Tuesday, August 7, 2012

GOT 'IM - Final Fantasy XII

This game project took longer to finish than planned, thanks to surprise acquisitions Dissidia 012 and Civilization V. Neither of those two is ready for a review, but one of my 2012 target games finally is: Final Fantasy XII.

First, some personal background info. My first RPG was Final Fantasy IV. The first forums I ever lurked were for a Final Fantasy VI website. I borrowed a buddy's PS1 for three weeks just to play Final Fantasy VII. For most of the 90s, an overwhelming majority of my favorite games were Square RPGs. Bottom line - I'm a recovering Final Fantasy fanboy.

Why recovering, you ask? Well, by around 2005 or so, I was a little burned out. I had played every Final Fantasy game numbered I through X multiple times, had bought multiple copies of every Final Fantasy game numbered VII and below, and written guides for multiple games in the series. But then I got a PSP and a GameCube, started emulating systems other than the NES and SNES, and explored my other RPG interests (re: this means I alternately binged on RPGs like Disgaea, Tales Of, Fire Emblem, Dragon Quest, Monster Hunter, and even some Pokemon) and, fast-forward to today, I hadn't played a new main-series Final Fantasy game since 2003, when I first played Final Fantasy X. In the past 5 years I've only played the PSP remake of FF IV, Crisis Core, and Dissidia. Side note: the PSP is the system I've played the most in the past 5 years for my entire gaming landscape and not just Final Fantasy.

Somehow, throughout my almost-two-goddamn-decades of Final Fantasy fandom, I never got around to playing XI, XII, XIII, or XIV (that's 11 through 14 for you Philistines out there). XI and XIV are thrown out immediately because I categorically avoid MMOs (Dragon Quest X might be an exception; we'll see about that one). I've managed to avoid the whole Fabula Nova Crystallis family despite owning a PS3 for almost three years now, most likely because I kept telling myself I would play XII first. Final Fantasy XII, however, has no good excuse. I bought it shortly after it came out, I've always owned the system on which to play it, and it sat in my CD wallet for nearly six years. In the last week of 2011, when I began selecting lengthy games in my backlog to conquer for 2012, Final Fantasy XII was an early and obvious choice.

So that's how much I know and love Final Fantasy and how I got around to playing Final Fantasy XII. FF XII is from an unusual pedigree - its core development staff are the former Quest employees that created the first two Ogre Battle / Tactics Ogre games in addition to Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story, except now they had the resources and team of a main-series Final Fantasy game. Final Fantasy XII makes heavy use of that pedigree, taking place in Ivalice (the world of FF Tactics and Vagrant Story) and including numerous references to both that world and more traditional Final Fantasy.

Final Fantasy XII's map is almost identical to that of FF Tactics. It's separated into zones in a manner similar to that of FF Tactics. 5 or 6 of the game's summons are bosses or summons in FF Tactics (traditional FF summons like Ifrit or Bahamut are now imperial airships). The unusual weapon selection (random-damage axes, staves deal physical damage with magic, etc.) also mirrors that of FF Tactics. Long story short, there are a lot of small references and design wrinkles that FF XII shares with FF Tactics, and I have zero problems with this. I fucking LOVE Final Fantasy Tactics.

It seems a little weird now, but for several years Square-Enix was promoting the hell out of that Ivalice universe. Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and the PSP remake of Final Fantasy Tactics all landed around the same time, and all of the new Ivalice games share a few unusual new aspects - several races living in harmony, including the brutish Bangaa or the feminine Viera; lands ruled by powerful knights called Judges (Judges play different roles in different Ivalice games), and several new key vocabulary are thrown around like Jagd and the different summons. Anyhow, FF XII is the story of a war between two large empires (Archadia and Rozarria, who are engaged in a ceasefire at the start of the events of FF XII) and the fate of the small kingdom of Dalmasca, located directly between the two warring nations in a narrow desert region; Dalmasca is under Archadian rule, having recently been annexed by the evil empire.

...except I'm not sure that's what the whole story is about. The main character of the tale is Vaan, a Dalmascan orphan whose older brother died in the recent war. Vaan wants to be a sky pirate, and eventually lives that life in part when he encounters Balthier and Fran, two sky pirates attempting to steal a Dalmascan treasure. Vaan, Balthier, and Fran eventually team up with Basch, a disgraced captain from the Dalmascan war who seeks to redeem himself, and Ashe, the princess of Dalmasca who wants revenge against Archadia for stealing her kingdom and murdering her fiance. Later, Vaan's friend Penelo, another orphan, joins up after the team rescues her from a band of mercenaries.

