can't use the magic or the weapons you find or buy. LP unlocks squares on the License Board, similar to Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid, which either enables these, gives Hit Point bonuses, gives other combat enhancements, or unlocks 'Quickenings', which is this game's equivalent of the Limit Breaks and Overdrives from prior Final Fantasy games. It's interesting, and the system certainly isn't bad, but it's nothing really notable.
It's also worth mentioning that the game is for the most part, very easy, even without the various ways you can use to make your party overpowered. This isn't that bad- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was a piece of cake, but it was still brilliant. Nevertheless, making the game's flawed gameplay also too easy makes it less appealing to return to.
So ultimately, the gameplay of Final Fantasy XII, while trying some very interesting things, doesn't really work out. A playthrough might be enjoyable once, maybe even twice, but not any more than that.
Replay Value: 6/10
Just like gameplay and story, the replay value of Final Fantasy XII is a mixed bag. Given all of the above problems, the replay experience is hampered by how the original game experience is so unenjoyable at times. Furthermore, in the original release of the game there's no New Game Plus, and there's nothing such as multiple endings that actively encourages multiple run-throughs.
However, the world of Ivalice is so breathtaking that it's actually worth exploring more than once. In other words, it's worthwhile going through a second playthrough, powering up your characters very early so that you can go on a sightseeing tour.
Also, Ivalice is so huge, and there are so many sidequests, especially the aforementioned Hunts, that it's very unlikely you'd see everything once through. However, this, and the pleasure of reviewing the visuals, don't cumulatively redeem having to play through the game's flaws again enough to make replay value more than slightly above average.
It's a shame that Final Fantasy XII turned out the way it did. Because of the interesting and innovative things it does, I'd still rank it higher than all of the Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and Playstation Final Fantasys, even when factoring in how these games were designed for different consoles. It's a genuinely enjoyable game. Nevertheless, the flaws Final Fantasy XII suffers prevents it from being a truly great game.
Recommendation: Yes, buy.
Overall Score: 6.5/10
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 12/18/08
Game Release: Final Fantasy XII (US, 10/31/06)
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