I've been working my way through Final Fantasy XII for the past few days. After the tidal wave of positive reviews the game received back in 2005 (2006?), I made sure to pick it up. I then discovered that the Internet did not share the same positive reaction, and after a couple of hours with the game, I retired it to my shelf. It's been sitting there ever since, mostly forgotten. Well, you know what Internet? I think you were wrong. I think Final Fantasy XII is one of the finest crafted video games I have ever had the pleasure to play, and I curse myself for not realizing it sooner.
Those who believe that the characters aren't as memorable as those in Final Fantasies past, shut it. As far as overall design goes, yes, I can see your point. The majority of the party is made up of fair-skinned Aryan people with English accents. Aesthetically speaking, they aren't as interesting as the cast of Final Fantasy VI or Final Fantasy IX, but they make up for it with their personalities. Despite her somewhat revealing clothing, Princess Ashe manages to make her mark as a strong female lead, something I was surprised to see in a Final Fantasy game, of all places. She'll often chastise Vaan for treating her as if she were weak, and instead of being a typecast magic user, she's more than competent with a sword. Of every party member, she's definitely my favorite.
As a whole, the party plays off of each others strengths and weaknesses. If the mood of the game starts to take on too dark a tone, you can expect Balthier to lighten the air with one of his typical Han Solo-esque comments. Should you come across an ancient ruin or relic, leave it to Fran to give you its history. Need a mentor figure to give you support when you're facing insurmountable odds? Basch is your man. Suffice it to say, I like the cast.
What else? Well, I love the art direction. The world of Ivalice is absolutely gorgeous, at times even breathtaking. If you don't believe me then I suggest you take a look at (spoilers!) Feywood
. Everything about this area shows off the brilliance of Final Fantasy XII's art direction, from the fading ghosts of dead soldiers that loom ever before you, to the strange creatures that inhabit a wood eternally shrouded in mist. It also highlights one of my favorite pieces of video game music, which brings me to another point that many gamers seemed to lament. The lack of Nobuo Uematsu's music in the game.
Personally, I'm a huge fan of Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata's previous work on Final Fantasy Tactics. I know almost no musical theory and I have no right to talk about the mechanics of the music used here, but I did enjoy it greatly. The inclusion of choirs, chimes, and other unexpected sounds in the soundtrack were what drove me to become so enchanted with the two composers in the first place. I understand mourning the loss of Uematsu, but two very talented gentlemen stood up to take this place, and did a fine job at it to boot.
As for the complaint that the game plays itself, well, I don't even want to refute that. Yes, through the use of the Gambit system, you can program the game to play itself. At the outset of your adventure, when you have very few abilities available to you, I can understand how it could feel boring or repetitive in its execution. As new abilities open up to you and the game requires more strategy for advancement, simply allowing the game to "play itself" is no longer an option. You must strategize, often pulling out party members mid battle to bring in new ones, utilizing their unique abilities to the fullest. I've found this system lends itself to exhilarating combat and quick thinking. It's a near perfect meld of action and turn based RPG formulas and I adore it.
Is there more to say? It wouldn't be right if I didn't at least mention the story. I've heard murmurs that the story wasn't memorable and that the villain, Lord Vayne, failed to connect with most everyone who played the game. To you people I say, what
? Again, I'm not very far into the game and my perception of it could change entirely as I progress, but from what I've played, I see no flaw in the story of Final Fantasy XII. If anything, I find it to be a refreshing change of pace from what I had grown used to seeing from the series. Instead of a villain who somehow gains a great deal of power and threatens to destroy the world, you face an Empire. Instead of fighting to save the planet, you fight to save a fallen kingdom. Is it very original? No, not really. There are more parallels to Star Wars in this game than in any Final Fantasy I've played. Is it enjoyable? Perhaps not for everyone. I personally enjoy entering the role of Vaan, a young boy swept up in something far larger than him, playing the part of helpful accomplice instead of the sole savior of the planet.
Overall, I recommend this game to any fan of JRPG's or video games in general. It's a stunning game that can easily hold the Final Fantasy name without being crushed under its weight. To those who haven't played it before, know that it's a slow burn. It wasn't until three hours into the game that it started to pick up for me, and it's initial slow pacing is likely the reason I put it to rest on my shelf in the first place. If you have the patience to stick with it you will be rewarded in kind. To those who have played it in its entirety and still find it to be the weak link of the franchise, you're welcome to your opinion. In fact, I'd love to discuss this with you in the comments below.