Final Fantasy XII (PS2) Review

Final Fantasy XII Box Art

THE SERIES TURNING POINT

After ten entries in the longest, and greatest traditional RPG series ever (FFXI doesn’t count) I approached FFXII, the eleventh game in this series, with doubt, and even dread. No longer was the series helmed by the wise Hironobu Sakaguchi, and almost no one (Ito being an exception) who had worked on previous FF games worked on this title. But this is how it will be from now on, after all, rumors are Nomura will direct FFXIII (Hope for the best, and expect the worst).

With Sakaguchi gone, the original FF team is a thing of the past, and if the series is to survive SquareEnix had to find a suitable team to continue developing the series.

It must be said that with Square’s recent trend of milking the series, I was not alone in the line of thinking that the series could possibly meet a gruesome end at the hands of this “new” FF team.

Yasumi Matsuno (the man behind FF Tactics and Vagrant Story) was chosen as the director of the game, and immediately his influence in the game is felt, in fact, it becomes apparent as soon as you step into the world of Ivalice, as yes, this is the very same Ivalice from FF tactics.

Matsuno while a great director in his own right, had his work cut out for him when he first began the project. For starters Uematsu ( The series composer would only lend the game a few tracks.) and his team would have to work hard to make sure that the game would live up to long time FF fans expectations while following Matsuno’s vision which was unfortunately short lived.

Matsuno would leave the project citing health issues, leaving Hiroyuki Ito and Hiroshi Minagawa as directors with

It is safe to say that the series will never return back to its golden days of the 32-bit generation, but it is also safe to say, that at least in my eyes, FFXII is a great RPG, even if it doesn’t feel, sound or play like Final Fantasy game.

Square/Enix made the right choice in choosing this team to helm the game, even if the game had a rather long and tumultuous development period, plagued by delays, and Matsuno’s own defection.

In the end things work out, and the only remaining question in this review is …how good is FFXII? Well we shall find out now won’t we….

STAR WARS ANYONE?

As weird as this following statement might sound, FFXII owes a lot to Star Wars episode 1, both in its looks and feel. And, perhaps even more stunningly to the original SW trilogy in its story. I am not the only one who claims this; the developers themselves proudly admit the fact. If some one had told me a year ago that FFXII would take this much from Star Wars, I would have probably bet my car that the game would end up being a disaster…I mean c’mon FF, and SW? Crazy!

Yet, somehow I would have lost my car… while I could never, during my 55 hours with the game, get my brain to stop thinking about Star Wars. The plot was different enough that the deeper I went into the story, the more I realized that it only took a few ideas from SW, and that the rest was original and moving content..

FFXII’s story is mostly a war story, a HUGE war story. The game while having a likable cast of characters (Balthier being my favorite), never dwells too deeply in them. Ashe, Balthier and Vaan get most of the screen time, but they feel like a small part of the plot when staked against the story of betrayal, and war.

It is here where FFXII begins to pull away from its predecessors. FF6-FF10 focused more on the characters, and their feelings while they were on their way to save the world. In the case of Final Fantasy VII there was a larger story around them, and the villain always stole the show. While it’s hard to present an epic war taking place when the main cast is given too much importance, the feat has been done before by Sakaguchi in other titles.

FFXII loses an amazing opportunity to do something with its characters; the ending of the title suggests Ashe feels some thing for Balthier, Fran herself gets a part in this triangle with a touching scene near the ending, but nothing ever materializes. Suggestions that there is a love story in the game happen frequently but nothing ever goes beyond a suggestion. Even with the lack of strong character development, the ending was touching, a testament to how good the story is, and how likable the characters were, even if they didn’t get as much screen time as one would have liked.

But what an amazing war story FFXII tells! Full of betrayals and twists! The best I have seen in a game yet. Balthier steals the show (he is the Han Solo of the game), but the entire tale rivals that of any good movie, or  book for that matter.

If FFXII does something wrong, it doesn’t do it in the story department. Yeah, the plot structure is different from what we have seen in the other games, but Nomura who would have been another option for directing the  game, wouldn’t have crafted a better tale.  As he showed in KH2,  what’s left of the original FF team might have reached their peak with FFVII, and without Sakaguchi they might not be able to craft another masterful tale.

VISUALLY LIVES UP TO THE NAME

Nothing screams Final Fantasy louder than high production values, and Square didn’t hold anything back here, the CG scenes here rival the quality of the Advent Children film. The in game graphics push the PS2 to the limits, in fact,  the game is quite blurry on my HDTV. However it is in the visual department that the game really still feels like a FF game.

The character design is flawless Akihiko Yoshida has nothing to envy from Nomura, his designs look great both in CG, and in game. The game uses a lot of real time scenes that look almost CG quality which is a testament to how great every thing looks here. The cities are majestic, and the landscapes are awe inspiring.

Visually this as good as the game probably can look on the PS2. However I have to say that FFX looks sharper and that’s probably a direct result of FFXII just having too much going on the screen, all the while allowing the player for free control of the game camera. On a side note FFXII has possibly the greatest looking intro ever in the history of gaming.

Final Fantasy XII Screenshot

WILLIAMS WILL SUE YOU

Musically the game goes from good to pedestrian at points, Uematsu will be missed, the problem becomes more noticeable when you realize that the composer here blatantly sounds like John Williams did in his Star Wars soundtracks. The tracks here are different enough, but not different enough to keep me from expecting Darth Maul to come out of nowhere to slice me in half.

If Williams wanted to he could probably sue. In all seriousness however, the more I think about it, the more I realize that the Star Wars influence on the game is actually quite small, but its made larger by the music.

