Final Fantasy XII Reader Review
I sold Final Fantasy XII after twenty hours of gameplay, probably about a fifth of the average completion time. What follows can't therefore really be described as a review and I haven't presumed to stick a score on the end of it. Truth be told, I'm just looking for a bit of catharsis- I stopped playing a Final Fantasy game. To the JRPG purist that's akin to getting off a trans-Atlantic flight halfway, or premature ejaculation.
Anyway, here are a few rambling meditations on why. I'm going to assume you're all familiar with the nuts-and-bolts of fighting, character development etc in order to keep the word-count down.
Little needs to be said about the visuals. I ran FFXII on a ropey old Panasonic which generally does its best to beat all and sundry with the ugly stick, and the game still had my jaw flapping (and this was before I caught sight of it on a posh HDTV in Virgin). Particularly worthy of applause is the Vagrant-Story-esque attention to facial minutiae during cutscenes, both CGI and in-engine- a tightening of the jaw, dropped eyelids, an intake of breath- which is leagues ahead of the rubbery 'acting' in X and X-2.
Praise is also due the researchers, artists and designers who have put together what is probably the richest and most intricate Final Fantasy world yet, mixing Classical influences with the series� native Japanese idiom, sumptuous Renaissance ornament and architecture with a steam-punk airship aesthetic. Just walking into a potion shop is like a visit to the Vatican- you'll find yourself lingering over bookcases, admiring the detail in a hanging blade or panning the camera around for a closer look at the Moogle shopkeeper. Lurking behind all this splendour is a body of lore to equal that of the D&D universe. Considerable quantities of ink (or pixels if you prefer) have plainly been spilled on the history of Ivalice and the machinations which brought about the current, racially diverse status quo. The extensive bestiary, written in comic antiquated style, is a testament to this.
Now, the dodgy stuff. As most reviewers have noted XII draws some inspiration from sandbox games like KOTOR, Fable and the MMORPG. It does so with mixed success. On the one hand the game is markedly less linear than its predecessors, and players can happily fritter away the hours exploring the vast environments (each with its own rudimentary ecosystem, and prey to scripted seasonal change) whilst tackling one of the hunting quests thrown up by the Hunter's Guild. On the other these innovations feel, in my opinion, disappointingly incomplete. The cities and landscapes are visually complex but lack interactive depth: there are no factions to bribe, befriend or annihilate, no means of altering the socio-political landscape, no real resources to seize, exploit and defend.
The storytelling is less focussed, with the writers eschewing the (deceptively) simplistic quest-driven narratives of old in favour of a slipshod sequence of powerful vignettes- Vaan being mobbed by fellow prisoners in the bowels of a palace dungeon, Vane's inaugural address to the people of Rabanastre. Whether you buy into this is a matter of taste: personally I found it too discontinuous to be truly engaging. The pacing is occasionally worthy of Kojima at his worst, with prolonged tracts of aimless dungeon-crawling interspersed with half-hour cutscenes, and Squeenix has yet to fully integrate storyline with gameplay, one overlaying the other like oil on water. While I�m hardly able to comment on specifics, I also suspect the much-vaunted �mature� writing is all bells and whistles, couched in cryptic dialogue and political metaphors to disguise the fact that at heart, the story is a straightforward if polished affair of empires, rebellions and secret magical weapons. Please feel free to dump on me from a great height if this is not the case.
Like Vagrant Story (its spiritual predecessor) XII is a dungeon-crawler and variety is not its strong point. There is little in the way of mini-games or sub-games, which is rather a letdown from the company that gave us Blitzball and Tetramaster. Actions outside of combat are still limited to hitting a button when prompted to pick up loot or trigger dialogue, a design choice which is beginning to look a little miserly against the likes of Breath of Fire V, with its traps and character actions, or the mighty Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door.
The combat is another Marmite issue. The Gambit system (reminiscent of Carnage Heart at its best) is an elegant solution to the problem of repetition, and the absence of jarring random battles is more than welcome. The psuedo-real-time battling is faster but less precise than a turn-based system. The camera can be awkward when there are multiple opponents on-screen (targeting arcs become invaluable here). Quickenings are ludicrously overpowered, allowing you to chain together nuke after nuke without risk of counterattack. There are too many menus at times.
If there�s anything about FFXII that is uncompromisingly bad it has to be the character development process. While the License board allows a limitless amount of customisation, it compounds the drawbacks of a discontinuous narrative by making every character thoroughly identity-less: all characters use the same board and start in roughly the same place, which makes it hard to differentiate them effectively without foreknowledge of the grid (although locked squares can be distinguished according to category). On top of this it is needlessly clunky (why does every weapon in the game need its own license?). I found myself assigning License points more or less at random, relying on Gambits to give my characters real individuality.
Pushing a thousand words now so I�d better round up. Evidence for the defence: the source material behind FFXII is undoubtedly rich, and the gameplay modifications are ambitious (at least for a Final Fantasy). Evidence for the prosecution: the story is a step back for the series at least in terms of how it is told, the MMORPG template is half-implemented, character development has gone tits-up and the gameplay, while good enough, lacks variety.
Thanks for reading my first review. If I�d given a score, what do you think it would be?