Let's face it: RPGs have the inherited burden of focusing a lot of energy on plot, especially the Japanese RPG variety. It's the nature of the beast. Actually, it's that way for anything that works within the boundaries of a genre. But of all the genres, RPGs carry the heaviest burden of crafting meticulous, long-winded narratives that on average are flawed, overwrought things that frustrate in some manner or another, be it cliches, weak dialogue, hokey characterizations or what have you. A focus on narrative is the baggage we expect an RPG to carry, especially if it's a Final Fantasy game. Personally, there aren't many contemporary JRPGs out there that I want to trudge through without some kind intriguing world to explore or role/story to play out (Metal Saga possibly being an exception despite its flaws).
Western RPGs, however, have developed their own traditions of investing more energy into the worlds that are crafted, focusing less on controlled, fated narrative and more on some overall, open-ended experience, something truer literally to the term 'role-playing'. MMORPGs have emerged from this philosophy. The openness no doubt comes at a price to narrative control and effectiveness. Japanese RPGs are the exact opposite, as their intentions are to exert authorial control to weave a tale that tends to proportionally become more and more vague as the game goes along. The path to the end is a relatively linear one, with sidequests here and there.
And now here we have Final Fantasy XII, Square-Enix's latest installation of its legendary RPG series. Where its predecessor-the online-only Final Fantasy XI-attempted to consolidate its Japanese console design principles with the Western MMORPG framework, Final Fantasy XII similarly strives to interject Western elements into the core Japanese design structure on a console. The verdict: it doesn't quite work, but it goes a long way. The main challenge is to balance the static narrative with the interactive, and to craft a worthy narrative to begin with, something FFXII falls short of on both accounts.
What it does more or less succeed at is introducing yet another battle system that is polished and works, addressing some of the stale genre elements, and generally taking the Final Fantasy franchise in a fresh direction. In other words, the game plays well.
In FFXII, we are thrust into the world of Ivalice, effectively an amalgamation of its predecessors. Final Fantasy Tactics for the PS1 first established this realm, a place where medieval political intrigue and upheaval clashed with mystical and dark magicks. Hitoshi Sakimoto, composer of FFXII, did a masterful job in his composition of FFT's soundtrack (along with Masaharu Iwata), aiding in providing the epic and dark tone that prevails and effectively sells the story despite a poor translation. Ivalice was transformed in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, a lighter game both in terms of tone and execution for the GBA that introduced a majority of the elements found in FFXII-from the storybook framing device, the rabbit-like reimagining of one of Final Fantasy's staple creatures, Moogles, to the Judges who uphold the law.
Ivalice is structured much like Final Fantasy X's world was: that is, unlike Final Fantasy games of the past, there is no overworld map, an abstraction developed long ago borne from the limitations of technology to convey a larger, world-like sense of scale. Instead, the game's world is contained within interconnected maps or areas. In fact, there are numerous areas in this game, lending it quite a large scale. Luckily, traversing long distances isn't much of a problem, what with the aid of trusty Chocobo steeds, airship travel services, and most importantly teleportation crystals. Along the way you will encounter many familiar Final Fantasy staples as well as many new ones. And as per usual, you will also encounter countless, dangerous foes.
Replacing the well-worn ATB (active time battle) system established as far back as Final Fantasy IV is the ADB (active dimension battle). For those who haven't played a Final Fantasy game in recent memory (or ever), the ATB system was developed to introduce time as a factor in any given battle, whereas JRPGs up until then were turn-based (you get a turn, enemy gets a turn, repeat). Anyway, the ADB is a basically the ATB but with visible enemies and battles taking place in real-time in the current area, in addition to more subtle details. Gone are random encounters or transitions from exploration to battle. All of this is combined into the same space-a Western design notion. It's worth mentioning that the less adventurous players can choose to set the battle mode to wait, which causes the game to essentially pause while you decide a character's next command to be executed. Sometimes this is almost necessary when facing tougher enemies without the appropriate gambit setup, which I'll get to more later.
You control up to three party members at a time (out of six) as you poke around the many environs that comprise the world of Ivalice. Contained within these maps or areas are monsters and creatures who patrol about, some neutral, most hostile. Each creature has a certain hostile perception radius that, when reached, causes them to react to your presence, or you can decide to engage them first. This initiates a battle in real-time, allowing for battle commands to be entered. The battle is over when there are no more active engagements between ally and foe or if you decide to run away, accomplished by holding in the R2 button and, well, getting the hell out of dodge. Nearby enemies will pursue and continue to attack until you've moved out of some seemingly arbitrary range or you've left the current area.
What would a new Final Fantasy installment be without some fancy systems that allow you to customize and grow your character's abilities and stats? We all know that this is how a majority of our time is spent with these games, perusing menus and mulling over exactly how to progress each character. Although it's not perfect, FFXII doesn't disappoint in any immediate sense in this regard with the introduction of the licensing and gambit concepts.
The admittedly contrived license board system-while offering a decent gameplay solution-has a hard time shaking the artifice it invokes. When you defeat enemies, you accumulate license points, which can be spent on licenses. Licenses for weapons, armors, accessories, magicks, techniks (special abilities), stat augmentations (bonuses), Espers (summon monsters) and Quickenings (a type chainable of limit break) can be purchased. This doesn't mean that you can now use them (with the exception of stat augments, Espers and Quickenings). The next step is to either have or obtain the actual item or ability you bought the license for. Buying a license on the license board will unlock any adjacent cells containing licenses. Appropriately, the different categories of license are arranged in different sections of the license board, which forces you (for most of the game) to consider which direction of growth you want for each character. The only licenses that are unique to a single character are the Quickenings and Espers.
