Along with Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy XII is the one that got away in series history terms. Its characters are seldom remembered alongside Cloud Strife or Squall Leonhart as series stalwarts and, released as it was at the very end of the PS2’s life, it never got the attention it deserved before the majesty of Corridor Simulator XIII came out. Still, in a months slightly starved of major releases for those without a PS4, it’s worth a look back on as an under appreciated gem.
Final Fantasy XII resulted from a long development cycle of six years, and every minute shows in its level of depth. From the wide open areas filled with wildly varying enemies, items and sidequests, through to the coherent and well-thought out world building, it’s truly vibrant in every respect.
On the continent of Ivalice, a great war rages between two mighty empires. Caught in between are several smaller nations including Dalmasca, home of orphan Vaan and his friend Penelo. Joined by chance by sky pirate Balthier and the rabbit-like Fran among others, they travel across the continent hoping to re-establish Dalmasca and avoid the attentions of the occupying Archadian Empire. This objective results in a traversing of the entire nation, through deserts, jungles, grassland and cities in a truly epic quest.
As one might expect from a Final Fantasy game, the meat of the gameplay is RPG-style combat, albeit with a radically different twist to usual. Battle screens in the traditional sense are gone, replaced by a live action system which takes place in the overworld. This cuts down drastically on the time between objectives and also means that there’s a much smaller divide between gameplay and story.
All this live combat still runs based on the venerable ATB system, but allows a freedom of movement around and between enemies that feels much more natural than standing in a line and mechanically whacking away.
For a game now two generations old, the detail on every character model and location is genuinely impressive, as are the lighting effects and particles on weapons and magic casting.
Weapons and magic are equipped and bought as they always been, with the caveat that the new License Board system means the right to use certain weapons and magic has to be purchased with License Points obtained through combat. Similar in function to Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid, the License Board resembles a chess board and can be advanced in the player’s own way, although some licenses are more important than others.
This gives a certain flexibility to the game, as every character can use every weapon, although they start off with different preferences. The variety of weapons available is very impressive and allows for a great deal of strategising and micromanagement if desired.
Consequently, the game expects the player to know what they’re doing and keep their characters updated, and is really quite punishing if that condition isn’t met. Relatively minor stat changes can make the difference between crushing victory and humiliating defeat and with save points so few and far between it can build the frustration to intolerable levels. The difficulty levels do seem to be all over the place and a boss that may be a cakewalk for a physically focused party might cause all sorts of chaos for someone fighting mostly at range. It would perhaps be better if there were an easy way of hinting to the player what kind of strategy might be required, but then part of the fun of RPGs is failing a couple of times before finding the correct strategy.
Final Fantasy XII succeeds because it understands that while players like story, they also like gameplay and their prejudices tend to skew towards the latter. This is much different from some previous games in the series that thought it was sufficient to throw ten hours of anime movie at players with arbitrarily-short strands of gameplay in between.
While the political nature of much of the game’s plot might not appeal to every fan, and it certainly has problems with drab dungeon design, Final Fantasy XII manages to get its balance of content right and in that respect it deserves an enormous amount of credit. Its locations, characters and plot hint at a grander world even than the one we’re presented with.
If the concept of a 40+ hour RPG seems intimidating, or following epic stories is a problem, play Final Fantasy XII. It’s certainly better than any of the more recent games in the series and it definitely deserves another look. 80%