Itâ€™s been several years since a Final Fantasy on PlayStation 2 was the cause of many late nights, and if it wasnâ€™t for the steady supply of rumours we might have been forgiven for thinking that Final Fantasy X-2 was indeed the final Final Fantasy. But at last Final Fantasy XII is here, and with several new people at the helm weâ€™re not surprised to see a whole new look - but whether that look stays remains to be seen.
Final Fantasy XIIâ€™s central story is about plotting, pillaging and power on a grand scale, and itâ€™s the maneuvering of those warring factions that threatens to engulf our characters. In fact, soon after the game begins we see the young thief, Vaan, and his friend, Penelo, making ends meet on the streets of Rabanastre, blissfully unaware that Ivalice is on the brink of war. But it comes home to them quickly after Vaan breaks into the Palace Treasury and they stumble across the gallant Sky Pirate, Balthier; his curvey bunny-girl side-kick, Fran; the Princess Ashe disguised as a cheap hooker; and her unruly body guard, Basch. Itâ€™s this core group of six that will make up your main party, and with them you will explore the Kingdom of Dalmasca and try to stop the imminent war as political intrigue and secret factions threaten to undermine your every action.
Near the beginning of Final Fantasy XII, as Archadia forces arrive from the air, weâ€™re given our first taste of the new battle system. Unfortunately itâ€™s only one bite and the story quickly moves on to another cutscene. And another cutscene, and another, and another. In fact, there are so many cutscenes in this game that we began to wonder if perhaps the story wasnâ€™t a little too ambitious. Itâ€™s not that the cutscenes arenâ€™t lavishly gorgeous and supremely enjoyable; they are. Itâ€™s just that there are so many of them.
If thereâ€™s one thing we can expect from a Final Fantasy game, itâ€™s spectacular graphics - and Final Fantasy XII delivers those in spades. It didnâ€™t matter if our characters were moving through underground caves or airship corridors, city sewers or sandy deserts, snow covered peaks or lush forests, everything looked fabulous. And so right! We never saw the same flowers blooming in the desert as were in the forest, the same skeleton lying on the Giza Plains as on the Phon Coast, or the same brick work in the city of Archades as in Rabanastre. Everything has been placed with the utmost care and attention to the smallest detail. Even the character voices have been carefully chosen, as each voice is totally believable. And the soundtrack is superb. Whether itâ€™s light and merry, dark and brooding, rousing or soft, itâ€™s always exactly right.
Unfortunately not everything is as wonderful as the sound and graphics in Final Fantasy XII. The absence of random battles, a fixture of the Final Fantasy series, is, we think, a positive move. Rather than battles taking us out of exploration and into battle mode, combat now occurs seamlessly in the same area we were exploring. We can now see what weâ€™re about to fight, or run away from, rather than it being a total surprise, and we rather liked that. However, itâ€™s the Gambit system and License Board that leave much to be desired.
Put simply, Gambits are programmed skills and technicks that our characters will carry out in battle. And those Gambits can be programmed as much, or as little, as we like. Not enough Gambits and we were clicking furiously on each character, giving commands and then moving frantically on to the next and the next, because the battles occur in real-time, rather than the turn-based combat of past Final Fantasyâ€™s. Too many Gambits, however, and we needed only move our characters around. If combined with the frequency of cutscenes, fully programmed Gambits could make it feel like â€˜playingâ€™ a movie. We struck a happy medium by giving manual commands to our party leader and using Gambits on the others unless special circumstances arose.
The License Board is, however, where we feel Final Fantasy XII made its biggest mistake. Instead of gaining new skills when characters reach a new level, after every battle one License Point (LP) is awarded. Many battles later the accumulated points are â€˜spentâ€™ on the License Board to learn what we wanted. This in itself is an excellent way to individualize characters, but the down side is that everything requires a License; skills, armour, weapons, accessories, technicks, magick spells, augments, even potions. Another negative is that often the skill lines on the Board arenâ€™t straight. Levelling up, say, a Katana, we have levels 1 & 2 side by side - but to get to level 3, LP must to be spent on Axes & Hammers level 6 and Greatswords level 1, which means another 90-110 battles. And thereâ€™s more bad news. Even though we had the License for a technick or magick spell we still needed the gil to buy them and we had to find the Merchant who sold it. And because we hadnâ€™t earned sufficient LP we often had weapons and armour in our inventory that we couldnâ€™t use. After the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X the License Board feels like a poor relation.
No Final Fantasy is complete without dozens of things to do aside from the main quest, and Final Fantasy XII is no exception. Creature hunts are the way to gain experience, LP, gill and special items, as well as opening up most of the side quests, optional bosses and Espers, so be prepared to trek backwards and forwards across the map many times.
Despite Final Fantasy XIIâ€™s flaws, the gorgeous graphics, flawless voice acting and delightful soundtrack more than make up for it, and fans, both new and old, will find many things to like. In fact, alongside games like Oblivion, Final Fantasy XII has consistently been voted as one of the top RPGs of 2006, so you know youâ€™ll be in for a treat.