An average Fantasy...
Let's be straight before I begin this review, the Final Fantasy series is awesome and has delivered quality entries for years, starting from the very first up to around the tenth game. That's pretty good, not many game series can claim to maintain their quality for such a long period of time. My favorites will undoubtedly be the games that came out during the Playstation years, whether it's because those are the games that came out when I was into J-RPGs the most or because they really are the best is irrelevant. The point is that almost everyone has a favorite generation of Final Fantasy games, it's a testament to an excellent and long running franchise.
You may question the point of looking back on the series when we're supposed to be looking at one game in particular, but in the case of Final Fantasy XII it's very much called for. Our nostalgic memories of something we've loved for a long time and grown up with can often colour our opinions of new things that come out with that same name. Unfortunately, any praise that can be bestowed on Final Fantasy XII, or indeed it's predecesor, Final Fantasy XI, which XII plays very similar to, are very much the result of nostalgic memory.
One thing about Final Fantasy XII that I must admit is hard to argue against is that it does look good. I would only go so far as to say good though. Pretty or colourful would certainly not be words I would look for when thinking of things to describe FFXII. For a Playstation 2 game, FFXII bears some resemblance to next gen Xbox 360 shooters, in that the graphics are painfully dull. The environments are certainly expansive, but outside of the game's few cities there isn't really much to them. The game also uses a very muted and dull colour pallette, but not in a particularly stylistic manner. So while the game looks good, that doesn't at the same time mean that it's nice to look at, one shouldn't have to search for colour and style in a game called 'Final Fantasy'.
Style brings me to my next point, which is harder to argue since style is often very much a matter of opinion. People are welcome to enjoy FFXII's rather 'distinct' sense of style and I'll think nothing less of them, but I personally found it rather off putting. I liked some of the character designs, specifically Basch, Fran and Balthier, most are middle of the road, but then there are characters like Vaan, who I'm sorry to say just don't look right. He almost looks like an armoured Aladdin, which doesn't make much sense since he's also a street urchin and should be too poor to afford armour and on top of that, said armour doesn't protect any of his vital areas. Vaan takes the androgynous hero achetype to strange new heights and doesn't really even look good while doing it. Vaan is a strong example for me, but it's style similar to that throughout the game that I just couldn't quite get over.
I'd actually like to dwindle on Vaan a little while longer because to this day I wonder if he's where the entire game went bad for me. Final Fantasy heroes are some of my favorite characters of all time. Cecil from IV on his journey to become a paladin and be forgiven for his past, Terra being afraid of who she is but at the same time looking for the truth, my personal favorite, Cloud who seems to be strong but turns out to be weak and fragile inside and all the others. It needs to be said straight out really, Vaan is a pathetic excuse for a lead character. He has little to no character development and even less presence as a character, he just kind of drifts through the story, dragging on the coat tails of the other characters. One moment that truly baffled me was when he finds the man who he's believed for years was the one who killed his brother and he's willing to belive him almost right away that he wasn't really the killer. I understand the need to move the story forward, but Vaan drops the matter within hours of meeting the man and never brings it up again. It may seem pointless to dwell so much on one weak character, but RPGs need strong lead characters to pull you in and Vaan can barely qualify as an ancilliary character.
The rest of the cast in FFXII is also weaker than usual in Final Fantasy games. There are some breif flashes of brilliance to be found in the characters of Ashe and Balthier, but they're never truly explored to any satisfactory conclusions. Vaan as mentioned before might aswell not be there, the same goes for Penelo who has even less presence in the story, both of them could really be removed and the game would pretty much remain the same. The supporting characters are all generally forgettable, with the possible exception of Reddas who can be unintentionally hilarious at times. The main villain is also uninteresting, with very little background or relation to the main characters, he's just there to be the guy you fight at the end.
Like the cast of characters, the story of FFXII also stays in the middle ground. It's not a particulaly great story that feels like it needed telling, in fact it feels as though it's been told before and more competantly. In fact it feels like Star Wars. A princess leading a rebellion against an empire, with a handful of ragtag heroes including the young wide eyed hero boy, the mercenary ship captain and his faithful sidekick of another race and the older mentor figure. So yes, the story's a bit of a rip-off, they even shoe-horn in a sky battle with hundreds of airships, much like the battle at the end of Return of the Jedi. When the story isn't ripping of Star Wars it's generally forgettable, there's some things about gems and experimenting with gems, but nothing that ever really goes anywhere.
All that's left really is to talk about the gameplay, which like I mentioned before is very similar to Final Fantasy XI, which is people don't remember or haven't it, was an MMORPG. Final Fantasy XII feels very much like an offline MMORPG. There really isn't much to say besides that, the combat is perfectly tolerable, though it gets very boring after awhile and there isn't any combat music to pep things up, except during the boss fights, which is a shame because it makes a big difference. The AI handles itself just fine and you can play as any character you like out in the field, although you'll most likely want to play as a tank like Bashe in order to avoid getting killed all the time. The license system is generally pointless and kind of metagame, there's no real explaination for why things are like that, you just kind of have to accept it and there's no need for it really.
While not wishing to just gloss over the music I feel as though I kind of have to. Nobuo Uematsu was not the composer on this game and his absence is certainly felt. Uematsu's music always carried the spirit of the Final Fantasy series and while Hitoshi Sakimoto certainly produced a good score, it just doesn't feel right. Most of the music is the same as the rest of the game, forgettable.
Perhaps in the end my hatred of Vaan is unfounded, he may well be the perfect fit for the game as it's hero. A forgettable stereotype that relies on things that have come before it in order to do well. Final Fantasy XII is very much a middle of the road RPG, something that would've flown under the radar were it not for the fact that it bears the name Final Fantasy. For all my hatred of the game, it can't really be described as 'bad', just 'not good'. Someone who approaches this game without holding it to the high standards this series is known for may come out with a better experience than I did, but for my part I would not go as far as to call it Final Fantasy.