- Visible enemies with seamless transition between exploration and combat modes
- Active Dimension Battle - a real-time battle system with freedom of movement
- An epic narrative of warring nations with movie-quality CGI cutscenes
Final fan fare
After 11 successful iterations of the "numbers series", as Japanese gamers have dubbed the franchise, anyone would be forgiven for expecting number 12 to be more of the same.
It is different, some would argue radically so, with a major reworking of the battle system and approach to storytelling. Yet at the same time it is comfortingly familiar to even the most purist Final Fantasy fan.
A new gambit
The biggest departure is the battle system; there are no frustrating random encounters in FFXII. Taking inspiration from their online endeavours, Square Enix has developed a new mechanism that will be instantly familiar to fans of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing games, like EverQuest or World of Warcraft.
There is no transition into combat - in fact there is no world map movement at all - instead you journey though a gorgeous fully realised 3D environments. When you attack, you simply walk within range and strike but run the risk of attracting other, nearby monsters to the melee. Elegantly simple, this new system breathes a sense of life and deeper realism into the game.
A red arc is drawn between the monster and the party member they're attacking, a blue arc between your characters and the foes they're targeting and a green arc between characters healing. These simple visual clues make combat incredibly intuitive, letting you understand, plan and react to the situations at a glance.
Turn sequences have been replaced with Action bars, with different abilities taking a set period of time to activate, making combat feel faster and more natural. Gone too is the need to repetitively select "attack" and your target from the battle system menu.
The coup de grace of this new approach is the introduction of Gambits, hierarchies of responses you can set for each individual party member, effectively tweaking the game's AI to suit your style and technique.
From offensive Gambits like Attack > Foe: party leader's target to defensive strategies like Cure > Ally: HP < 70%, a myriad of actions can be assigned, enabling you to sit back and watch a melee unfold, switch between characters to make tweaks and adjustments or switch off Gambits to take full control.
The progression of your characters is more freeform than previous games, being more in tune with Final Fantasy Tactics on PS2. Each character has a License board, much like a chess board, of potential abilities to choose from - magicks, technicks, weapons, armour...
Each character begins with a few unlocked squares and the potential to buy abilities from the surrounding vertical and horizontal board spaces. With each new License purchased, via points gained through defeating monsters and overcoming obstacles, new options are revealed.
See with new eyes
These changes are major departures from previous iterations but the biggest departure by far is FFXII's storyline. Without spoiling any of the drama it is safe to say that the creative team at Square Enix has taken it's tried and tested plot devices and thrown them out.
It is not one boy's journey to save a doomed world but rather a blend of themes within a highly charged political environment. This brave new Ivalice resonates on a level with our modern world.
Yes, there are orphans in this story and at the very beginning your first impressions are though the eyes of Vaan, a young rebel running the streets of Dalmasca. However, instead of seeing the tale from his perspective, he soon becomes part of a larger ensemble cast offering a range of different viewpoints.
Keeping the spirit within
The battle system and character progression has changed, while the familiar story format is gone. So what makes this Final Fantasy?
Familiar elements are present from the iconic Chocobos, Moogles and Viera, and the orphans already mentioned to high visual production values and a stunning orchestral score.
Each version of Final Fantasy has seen new characters, exploring new worlds and an improved battle system, the tone of each woven together by these familiar threads. In FFXII the imagination and development of the characters, world setting and system is plainly far greater than ever before, but it is still Final Fantasy.
As the final instalment to be released for PlayStation 2, their venture has paid off for both fans and newcomers. Final Fantasy XII is by far the best release in the numbers series and arguably the best roleplaying game on PlayStation 2.
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