Thursday, July 15, 2010

Top 50 Games - 15. Final Fantasy XII

Final Fantasy XII. Man did I pump some hours into this one. Mind you, I'm not the type of player who spends literal years exclusively tethered to one game, but for me 200 hours is a lot. I don't think I regret a single minute spent on my journey through Ivalice. A vast sea of picky and excitable whiners, the RPG community at large did not rapturously receive FFXII upon its Halloween 2006 arrival. You see, Square (now Square-Enix) knows that if no fundamental changes take place between each entry in their flagship series, the JRPG as a whole will stagnate and fall to the wayside. Many fans believe that Final Fantasy VI perfected the Japanese role-playing game; that no further changes are necessary when it's possible to return to VI's flawless model. It's true that sticking with a proven formula is less risky, but we should all acknowledge that by those means, no progress will be made; we would never be able to surpass FFVI. Final Fantasy XII, following the almost ignored MMO Final Fantasy XI, which followed the beloved PS2 debut FFX, took inspiration from both, as well as from the classic Playstation strategy RPG Final Fantasy Tactics. FFXII, as mentioned, takes place in Ivalice, the same world that Tactics occupied. Ivalice is a sprawling, majestic patchwork of tiny kingdoms, looming empires, desolate ruins, wide plains, lush jungles, arid deserts, bright beaches, dark caves, and snow-capped mountains. The events contained in FFXII take place only on certain extents of Ivalice's bigger continents, but the world map is still satisfyingly large. This world has a distinctively Mediterranean cultural and aesthetic vibe, though it's hard to explain due to the amount of variety. The starting city of Rabanastre is a haven of civilization surrounded by deserts and dry grasslands. The Ozmone Plain resembles an African Savannah, with Antelope-headed hunters engaging native game. Balfonheim Port is what it sounds like; a rich seaside docking and trading city full of pirates and merchants. Archades resembles a successful European city, full of artful architecture and advanced technology, with flying taxis and skyscrapers. There are bazaars and temples and more, with the art direction pulling in the most romantic elements of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East to create a stunningly cohesive virtual realm. I said that this game is partly inspired by Final Fantasy XI; where XI is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, XII is a massive role-playing game with some adopted MMO ideas. For the first and now last time in the series, battles in FFXII take place in the same 3D environment as the rest of the game and are transitioned into seamlessly. When a character in your party gets "aggro" from an enemy (meaning the enemy sees and wants to engage the party member) and the player does not hold the R2 button to disengage and run away, then the party draws its weapons and circles around the target. ATB meters are back and differences in the speed attribute can affect the rhythm of battle. The player takes control of one party member at a time, making him the leader and enabling his action menu to be opened and operated by the player, along with his movement. The rest of your allies are controlled with the gambit system, an effective and strategic AI coordinator that lets you input simple logic commands in a prioritized list, i.e. "Ally is poisoned -- use antidote." It's a very workable mechanic that gets more strategic and involved as the game goes on. The triangle menu can be opened and gambits can be changed at any time, leading to some very cool on-the-fly tactical management. Enemies can be seen and fought on the field and spamming of the X button is minimized, alleviating many of the franchise's past annoyances (of course people still complained about the new system). Other mechanical additions include the License Board, a menu-accessed contraption in which you can spend acquired License Points on new Licenses, which allow the party member in question to use a new ability, equip a new armament, etc. Through the gambit and License systems, the player can choose to place the party in tight, specific roles such as White Mage, or they can opt to make every character pretty much the same; all in all, the combat and customization mechanics are very flexible and satisfying. The story in Final Fantasy XII is neither the best nor worst in the series. Its main themes include power, corruption, destiny, and home, and these are approached with grace and thoughtfulness, for the most part. XII's is easily the most political tale in the series, which might be a turn-off to some looking for Final Fantasy's character-centric melodrama. I think the style works well for this game; it never gets too dry or talkative (in fact, I think there may be less dialogue here than in any other Final Fantasy since the NES days). This isn't to say, though, that there aren't noteworthy characters; on the contrary, some of the most well-realized and adult personalities in the series contribute to FFXII's plot. Basch is a weary and disheveled knight, aware of the treachery present in the world, but still uncynical. Ashe is a fugitive princess beset by tragedy, almost cold and mean, and really the story's main character if there is one. Balthier is a romantic and arrogant sky pirate, an adventurous outlaw who claims to be the "leading man." Fran is the party's only non-human, a rabbit-like ranger whose dry and calm sarcasm lends the events a touch of relaxed wit to counterbalance the drama. Even Vaan, the typical Japanese-developed effeminate young man, isn't quite a dud. And Penelo is okay, but nobody really pays attention to her. The characters benefit from Akihiko Yoshida's mercifully un-Tokyo designs, a great script, and even better voice acting. The world of Ivalice is a beautiful place to explore, with many striking details such as the seasonal change of the Giza Plains from a dry grassland to a rainy marsh, or the overwhelmingly convoluted network of sandy underground caves and tunnels that is the Zertinan Caverns. Like I said, a lot of my time has been spent here tracking down rare beasts, dueling mysterious Eastern warriors, discovering hidden treasures, recruiting the aid of powerful fallen angels called Espers, and tricking the system into quickly maxing out my party's stats. And I absolutely loved every moment I spent watching my party perform on autopilot; haters be damned.

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