Cancel your social life and stock up on coffee, Final Fantasy is back. One of the most fanatically loved, respected and revered series in gaming history, Final Fantasy has a legion of fierce fans in every corner of the globe, hungrily awaiting the new iteration.
It’s been almost five years since Square blessed the PlayStation 2 with Final Fantasy X and a lot of things have changed in the interim. This will be the last PS2 Final Fantasy before the franchise moves onto Sony’s massively powerful PlayStation 3 - Final Fantasy also graced the Xbox 360 with the ill-fated Final Fantasy XI. One thing, it seems, remains constant: Square manages to deliver immensely epic adventures with unbeatable richness in story, character and design. Final Fantasy XII is different and yet the same.
After the standard long and spectacular opening CG sequence, players find themselves immediately immersed into the fascinating world of Dalmasca and directly involved in the downfall of an empire. Your character, Reks, is betrayed and left for dead, the plot advances and players will be left wondering what part the epilogue will play in the rest of the story.
The narrative picks up two years later and initially follows the exploits of a young street urchin/thief called Vann, who lives under the constant oppression and racial discrimination of the ruling Archadia. Vaan has some sort of connection with Reks but the mystery is only illuminated after a series of disturbing cut-scenes. Class division is a constant theme throughout the game and the harsh treatment of the less fortunate is an incisive comment made by the Square team about the current international climate.
Your adventure truly begins in the Dalmascan capital, Rabanastre. Characters drift in and out of your party throughout the first few hours and give a nice semi-tutorial on how the new combat, license and gambit systems work. The witty sky-pirate Balthier and his exotic partner Fran are two of the first useful characters to help expand on the overwhelming depth and challenge of the game. The story is compelling, confusing, brilliant and engulfing all at the same time.
Seemingly hundreds of characters and hours of dialogue go into making this, perhaps, the most detailed and intricate Final Fantasy yet. The world seems to have an actual history (Ivalice first appeared in Final Fantasy Tactics) which is crucial in making the tragic circumstances all the more meaningful.
Final Fantasy XII follows the traditional role-playing mechanics for the most part. Battles are fought, levels are obtained and strange comical creatures are encountered. As your party’s levels increase, so do your skills and abilities.
Final Fantasy XII introduces a couple of new aspects to your character's progression this time around. The most important of these is the License Board. Anyone familiar with the Final Fantasy X Sphere grid should be instantly comfortable and yet baffled by the License Board. Every character has the ability to open up every spot of the board and it’s simply a matter of choosing which direction you wish to take them.
At the outer edges of the board lie the Quickenings (limit breaks) and the Espers (summonings), both of which are crucial to advancement through some of the tougher boss battles and the overall world itself. The Espers must be assigned to individual characters once you have opened them up and the correct placement of the correct Esper will cause consternation for many players.
The battle system has been completely refreshed and overhauled since the last game on the PlayStation 2. Random battles have been almost completely eliminated and the focus is now on tactically approaching battles in order to best combat dangerous foes. With enemies now visible upon the map and the game world, players can tailor fighting styles and party members to best deal with specific threats. Anyone familiar with the style of an online role player will be able to deal with the new combat scheme with ease, while the rest of us will eventually pick up the multitasking intricacies.
Much has been made over the controversial gambit system that is unique to Final Fantasy XII. Gambits allow the player to become a battlefield general that assigns roles to three, two or one party member and allows him to act with a degree of AI within battles. The gambits ultimately rest on your ability to accurately assess situations and adapt accordingly. As your levels grow, so does the sophistication of your gambits.
The gambit is divided into a series of prioritised actions which characters will follow throughout the battle. For example, if you want a character to heal other party members when their health gets low but attack the rest of the time, simply assign the healing party less than 50% as your first gambit and attack as your second.
Simple? Well, not really, but things become easier as you master the initial battles with gambits involved. The gambit system adds a new level of battle management which takes this Final Fantasy away from the traditional individual management and opens up a new realm of detail for dedicated fans. That being said, Square has been kind enough to give players the option of turning off the gambits and remodelled the game to further match previous versions of the game.
And it’s the detail that will draw virgin Final Fantasy players into this version of the franchise. By far the most detailed and expansive role-playing game to be found on any console, Final Fantasy XII also delivers some other dazzling touches to heighten the game's appeal.
The series has always had some of the most brilliant and sensational graphics on the PlayStation 2 and Final Fantasy XII takes that level of quality up even further. This final PS2 version presents a rich and detailed fantasy world which is very reminiscent of Tatooine from Star Wars: Episode One. The world of Ivalice is filled with awesome desert vistas, massive cities, huge towers, magnificent airships and a menagerie of creatures, including a few recognisable faces.
Couple this with amazing cut scenes and some of the best voice acting of the series so far and Final Fantasy XII has the ascetics of a Hollywood production. Most of the voices are resonating and emotional but Vaan’s American voice-over can get a little grating when placed against the much stronger supporting cast.
The amount of potential quests and side adventures is simply staggering. A willing, if a little crazy, player could devote hours to tracking down all of the animals in the bestiary, killing ten of them and thereby opening up additional information that could lead to further adventures, a never-ending circle of quests.
On top of this there is the option to partake in some tailored hunts, issued to you by the hunter's guild. These hunts range from the ridiculously easy to the ridiculously, bamboozling, frustratingly difficult. With the addition of these sub-structures within the main thread of the storyline, dozens of extra hours become available for the hardcore completist out there.
Final Fantasy XII is a stunning swansong for the series on PlayStation 2. The game is sure to sell millions of copies and satisfy both the veteran and the novice alike. Few games can rival the sheer depth and scope of the Final Fantasy series and volume twelve is sure to add to the legacy of one of the greatest video game franchises ever made. It has enough innovation to keep it fresh will providing quaint and long-lasting touches that keep the series at the top of any gamers list. One can only dream what Final Fantasy XIII will deliver.