Final Fantasy XII
A fond farewell to the PS2
It's nearly time for us all to say farewell to the PlayStation 2 after watching it sustain seven successful years at the top of its game. Once a truly cutting edge piece of kit ("it plays DVDs an' all!"), slowly but surely its ageing hardware is being eclipsed by the sheer horsepower of the next-generation of machines, namely its successor, the PlayStation 3 and the Microsoft Xbox 360 - not forgetting of course the motion-sensing wizardry in the case of the Nintendo Wii. But, like any great leader, the PlayStation 2 has refused to go quietly. Even in its twilight era titles such as Okami and the upcoming God of War II prove that there's fight in the old dog yet. Final Fantasy XII compounds this sentiment in what proves a revolutionary shift for the franchise and one that continues to define some of videogaming's greatest moments.
The first of these noticeable shifts is the game's setting. Unlike any before it, number twelve's backdrop has previously been established within the Final Fantasy universe - in 1998's Final Fantasy Tactics and later in the Game Boy Advance remake, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. The world of Ivalice (not the name of a nit-removing chemical for children with itchy scalps) is inhabited by a mix of humans and all manner of strange creatures, reminiscent of those so familiar to fans of the Star Wars films.
The game's protagonist is the rather uninspiring figure of Vaan, a young man living on the streets of Rabanastre within the kingdom of Dalmasca on Ivalice. Two years after the invasion and subsequent fall of the region at the hands of the more technologically advanced Archadian Empire, Vaan is out for revenge against the power whose insatiability for world supremacy and subsequent warring resulted in the death of his older brother. Desperately angry at the loss of his only living relative and of the directionless state of Dalmasca, Vaan hatches a plan to steal from neighbouring imperials - an idea which soon snowballs into an epic adventure to uncover the deeper reasons for the Archadian Empire's military decisions and leaves the fate of the entire planet resting upon Vaan and the small group of adventurers that tag along for the ride.
The second and most significant difference in Final Fantasy XII is the dynamic shift in its combat structure. Gone are the days of random battles (where for those who despised the structure, every stride across any significant stretch of land began with an overwhelming sense of trepidation followed by one of absolute despair after falling victim to yet another random battle just inches from the entrance to your destination). Instead, combat takes place in real-time, allowing you to square up the opposition before deciding whether you want to fight them or not. Often you don't have a choice in the matter, but not being forced into certain needlessly damaging bouts helps make the experience that bit more seamless.
Conflict now centres on a gambit system, where the player must assign any number of options to the members of their party. Once set, any orders will be carried out automatically when enemies are encountered. For example, you might simply suggest to one AI character that you'd like them to heal everyone when their health falls below a certain level or ask that they always attack enemies at first sight. As you press forward through the game, the options in your list of gambits will increase, affording the chance to concoct a more convoluted tactical approach. Putting it like that might make it seem like fisticuffs boils down to nothing more than choosing the optimal method of attack, then just sitting back and watching the fray unfold until your ultimate victory, but that most certainly isn't the case - especially when encountering Ivalice's bigger foes. In these instances, the way in which you manage Vaan and the rest of your team by constantly tweaking gambits depending on the state of battle becomes essential. Whilst the sheer sense of scale might have been lost in the transition to real-time combat, the satisfaction of conquering a monster the size of a house (including the garage and conservatory extension at the back) is as brilliant and involving an experience as ever.
Adding another dimension of depth (or complication, depending on your viewpoint) to the combat system is what's been called the license system. In a nutshell, this element sees every member of your party earning license points for every enemy they defeat. License points can then be exchanged for new weapons, upgrades, magic spells and the like on the license board - the place where upgrades in weaponry, armour, accessories and the like can be worked through steadily until your attributes are fine enough to swipe aside the toughest of foes. Of course, the way the system works means that even if you have obtained a weapon, you aren't going to be able to use it unless you have acquired its specific license.
Familiarising yourself with the gambit and license board system is crucial to your progression through the game, particularly since you'll be spending so much of your time jigging and re-jigging the wealth of tactical options that they offer you. Levelling up and earning money are the most direct ways to improving the abilities of your group, but particularly in the case of some of the most advanced and expensive attributes, it'll be an uphill struggle. While a lot of players will enjoy the somewhat tamer nod to 'grinding' to improve (as typical in some MMORPGs), newcomers to the series might well be put off. Still, as with many RPGs, perseverance is the key, and before you know it, all your hard work will have paid off when you're able to purchase a killer weapon or ability.
While the PlayStation 2's graphical innards are no match for the might of the polygon-pushing power of the next-generation machines, there's no doubting that Final Fantasy XII is one of the finest-looking PS2 games to date, proving, similar to the way that Resident Evil 4 did on the GameCube, that even in its dying days, the technical ability of a console still has the ability to impress. Similarly, the title's art direction is impeccable throughout, with a sense of scale and grandeur that permeates near enough every square inch of Ivalice. In addition, the unlikely event of strong voice casting and the inclusion of a predictably epic and impressive musical score helps bolster the aesthetics of Final Fantasy's last outing on the PS2.
If any major criticism can be levelled at Final Fantasy XII, a finger would have to be pointed at the game's less than endearing storyline. It's easy to sympathise with Vaan and his troupe of plucky comrades in the game's beginning, but after hours of exploration interspersed with lengthy cut-scenes, it becomes harder by the minute to care about the in-game events when all you want to do is play. Otherwise, the frequency of loading times in some areas that caused this reviewer into occasional boredom is the only other significant gripe.
All things considered, whether you think that Final Fantasy needed re-inventing or not doesn't really come into question. Square-Enix's brave step beyond all that was previously thought of the series has paid-off in what must be one of the PlayStation 2's greatest RPGs and a fitting swansong. With upwards of 40 hours of play, there can be no complaining that you aren't getting your money's worth - especially when Final Fantasy XII is gunning to be one this year's most impressive titles. The PlayStation 3 is released in under a week's time, but going by the continuing strength of the PlayStation 2's line-up, you wouldn't be blamed for not knowing it.