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Gaming Evolution
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Gaming Evolution
Gaming Evolution
Publisher By: Square Enix
Developed By: Square Enix
Genre: Role Playing
Players: 1
Rated: T (Teen)
Release Date: October 31, 2006
Written By: Daniel Sims

After a wait that has had fans both worried and quite conflicted, the final PS2 entry in Square Enix's iconic Final Fantasy series proves to be a welcome evolution for the franchise as well as one of the most solid games of this year.

The twelfth entry in the main Final Fantasy series, put into the directorial hands of Yasumi Matsuno – the man responsible for the FF Tactics games as well as the Tactics Ogre series and Vagrant Story, puts players in the world of Ivalice (the world in which the Tactics games take place) where they embark on a 40+ hour quest to restore the kingdom of Dalmasca, recently conquered and occupied by the neighboring Arcadian empire.

Streamlining Final Fantasy
FFXII makes many rather large changes from the Final Fantasy that most people know, which causes this game to play differently from any other Final Fantasy (except possibly XI), but ultimately these changes seem to be for the best.

The biggest and most immediate changes brought on by FFXII are in the game's sense of perspective and in its pacing. The camera in this game is fully controllable and no longer fixed, allowing players to better see the game's environments, which are all quite large, detailed, and full of life and motion. However, the single biggest change that XII brings on that ultimately streamlines the entire Final Fantasy experience is the complete removal of all separation between exploration and battle.

There are no random encounters in Final Fantasy XII and battles do not transport you to any kind of separate, closed off field or even bring about a change in perspective, loading screen, or even a change in music. Everything that happens in Final Fantasy XII happens within the same general plane of reality. All enemies appear on the very same field on which you explore and thus that is where all battles take place. If you're out exploring and you see an enemy you can just run right over to it and start attacking if you wish to fight it. If you don't want to fight, you just hold down the flee button and run the other way, it's that simple. However when going into battle, even the process of giving out commands and forming strategies has been streamlined and given a new sense of pace through the gambit system.

When fighting enemies in Final Fantasy XII, the player is given control over the movement of one party member while everyone's commands are controlled by setting up gambits in the party menu. These "gambits" are sort of like commands you would give in basic programming for each party member's AI, telling them what to do in certain situations so that when an actual battle is going on, there is relatively little input coming from the player.

Through the first few hours of the game, FFXII generally lets you get away with just commanding everyone to hack at whatever enemies come their way. Because of this, at first I didn't think much of the gambit system, but one particular scene made me begin to see it for what it was:

Relatively early in the game you and your party rescue the Dalmascan princess in an airship and must escape with enemies constantly coming at you from all sides, which creates an escape scene where battle comes at a constant, brisk pace.

When battles heated up at first I began to go into the command menu and issue orders manually, realizing that the option to play this game in the style of classic Final Fantasy is always present. But eventually I decided to go into the party menu and try to rearrange the gambit slots for each character.

Each character in your party has a list of gambits that each contains parameters and commands that they follow when going into battle. When engaging in battle, each character goes down the list of gambits until they find a situation or character that is present or true, and then they follow the command assigned to that situation or character. At first you start out with only a few situations that you can assign while new ones can be bought (quite cheaply) as they appear in the game.

When escaping from that airship, I assigned my party leader (the character that I controlled) a single gambit containing the character "Foe: nearest visible" followed by the action "attack," which would command them to attack the nearest enemy that showed up. After this, I assigned the princess one gambit containing the situation "Ally: HP > 50%" followed by the action "Cure," then another gambit right below it containing "Ally: HP > 50%" followed by "Potion," and finally a gambit containing "Foe: party leader's target" followed by "Attack," which, when put into action would cause the princess to attack whatever enemy the party leader was attacking until any party member's HP fell below 50%, at which time, because the "cure" and "potion" gambits are set above the attack gambit, thus prioritizing those situations and actions above attack, she would stop attacking and either cast cure or give out a potion if she could not cast cure for lack of MP. To my third character I assigned a gambit containing "Foe: party leader's target" and "Fire," followed by a gambit containing "Foe: party leader's target" and "attack," causing her to attack the party leader’s target with the spell fire until she ran out of MP, after which she would revert to using regular attacks on the same target.

