Friday, May 15, 2009

PS2 look: Final Fantasy XII

One of the great difficulties of reviewing an RPG is entertaining the notion that I might have to play through it again. This could be that I was wrong about a glaring number of aspects, or maybe I had not given enough time to learning the system itself and merely grinded my way through every major encounter. This is especially challenging when the RPG in question is none other than FFXII, quite possibly Square-Enix's most ambitious single-player Final Fantasy to date.

Taking place in the world of Ivalice(which originally came to be in Final Fantasy Tactics) the game stars Vaan, a young orphaned child who wants to be a Sky Pirate. Though over time the player will come to discover that the real star of FFXII jumps around between a Basch the dishonored soldier, Balthier a real sky pirate, and Ashe who seeks control of her kingdom. The game implies that Vaan is the star, probably more due to catering to impressionable youths through the age-old story of "lost parents, must seek self in the world" which can be found in nearly every other Japanese RPG. The story however revolves more around the other three characters, leaving Vaan as the witness and occassional commentator(where most of the time he comes off as ignorant to the world around him, left to ask questions about events/people). There are two other characters but they're even less important: Penelo, Vaan's best friend who is simply along for the ride and Fran, the eye-candy bunny girl who well...she's related to a quest somehow but that's about it. All six characters are playable and interchangeable at any time(though true to RPG form you won't have them all accessible from the start).

The main antagonists consist of the ambitious Vayne who seeks power over everything, Gabranth the judge with many dark secrets, and Doctor Cid who is perhaps the most interesting of the three(or at least has the voice actor who seems to be enjoying himself the most. There are a number of secondary villains and heroes for the party to interact with in one way or another but for this review none of that is really important. In fact if you're playing this game for the storyline you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

The world of Ivalice is amazingly realized through massive overworlds that are explored via a third-person view. The closest similarity in terms of exploration would be the MMORPG Final Fantasy XI(a game which FFXII is constantly compared to). Unlike most games in the series the player does not encounter his or her foes through a random encounter which throws them into a battlefield. All encounters can be found wandering the landscape and are fought just where you meet them. Some enemies are passive(which are clearly marked) while most are aggressive and will attack when you get close enough(denoted by a red line that comes at an arc and lands directly at a targeted party member). Depending on how your gambits are set up your party will respond in like form by drawing their weapons. The terrain has minimal effect on battles as there's very rarely a situation you can attack enemies and they can't get around to attacking you(though there are a few notable exceptions these are considered glitches). The areas you'll explore run the typical gamut of castles, caves, forests, deserts, and so on. While there are times when you have to perform mini-games or fetch quests it's fair to say FFXII is the most combat-intensive of any Final Fantasy(next to FFXI of course).

Upon completing my first playthrough of the game I found myself hating it. For all its promises the gambit system for me did little more than place a greater emphasis on "trash mobs" or enemies that pose no threat. As impressive as the seamless battle system was it made almost all non-boss related fights mere inconveniences. Not only did the foes fall easily but one could for the most part face only one of them at a time. I didn't bother with many of the systems in place and found myself more annoyed at the lack of storyline after a certain point to worry about the gameplay. To put it bluntly I put over eighty hours into a game and I had zero qualifications to give it a review.

Certainly FFXII is not immune to criticism. The most controversial aspect is the Gambit system. Essentially you can program your party members to carry out specific tasks depending on a variety of conditions. So if somebody's HP is running low the party member will use a curing spell or a potion without you so much as having to open a menu(though you can do that as well if you like). In fact after a certain point you can set up to 12 tasks to perform and potentially have a solution to anything that could come up. The unfortunate aspect of the Gambit system is that unless you're monitoring your party constantly and can predict what'll happen next you're unable to keep up with the neigh-perfect reaction time of the AI. Depending on your gambit setup the AI will cast a healing spell the very second a party member's health approaches a certain point. Sure you could turn off the gambits and handled all commands on your own but you're crippling your ability to succeed in battle. In a way FFXII battles are played out closer to a real-time strategy game than an RPG. After setting your gambits you lead your party members to the nearest enemy and they will go through their pre-programmed actions, leaving you free to jump in whenever the situation requires or you feel you can do things with a bit more efficiency than the computer. The player can also use quickenings(which act as special attacks) and summons(where the summoner and the summon team up to attack the enemy) but for the most part these two additional abilities are rather useless and the MP they cost is better used for healing/stat buffs/or whatever else you'll need.

In fact it's fair to say that after a certain point the only thing you'll really want to do during pro-longed battles is replacing your party's equipment as needed. In a rather unique idea FFXII allows the player to change the party's equipment at any time. This is a fascinating & rare feature for the genre as most of the time you can only decide what to wear before the fight. So if you're fighting a boss and he uses a particular ability that you have an item that grants immunity to you can bring up the menu just before attack hits and change things around to avoid potential damage or negative status effects. There is an unparalleled amount of freedom in this system and some would argue there's too much. Unlike some RPGs where the designers expect you to go in with a particular party configuration(and if you deviate from that you'll either face a dramatically harder battle or outright lose entirely) FFXII gives an neigh-infinite number of chances to fix any mistakes the player made in outfitting their party before the fight(provided they actually have the needed equipment). This system is also at times necessary for players attempting more difficult playthroughs of the game. Like the rest of the series FFXII offers players more difficult ways of playing through the game, creating more challenges for veterans(example: completing the game without a single levelup). While the battles in FFXII are never as hard as say Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne(even when party members are defeated in FFXII a phoenix down or revival spell is less than a second away) there are ways to make it more difficult for those who wish to take the chance.