So why am I confused about the direction of FF XII's plot? Well, it goes in so many weird directions, but never stays in one direction enough to commit. Vaan wants to be a sky pirate, but there's an incredible lack of sky piracy in FF XII, with the airship playing an extremely minor role outside of two or three plot events (most of your traveling is on foot, via teleporting crystals, or via commercial aircraft). In a bizarre turn, the last 20% of the plot introduces a race of immortal godlike beings that control the fate of the world via powerful crystals (crystals that your party has been seeking out in order to defeat the Empire); through all this, orphans Vaan and Penelo have been hanging out with pirates and knights and princesses, still along for the ride but without a sensible role to play.

Look, FF XII is mostly about restoring the kingdom of Dalmasca and stopping the Archadian empire, but it throws bunch of surprising plot elements into the mix in a very inelegant manner. I think that FF XII had grander aspirations to being a longer game with more plot hits to flesh out its characters and situations, but felt the pressure of deadlines to fit in with the rest of the Ivalice release date window (there are interviews and elaborating this). I've also heard rumors that Vaan wasn't originally the main character (my guess is that Ashe or Basch was supposed to be), but was added later in development so the lead character would be a more appealing young teenager. FF XII has a lot interesting characters, lore, and situations, but they feel disjointed, sudden, or out of place. The game's plot breaks are either too few or too weird, and pacing is broken up by the nature of FF XII's quest design (more on this later).

But with all that said, I really like Ivalice and many of its characters. Dalmasca, with its desert sands and myriad races, has been compared to the Star Wars planet Tatooine and it's not an unfair comparison. The game's settlements and cities (heh, Settlers of Ivalice) are diverse and interesting, and the cast of characters is quite appealing, to the degree that I wish we got more out of them. Vaan and Penelo feel out of place, but the other four main characters are cool to have around. The game's NPCs are really uneven - some of them make one quick appearance and then disappear forever, and two characters in particular (a Rozarrian prince and a wealthy pirate) make a few brief, memorable appearances, but so briefly that their actions don't have the impact that they would've had if we had more development. FF XII's villains are a strong point, with five powerful Judges giving a cool, foreboding front and the game's three major antagonists being memorable indeed. Really, I wish we had seen more of them. For all the foreshadowing and build-up we get to confrontations with several of those eight, I wanted more.

Look, I've spent way too much time talking about FF XII's storyline. The point is, FF XII's story is not as good as the sum of its parts. There are cool ideas, great characters, and a few interesting themes in play here, but it all lacks unification and direction. Things happen too suddenly, certain characters are more like hollow plot points than fully-realized, persistent characters, and I don't think FF XII even knows what kind of game it wants to be. At different times, I was impressed, bewildered, bored, and disappointed. Basically, around 40% of my gripes about this game are story-related.

So enough about story (holy shit that was a lot), how does the game play? Well, it's another mixed bag, but I'll start with the positives: this battle system brings back the ATB in an interesting way that I would happily play more of. Your three characters have classic Final Fantasy action meters that result in executing commands, and on top of that everything happens in real-time, with no battle cut-outs and with position and movement being key factors. All of that is fantastic. You can even equip Gambits (AI elements, basically) to your characters to exhibit certain behaviors in battle. The Gambit system is generally functional, but the need to buy these Gambits and not just have a large number available is quite annoying. Overall, this is a battle system that I quite enjoyed and would happily spend a large amount of time with.

And yes, it's possible to just give active Gambits to all of your characters and watch the game play itself, only moving the party around when there are no enemies present. If you find an enemy that can summon minions, you can level up indefinitely while sleeping IRL. This has long been pointed out and lamented by Final Fantasy fans, but I'm strangely okay with it. This is a game that at times requires a lot of grinding, and you can have your characters grind while you sleep? You can reduce stress and monotony of inputting the same commands over and over or healing outside of battle by giving it to your Gambit-minded companions? Sign me up! Sure, you can make "but you aren't even playing" or "it undermines the interactive nature of video games" arguments all day; I liked gambits and AI-controlled allies, and I'll defend it.

Now here's when gameplay turns sour. I mentioned grinding earlier and before then mentioned bad story pacing? Well, let's talk about FF XII's grindhouse. FF XII has ongoing sidequests called Hunts that have your party seeking out rare monsters or boss-sized targets for rewards. There are 80 rare monsters and at least 30-40 boss hunts, and they represent the bulk of FF XII's sidequests. I wouldn't normally mind this exercise except, well, FF XII expects you to do hunts. A lot. In between story sequences, new hunts open up (good), offer above-average challenges and rewards (still good), force you to backtrack or explore optional areas (...okay), and force the players to level up for a new difficulty spike for the next story area (not good). FF XII has extremely uneven difficulty, especially for the last third or so of the game, and shoves a bunch of Hunts your way as a way of saying "level up with THESE." A forced grind is never a good time, and shoving sidequests in your face is not a subtle or clean way to institute it, even if Hunts are kinda fun. I did around 15-20 hunts (not counting rare game), and there probably around 40 total (plus 80 rare game). If I wanted to keep playing, I'd focus on additional Hunts and finding Espers (more on those later).

