The light creeping in through the small barred window above me reminds me of what I miss so much. The outside world. Life as an aspiring pirate isn't as easy as people make out and for the third time this week, I've ended up on the wrong side of the law. But this time it's serious. Serving time itself is one thing but the hardened inmates here are out for blood. My blood. With my equipment gone, I only have my fists to rely on when the inevitable occurs and one of these reprobates makes an attempt on my life. Sure enough, with a deafening crash, three hulking Seeq warriors fall out of nowhere and my very life hangs in the balance...
I could probably do the whole review like that, but Final Fantasy XII deserves better. Much better. There's just so much to say about this wonderful game - from the top-notch characters and settings to the compelling combat - that spending paragraphs explaining the melancholy feeling of wandering the barren wastes of Ivalice alone would just be a waste of everyone's time. And just as you might be turned off by a review that opens like an ill-advised blog, Final Fantasy XII is the kind of game that can be easily dismissed by those unwilling to give it the investment of time it not only requires but deserves. Unlike said reviews, however, XII actually rewards your continued attention with more than a drawn-out string of bad metaphors and unintelligible similes.
In fact, there's a surprising amount of things in the game that don't really click until much later on. The targeting arcs, for one, initially seem like some kind of pointless visual flair and it isn't until you've got numerous Gambits set up (which we'll come to shortly) that at-a-glance updates of exactly what each character is doing become essential, allowing you to jump in and reissue orders if allies get a little too carried away. Even the battle system itself won't win any awards for immediacy but when you do the maths and work out how much of your life would have been spent waiting for fights to load had this been any other FF title, you'll discover a new-found respect for XII's choice of direction. Indeed, battles themselves benefit greatly from the new format (a blend of MMO-style command-queuing and more traditional FF ideas), somehow managing to capture the same dangerous level of addictiveness as the cream of the massively multiplayer crop while giving the player more to work towards than simply the benefits of levelling up.
But never let it be said that Final Fantasy XII is an easy game. Having to organise your three-man posse from six possible party members in order to maintain a balance in levels is tricky and time consuming to say the least, and with dangerous high-level creatures roaming most of the game's hostile areas, you'll need to keep your allies in check if you don't want to be assaulted by overly powerful dinosaurs or elemental spirits. Similarly, it can be all too easy to wander into the wrong area at the wrong time and be surrounded by enemies you won't be able to even touch for another twenty-odd hours - there's no shame or penalty involved in running away and you'll soon learn that this is often the best strategy when things get too much.
To be this far into the review without any real mention of the Gambit system is criminal, but if things had continued in the horrible way they started, you'd still be reading about the emotional and social impact of Vaan's haircut so it's not all bad. Anyway, Gambits. This ingenious system basically allows you to customise the AI of your party to your liking and as the game progresses, you'll be able to dictate in more complex and useful manners how your team behaves in combat. Up to twelve criteria-based actions can be set and like VII's unrivalled Materia system, this makes for some seriously deep customisation options - set up an ally to cast curative magic on undead foes with a certain number of hit points, use group healing spells when several allies lose health or detect an enemy's weakness and use elemental skills accordingly. The system is well explained and the hierarchy works well, meaning rules higher up the list take priority over lower ones, so basic actions such as attacking are almost always relegated to the lower tiers. It's far harder to explain than it is to use and within a few hours, you'll easily be settled with Gambits that work well for you until you discover new options later in the game.
But it's the epic and sprawling landscapes that really steal the show. With plains stretching out for miles from the central city of Rabanastre, it'll take literally weeks for you to take in everything on the map and only through continued exploration will you find all those hidden summons. These have always been the bits of Final Fantasy games that are used to show off the game to non-believers and, as expected, XII's are as flashy as ever. Those expecting the familiar line-up of Shiva, Ifrit et al have a new set of Espers to grow to love but for series veterans, that shouldn't be an issue - bosses from older games in the series make their return in this conjurable capacity as well a few more familiar faces.
Final Fantasy XII is hands-down the best instalment in the series since VII. There, we said it. It succeeds on just about every imaginable level, combining a loveable and well-designed cast and suitably twist-ridden storyline with the most unique slant on the series' traditional turn-based combat system since it went all tactical to stunning effect. The variety, attention to detail and imagination piled into this small cross section of Ivalice would suggest that returning to the somewhat underused source material of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was nothing if not a stroke of genius. The beautiful architecture and interaction of the various races is far better suited to a fully fledged adventure such as this and every location is a pleasure to discover and explore for this very reason. You'll never tire of returning to familiar locales, be it for the main narrative or one of the many side-quests that the game throws at you, so much so that you might even find yourself churning out pieces of creative writing about your time in Ivalice.
Please beware that while it's available to import, Final Fantasy XII has yet to be translated into English and you're likely to struggle to understand it in its native form. English speaking gamers will have to wait until later this year to get their hands on it. Although it sounds like it'll be worth the wait...