Final Fantasy XII Retail Demo Hands-On

Next week's release of Dragon Quest VIII will pack a little surprise--a playable demo of Square Enix's other big upcoming RPG. We go hands-on.


Final Fantasy XII

Eager role-players who tear into their copies of Dragon Quest VIII next week will also be greeted by a playable demo of Final Fantasy XII, the extremely long-in-development new entry in Square Enix's other revered RPG series. Though the content of this demo is the same as that featured at the Square Enix party in Japan last July, we couldn't resist popping it in for another look at the contentious goings-on in the world of Ivalice--this time in English. And now we've documented the experience with new gameplay footage of the demo in action.

Unfortunately, the English text in this demo hasn't given us much new insight into the game's storyline, since all the gameplay here is centered squarely on Final Fantasy XII's new free-roaming, MMO-esque combat engine. But we've at least gotten to see plenty of cinematics during the demo's attract mode with English subtitles. This mode depicts the brave citizens of Dalmasca preparing to repel an invasion by the formidable Archadian Empire, which seems to be the primary antagonistic force of the storyline. Behind the scenes, we got a few shots of the game's eclectic cast of characters as each one copes with the impending war in his or her own way. Given the sorts of betrayals and political maneuvering we've already learned about--not to mention the winding nature of every Final Fantasy's storyline--we imagine there will be more than a few surprises in store once the final game's plot is revealed.

As we saw at the Square Enix party last summer, this demo is split into two parts. The first features foppish hero Vaan leading his allies, Penelo and Basch, through a lush, tropical beach. The objective here is to bring down a rock-eater, a giant tyrannosaur-like boss monster that stalks the sands. The catch is that you can only make the rock-eater appear by defeating three armored equine enemies called sleipnirs, which themselves are most easily discovered harassing the cute, plantlike mandragoras that frolic near the waves. In the other scenario, the princess Ashe heads up a team that includes sky pirate Balthier and viera warrior Fran (you know, with the floppy rabbit ears) as they plumb the depths of a temple and attempt to access a locked area. Conveniently, the key to this area can only be obtained by defeating an adamantoise hiding away somewhere in the dungeon.

This ain't your daddy's Final Fantasy. Expect major changes to the combat system, art style, and tone of the game.
This ain't your daddy's Final Fantasy. Expect major changes to the combat system, art style, and tone of the game.

If you've been keeping up with Final Fantasy XII's development, you'll know the game features a near-complete overhaul of the series' long-standing turn-based battle system. In the latest installment, the action flows more like it would in a massively multiplayer RPG. In other words, you'll encounter enemies in the same environments you're exploring (rather than switching to a battle-only screen), and once you engage an enemy, your characters will continue to automatically carry out the orders you give them until you issue new orders or until the enemy is killed.

But if you'd rather exercise more control over your party members' actions, you don't have to let the artificial intelligence do everything for you. In the demo, you'll choose a leader for your party--which determines the character you're actually controlling as you run around--and then set the two non-leader characters' "gambit" status to on or off. When a character's gambit is set to on, he or she will attack automatically based on the particulars of the situation--performing melee attacks, healing, or even picking the right elemental magic based on the enemy's weaknesses (which are displayed right on your HUD). If you want to control all of a character's actions manually, simply set the gambit to off. In the final game, you'll be able to define behaviors for characters for whom you want to leave the gambit enabled (though in the demo we only had the option to automate their attacks or not).

The new summoned monsters will actually remain with you for a short time after you exit the initial battle in which you summoned them.
The new summoned monsters will actually remain with you for a short time after you exit the initial battle in which you summoned them.

The biggest difference between the two scenarios in the demo is that one uses a wait battle type, whereas the other uses an active system. What does that mean? With the wait system, when you access your command list--which includes the standard array of options such as attack, magic, item, and so on--the action will pause. On the other hand, the active battle system keeps the battle flowing in real time while you're switching between characters, selecting spells, and so on. We found the active battle to be simultaneously more thrilling and more stressful than the wait system, since you'll be hammered on by whichever enemy you're fighting while also trying to piece together your strategy for the battle. Presumably, most experienced RPG players will prefer the active battle, simply because it keeps the fights moving at an accelerated pace and provides more excitement than the wait-type battle system.

We also got to explore Final Fantasy XII's summon system in the demo, which varies considerably from the previous games' setup. In the demo, only Vaan and Ashe could summon monsters, and the process consumed all of their magic points. Once you've summoned a monster, your other two party members will be replaced by the creature, and you'll actually be able to continue moving around the world map with the summoned monster in tow, even after you've completed the battle in which you performed the summon. However, summoned monsters in FFXII operate on a timer, so you'll have a limited amount of time to use your new friend in subsequent combat situations. Once you engage an enemy with a summoned monster by your side, that monster will continue to attack the enemy with its special attack, either until its timer runs out, at which time it will automatically be dismissed, or until it runs out of hit points, when it will use a superattack of sorts, causing massive amounts of damage before it exits from the scene. We'll be interested to see how this new summon system is further fleshed out in the final game.

In terms of presentation, we've understandably found the latest Final Fantasy game to be more similar to the Tactics games than previous entries in the primary series.
In terms of presentation, we've understandably found the latest Final Fantasy game to be more similar to the Tactics games than previous entries in the primary series.

You sure wouldn't mistake Final Fantasy XII for any of the previous entries in the series, not least of all because the character and environmental art styles are quite different from the past 3D games that have borne the same name. We noticed that the characters' portraits were more consistent with those of Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story than with other games in the series--they're missing their noses and everything. Also, the gloomy temple in Ashe's scenario was more than a little reminiscent of the many dank catacombs of Vagrant Story, for instance. Then again, the beach of Vaan's mission contained lush environments, with gently curving rock walkways and even some rudimentary seaside structures off in the distance, which we could get close to but not quite explore for ourselves. Again, the demo just made us wish more of the game's interesting, but mostly unseen, world had been available for our perusal between the two rather brief and solely combat-oriented missions on offer.

Frankly, we wish the retail demo of Final Fantasy XII had given us access to more of this elusive game's core role-playing mechanics as well. Without access to the main menu screen, however, we weren't able to explore the options available in the gambit or summon systems, and we're only left to guess at how such integral components as equipment and leveling will work. But if nothing else, this brief taste of the gameplay in Square Enix's latest role-playing epic has left us hopeful that this brave new direction for the series will yield entertaining results once it reaches fruition, which will hopefully happen later this year. Stay tuned for more on Final Fantasy XII as soon as it happens.

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