In writing it sounds complicated but after I set up the whole system, everything clicked. My lead character was hacking at enemies in the front while the princess was in midfield doing likewise but at the same time keeping everyone's HP in check with another party member in the back casting spells and attacking with a bow. The actual strategy I was setting up was no different from what I probably would be doing in Final Fantasy X or VII, the same rules applied, except everything was now automated to the point where my party was carrying the strategy out with very little actual input from me.

Most of the actual sense of accomplishment from playing Final Fantasy XII comes from having just the right gambits set up and being able to adjust to the ever-changing battle environment. Even 20 and 30 hours in, the game constantly challenges you to arrange your gambits so that your party members will properly react to different situations like varying elemental weaknesses and status ailments.

For example, at first I started out by simply having my characters hack at everything that comes by with an occasional healer, but at the aforementioned escape scene I had to readjust my system so that one character could be in front doing melee attacks while one was doing the same but keeping enough distance to be an effective healer and one character was keeping distance with spells and a bow. Eventually I had to re-arrange all my gambits yet again so that every party member handled some kind of defensive role when I reached a particular boss. The gambit system itself is probably stretched to its limit and the game's sense of achievement with it during boss battles, some of which are simply epic contests of endurance against enemies with insane amounts of HP (some possibly in excess of seven digits).

Because everything in Final Fantasy XII happens on the same plane and in the same perspective, in real time, and with relatively little input from the player, battle and exploration all flow together at a very seamless, very brisk pace that makes grinding and hunting for treasure feel far less tedious, more immediate, and overall, simply more fun compared to the past random battle systems that would repeatedly shoot you back and forth between one perspective of play and another.

Another serious change to Final Fantasy with XII as well as one of the game's high points is the new system of character development called the license board, which ultimately offers a greater degree of character specialization and customization than most other RPGs.

After that airship escape scene, I decided that I should finally take the time to plot out what kind of role each character in my party would take. Out of the six characters in my party, I assigned two to be warriors, two to be offensive casters, and two to be healers.

However, one does not simply designate jobs in Final Fantasy XII. The license board - a giant grid made up of squares, each one containing an upgrade allowing characters to increase stats, learn new magic and technicks, be able to use new equipment (all of which must also be bought), and gain more slots for gambits, feels similar to the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X, except whereas X largely kept characters on a set path with a few opportunities for branching out, XII essentially allows any character to follow whatever path you set for them.

When I went into the license board screen, first selecting who would eventually become my main melee attackers, I spent most of their license points (earned along with experience from defeating enemies) on squares that would increase attack power, allow for the use of stronger swords, and increase max HP. For my offensive casters I would unlock squares that would teach them new black magicks, upgrade their magic potency, and allow them to more easily regain MP. For my healers I would mostly unlock the same squares I did for my offensive casters, but I would teach them support and healing magicks instead of black magicks and also give them as many gambit slots as possible early on to allow them to use a wide range of support magic and items in battle.

Because every enemy in the game drops roughly the same amount of license points and grinding in FFXII can be done relatively smoothly (and doesn't even get boring), depending on how much you do it, most of the License Board for each character can actually be unlocked rather quickly, which could seriously decrease the overall difficulty of the game. Another thing that, depending on how it's handled, can also affect FFXII's level of difficulty is the game's new system for special attacks and summons.

Eventually in Final Fantasy XII, a system called "Mist" is introduced, under which there are "quickenings" (special attacks) and "espers" (summons), all of which are unlocked on the license board (summons must also be fought first). When summons are called, all characters other than the one who calls the summon (only one character can have each one) disappear from the battlefield, leaving the summon, the enemies, and the one controlling the summon, although the summon itself largely acts on its own. Depending on how the party is set up, his can leave the controller, and thus the summon extremely vulnerable.

If I have a character who mostly only knows offensive magic and no support magic call a summon, that summon will act on its own to attack whatever enemy is there. If my character is killed, the summon is dismissed, and because the rest of my party isn’t there to offer support, if something like sleep is cast on the controller of the summon, that summon is pretty much neutered because the character controlling them is completely open to attack. Because of this some people might find summons in FFXII to be relatively useless compared to the way they were presented in previous games.

