MAKUHARI MESSE--One of the centerpieces at the opening day of the first annual Square Enix Party was a freshly minted playable version of the company's most anticipated game, which was conspicuously absent from this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3 2004 was the last time we got our hands on the game). This newest version of Final Fantasy XII is focused more on offering fans a good sense of what to expect from its unique combat system than providing any more details on the game's story. We waded through the assembled throngs and tried out the demo to see how work on the game is coming together.
The Square Enix Festival version of the game offered two distinctly different stages, in which fans could familiarize themselves with the different combat options. The first stage put us in control of a trio of heroes--the main character Vaan, as well as Basch and Penelo--and sent us across a tropical island to take on a boss waiting at the far end. Along the way, we engaged in battle with a number of enemies. This particular stage showed off several elements in FFXII's combat system that are a significant departure from what we've come to expect. The most obvious is the use of colored lines that go from your characters to their intended targets. Unlike in past Final Fantasy games, transition into combat is now seamless. You'll no longer switch to a combat screen to fight as you've done in previous entries. Your main characters will simply shift to a combat pose, and you'll see a line trace from them to targeted enemies as the battle begins.
As in previous games in the series, you'll choose how to attack from a menu of options. This time out, we had five options to choose from: fight, magic, summon, gambit, and item. Fight is your standard melee attack. Magic calls up a submenu of four schools of magic: white, black, green, and time. White magic will focus on healing; black is for offense, such as fire; green is a new color to the magic rainbow in the series and focuses on support magic; and time magic lets you slow enemies and speed up your allies. One interesting thing of note on the magic menus is that all the characters had the four schools listed in their submenus, although some had specific types grayed out.
The next main combat menu option is the old standby, summon. During this island demo, we could only summon creatures when we had enough magic stored up. The summons in FFXII differ from some of the previous games in that your mystical critters will now function as normal characters in combat, which forces you to keep tabs on their hit points. The summoned monsters were also around only for a limited amount of time. The next main combat option is gambit, a feature that essentially lets you determine your characters' behavior in combat by the item you equip them with. From the sound of it, you'll be able to equip different items on your party members, which will affect how they behave in combat. Finally, the item option will let you use whatever items you've got handy.
This first level was a fairly by-the-numbers run across the island and had us facing off against the assembled enemies, who were clearly visible. One of the interesting dynamics we picked up on was the relationship between the different enemies on the island and how they affected each other's behavior. For example, you'll notice that tiny mandragora, small mushroomlike critters that were most recently seen in FFXI, will actually attack certain enemies on the island of their own accord. You can use this to your advantage, since the little guys tend to focus on the closest creature they have issues with, which isn't always you. So, if you play your cards right and don't attack the mandragora, they'll actually lend a hand at certain points in your journey. Another enemy mechanic we noticed was a water-elemental-looking critter that pretty much kept to its own business unless you cast magic near it, at which point it would mark you for death.
Once we made our way to the other side of the island, we faced off against the boss, a large Tyrannosaurus rex, which seemed a little out of place in a Final Fantasy game. The battle let us play around with the different ways you can set up your party's attacks in combat, such as having everyone target the same enemy, or splitting your group's focus across the entire opposing force to ensure you aren't disturbed when fighting the boss. The combat on the island level also made use of the familiar "wait" mode we've seen in previous games, which has your group hold for additional orders between attacks. Taking down the T-rex was hardly a hassle with the party we had at our disposal in the level, and that ended that particular section in the demo.
The second stage we played through was a traditional dungeon interior that put us in control of a group made up of Fran (yes, the rabbit-eared chick), Ashe, and Balthier. The stage featured a slightly more involved process for reaching the boss that required you to get a key before being able to reach the end. Besides letting us get more of a feel for the combat mechanics, the area showed off some subtle elements to the presentation that should come in handy when exploring dungeons. The minimap in the upper right-hand corner shows a trail that marks where you've just come from, which should come in handy as you try to make your way though what we expect will end up being more than a few dungeons in the game. The level featured much more involved gameplay than the beach area, which was a good showcase for the more sophisticated aspects we can expect. We had to do a fair share of multitasking here, as we had to contend with large hulking enemies that doled out a fair amount of punishment, as well as those old Final Fantasy standbys, the bombs, which needed to be taken out before they exploded. This ended up being the perfect way to show off the game's active battle option that's more in line with current games and keeps the action going in between your attack choices.
Control in the game is basic and has a more traditional action-game feel to it. You'll move your character with the left analog stick and adjust the camera on the fly with the right analog stick. The R2 shoulder button will let you escape battles when held down, which will let you run for your life until you lose your enemy. The D pad will let you switch which character you're actively controlling as party leader. In cases where your main character is taken out, you'll be asked to pick which of the two remaining members in your party you'll want to control. The system feels pretty good so far, although the various tracer lines that appear take some getting used to.
Final Fantasy XII is looking solid and uses an art style that's reminiscent of the franchise's look on the current generation of consoles. The fly-throughs of the levels before each of the demos showcased the game's cinematic flair. Although it was still a bit rough in spots, we were pleased to see that animation for both characters and enemies is coming along nicely. So far, everything is looking good and solid with the visuals in the game. The audio is pretty much up to the series' standard even now. The cinematics obviously provide a wicked showcase for the attention to detail that's going into FFXII's score and voice acting. We didn't hear many familiar themes, although they did pop up a bit during the demo.
Based on this small sampling of Square's next RPG, we'll definitely say we're intrigued by the direction development is headed. The revamped fighting system and core mechanics are an interesting approach we're anxious to see more of. Final Fantasy XII is currently slated to release in March 2006 in Japan, with a US release to follow at some point. Stay tuned for more information from GameSpot in the coming months.