Monday, January 08, 2007

Final Fantasy XII - The only one you'll ever need

With a development time of almost five years and numerous delays, Final Fantasy XII proves that perfection takes time. While I'm not saying this title is perfect (nothing is), this is probably the best game in the franchise. Be warned, as this review is rather lengthy. I apologise in advance.

How it Looks: Fantastic!
As with every Final Fantasy, the graphics are top notch. Everything from the detailed buildings to the amazing effects of magic and abilities, down to the highly detailed character models, are absolutely gorgeous. While most of it is a bleak brown or grey colour, it fits the storytelling style and locale of the game. The game also runs very smoothly, even with a vast amount of people on the screen. I have yet to see slowdown while running through a city, even with 20-30 people walking around, talking to each other, and with ever-changing bubbles that appear over the ones you can talk to. The only downside is that the areas are so largely detailed that loading from area to area takes about 2-5 seconds, depending on the size.

How it Sounds: Great
The Final Fantasy series is known for its grande musical scores and XII doesn't disappoint. With a more gritty feel in most of the combat scenes and a nice, melodic feel in most of the free cities, the music is very much in tune with the story and locale. Nothing seems out of place, and while there's not a particular song that will stick with you after you power down the system, none of them are unpleasant to hear. Neither are the voice overs for the characters. While it seems a little mechanical at first, the voice overs get much better quickly as the game progresses, and while there are a couple of voices that don't sound like they'd suit the person who's speaking it, overall they're nicely done. Charisma is definitely in each voice, so we don't get any pissed off people standing there saying "I am angry!" in a monotone voice (looking at you Yuna!*).

How it Feels: Great
Square Enix did a great job making sure everything you need to control is simple to access: every command that can be activated from the controller is done so with a push of a button or a tilt of one of the analog sticks. While character movement is only designated to the left analog stick, by now most people should be used to that in games by now. The camera controls have been pushed to the right analog stick, and it provides the only flaw in the controls: they seem reversed compared to the movement, so moving the stick left will rotate the camera right, and so on, and it can't be changed. In fact, you better get used to the controls in the game, because you can't change any of them, and as I said while reviewing Xenosaga III, in this day and age it is unacceptable.

How it Plays: Excellent!
While it may seem a radical departure from the series, underneath the presentation the game plays very similar to past Final Fantasy games. Every battle is done in pseudo-realtime, so there are no random encounters, and most of the menu-work is very limited during non-boss fights. However, battles are still in ATB (or Active Time Battle) format, so you must wait for a gauge to fill up in order to execute a selected move. However, you don't have to mash attack, for once you've attacked a monster once, your character will keep attacking it until it dies, and will resume attacking after a different action is taken. With so much action happening at once, there's the Gambit system to help manage every character. Sort of a simple AI programming system, gambits allow you to have your characters do actions based on certain battle situations: character at 40% health, have your healer cast Cure on him/her; otherwise attack. Each gambit also has a weight, so if situation one arises and your character is acting based on situation two, it'll stop action and act based on the first gambit situation. Also changing is the level-up system. While you do get experience for killing enemies and levelling up based on that, it only raises your HP, Mana, and maybe a stat here or there. For each defeated monster, you also get Licence points (LP), which allow you to unlock licenses. Think of licenses as in real life: you can't cast a particular spell or wield a specific weapon without the proper license, and unlocking it on the license board allows you to use it. But unlocking a spell doesn't do much unless you have it, so you also have to hunt down those spells and weapons. A few squares on the license board are labelled Quickenings, and they are the limit breaks of the game. Quickenings are super-strong abilities that can deal massive damage to one or many enemies. They can also be chained, so if you have another character in battle with a quickening available, you can activate his/her quickening and chain them together. There's a timer counting down when you activate one, and as long as the timer isn't at zero, you can chain another quickening onto it, even if they don't have the mana for it (though if they do, it's used up)! Quickenings can only be used if you have the correct amount of mana bars open, and unlocking a new Quickening will add another mana bar, which essentially doubles/triples your original mana (to a max of three mana bars). Also changed are the summons. All of them must be defeated in battle (though there are a handful you must fight to progress story anyways), and must be given to a specific character, who will be the only person who can summon it. This can also increase mana bars, depending on the strength of the summon. Once summoned (and you'll need the required amount of full mana bars to summon one), it will replace the remaining party members and attack surrounding monsters for a set period of time, eventually leading up to its ultimate attack. Almost all of the summons are from the Tactics games, though a couple hidden ones are drawn from Final Fantasy's past.

Game Length: 60+ Hours
With a long story, a large License board to unlock for each character, a dozen or so summons, optional areas and quests, and giant Marks (creatures you're hired to go kill) that can take as long as an hour or two to kill, there's a ton here to do. And because your characters are determined by the licenses you give them, you can go through the game with totally different characters each time.

Verdict: Buy!
This is the definitive Final Fantasy. If you enjoy the series, you should own it by now. Even if you haven't enjoyed a game in the series, but like RPGs and a great story, pick this game up. I'll even go out on a limb and say that this game is not only the best game in the series, but probably the best RPG on the PlayStation 2.