Thoughts on Final Fantasy XII

With Zelda finished (still my firm GOTY), I’ve flicked the component switch over to the PS2 in order to put some real time into the other big adventure of 2006, Final Fantasy XII. While I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface of it, I just wanted to put down some thoughts on the drastic new direction in which the game has taken the venerable series, beyond the first impressions that I wrote previously.

First of all, I really do have to emphasise how huge the changes between this and Final Fantasy X are. Most seem to think of Final Fantasy XI as the black sheep of the family, but XII almost validates it. MMORPGs are a huge deal nowadays, bigger even that conventional RPGs, and I think it’s entirely possible that XI was intended from the start as a big experiment to see what of that genre might work in a traditional offline RPG. XII comes out the other side looking a bit Frankensteinian at first, but with the praise being heaped on it I don’t doubt that XIII will play in a similar fashion. Dragon Quest IX is also supposed to be adopting more real-time combat mechanics, so we may find that that has experienced a similar mutation.

Overall, I like the new combat very much. I thought X did an excellent job of revising the battle system without breaking too much with the formula and would have been quite happy had they stuck with that as a framework. Random encounters are a system that I’m glad to see the back of, and while it would have been perfectly acceptable to use the Chrono series as a model (normal enemies visible on the map with turn-based combat when battle is initiated), the idea of making the map screen and battle screen one and the same is inspired. The game as a whole feels more coherent; less fractured than when you’re constantly switching between exploring and fighting, and even entering the menu to use an item or spell. It’s just all there.

When I started out on XII the combat was the element that I was most unsure about, what with the other changes that are immediately apparent – full 3D environments, mainly – being easily accepted. At first it seems rudimentary since you have only physical attacks and the game essentially does that for you. In fact it’s actually quite boring since there’s little more to it than chivalrously exchanging blows with the enemy. It’s not until a couple of hours in when you get a real party with spells and the Gambit system in full swing that things fall into place. Maybe that’s a serious criticism because I was only convinced to stick with it by the rapturous praise that the game has received, but once it lets you loose on the licence board and Gambits it works really well.

While the degree of control over the team’s actions is at first necessarily limited by spaces and money for Gambits, as it expands it allows you to concentrate on the wider picture rather than worrying about the minutiae like physical attacks and healing. As a result combat becomes less of a chore, which has, above all other things, been the issue that I’ve had with the vast majority of RPGs. I’ve lost count of the number that I’ve given up on because I’m a couple of hours of grinding away from having a realistic chance of taking down a boss, and it’ll be interesting to see how far I get in this one, having never finished a Final Fantasy. Yes, I’m ashamed.

Oddly enough, considering the title, I’ve found this game to be less fantastical in its story than previous games. Yes, there are airships and monsters and spells and moogles and flowery prose, but it’s essentially Star Wars. Provincial orphan boy meets pirate with non-human sidekick and fastest ship in the fleet world before taking on the evil empire with despotic enforcers rarely seen outside their imposing armour. Seriously, George Lucas should sue.

Regardless, the vast majority of changes to the formula here have been for the better, and I’m keen to see how much of it makes it across to XIII. Is this the beginning of another period of gradual refinement that followed the big additions like ATB and the job system, or are they going to lift up the bonnet again and really throw us off? Either way I’m keen to see what we get.

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