A pretentious game that's "too good" to be controlled by you.
Back in 1987, a small company named Square released Final Fantasy, an RPG that they had put all their sweat and blood into as the note they'd go out on. Who knew the series would become such a success? The series would go on to spawn many games, spinoffs, and even its own rock band. Almost every entry in the series (spinoffs included) is highly anticipated by the fans and becomes an instant classic, beloved by critics and gamers alike. However, the latest entry in the series, Final Fantasy XII, is one of the games in the series that falls short and is a disappointment, made more painful by the fact that it is an entry within the root series, rather than any of its spinoffs.
Despite some horrible flaws, the production values in this game are phenomenal. The graphics in this game use every trick in the book that one can think of. The characters look well animated and constructed, and the environments are incredibly lively and detailed. Textures look decent and the game makes excellent use of lighting and fog effects. However, Final Fantasy XII isn't without its faults, and the graphics are no exception. While the character models look realistic, the characters' appearances sometimes look rough and rushed, sometimes as if they were pasted on (Vaan's face and "spray on abs" come to mind). The game also has problems rendering NPC characters on a noticeable basis. While they usually render at the appropriate distance from the player, they will sometimes render late and randomly appear in front of you. Sometimes, an entire crowd of people will spontaneously generate in front of you.
Much like the graphics, the game's music seems to be incredibly well done. Each rendition is fully orchestrated and sounds beautiful. The voices for each character are also done wonderfully. Although you may only recognize a few names from the roster of voice artists, the whole cast performs their roles greatly. The samples sport a plethora of emotion and convey the message quite eloquently. In fact, there are no real major problems with the game when it comes to the audio.
But where the game seems to fail the most is the gameplay. Its philosophy seems to be summed up best when an oft-mentioned quote from the game itself is paraphrased: to see the reins of the game away from the hands of man. Final Fantasy XII plays like most typical RPG's. You move a single protagonist around a 3D environment, the properties of it dependent on the location. Towns contain NPC's that can give helpful information or just seem to give you a quip that gives them more than a shallow personality, shops that sell weapons, armor, magicks, techniks, items, or gambits (part of the game's battle system), and very often a key character/location that advances the game's story. Towns also frequently contain a bar, where one can register for hunts, and a save crystal that restores your MP and HP (and, depending on the color, will let you teleport to other like crystals across the overworld). Dungeons and the overworld, behave quite similarly. While there may be a small stop to restock your supplies occasionally, they are not to be expected, with the same concept being applied to save crystals. What does populate the landscape are an incredible amount of monsters you battle. Unlike many RPG's, the enemies can be seen and are battled on the same plane as the one you explore. You are also able to choose your battles as you please, narrowly and evasively dodging your foes.
A lot of this sounds good, right? However, the game starts to crumble with the battle system. As just about every gamer knows, no two Final Fantasy's play alike when it comes to the battle system. Final Fantasy II had a cause and effect system that catered to your specific playing habits per character, and VI included altered stat progression and a spell system based on whatever esper your character happened to be holding at the time. The twelfth entry includes a "gambit system" that essentially lets you program your characters to do certain things based on the climate of the battle. For example, if one character's HP falls below 50%, a character will cure them with an elixir (if they're programmed to do so, of course). However, this system seems to steal the responsibilities of the player away from them so that the game may play itself. Thought-out gambits aren't required, as one set of gambits may require little to no change throughout the entire game, allowing one to run from enemy to enemy and watch the battles, taking no part in the actual fights. The gambits aren't necessary to play the game, but the game seems to pressure you into using them. Without them, battles become fairly tedious sessions of casting the right spells/using the right items at the right time. However, even with the gambits disabled, Final Fantasy XII will still attempt to take power away from the player by enacting its own hidden gambit that forces a character to keep attacking once you initiate battle.
Another major part of the battle system is Quickenings, a system that shares many similarities with the Limit Breaks of the Playstation installments. Once a certain character's magic bar reaches its maximum capacity, it will glow orange, giving you the cue that you are able to use a Quickening. However, like the rest of the game, you'll have little role in actually performing the attack. The amount of characters you have out at the time (limited to 3 at max) increases the amount of Quickenings at your disposal, reliant on which characters have them and if their MP is full or not. During the sequence when Quickenings occur, you can either initiate another or Mist Charge another character, allowing them to initiate their own Quickening. During all of this, you are at the mercy of the roulette, something that can be cycled through with R2. However, the chains of Quickenings soon become a mundane process of cycle through with R2 and Mist Charge/initiate another Quickening and watch the game handle the rest. Not only do they stick with the theme of wrestling the reins of the game away from the hands of the player, they can also make boss battles brainlessly easy. On that thought, boss battles in the game can range from incredibly, incredibly easy to frustratingly difficult. While some bosses can be destroyed with one or two Quickenings, while others seem to be almost immune to them. Add to this the tendency of many bosses to have (and use) attacks that take up their own cinemas and cannot be dodged, and the big fights of the game amount to an unbalanced atrocity.
Weapons, armor, and many aspects of the game are, in a way, acquired with the other namesake of Final Fantasy XII, the license board. When you purchase a new sword or spell or technik, you can't use it right away. To use it, you must acquire the corresponding license on the corresponding character's license board with license points gained through battle. More powerful equipment, abilities and status boosts are placed farther along the borders of the dual license and generally cost more license points. The whole system plays like a puzzle game, and while not as much of a nuisance as other aspects of the game, can place restraints on your characters that may make battles harder than they should be.
But why does this game seem to not want the player to play the game and instead opts for self play? For the most part, it appears that it wants to tell its own story to you to the point of removing the gameplay from the picture. This would be acceptable if the story was enjoyable, but it just simply isn't. What the game has instead is a pretentious story that's incredibly self absorbed. Final Fantasy XII at first follows the tale of Vaan, a street urchin who, along with his friend Penelo, work for a dinosaur creature for a living, having lost their parents to a war between two empires, their country caught in the crossfire and taken over by Archadia (one of the two empires). But through a short sequence of events, the story soon becomes your typical "save the land from the clutches of the evil emperor" story with a not often used Roman environment, ripe with corrupt judges and a Senate hell-bent on wresting power away from the emperor and into their own hands. All of this is told through a confusing political narrative that has an annoying tendency to use a language consisting of words that are either rarely used outside of an SAT composition or have literally fallen out of modern use. Such words include sunder, cacophony, and intercession. On top of this, not all of your characters get equal screen time, with the story fixated on Lady Ashe and her struggle to restore her fallen kingdom and conflict with power. Vaan and Penelo step aside almost completely, having their own conversations occasionally, but rarely affecting the storyline in any major way.
The villain of the story, Vayne Solidor, is perhaps the least evil villain to ever grace a Final Fantasy. Rather than come off as a dark warrior obsessed with achieving god-like status like Sephiroth, or an insane and twisted individual with a god complex like Kefka, Vayne attempts to politically justify his actions and is rarely seen interacting with any of the characters directly. Granted, the game builds up immensely in the end, with an easy to understand and emotionally driven narrative and a villain that truly comes off as evil, but the amount of time and work the game asks to get to this point seems outright criminal.
While the game does feature some amazing aesthetics, it couldn't pull out any gameplay to match the quality. With gameplay that distances the player and a confusing, pretentious story, Final Fantasy XII caters only to loyal fans of the series.