What a weird journey Final Fantasy has made on the PlayStation 2. Look back at the PSone: FFVII set the tone for FFVIII. FFIX was the "different" one, but it still fit the mold. But then PS2 came along... FFX inherited its style from FFVIII; FFXI went online; FFX-2 was the first direct sequel in the series' history - and a very odd one at that. And now, we arrive at Final Fantasy XII... another beast entirely.
You've probably read by now - it's been how long since they announced it? - about how Final Fantasy XII is, well, different. And it is. At first glance, it looks a lot like the Final Fantasy you're used to, but really, whether you examine its story or gameplay, it couldn't be much more different from Final Fantasy X. Final Fantasy XII will be looked back on as a "love it or hate it" kind of game.
Before we dive into the gameplay, let's talk story. The last several Final Fantasy games put us inside the troubled heads of their heroes. Although Vaan could hold his own in a pretty-boy cat fight, this is not a character-driven tale. It's a sweeping epic in the vein of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, where the characters are important for what they represent, not what they feel - and the main thrust of the story centers on war and the naked, magic-fueled ambition of man.
Though the tale is epic and the cinemas are excellent, the story is missing the emotional core that drove the previous games - even if their stories made less sense. This is probably the first time a Final Fantasy story feels like a blockbuster movie - maybe even more than it feels like a game. The tale centers on Dalmasca, a tiny kingdom caught in a huge struggle. Ashe, the beautiful, fallen princess struggles to capture the power to rebuild her kingdom, as Vayne, the son of the Emperor who conquered Dalmasca, seeks to dominate the entire continent.
The cutscenes come much less frequently than those in prior Final Fantasy games - but they always make an impact. You can read the story in the characters' detailed expressions... which is, at times, preferable to hearing it in the overwritten dialogue.
But if Final Fantasy XII isn't coasting on cutscenes, gameplay is even more crucial. The Final Fantasy series' gameplay usually centers on making the right choices in building your characters, so the battles come off without a hitch. This game is the ultimate evolution of this idea. The battles, which occur instantly and with no transition, more or less run themselves - your job is to set up intelligent Gambits for your characters, which dictate their actions. For example, you can instruct Ashe to prioritize healing over fighting, and she'll keep your other characters healthy while they beat on enemies.
The game has been accused of "playing itself" but that's not really true; you have to make sure everything runs smoothly, and formulate strategies on the fly - particularly during the entertaining boss battles. But there's an odd sense of disconnection from the bulk of the battles, and you won't uncover some of the really useful Gambits - like ones that target enemy weaknesses - until late in the game.
The developers really screwed up the summoned monsters this time around; they're far too rare, irritating to deal with and not as effective as a simple, well-thought out strategy. Similarly, the "Quickening" super attacks really handicap you, as you have to burn most of your magic points to make a dent in a boss with them. By the time you can deal with that, you'll have gotten used to doing things other ways. Unless you grind your entire party's levels, which is as boring as it sounds, you'll be ignoring these parts of the game - which, since FFVII, have been, well, what Final Fantasy is about.
It terms of its world, FFXII again deviates from the norm. Each area in the game is made of several large, interconnected areas. Final Fantasy XII brings real-world scope to RPGs; as you move through the game, these areas get larger and larger, making FFXII feel like almost like a wilderness hike, not an adventure. Put it this way: rather than preserve the town/dungeon structure of most games, the whole world's your dungeon, and you're always crawling it. Some parts of the world seem oddly empty and unnecessary... but in sharp contrast to the hemmed-in reality of most PS2 RPGs it's more refreshing than not.
Ever complained that the characters in Final Fantasy are interchangeable? FFXII takes this to the extreme. The License Board is similar to the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, but it totally controls your destiny: weapons and equipment, spells and stat boosts are all there. By the middle of the game, you'll have a clear picture of any and every ability you will ever get and can pick whatever you like, building a party that's completely suited to your tastes, but which lacks any character-based focus. In FFX, it was exciting to unlock new abilities; in FFXII, the mystery is gone, and character-building is dull.
We've spent most of this review pointing out how FFXII is different from its predecessors. So let's lay it out: there is nothing whatsoever wrong with mixing things up. It's exciting to see Square Enix willing to take huge changes with its flagship series. Final Fantasy XII offers a lot of freedom, but that freedom sometimes feels very much like a lack of focus.
The story soars, but not so often. The dungeons are long and meandering. The gameplay is effective, but not engrossing. It's a staggeringly well-made game that throws more at you than any other RPG on the PS2... but well-made doesn't necessarily mean "fun." It's oddly low-key for a game about armies clashing and magic blasting. Some will proclaim it the most exciting evolution of the FF series yet; more, we suspect, will cast their eyes hopefully towards the future of the series.