The ending theme “Kiss Me Good Bye” was masterful, and it was the only track in the game composed by Uematsu, the title of the song ironically represents the fact that the FF series is kissing Uematsu goodbye after this installment.

That being said, since they are technically ‘modified’ Star Wars compositions, the music is actually is decent enough to never get on the way of things.

The voice acting however is top notch, much better than that of KH2 in my opinion, and it really sets the bar for RPG voiceovers.

IS THIS FINAL FANTASY?

So far, despite a great Plot, and Visuals worthy of the FF name, the answer is no. The Music certainly isn’t Final Fantasy caliber…yet it is the gameplay that will most likely turn Die Hards of the series away from the title. Not because it’s bad…in fact it is as polished at it can be in term of the actual fighting mechanics, but it is a drastic departure from the series.

To begin…there are no more random encounters; the enemies are now visible on the fields. This, I consider a good thing, since the genre has since Chromo Trigger, and more recently the Grandia series accepted this as the more convenient, and realistic way to approach battles. However, those of you expecting to have fewer battles are in for a shocking surprise. FFXII plays a lot like Star Ocean in the sense that there are a number of amazingly long dungeons filled with battles that you don’t want to avoid.

FFXII ditches out the conventional leveling up system, leveling up only helps you upgrade your HP and MP, the other stats are only altered by equipment and by using the tedious License Board (a less friendly, and less useful rip off of FFX’s Sphere grid.) Beating enemies yield LP points and EXP but no gil only spoils which you have to sell at the market in order to buy Magicks (spells) and Equipment. In the end FFXII gameplay consists of battling through dungeon after dungeon after dungeon while advancing the plot. It is a tedious cycle, and FFX’s  progression system was actually friendlier, and more advanced than this.

The battles themselves are a bit of a mix between Star Ocean’s system and a traditional system. While now players have the ability to move the characters at will in the battle field, they still have to wait for their turn to attack. The system works well enough and boss battles always required some sort of strategy.

However, the much ballyhooed Gambit system, is useless, I beat the game and never once did I use Gambits, and the more I think about it the more it seems that magazine reviewers who consider the Gambit systems an innovation, probably have never played a SO game.

The Gambit system is a lot like Star Ocean’s AI system for your characters. You assign gambits to characters, so that they will follow the gambits during combat. In Star Ocean this system (Is not as complicated as the gambit system or as detailed but works all the same) is readily available to players from the start, but in FFXII you have to actually buy the Gambits and/or Find them in chests around the world. I consider this a travesty, and it only reinforces my point that the gambits were never needed, what fun are battles if you can’t manage your own party during crucial moments?

While there are some new additions to your list of commands such as “Mist” which allows you to use the over rated summons, and the equally over rated “Quickening”, the only skills I found useful during my 55 hour journey, were the white magicks, black magicks, item and attack commands. If you do have Protectga, then the green magick command will also prove useful as it will make things much easier.

In short it seems the developers went over board in order to craft a complicated battle system. Tedious as it sometimes is everything runs smoothly, and the battle system (the actual fighting itself) as I said before feels extremely polished.

Dungeon crawling however does not. No other FF game since FF6 placed this much emphasis on dungeons. The problem here is that most of the time in the game is spent fighting and running around dungeons, than on actual story.

Also, directions are sometimes not very clear in regards to what to do next. So, without a guide expect to spend many hours running around mindlessly while trying to figure out where to go. At least those hours won’t completely go to waste, as you will need a lot of spoils from dead monsters to buy the best equipment.

In a way FF feels more like Morrowind and less like FF, the amount of side quests and locations are off the charts for a game like this. It is very possible to beat the game, and not have seen a vast amount of the locations that the game has to offer. If you play to only to follow the main story, the game gives a good 50-60 hours of entertainment for your buck, but those hell bent on finishing all the side quests can expect 100 plus hours of gameplay. Perhaps this is the biggest FF title to date.

NOT A FF GAME BUT GREAT ANYWAYS

FFXII is different and as I stated before, it was to be expected, and FF fans at least can rest easy knowing that the game didn’t suck, and in fact if those very same fans approach the game with an open mind, they will find that underneath all the changes lies a great game, that at least in my opinion restores some of the luster to the name of the series after the awful FFX-2.

No, this game is not better than FFVI, VII or XI, and perhaps there might never be a FF game that actually stacks up against those three, but at least FFXII can rest easy knowing at it belongs in the same echelon of greatness as a game that FFVIII and FFX stand. FFXII is the best thing to come out of Square since Star Ocean 3.

Gameplay: 7.0-

Drastic change here from previous entries, the battles are great, but the lack of direction, the size of the dungeons, and tedious leveling up system get in the way of the fun at times.

Graphics: 10.0-

This is simply as good as an RPG can look on the PS2.

Music: 6.5-

Never though I would have to score music this low on a FF game but alas, with Uematsu gone, the composer here had to rip John Williams off… shame.

Story: 9.0-

Amazing war tale combined with dull character development but what an amazing war tale it is.

Replay Value: 9.0-

55 hours if you only play the main quest, over a hundred if you want to see, and do everything.

Overall: 9.0-

A must buy for any RPG fan, FF fans with an open mind will agree with me. FFXII is a very good RPG, even if it isn’t a Final Fantasy game in spirit.

Metacritic rated Final Fantasy XII a 92.

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By Samuel Rivera

An avid video game player and book reader, Samuel has been playing video games for the last 31 years. He has played nearly every PS1 JRPG known to man, and loves Ocarina of Time more than any other game.