game that bears the Final Fantasy name undergoes scrutiny like few others. As a part of the most popular role-playing franchise in the U.S., no hurdle in Final Fantasy XII’s development (staff changes, delays, a lackluster demo) escaped notice from ravenous RPG fans. However, those things are all in the past, and it’s time to forget what you think you know about this game. Final Fantasy XII is an amazing and stirring adventure that stands among the best RPGs of this generation.
“But wait,” you may say, “Doesn’t this game go against everything Final Fantasy has ever stood for?” Absolutely not. In fact, many elements that I consider crucial to the series have crystallized here in a more complete and compelling way than ever before. The cast of characters is easily my favorite ensemble to date, replete with histories, conflicts, and secret motivations that will leave you in awe. The young war orphans Vaan and Penelo are plucked from their lives on the streets of Rabanstre, caught up in a rich and cinematic tale of succession, loyalty, and lust for power. This setup may seem old hat, but the tone is very different; players feel like a cog in a much larger machine rather than a ragtag group of heroes who need to save humanity. There is a looming sense of political intrigue that lends a grand scope to the events and drives the action forward, making it seem as though you’re part of a much larger cause.
The most controversial aspect of FF XII will undoubtedly be the battle system. I’ll admit that I was apprehensive at first, considering the move to real-time and the necessity of setting up Gambits (scripts that dictate ally behavior). However, now I can’t imagine how I ever managed without it. To be perfectly clear, the Gambits don’t rob you of control. Instead, they act as a safeguard to ensure that everyone in your party is doing something useful, though you can interrupt and issue commands at any time. The result is fast, efficient combat that is packed with strategy and dependent on characters’ roles within the team. Who should do what is determined by gaining skills on the license board, dictating the weapons, skills, and magic your characters can access. By sending everyone in different directions on the grid, you assemble a diverse group suited for any situation. Unfortunately, you can’t see any of the license board beyond tiles adjacent to those you’ve activated, which makes it impossible to plan long-term character growth.
This uncertainty is actually representative of one consistent problem in Final Fantasy XII that, despite the title’s many triumphs, casts a shadow over the gameplay: lack of direction. In a series that has been criticized for being overly linear, this entry is definitely on the opposite end of the spectrum. Destinations are often poorly marked, and having the best weapons and skills for a situation is a nebulous task at best. Whether I was wandering through vast plains, advancing across the license board, or fighting a tough boss, I never quite shook the feeling that I was doing something wrong – like maybe I needed to restart and just have another go from scratch.
These nagging doubts are distracting enough to keep Final Fantasy XII from ascending to the same heights as some previous entries, but I should clarify that if you approach FF XII clinging to the past, you will probably be disappointed. Where this game shines the brightest is in the new paths it blazes, not the traditions it revisits. While familiar enough to earn its place in this hallowed franchise, Final Fantasy XII is an innovative and artful game unlike any I’ve ever played.