The PlayStation 2 certainly has no shortage of titles to offer when it comes to the RPG genre. And Final Fantasy is king among the hardcore role-playing crowd. Every Final Fantasy has an exquisite amount of quality in every aspect, be it music or graphics. Every single game in the series features a fantastical storyline that delivers an epic adventure from start to finish. Not only that, but Final Fantasy creators aren't afraid of switching up gameplay mechanics and trying fresh approaches to the RPG genre. Final Fantasy XII however, takes the prize for innovation as many aspects of the game have changed for the better.
The main story takes place in the beautiful world of Ivalice. Two kingdoms compete for dominion over the land, Archadia and Rozarria. Meanwhile, the smaller kingdom of Dalmasca sits right in the middle of these great super powers with very little strength to defend itself against the march of the Archadian Empire. After the fall of Prince Rassler and the supposed suicide of Princess Ashe, Dalmasca finally falls to the Empire. Players participate in this great scheme by following Vaan in his struggle to cope with his brother's death. Vaan is a habitant of the royal city of Rabanastre and bears ill sentiment towards the empire. So naturally, he gets into trouble with the new rulers and joins forces with powerful allies to resolve the conflict in Ivalice. His crew is made up of his best friend Penello, the sky pirate Balthier, a Veela called Fran, an exiled captain called Basch and many others. A lot of attention is given to each character's plot and they never feel like meaningless sidekicks at all. In fact, the beginning of the game presents far more information about the supporting characters than Vaan himself.
The powerful story is made even more fleshed out by the stylized graphics present in FFXII. Characters look more like paintings and caricatures, which helps give the game a lot of its soul. The look and feel of the environments makes FFXII a joy to explore. There are so many interesting settings from beaches, to riverbeds, to cities filled with splendor and beauty, and even deserts. The sound in FFXII takes the whole experience a step higher with a great soundtrack filled with music that seems to complement every environment. And the voice acting is quite possibly the best that Final Fantasy has ever seen. The addition of British actors and the royal setting of cities like Rabanastre and Archardia make the story seem more like an English play rather than the plot of a game.
And graphics aren't the only difference in FFXII. The new combat system invigorates the series once more (and in my opinion, is the best in the series). The addition of gambits is FFXII's greatest strength, and its greatest weakness. The new game does away with random battles and the distinction between world map and battle map. FFXII takes a lot of cues from MMO type of games where players are able to see monsters and avoid them if they wish. Not only that, but the combat also does away with the need to pass along mundane orders to party members. With the new gambit system, party members can be programmed to respond to specific situations. An example would be the death of an ally. A gambit could be placed so that another party member would revive any fallen comrades. Even healing can be placed in gambits so that a designated healer in the party will always know what to do when someone's HP falls below a certain percentage.
The amount of gambits in the game is astounding. Most are not available from the outset of the game but as players proceed with the story, even more are made available. This makes the level of customization of characters in FFXII even more complex than any other Final Fantasy game. The counter argument to that is of course that FFXII has lost some of its strategy elements. That could not be further from the truth however, since setting up gambits involves the same amount of strategies if not more so. And players are able to override gambits at anytime and perform whatever action they wish as no two bosses involve the same tactics. Keep in mind that Gambits can also be turned off, which puts all the control back in the hands of the player. In essence, Gambits are merely there to take care of menial tasks such as ordering an attack and healing and only serve to enhance the combat experience.
Gambits are only half the fun, as FFXII also features new ways to improve characters. Players can level up and most stat enhancements come from attaining higher levels. However, equipment and weapons now require licenses, which can only be acquired by defeating enemies and gaining license points. With license points, players can learn techniques, new magic, and equip new weapons such as swords, guns, bows, and others. Another important part of the license board is the ability to learn Quickenings, which serve as the new Limit Breaks in FFXII. With full MP, players can unleash devastating attacks on enemies but these do have some flaws. Doing combos and executing multiple quickenings at the same time are the only ways to deal good damage with quickenings. These also consume all of a players MP, which adds further strategy as to when they should be unleashed. Since a lot of bosses use more powerful moves near death, it is a good strategy to use Quickenings for the final blow. And if that wasn't enough, players can also add summons to a specific character. Summons are now called Espers and while they have different names, a lot of them follow the same convention from previous Final Fantasy games with fire, ice, death, and other Espers available. There are also a variety of "optional" Espers in the game that can be quite a challenge to obtain.
Even with all the fun stuff you can do in Final Fantasy XII, the game just keeps on giving. The number of side quests offered makes leveling up fun instead of boring. FFXII also happens to be one of the most challenging Final Fantasy games I've played. A lot of enemies present in certain areas in the beginning are quite ferocious and there is no shame in running away if the bar seems a bit too high. The new additions to the combat system can help a great deal and only serve to enhance the experience further. This is a great RPG with a great story, great characters, excellent voice acting, and a world filled with wonder and fantasy. Ivalice itself is a great place to explore and the environments will leave you breathless. This game is amazing and gives dividends over and over to those who are patient enough to learn its intricacies.