It's been a long time since the last proper installment in the standard-setting Final Fantasy series. While Square Enix did ship numerous games bearing the Final Fantasy brand after 2001's Final Fantasy X, it took all these years before another lengthy, ambitious, lavishly produced, traditional role-playing game would arrive. Final Fantasy XII arrives at the end of the PlayStation 2's lifecycle, whereas Final Fantasy X benefited from a presentation that was truly cutting edge. This latest installment in the series also introduces a new strategic combat system that makes gameplay more cohesive yet more hands-off than before. In spite of this trade-off, it's an evolutionary step for the series and a refreshing change. And underneath the overhauled combat and the distinctive visual style, this is still Final Fantasy. Outstanding art direction, a likable cast of characters, a lengthy quest, and plenty of challenging battles all await you in this next installment to live up to the Final Fantasy name.
Unlike most previous Final Fantasy games, this latest game takes place in a particular fantasy setting that's already been established by some of its predecessors. Final Fantasy XII's world of Ivalice, first seen in 1998's great Final Fantasy Tactics and later again in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, is like a Japanese take on Star Wars' galaxy far, far away. Men and women walk the streets of Ivalice's impressive cities together with hulking, lizardlike creatures and other strange beings, and political unrest and war threaten their livelihoods as a resistance movement mounts to overthrow an empire that's taken over much of the land. Ivalice is more fantasy than science fiction, yet the air battles featured in the game's opening cutscene, and the decidedly high-tech airships that figure prominently throughout the rest of the game, give this Final Fantasy its token sci-fi flair. The story follows a cast of characters who set out to free the country of Dalmasca from the clutches of the Archadian Empire, which took it over by force. During the journey, you'll learn much more about the history of Ivalice, the strange forces at play behind the scenes, and, of course, about your characters.
The ragtag group of characters you'll be guiding throughout most of the game are as unlikely a lot as you've probably come to expect from a Final Fantasy game. Vaan is the token androgynous male lead, sort of an Aladdin-type with a good-natured personality and strong instincts. He might look a bit like a girl, but he's your typical good guy. His childhood friend, Penelo, somehow gets swept up into everything along with him, and soon enough Vaan also runs into a smooth-talking sky pirate named Balthier and his stern-but-stunning companion, a rabbit-eared woman named Fran. A strong-willed princess and a disgraced captain of Dalmasca's defeated military round out the main cast, though they'll be joined by other companions at various times throughout the game. Much like the cast, the story itself is similar to previous Final Fantasy games in a lot of ways, resulting in many implausible but exciting sequences and some dramatic, emotionally charged moments later on. It's a very good story overall, especially once the Empire's true intentions become clearer and the real villains are unmasked. The plot unfolds through lots of beautifully produced and expressive cinematic cutscenes and plenty of well-written dialogue. In between all this, expect a lot of combat, exploration, and character building--the hallmarks of Final Fantasy gameplay.
The biggest difference between this Final Fantasy game and its predecessors is in how the combat works. These changes fundamentally affect the overall flow of the game, not necessarily making it flat-out better or worse than past Final Fantasies, but certainly different. Combat occurs seamlessly in the context of the areas you'll be exploring, rather than in random battles that sporadically force you out of exploration mode and into combat mode. As a result, you'll almost always see your enemies on the battlefield (or on your map) before you engage them, and there's no longer a discrete difference between the exploration mode and the combat mode--they're now one and the same. The benefit of this is that the frustrations of constantly running into random enemy encounters, a feeling that's common to Japanese role-playing games, is simply not there in Final Fantasy XII. Combat is still frequent and unavoidable, but not having to constantly switch between fighting and exploration helps make the game flow more smoothly.
The downside of the new combat system is that it's often on a smaller scale than in past games. Final Fantasy games are known for pitting you against some impossibly big and imposing-looking enemies, but since combat in this game takes place within the same environments you'll be exploring, it doesn't have quite the same larger-than-life sense of scale as before. Don't worry, though--you'll still get to fight plenty of fearsome, powerful-looking opponents. But you'll be looking at the bigger ones' feet as you hack away. Yet it's the real-time nature of the combat that's bound to be the most controversial aspect of Final Fantasy XII. This game's combat system is about managing your characters' battle plan, rather than micromanaging their individual actions, though you can micromanage if you really want to. Interestingly enough, the combat system draws a lot of influence from online role-playing games, like Square Enix's own Final Fantasy XI. This means that while the combat will seem much different from what you might have played in past single-player Final Fantasy episodes, chances are it'll still feel pretty familiar.
The key to the combat is something called the gambit system, which is like a simple programming language for your characters. And if you think "simple programming language" is an oxymoron, chances are you'll find the system to be pretty complicated. Basically, you can give each character in your party his or her own set of conditional, prioritized orders. A simple example is a gambit that causes one of your characters to automatically attack the nearest enemy. But you might prioritize casting a healing spell on allies at less than 50 percent of their health ahead of that. Or, if any enemies are down to critical health, you can make sure they get finished off first and foremost. As you play through the game, you'll be able to create increasingly longer, more complex lists of gambits. Being limited to just some vary basic gambits at first helps keep this system from being overwhelming, even as you'll naturally think ahead to what you'll do as more options open up. But this system still comes down to you programming the artificial intelligence for each of your characters. If you use gambits properly, in many battles all you'll need to do is sit back and watch as your characters automatically attack their foes and use healing and support spells to keep each other in fighting shape.
Of course, in any serious battle--and there are a lot of challenging fights in this game--you'll get wiped out if you just sit back and watch. During combat, you can step in to manually issue orders to any party member whenever you wish and may also swap in defeated party members with your alternates (only three of your main characters can fight at a time). In the end, the combat feels highly strategic, because poorly planned gambits will bring disaster. But you can easily change your gambits on the fly or toggle them off for any character if you'd prefer to. You can also adjust the speed at which battles unfold, though the default speed seems ideal. And even if you do find yourself at an impasse with a particular battle, it's usually possible to go off someplace else and come back to it later, after having replenished your supplies, grown stronger, and adjusted your strategy. In the first hours of play, the rather passive combat sequences are somewhat disappointing, since there's really not much to do. But once you've assembled the entire party and the gambit system starts opening up, the combat becomes quite interesting and involved. In short, rather than task you with controlling the specific actions of your different characters, Final Fantasy XII puts you in a more strategic, commanding role.