Quickenings on the other hand, can turn the tile of battle and sometimes when used properly, can outright end a battle before it's even started. It's like a minigame really. Depending on how many characters in your party have quickenings, while one character is performing a quickening, a sort of roulette showing the names of other characters with their quickenings and corresponding buttons beside them appears. If those buttons are pressed before a timer runs out, the quickening that's currently being performed will be followed by the one just selected. With each passing quickening the speed of the timer increases and each quickening consumes MP, which can also be recharged if "Mist charges" appear on the roulette. Although this system allows you to chain special attacks together to do absolutely massive amounts of damage, some of the later bosses in the game, with the incredible amounts of HP that I described above, are certainly tough enough to check the system.

During one special boss fight, because I already knew that I was fighting one of the more powerful enemies of the game, I immediately started dishing out all my quickenings for each character as soon as the battle started. By constantly using more and more quickenings and activating mist charges to extend my combo, I was eventually able to achieve a chain of 21 quickenings in a row, which amounted to roughly 42,000 damage on the boss... barely half of its total HP. Thus I was left to hack it all the way down for another 10 minutes with casters and healers who were flat out of MP, causing me to eventually lose the fight with around 10% of the boss's HP left. Although this was an optional boss that was tougher than most I had faced before, there are still more bosses later on in the game that can easily dwarf this one in terms of both strength and max HP. When fighting another enemy in the game, I saw that it had enough HP to warrant going into mist quickenings, instantly draining a quarter of its HP. But when I continued to fight the enemy until it was almost dead, it casted Regen and regained most of its health, forcing me to again strategically plan out my use of the quickenings.

Overall, the changes that Matsuno and the Tactics team have brought to the way Final Fantasy is played are welcome and in my opinion couldn’t have come any sooner in the face of a style of play that was beginning to age. The new realtime battle system, constant sense of perspective, and gambits all help to streamline the whole experience of fighting battle after battle that every RPG entails, making it fun again. Although the License Board can be exploited depending on how much you grind, it does allow a lot of freedom in the way you can specialize each member of your party, transcending even Final Fantasy's own job system. All of this put together results in a game where a satisfying sense of accomplishment can be gained from fashioning and maintaining your own personal trained, well-oiled killing machine and simply watching it in action.

"Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper...?" what I half-expected the princess to say when I rescued her from her cell on that airship. The storyline and setting of Final Fantasy XII is more or less a fusion of the original Star Wars trilogy and the fantasy world of Ivalice, right down to storyline elements, characters, and even places. This makes the plotline of XII sharply different from those of previous Final Fantasy games, particularly in its sense of focus.

All of the past games that have taken place in the world of Ivalice have traditionally featured plotlines centered on war and politics, so it's no wonder that a setting like this could be meshed so agreeably with a sort of Star Wars like feel to make a sort of fantasy adaptation of it.

The very opening cutscene of FFXII displays sweeping shots of epic battles very reminiscent of Star Wars. In one shot, mages are shown surrounding a large crystal that sort of acts as a shield generator for a city. Fleets of airships, a Final Fantasy staple, are shown and presented in a way very similar to how spaceships were presented in Star Wars. In another scene, one of the judges – five of the main villains of FFXII, is shown landing in the imperial city in an airship in a fashion that reminded me of Darth Vader arriving at the Death Star.

The emulations also stretches toward the main characters, many of whom are certainly reminiscent of famous Star Wars characters, the first being the princess herself whom I was surprised by when I first saw her taking down imperials with sword-in-hand, reminding me more of Princess Leia than of any Final Fantasy heroin. Anyone who's seen the Star Wars trilogy enough times will easily spot out emulations of its characters like Han, Chewbacca, Darth Vader (five of him), the Emperor, Boba Fett, Lando, and even the Sand People.

Aside from outright similarities to Star Wars however, the storyline of Final Fantasy XII is somewhat of a shift in focus from the plotlines of previous FF games. Whereas most FF games before focused mostly on the dynamics between the main characters as they adventured to save the world from some mystical evil, FFXII focuses more on the events happening around the characters as they, and even more so the world around them, are all caught up in a narrative centered on politics and a conflict of ideologies with all the magic and fantasy simply serving as the backdrop.

Instead of trying to figure out how to destroy some ancient mythical beast or restore the land, some of the biggest struggles in FFXII revolve around things such as the struggle of a former night branded traitor to regain his honor in defending a princess, said princess trying to find a way to prove her royal lineage years after the false announcement of her suicide, the announcer of said suicide trying to deal with his desire to help a rebel cause while the empire is constantly breathing down his neck (not unlike Lando Calrisian), and conflicts between different powers within that empire like the emperor, heirs to his throne, the senate, and the judges (one of whom is basically the Darth Vader of Final Fantasy). One could call Final Fantasy XII a war story that just happens to take place in a fantasy world instead of just a fantasy story.

