Sometimes videogame publishers are lazy and dull. They find a formula that works and they stick with it rigidly until every drop has been wrung from both the game, and its audience. They build interminable sequels, demanding from their development teams that everything should be by the numbers, within the lines, and comfortably corresponding to the expectations of the audience, and of the management team. They take good ideas and stretch them out into annual updates, robbing them of their impact and leeching their original creators of the fundamental desire to create. Sometimes, even the most dedicated fan of the interactive medium - particularly the most dedicated fan of the interactive medium - can't help but be a little depressed and downhearted.
Sometimes videogame publishers sparkle with unexpected creativity. Sometimes they shatter a mould which had grown so familiar that you had never anticipated change; sometimes they make a giant, shocking leap of faith, place their full trust and confidence in the vision of a development team, and allow a series to be remodelled into a new, exciting form. They hand the keys to their most valuable franchises to creators whose intent is not to build worthy, respectful homages that keep the execs happy and make sales projections easy, but rather to tear the cloth up and find out what new thing can be stitched together from the remnants. Sometimes, even when such experiments fail, you can't help but be excited by being a fan of the interactive medium. When they succeed, they create games which redefine and reinvigorate entire genres with sweeping arcs of their creative brush.
It's easy to roll your eyes at Final Fantasy XII because after 11 sequels and easily as many spin-off titles, Final Fantasy is a comfortable staple of gaming. Although the brand has been branched out into new areas in the past - Final Fantasy Tactics was arguably one of the finest turn-based strategy titles of its day, while Final Fantasy XI was a contender for the massively multiplayer crown before World of Warcraft stomped all over that particular market - the core games, which the Japanese refer to as the "number series", are generally well understood. Players fall into one of two camps - you like Final Fantasy, or you don't, with insufficient variation to be found from sequel to sequel which will change your mind either way.
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.