Hunts are kinda fun, with reservations, and so is FF XII's Bazaar. The Bazaar basically functions like an alchemy or item synthesis system in other games do, except instead of designating specific items to fuse, you just sell any loot dropped from monsters to any merchant in the game. Once you get certain loots to certain counts, you free up a special discounted item or item set. Now, that actually sounds okay. Your loot gets you money, good items, and makes Gil valuable. However, there is no compendium for recipes you've created (?), no listing or recipes for items you can create (!?), and an insane variety of loot that has prohibitive, obscure, or even permanently-missable methods of attainment (FUCK THIS NOISE). The FF XII Bazaar is a system with some good ideas in place and could normally totally work, but it ends up near-broken by missing these basic details. Fuck the Bazaar.

OK, I've gone over background, story, characters, combat, hunts, bazaar... what am I missing... right. The License Board. Well, your characters gain levels like normal in FF XII, but that only increases base character stats. For magic, skills, equipment, special attacks, and passive abilities, look to the License Board. The LB is a large grid full of square icons, with each representing an item, boost, spell, or skill (er, "Magicks or Technicks"). As your characters level up and acquire LP, they can spend points on the LB to strengthen themselves, learn new skills, and use new equipment.

That's right, your character can't equip Armor X until they unlock the LB square for Armor X. This goes for pretty much everything in the game. And you know what? I'm okay with the License Board. It forces players to make tough decisions in building up their characters (passives vs. specific equipment vs. specific spells, etc.) and if someone feels constrained by it then leveling up via Gambits is really, really easy and breaks the hell out of the License Board. So sure, it seems dopey at first when you can't equip new weapons you find, but ultimately I'm okay with it.

Then you have FF XII's special skills, Quickenings and Espers. Espers are pretty straightforward - they're summons that you find either in the story (4 or 5) or hidden in nooks and crannies of the game world (8 or 9). Quickenings are pretty straightforward - each character has three of them, and they're located on the license board to find like anything else. Once a Quickening or Esper has been taken off the board, it's gone for good. That's right, each Esper sticks to one character, and each new Quickening uses a new square for any character (don't worry, there are enough LB squares for everyone). When you summon an Esper, it replaces your other three party members for 90 seconds and creates havoc on the battlefield. When you use a Quickening, you enter a cutscene and each character has the opportunity to do their own Quickenings in a chain (if you enter their commands before a short timer runs out).

That's no big deal, but how you use Espers and Quickenings is kind of a pain. Every time you get a new Quickening, you get more MP. After three, your character's MP is triple the norm, and stores them in three MP "stocks". Quickenings and Espers cost between 1 and 3 stocks of MP to use. Sure, you can recharge your MP in a second during Quickening chains if you're lucky, but really FF XII allows for ridiculously powerful attacks (that can take out story bosses in a matter of minutes) at the expense of MP. I'm not really a fan; I wish there was a separate meter for Espers and Quickenings.

This is a recurring theme with these blog posts, but goddamn I've gone on for way too long. FF XII looks gorgeous, has a gorgeous Hitoshi Sakimoto soundtrack, and carries a lot of traditional and non-traditional Final Fantasy flavor within. It also represents a semi-triumphant return of the Active-Time Battle System. But FF XII also has unclear plot direction, bad pacing, uneven character development, a slightly lame skill system, a broken loot/reward system, and worst of all, is incredibly interesting and promising before ultimately falling short.

I loved playing FF XII for the first... let's say twenty hours. Then I started to get frustrated and nitpick. Then I got more frustrated. Then I was bewildered by the weird story pace. Then frustration turned into anger when I saw the big picture of FF XII's different gameplay facets. Then, during the last few story beats and big dungeons (the penultimate dungeon is a actually quite magnificent, by the way), I was so puzzled by the final developments and resolution that I wasn't sure what to think. I haven't been quite so puzzled by whether I like a game or not since... Dragon Age II last year, but this is moreso.

So I'm confused. I loved parts of FF XII, but it mostly feels like wasted potential. I 100% believe the rumors that it was pushed out the door too soon and that several sweeping changes were made midway through development; that justifies some of the shortcomings. Ultimately, I'm going to say that I liked FF XII, but that "like" comes with an asterisk and a hell of a footnote.

Games Beaten: 2012 Edition

1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
7. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 2
8. Mass Effect 3
9. Journey
10. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
11. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
12. Star Ocean: Second Evolution
13. Red Dead Redemption
14. Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3
15. Persona 3 FES
16. Final Fantasy XII

Targets: 6/12


I enjoyed FF XII, mostly, but it didn't match my rather high expectations. Too bad. I'm not sure what my next target game is going to be, but there are one or two near-finished games that I want to wrap up first. Next review will almost definitely be shortly after this one.

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