Throwback Thursday: Final Fantasy XII
As the PlayStation 2’s era was beginning to end, Square Enix released one more blockbuster to send off the system in style. Final Fantasy XII was released in 2006, a few weeks before the PlayStation 3 hit store shelves, and the game brought refreshing changes to combat, levelling, and the game’s world. It introduced new systems, including the gambit and license system, which added depth and strategy to the game, while the graphics were some of the best ever seen. Square Enix took some risks in Final Fantasy XII’s deviation from elements that had made the series so successful, but ended up creating a stunning game that exemplified the combination of old with new.
While most Final Fantasy games give the player an open world to explore, XII was the first one to allow the player to see a 360 degree view of their surroundings. By rotating the right stick, players could take in all the beautiful landscapes – snow, sand, forest, plains – and impressive city architecture in the game. The new camera was a necessity due to the fact that enemies could not only be seen, but would actively attack the player if they got close enough. Most importantly, there was no transition from exploration to combat, in the sense of a screen wipe. Instead, red arching lines from enemy to player would signal an incoming attack.
Of course, players could always start attacking enemies first if they so wished. However, series veterans would notice quickly that combat in Final Fantasy XII carried big changes. It was no longer a strictly turn-based system requiring the player to constantly give commands to party members as each member’s turn came up. Rather, the new gambit system let players choose how each party member would act in certain situations. For examples, a healer could be set to cast a healing spell on any party member that fell below 50 per cent health, or a party member could be made to attack an enemy non-stop until the party member fell below 20 per cent health, at which point they would heal themselves. In the case of unexpected circumstances, players could always issue direct commands that would be followed instead of the set gambit.
The gambit system at times felt overly complicated or slightly tedious, but it also allowed for quicker gameplay and for strategies to be more easily implemented by the player. With Final Fantasy XII, Square Enix decided that the precision of the gambit system was better than implementing an AI that assumed what the player wanted party members to do. In essence, XII trades time spent in combat for time spent in menus. In the long run, gambits may have saved more time, but only if the player set them up correctly, which often required a lot of experimentation. While not everyone enjoyed the system, gambits were still well thought out, allowing for an impressive set of instructions to be given to party members.
Other systems in Final Fantasy XII included the license system and Quickenings. The license system was a large checkerboard-like map, each square representing a weapon, magic, or equipment piece. Each party member had their own license board, and as party members levelled, they received license points (LP). LP could be exchanged for the ability (or license) to use a certain weapon or wear certain armour. As one square got licensed, its adjacent squares revealed what items could be unlocked next, creating an addicting cycle of earning one carrot and then having another three dangled in front. While it was possible for every party member to unlock every square on their license board, this took a long time to complete, and for most players they had to decide what sort of role each party member would play and unlock their licenses accordingly.
Quickenings were also unlockable via the license board. A special type of magic attack, Quickenings played out in special in-game cut scenes and could be chained together to deliver incredible damage. Similar to some attacks in Final Fantasy X, Quickenings required a quick button press from players. As an added bonus, unlocking a Quickening via the license board (which could be done up to three times per party member) meant a doubling in MP for that character. The special attacks added some variety to combat while further enticing player to level up.
Alongside these big changes, there were some smaller ones too. For example, killing similar enemies in a row yielded better loot drops, and when this loot was sold to merchants, it unlocked better equipment that could be bought. There were dozens of optional monster hunts that could be completed for special rewards and were often difficult or required hours of combat.
Final Fantasy XII wasn’t without its faults. The gambit and combat systems were well implemented and thought out, but they were essentially more passive than combat systems in other games. They also required the player invest a lot of time staring at menus, especially in the early going of the game. Some battles, especially monster hunts, required such a specific strategy that it removed any fun of experimenting with gambits. The music was good, but not great, for a Final Fantasy game. And as far as the story goes, it was generally unimpressive. Characters were relatively interesting, and most importantly, tolerable. However, the story that played out is an RPG cliché (a small group of rag-tag rebels rising up against an evil imperial nation) and it never really reveals any interesting plot points or twists. Instead, the strength of the story is that it takes the party to numerous places, each location unique and beautiful.
Final Fantasy XII represents a transition in gaming. Not only from PlayStation 2 to PlayStation 3, but also from games with complex and often confusing systems to games whose systems are much simpler for players to understand. Criticism levelled against Final Fantasy XII often included the complaints that the gambit system was too complex and time-consuming, or that certain systems like the license board and loot drops were not well explained. It’s visible in Final Fantasy XIII that Square Enix took these suggestions to heart, creating a game that greatly simplified the gambit system and removed a lot of exploration and customization. In line with many games that were released around the same time, Final Fantasy XIII would be overly-simple, in contrast to XII’s over-complexity.
In the end, Final Fantasy XII received strong reviews and proved that the PS2 still had a lot of potential. More importantly, it asked players to invest a lot of time and thought into the game, something that may be missing from the most recent Final Fantasy iterations. The story’s incredible length and slow build meant that many players who invested only a dozen hours into the game may have never seen certain elements such as Quickenings or Espers. For those who played it for longer, they found themselves sucked into the world, addicted to the various systems, and enjoying one of the best games to ever come to the PlayStation 2.