Some fans of classic FF may not like the change in focus, as the story of FFXII provides little in the ways of character development compared to previous FF games. To some, XII's narrative simply may not feel as developed as those of previous FF stories, but perhaps this is simply the series' refocusing towards emphasis on gameplay rather than narrative.

The presentation of FFXII also contains a healthy dose of fanfare for fans of both Final Fantasy and Matsuno's previous games. Many of FFXII's summons are actually bosses or enemies from previous titles such as Chaos – the final boss of the original Final Fantasy. Most of the summons from previous FF games like Ifrit, Shiva, and Carbuncle have been re-portrayed as airships in FFXII. One especially juicy bit of service for fans of classic FF is the reappearance of Gilgamesh from Final Fantasy V, who himself uses swords from all across the Final Fantasy series such as Squall's Gunblade from Final Fantasy VIII, Cloud's Buster Sword from VII, and Tidus' Brotherhood from X, complete with a rearrangement of the classic Clash on the Big Bridge Theme.

Other random bits of fanfare include odd references to Matsuno's earlier games including Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story that fans will likely notice, such as how the story of Final Fantasy XII takes place in the same calendar as that of Vagrant Story, and how the very territory in which Vagrant Story takes place is mentioned at several points in FFXII's story, simply a bit of a testament to who's in the director's chair. Probably the most noticeable change to be noticed with the shift of teams in this new Final Fantasy is the overall presentational style of the game.

Very soon in the game do Nobuo Uematsu's iconic theme songs give way to Hitoshi Sakimoto's rearrangements and trumpeting themes accompanied by somewhat cheerful overworld themes that convey the story and setting in ways familiar to anyone whose played Matsuno's previous games. Akihiko Yoshida's character designs bring a very realistic presentation to the game's cast, which is made even more effective due to the game's English localization, which has chosen to do something quite interesting with the English voice cast.

In an apparent attempt to display the diversity of the world of Ivalice, Final Fantasy XII's English localization team chose to cast voices for the game's characters that spoke a wide variety of English dialects and accents. Many of the game's main characters have British or even Icelandic accents to convey their differing backgrounds. Furthermore, almost all of the dialogue in FFXII is done in a sort of Shakespearean tone (very similar to that of Vagrant Story), which serves to add an extra sense of elegance to the game's narrative.

Final Fantasy XII is certainly a game that I would describe as epic. Depending on how much time you spend with the battle system, the main story could take anywhere between 40 and 70 hours to complete, not to mention completing mark hunts – side quests that involve hunting for special enemies as well as finding secret items and defeating secret bosses, which could all easily inflate the game to over 100 hours. At roughly 50 hours in I'm barely halfway through the main quest.

If you pay the extra $10 for the Collector's Edition of Final Fantasy XII you get a pretty clean looking metallic case with an extra DVD inside containing a nice set of featurettes and interviews. If you got the special player's guide with art book included, the art section of this DVD is pretty much the same thing. The history of Final Fantasy feturette, although not a fully comprehensive documentary on the actual making of each game in the series, proves to be a nice little trip down memory lane for those who've followed the series since back in the day.

The DVD also includes a selection of past trailers of FFXII originally shown at different events over the course of the game's development, although none of the English trailers are included here.

By far the most interesting part of the DVD though is the developer interviews, which actually reveal some nice little tidbits about the intentions of different members of the development team and how much of the game was inspired, such as how the gambit system was partly inspired by the NFL. The DVD contains a pretty healthy helping of interviews too clocking in at probably an hour or so of them. Whether or not all that is worth the extra $10 depends on how much about the actual makings of the game you would like to know about.

Bottom Line
After many years of seeing Final Fantasy follow the same general gameplay layout it's nice to see someone like Yasumi Matsuno come in with a legitimate attempt to evolve how the game is played, which in the end results in a game that feels much smoother than ever before. The merger of this and the change from the conventional character-oriented plotlines of classic fantasy games to a more sophisticated, political narrative make a game that overall feels fresh and polished to an incredible degree, maintaining the standards of the most recognized name in the genre while also pointing it in new directions.


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