It's only two months into the New Year and we've already got a serious game-of-the-year contender on our hands. Yes, Final Fantasy XII is just that good. And if you have any ounce of RPG love in your blood, you've likely seen all the videos and gobbled up every scrap of new information released over its gruelling development cycle. But whether or not you've suffered from the above symptoms of Final Fantasy-itis, or just casually glanced at a screenshot or two, nothing could have prepared you for the grandiose, epic, breathtaking, magnificent, brilliant, glorious (and every other adjective that my thesaurus can muster up from the word awesome) journey that is Final Fantasy XII.
Then again, if this game was anything less than spectacular the outcry from fans would be deafening. Fortunately that's not the case and if you can manage to rally enough strength to get through the game's painstakingly long fetch quest-infested intro, you'll reap all of FF XII's many, many rewards.
If you've ever played Final Fantasy Tactics before, then you're probably already familiar with Ivalice, the world in which our heroes' quest unfolds. After an invasion by the Archadian Empire cripples the kingdom of Dalmasca, The Dalmascan king is forced to give up his land in order to silence the war. Things go from bad-to-worse when the king is assassinated and his daughter, the princess, goes missing after her husband is slain in battle. Some years later, we're introduced to Vaan, a charismatic dreamer/errand boy who has a penchant for displaying his chest to the world and is determined to loosen the empire's grip on Dalmasca.
To spoil anymore of the narrative would be to ruin one of FF XII's richest assets. But suffice it to say, Vaan and party are in for far more than they bargained for and their attempts to reclaim the throne haven't gone unnoticed. Needless to say, the empire isn't the only faction interested in the party's next move, and it's not until much later in the game that each party's motives are exposed and the game's true antagonist presents itself.
The sheer number of twists and turns in between those revelations, however, will keep you on the edge of your seat until the game's epic conclusion at the 60 + hour mark. That's not to say the story presents a smooth ride straight to end; indeed, at times you'll be scratching your head in confusion, and if you don't closely follow the game's elongated cutscenes you may find yourself consulting a FAQ for a quick refresher from time to time.
As paramount as the story may be, whether or not you're willing to invest the necessary time in it depends on if you can stomach the game's new active combat system - a first for the series and a feature that only truly shines once Vaan has met up with the Han Solo-like sky pirate Balthier and his quiet but shrewd Vierra friend Fran.
Square Enix has done an admirable job of re-tooling the classic turn-based system, allowing players to navigate around the battlefield while in combat and switch to other party members on the fly. In reality, the two systems are very much alike. Aside from being able to move about freely, turns are still dependant on an Active Time Bar and your player can only attack once that bar is full. Like I mentioned above, at the beginning of the game the system's strengths aren't immediately apparent. Once you've acquired a handful of party members and can start using that movement to your advantage - for example, luring stronger enemies away from weaker party members by using the decoy ability - the combat reaches another level.
Better yet, and another first for the series, is the fact that enemies appear on screen. No longer do you have to worry about that damn battle music chiming in after every other step (Enchanted Arms anyone?), but can instead choose your fights or completely ignore them if you're in a hurry. A bit of advice: watch the colour of your opponent's icon. It's easy, especially within the first few hours of game time, to stumble into the vision cone of a particularly tough monster, like those blasted elementals or the Tyrannosaur that levels up by consuming the wolves that surround it. Remember: red = bad.
Another fine addition to the series is the gambit system that basically allows you to customize how your team-mates act in battle, right down to the most miniscule of commands. The options are limitless and you can program your team-mates to deal with just about any situation that presents itself. You're given 12 gambit slots (though you only start with three) for each character, and by purchasing gambits at stores or finding them on the battlefield, you can program your teammates to react differently when certain requirements are met on the battlefield. So, for example, you can program Ashe to heal a party member with Curaga once that party member's health points dip below 50 percent. Or, you can program Balthier to cast Flare only if any enemy's health exceeds 10,000 hit points. You can literally spend hours customizing your characters, especially when more gambits become available as the game progresses, and you better believe the system will save your hide more often than not.
But in order to acquire those precious gambit slots you'll need to purchase them off the game's license board. Think of it as FFX's sphere grid but on a chess board. By defeating enemies, your characters gain license points which in turn can be used to purchase the rights to use weapons, magicks, technicks and equipment. In other words, in order to use that sweet Deathbringer you acquired in the Henne Mines, you'll have to have obtained the license to use it. And you may have managed to steal the Genji Armor from Gilgamesh (good luck), but without forking over the 150 points to acquire the license, you're pretty much out of luck.
But wait! Don't go spending all those license points so quickly; you'll want to save some for the game's Quickenings (uber-powerful spells) and summons. Each character can purchase up to three Quickenings which can then be chained in battle to dish out some serious damage. As powerful and invaluable as they can be at the start of the game, as you progress further and further into the main story, conserving your MP for healing in battle becomes priority number one.
Summons, on the other hand, fight on-screen alongside you and can be purchased on the license board, provided you've defeated them in combat. While the summons are extremely helpful early on, they quickly become an after-thought and going head-to-head with the only useful summons, like the ultra-tough Zodiarc and Ultima, requires your party to be at obscene levels to stand a fighting chance.
Visually FF XII is absolutely gorgeous, sporting a level of detail I doubt anyone believed the PS2 was capable of. Each character's facial expressions are fluid and of the utmost realism, displaying every emotion flawlessly. And that kind of brilliance extends into the audio department as well. FF XII boasts exceptional voice acting (though I cringe every time Fran opens her mouth) and a solid musical score that, although not on par with Chrono Cross or FFVII for that matter, certainly has no trouble standing its ground.
In the end, Final Fantasy XII is a brilliant RPG that delivers on all fronts including quite possibly the most enthralling piece of narrative the series has ever seen. If the 60+ hour quest isn't enough, the many clan hunts, secret weapons and dozen upon dozens of side quests will keep you coming back for more - and will likely contribute to a few missed days at work. Innovations like the active combat system and gambits keep the archetypical RPG format feeling fresh, while still remaining true to the core elements that have made Final Fantasy the epic series that it is today.