Like in most of the later Final Fantasy games, character development is more than just leveling up. If you're familiar with terms such as "The Sphere Grid" and "The Job System" you'll quickly become familiar with the Licence Board. Through the collection of LP the players can customize their party members by deciding what equipment they can use, upgrade their stats, determine their spells, etc. It's an interesting attempt at customization but unfortunately without any sort of specialization(like say making a stronger White Mage at the expense of Black Mage spells, etc) there's little reason to not buy everything on the board. There are slight differences in stats between the six characters so that's as close to specialization as one can get.

The most frustrating aspect of FFXII for me is the focus on combat and the de-emphasis on exploration. When it comes to RPGs I tend to be a very meat & potatoes kind of person. I want to fight battles and explore dungeons. As you've probably already noticed I've criticized Breath of Fire 3 for relying too much on minigames to advance the storyline(most if not all of that stuff should be secondary) and even right now I've discovered Breath of Fire 4 is unfortunately enough more of the same. While I applaud FFXII for offering quite a bit of meat the potatoes are indeed sorely lacking.

As I mentioned before FFXII is very combat-intensive. One of the main side-quests you can take on is the road to becoming the highest ranked clan-member. This is done by seeking out Marks. Marks are enemies of exceptional strength and can be found throughout the overworld. By defeating these you complete contracts, collect rewards, and advance through the ranks. Most of the marks are based off existing enemy types(actually most of the monsters in the game rely on the same pool of enemy designs, leading to quite a few re-skins, a side effect of putting such a massive game on one disc). Along with the Marks there are also rare Trophy monsters that can be turned in other rewards, Espers that can be summoned once defeated, and a handful of fights that you may never discover if you weren't made aware of them before. Couple all this with the near constant fight with enemies wandering the plains & dungeons you walk through and needless to say you'll be fighting quite often. As a nice touch the beastiary keeps track of every single monster you fight, and even offers a bit of background information on the creature or surrounding area(and possibly a few hints for the game as well).

Exploration on the other hand just isn't as deep. Most of the time you'll find a map of the entire area within the first few rooms and be left with solving simplistic puzzles while wiping out easy mobs. The treasure which is usually a welcome reason to explore all dead-ends is actually quite strange. Whenever you open a chest there's a chance you'll get the item the chest actually holds, or you'll get some money, or a useless item. Eventually you acquire an item that supposedly grants you better treasure when you open a chest but even that's not 100% guaranteed(some chests even require you don't wear this item to get the best possible reward). This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of exploration in that game. It extends outside the dungeons as well. 90% of the people you talk to in FFXII have nothing to say. Sure they'll comment on story events but if you're looking for hints about legendary beasts or wonderful treasure you're mostly out of luck. For most FFXII players all they'll know is the marks posted on the bulletin board. They're given little reason to talk to everyone wandering the streets(especially since even the smallest town is several times larger than any of the ones in previous Final Fantasy titles) and when every chest they open usually contains a few bucks what's the point of deviating from their main task? Simply put if you don't have a guide or a tremendous amount of patience you will most out on a lot that FFXII has to offer. At best you'll get through the main story and a handful of marks and potentially hate the game just as much as I did after my first playthrough.

There is one FFXI comparison that continues to remain apt in spite of the many differences(or at least one I found particularly notable). While in FFXI a full-party facing off against more than one foe at a time is typically a bad idea in FFXII it's usually quite painless. FFXII makes an attempt to balance this out by introducing a monster chaining system. Since you can pick your battles you can defeat a specific kind of monster repeatedly to build up a chain. This chain results in more loot and a better chance of getting particularly great items(as designated by the "loot bag" that drops when an enemy is killed). Some enemies are easier to chain than others(a room full of skeletons compared to the one rare beast among them for example). Killing any other kind of monster ends the chain immediately so for many of the tougher encounters you have to risk drawing the attention of monsters you shouldn't kill just to get a better chance at getting that special piece of equipment.

Unfortunately for a game that draws the player in with dreams of becoming a sky pirate, exploring the world, and finding ancient treasure FFXII completely fails on that notion. In the depths of ruins untouched for centuries and filled with beasts most foul it does the player little good to find a chest with a rock in it. Sure that same chest could hold the Holy Blade of Zenthonia(or a Zodiac Spear) but if 99% of the time it's a rock what's the point? The chaining makes sense because it creates more interesting encounters but what can you do about the treasure? For all Vaan & Penelo talk of seeing the world I find it rather disheartening that the bulk of their adventures end in them facing off against the villains or seemingly mythical beasts. Instead of wonder and discovery we're tied down to endless battles against insurmountable foes. I guess there is some truth to JRPGs being used to prepare youths for the difficulties of real life as this is ultimately a depressing conclusion.

It seems now I hate FFXII more than ever. First I hated it for its weak storyline and now I hate it for lacking in exploration. Now it seems I've put in about 180 hours into a game I hate more than ever. I guess this makes it either funny or more depressing as I spent arond the same amount of time on FFXI. Then again at least that game retains some of the wonder of seeing the world(unless you're looking at a guide the entire time).

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