This whole licensing concept is supposed to tie into the mythos of the Judges and the importance of law in the game's universe. Fact is, it doesn't tie in well. First of all, the Judges and their upholding of the Law are mostly absent. The game makes very few references to the licensing element in the game's world; only in the player's layer does it mention it initially. Contrast this with Final Fantasy VII, where the Materia system exists in both layers, most importantly in the game's world/layer where it informs many, many things.
The gambit system, however, is something I have a bit more appreciation for. This system is a necessity if you want to play the game on active mode, because there is no way to control three characters in real-time all the time, nor would it be too desirable. Gambits are either bought or found. Basically, they are rules that govern the logic of characters in a combat situation. Gambit slots are bought with license points. In each slot you select a gambit, which contains a target-either ally, foe, or self- and a conditional. There are many types of conditions, such as status equals poison (status = poison), HP is less than 30 percent (hp < 30%), and so on. Once that is selected, you apply an action to be taken. With the gambit "ally: status = poison", you can apply a "cure poison" action to heal any ally with poison. This will be executed automatically. The precedence for each gambit goes from top to bottom. You can rearrange the order, turn off individual gambits, or turn of all gambits from triggering. Also, you can override gambits anytime you issue a manual command with the selected character. This gambit system is simple, clean and vital, a sort of constrained battle scripting language. Imagine that on a console game. The only real concern with this system is that its stock isn't very high until later in the game when you find better gambits, possess more skills, and have more magic points to burn. Even then, I know you will find yourself-much like I did-disgruntled over the fact that the game isn't very charitable when it comes to allowing you to implement some seemingly natural ideas. Though the designers were aiming for simplicity, the capability to nest gambits and/or execute compound actions would have been very nice.
Most of the other gameplay components are either derived heavily from FFXII's predecessors or from recent MMORPGs. No huge leaps or innovations. Be prepared to grind your levels and earnings out, one of the more insidious Western traditions that found its way into this game. Nonetheless, FFXII is a very playable game, and it is definitely a success from a gameplay perspective in spite of a few expected bumps in the road.
While the interactive stuff is the heart of any game, for RPGs, the narrative by tradition is almost as equally important as mentioned above. FFXII's story could be summed up as "another Final Fantasy, another struggle against an empire." The Archadian empire is engaged in a campaign to conquer its neighbors. In a matter of time, the Archadians are knocking on the doorstep of the other great power of Ivalice, the Rozarrian empire. Caught in between both countries is the small, neutral country of Dalmasca, where after a brief prologue sequence our game starts. The Archadians come out the victors. Flash forward two years later and they're the occupying force throughout the lands. Now, begin the struggle and politicking.
In comparison, this differs from Final Fantasy Tactics in two broad, contrasting ways: one, the translation and localization is really well done (unlike FFT), but two, the storytelling-the way a story is conveyed-is bankrupt (unlike FFT). There's no energy or originality in the delivery of the story-the details-to us. It's not enough to have a good story. You have to be able to convey that story in some meaningful way as well. The most grievous fault of FFXII is this, the storytelling. The plot tries to insinuate itself into your understanding by freely and continuously referencing events, characters, locations, and more with the stance that we the player have read some kind of exhaustive manual or have lived in the world of Ivalice for years. It's disorienting to say the least. I got the distinct feeling that many cutscenes were removed from the game. All of this is compounded by the fact that if you don't stay on the straight and narrow through the game-not getting sidetracked with hunting down marks, grinding for levels, and the like-you will invariably forget many details you have managed to snag, not to mention the effects of your daily obligations and forays into the Real World. Somewhere along the way, the committee of designers-some of which openly admitting that they began thinking about and including too many things into the game during its lengthy development-overlooked the narrative control and pacing, two paramount properties of storytelling. Many forces tug back and forth with this game. Also, the designers could have invested more life into the game's world, something that Square-Enix's previous master, Hironobu Sakaguchi, understood well.
As far as graphics and sound go, guess. This is a Final Fantasy game, so of course it's top notch stuff for the most part. Everything looks good; there are no significant technical problems. The texture artists did a good job. All models are animated superbly. Vibrant color palettes enrich the view, in part derived from the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern-influenced art direction. The FMVs are average, however, imbuing a plastic look to anyone that appears in them, a shame given the quality of past work. The sound is even better. Sakimoto offers up some good tracks and some decent ones, kind of a combination of FFT and Star Wars, though not quite on the level of his work in FFT. Inspired voice-acting-which seems to be becoming more and more common these days, thankfully-rounds out the polished presentation of FFXII.
Yasumi Matsuno, officially credited with developing the story and concept, had been guiding this project until he ostensibly left for health reasons. Matsuno is somewhat of a legendary game maker in his own right, creating the Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre series, then joining up with Square to create Final Fantasy Tactics and the overpraised Vagrant Story. So far, two of the games he's had deep creative involvement with have scored perfect 40/40 scores from the respected Japanese gaming publication Famitsu, including this very game-although I clearly disagree. It's hard to say at this time what happened or how things might have ended up with FFXII had he stayed on during the entire project. Nevertheless, what we end up with is a highly polished game that is fun to play for many hours, yet at the same time is a strangely vacant and unjustifiably addictive experience overall.