Cidolfas's RPG Reviews: Final Fantasy XII (PS2)
You Are: Vaan, a Rabanastrian orphan; Penelo, ditto; Basch, a disgraced Dalmascan captain; Balthier, a roguish sky pirate; Fran, his unself-consciously sexy viera sidekick; and Princess Ashe of Dalmasca.
Your Goal Is: Really, to bring Dalmasca's honor back. Whether this involves beating the Archadian Empire or not is a matter of debate.
General System: FF12's main general system is the License Board. You gain LP by beating enemies, and you can spend them on each character's board, which is a sort of more open-ended Sphere Grid (see FF10). Everything requires licenses - weapons, armor, spells, techniques, and stat raises. Luckily, unless you try to make everyone everything at once, you'll generally have enough LP to learn what you need.
FF12 has a full set of equipment for each character, which is nice. You can buy the equipment in shops (though you're usually woefully short of cash). Most enemies don't drop money; instead, they drop Loot, which you can sell in stores for cash. An added bonus is that after selling particular combinations of loot, you'll get special Bazaar items for sale. Unfortunately the game is very vague about exactly how the system works and what combinations there are, so an FAQ is pretty much required.
The one thing that really bugged me about the general system is the treasure chests. They do exist, but a) they only have a random chance of even appearing, and b) most of them have a random chance of particular items showing up inside them. The rest of the time you'll get useless knots of rust. There's even an item that is supposed to allow you to get better stuff from chests, but there are plenty of late-game chests that require you to have that item off to get the good stuff, which is totally counterintuitive. Treasure chests are meant to be rewards for exploration; instead, they're simply areas of frustration, which generally destroys the whole impetus to explore in the first place.
Battle System: FF12's Active Dimension Battle system is entirely in real-time; but unlike the previous ATB system, everyone moves at once. (Also unlike the ATB system, the command must be entered before the gauge starts filling up.) The Gambit system takes the onus away from micromanagement into macromanagement. Each gambit is a rule that you can set up for your character (such as: if there's an enemy whose HP is full, steal from him. Otherwise, attack.) This makes for some interesting strategies, but the limitations can get to you if you rely on them too much (for example, there are no gambits indicating how many enemies are onscreen). At some point you'll have to enter your own commands. Luckily, you can do that whenever you want by bringing up the battle menu. For tough battles, you may want to turn gambits off entirely for particular allies. You can also switch any party member out of battle at will, as long as they aren't being targeted by an enemy (or an ally, which can get annoying). One more nitpick: If your main character is knocked out, you'll have several nail-biting seconds during which you can input no commands at all until the game actually allows you to switch your controlled character.
In addition to magic and techniques, you can use Quickenings and summon Espers. Both of these use up huge chunks (if not all) of your MP, and hence tend not to be all that useful. Espers will replace your other two party members, but the summoner remains in battle, and if either he or the Esper is knocked out, the summon is over, which really kills most of the point. Quickenings can do some nice damage, especially when chained together, but they rely on both random chance and reflexes, neither of which are my friends in RPGs. >_<
Graphics: Gorgeous. Amazing. Quite possibly the prettiest and most realistic PS2 game I've ever seen. Only Valkyrie Profile 2 gives it a run for its money, but in a very different way. Vaan really does look like a street urchin.
Music: Quite low on the totem pole as far as FFs go. Even FF Tactics Advance had more interesting tunes from the same composer. Very atmospheric, though.
Story: Let's start with the localization. It's astounding. I've always been dying to see what would happen if the folks behind Vagrant Story had a full-length story-based game to deal with, and the answer is: they unleash almost pure poetry. Voice work is excellent (if we excuse the rather strange echoey effects, which are shared by Valkyrie Profile 2 oddly enough). As for the story itself, it relies more on background and politics than character, which turns off some people but strikes me as a courageous and intruguing take on the RPG story. You really have to pay attention to the cutscenes, and even to the NPCs and some of the Clan Primer entries, to fully understand what's going on. The countries are as much characters as people are - they're characterized by their citizens and the way people speak about them, which is something sorely lacking in other games. I'm more concerned with the plain old length of the story - there simply aren't that many cutscenes in the game, and many of the areas to explore on the way to seeing the next scene seem completely superfluous and uninspired. Often I simply lost interest by the time I reached the next area, only to get re-interested again.
Challenge: As easy or hard as you want it to be. If you level grind enough to buy everything available before venturing out, you'll have no problems in the main game. (Don't level grind, and you'll find yourself strapped for cash most of the time.) Try some of the optional bosses, though, and you'll be tearing your hair out.
Length: You can do the main story in about 50 hours, but if you want to do all the optional stuff, try closer to 150. I am not kidding.
My Thoughts: FF12 truly excels in some areas... but in others, it falls flat on its face. The gambit system is a great idea but could have been executed better; I found myself using two or three gambits for most of the game, and a few easily-exploited ones near the end. It would have been nice to save "gambit schemes" for e.g. item looting, leveling up, or boss fighting. The license board was also a nice idea but wasn't much of a challenge; I always had at least 200 LP extra in case I got a new skill, weapon, or armor, and never was lacking in that respect. Worse is the Quickening and Esper abilities, which were largely useless (using them means you lose all your MP, making you vulnerable, especially since the Esper goes away if its summoner dies). But by far the worst is the enormous reliance FF12 has on randomness. The treasure is random (an inexcusable sin), and the drop rate of enemies is so minute you can easily find yourself spending hours trying to get a single item out of a set of six or more needed to create a single bazaar item. The bazaar itself is poorly explained and can easily trip you up if you just sell everything.
Getting all the nitpicks out of the way, at its core FF12 is a courageous experiment in melding FF11-style play, real-time tactics, and traditional RPG strategy, and it largely works. I wish the story would have been more engaging, and that there would have been less unnecessary big field areas and uninspiring dungeons. But I loved the story that was actually there, and the gameplay somehow kept me masochistically coming back for more. It's definitely worth a playthrough - just take note that your patience will be sorely taxed.
Overall Rating: 7.0/10