THE RIFFS MOSTLY WORK: This is as good as any game in the series.
Each new Final Fantasy game is like a jazz riff on a familiar theme. The fundamentals are always the same: a rag-tag group of adventurers, drawn together by fate and circumstance, confront an epic foe that could end life as they know it. The particulars vary — sometimes corporate greed is to blame, sometimes imperialism, and sometimes just some ineffable evil force — but the themes remain the same. And so with Square Enix now releasing the 12th of the increasingly erroneously named Final Fantasy games, the question is, are they still bringing anything new to the table? Do the riffs work?
Some do and some don’t. Certain changes to the formula appear at first to be monumental shifts. The battle system has done away with the classic menu-driven commands that have been a staple since the first Final Fantasy. In its place is the new gambit system. Gambits allow you to set combat strategies for each member of your party, strategies they execute on their own once engaged. The system is difficult to get used to at first — it seems aimed at hardcore RPG players and not the crossover audience that has historically made the brand so successful. Because your party members run around on their own during fights, you may not realize that the basics of combat haven’t changed. During non-boss fights especially, there’s no difference between Final Fantasy XII and, say, Final Fantasy X except that you don’t have to select the “fight” option every five seconds. In that sense, the new system is an improvement.
The other big — but not really big — change is the new license board for character building. It’s similar to the sphere grid in FFX: winning fights gets you points to put toward increasing characters’ attributes. Whereas the sphere grid offered only a few branching paths, the license board allows you to wander blindly in any direction you want. The board is blank at the start except for a few licenses. Buying a license will reveal what skills are available on adjacent spots. The result is that you’re never sure whether you should pull the trigger on a particular license lest you run out of points you may need later. Even so, if you follow a path on the board to give one character predominantly magic powers, another physical-combat powers, and so on, you’ll find that each character develops predictably.
On the grand scale, this is as good as any game in the series. The story line is sober and largely political; it may be the darkest in tone since FFVII. The voice acting, though not toppling the best work being done in games these days, at least lacks the grating performers from Final Fantasy X. And this 12th game is packed with nods to long-time fans of the series, such as near the beginning when we learn that a pilot’s callsign is “Tonberry.”
HOT TIP: When setting your gambits, always make curing status ailments your priority.
But Final Fantasy XII falters ever so slightly in the details. As good as the narrative is, playing the game can be frustrating. Save points are few and far between, which sometimes meant not being able to stop playing when I wanted to and sometimes meant seeing the Game Over screen and losing substantial progress. Menu options and map screens are poorly implemented. There’s no quick way, for example, to swap between the license board and your inventory to see what licenses you should buy — there are three different map views, each of which is accessed in a different, disconnected way. This may all mean that Square is losing track of the finer points. Or it may just mean that after 12 games, it’s getting easy to take the series for granted