FINAL FANTASY XII / Squaresoft / PS2

If anyone thought that FF XI was just a flukey experiment, FF XII showed that no, Squeenix was actually completely serious about steering their flagship franchise in a Westernized, MMORPG direction. FFXII is, for all intents and purposes, World of Warcraft taken offline. The marketable trappings of the FF world are retained - Moogles, Chocobos, spells, etc - and there's a fair dollop of high-budget CGI scenes to propel the story forward, and there's the requisite amount of bishy heroes and villains, but otherwise this game stands on its own as something completely divorced from the established format of the series.

Is this a bad thing? Honestly, I've put nearly 100 hours into the game and completed the main storyline, and I'm still not sure. Square's high budget and talent pool ensures that they'll usually execute whatever they aim to do fairly well, but in this case, they don't seem to be aiming any higher than the same general experience that games like Phantasy Star Online, WoW and their like have already given us. What you end up with is a very good execution of currently trendy MMORPG mechanics, but without the ability to socialize online, and with not much else on offer if you don't care all that much for loot-grinding and big-baddie-battling; or at least, if you expect more from a game than just that, particularly a Final Fantasy game.

But let's return to the beginning, and work forward from there. Aside from its gameplay style, FF XII is idiosyncratic in that the reins were initially handed over to Yasumi Matsuno, creator of the Tactics Ogre/Ogre Battle games, the Final Fantasy Tactics series, and Vagrant Story. FF XII is set in the world of Ivalice, in which the latter two games also take place. But even Ivalice is idiosyncratic to previous appearances; it seems to have been meshed with the world of Star Wars I-III and perhaps a little touch of Skies of Arcadia. It also has a more "steampunk" tinge than any previous game, but instead of steam power, everything is powered by magical power crystals called Nethicite, allowing for such things as flying fortresses and fighter craft that shoot lasers in a world that otherwise looks like something right out of the Renaissance.

It's quite a good-looking world and there's a lot of interesting things about it. Unfortunately, the thing I've disliked most about all of Matsuno's previous work is that while the gameplay is usually spot-on, the writing is flat, with uninteresting characters and an over-reliance on overwrought (and mostly boring) "political intrigue" to keep things moving forward. While FF XII does a bit better about having an engaging world, and the characters are perhaps more interesting as we get more up-close-and-personal with them, this game is still firmly in the same mold. A deposed princess and her disgraced Captain of the Guard go on a quest to liberate their homeland from the Evil Empire that has invaded and squatted it, their rebellious plans fueled by the discovery of an Incredible Magical Crystal-Based Power Source that the bad guys are also vying for. I mean, stop me if you've heard any of this before. The game is fundamentally an "ensemble cast" in the manner of Final Fantasy VI, with no real "main" character but some that are a little more "main" than others. The funny bit about this is that Matsuno left the project suddenly in the middle of production, presumably due to Square's insistence that ragamuffin characters Vaan and Penelo (around whom the story centers for the first couple of hours, but who become increasingly less relevant after that) be forcibly inserted in an attempt to appeal to the FF7-10 fanbase. But I actually found the story most engaging and human in the early going, when it was focused at street level with Vaan, and increasingly became more distant and boring as Matsuno's "intended" leads took over, with the game turning into a repeating pattern of long overworld/dungeon runs capped off by a contrived giant boss battle and a CGI of dialogue that sounds like the most pompous bits of Lord of the Rings.

So why the "good" rating? That complaint really applies only to the story. If you like that WarCrack dopamine-fueled style of gameplay, this game gives it to you immensely well. While running through the game's fields and dungeons and fighting piles of samey common enemies over and over is largely just a chore, there really are some fun and impressive boss battles, and the real-time style not only speeds things along but also makes some of these giant monsters of the FF series genuinely intimidating for the first time, as they are right up in your face.

But there's the key phrase - "if you like that style of gameplay." I'm not a fan of either WoW or MMORPGs in general, and honestly, if I hadn't been writing a review for this site I likely would have cut my losses and moved on to something else about halfway through the game's story. It's a game pitched to WoW fans, and as a sort of "gateway drug" for those who haven't yet tried WoW but will end up enjoying it. In fact, I'd love to see a study of how much FF XII contributed to sales of WoW and similar games versus how much it contributed to sales of FF XIII.

We're at a point now where there are Final Fantasy fans that started back on the NES and SNES, fans that started with the Playstation era, and fans that came in somewhere along from FFX onwards. Essentially three different fanbases that want three different things from the series. Most seem to have embraced FF XII though, which I largely suspect is because most were hooked on some form of WarCrack already. But the main complaint we "old guard" fans tend to have about everything from FF VI onward is that nothing has ever made us feel the same sense of wonder, excitement and fresh innovativeness that the SNES games did. FF7? OK, maybe sorta, even if the story was frequently goofy and the main characters were a little too bishy and wangsty. The "old FF" feeling becomes increasingly difficult to explain to the newcomers, to whom Squeenix has increasingly turned to as their core support, and with FF XII it seems to be gone entirely. It does new things *relative to Final Fantasy*, but it does this by taking in outside conventions that already had been established for years and frankly were already a bit stale. Final Fantasy is no longer a joy-filled boundary-pusher but a dopamine-based convention-follower that's content to just execute the ideas of others really well.

I don't mean to say there's nothing to appreciate here. There's some lovely environments, even if all the more you do with them is run around stomping the same handful of palette-swapped enemies over and over. The character models are pretty alright and refreshingly free of J-Poppiness. The world of Ivalice is interesting and feels like a real place for the most part. The music isn't as memorable as Uematsu's best scores, but it's passable at worst and sometimes excellent. Not having load times going in and out of random battles is definitely an improvement. And if you do get into the gameplay, the game has incredible depth, with a good 80 hours just to get through the story, and probably somewhere between 120-150 to hunt down all the optional bosses and side quests and such. It looks and sounds good, it plays smoothly, it's executed in all phases very well. But it also isn't what the series once was, and seems content to not even make the effort anymore.

Links :

* The central question of FF XII
* Ten Things I Hate About Final Fantasy XII

Videos :

* Gameplay Video
* I'm Captain Basch bro
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