Until its US release, you could probably say that the wave of anticipation for Final Fantasy XII had already broken on the shores of fan apathy. A quiet hope was all that lingered after beloved producer Yasumi Matsuno (Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story) was excised from the development team. Having had their fill of the obnoxiously emotional characters and overcooked designs that only rabid fangirls could get excited about, some die-hards hoped that Matsuno would bring a remarkably different design ethic to a series that seemed to be wallowing braindead in a pool of its own stagnant drool.
Despite the mysterious "reworking" of the game after his departure, most of Matsuno's proposed changes seem to have made it through to retail intact – License board, Gambits, real-time battle system, etc. – all of which come together to form the most flexible Fantasy yet. Whether you enjoy total control over your party or care to mediate the tedium of constantly pressing the X button, Final Fantasy XII gives you the option to (quoth the Burger King) "Have It Your Way."
There were some initial concerns that the automation allowed by the Gambit system (basically a series of if-then routines for your characters) would make the game unbearably dull. I admit, after getting my hands on the demo that came with Dragon Quest VIII I, too, was skeptical. Given separate scenarios for active and wait modes, I had trouble deciding whether the new battle system was too convoluted or too simplistic. The truth lies in the fact that options make the game. Finally given control over setting Gambits and the ability to switch from active to wait (and vice versa) at any time, fighting becomes a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Personally, I kept my party leader under full control while setting basic Gambits for my other two party members. Likewise, I left it on active for most battles, reserving wait mode for the intensely strategic boss encounters.
No longer must you suffer the tedium of grinding levels – well, at least not in the way you're used to it. FFXII can be a difficult game, but the ability to cut through mobs like a machete through dense jungle brush makes it a much more satisfying chore. Effectively, battles can be tough, but they're over quick and you don't have to sit through loading or result screens. Fighting in FFXII is completely seamless and as much of it as you'll have to do, it remains engaging throughout.
The story is also a well-deserved change of pace. Machiavellian in true Matsuno style, it's a labyrinthine plot full of politics and ambiguous morals. It's not nearly as complex as the narratives he crafted for Final Fantasy Tactics or Vagrant Story, but the vestiges of intrigue help pull XII out of fan fiction hell (no doubt there will be plenty of it anyway). The characters are classy and well thought out, an ensemble cast whose players rarely descend into needless melodrama or writhing angst. Eschewing drama bomb plot devices like love triangles or amnesiatic heroes with dark pasts, Matsuno lets the world breathe in all of its diversity. Ivalice and its various races get as much attention as individual characters and rarely does one try to trump the other. In fact, "main character" Vaan spends the entire game as an observer of the events unfolding in front of him, which is a far different take on the protagonist compared to Nomura's egocentric tendencies. If anything, sky pirate Balthier is the male lead as he cheekily makes known through the game.
Speaking of class, Square-Enix has more than paid its dues for that horrible laughing scene in Final Fantasy X (as well as the rest of the wretched dialogue). XII is extremely well-translated and the voice acting is among the best I've heard in any medium. Actors actually sound like they're acting instead of just reading off of a script, there are few awkward pauses, and the voices fit very well. Vaan sounds like an actual teenager without being whiny while the Viera, Fran, pleases the ear with the harmonic tones of her Bjork-alike voice. All parts are well played and the only unfortunate thing I can say about the VA is that it suffers from some bad compression (likely due to the amount of spoken dialogue crammed onto the disc).
Luckily, the soundtrack suffers from no such faults. Composer Hitoshi Sakimoto fills the landscape with the epic sounds we've come to expect from Final Fantasy games. Matsuno's love affair with Sakimoto is evident – he's scored every one of the titles Matsuno has held significant sway over. If you've played Vagrant Story or Final Fantasy Tactics, you'll recognize his style right off the bat.
The exquisitely elaborate environments match the music note for note. Taking cues from MMORPGs, Final Fantasy XII's many regions are divided up into several expansive areas. Dungeons can also be long and complex. Unfortunately, the areas are zoned, meaning that they are separated by a slight load time. This, in and of itself, isn't a problem, but it does belie the size of the environments somewhat. The draw distance extends quite far, but it's cosmetic since these zones are still clearly sectioned into smaller pieces.
It can't be denied how fantastic the world looks, though. Cities feel alive with people milling about all over the streets, the architecture is rich and varied in art style (though there is in odd conformity in the reuse of tall rectangular walls), and there's an overall clarity to the aesthetics that makes everything feel coherent and real. Character animations can't be overlooked, either. Good lip-syncing and a lack of visual stutter put Final Fantasy X to shame.
Final Fantasy XII shapes up to be a solid game all the way around. Well, it's a lot better than solid, but the point is that Square-Enix has crafted a game where the fundamentals support the rest of the content with ease. Glitches, for instance, are pretty much non-existent and there are a good number of helpful little touches that make play progress more smoothly. For instance, when you attempt to cast a revitalizing spell in battle, such as Poisona (to get rid of poison), it will automatically target the character in your party that is afflicted and cure them. You can also re-order the spells in your battle menu so that the ones you use most are right at the top and you don't have to scroll through all of them to find the ones you want. These are interface improvements that lift FFXII, in sometimes subtle ways, above its peers and even its own predecessors.
The lone sore spot is the game's last few hours. It's not that they aren't engaging, but because it all seems to end so briefly. As long as the game is (60+ hours for story), by the finale, you can't keep from feeling that you were somehow cheated. The narrative hints at other parts of the world that you never visit or even get to see (notably, Rozzaria) and just when you think you're headed into the third and final act, you're done. It doesn't end on a cliffhanger or anything, but you get the idea that there was supposed to be even more to this behemoth (pun intended!). Perhaps they are saving it for the upcoming DS side story, FFXII: Revenant Wings.
That said, there's a fair amount of extra content and side quests. You can complete all of the hunts and tough optional boss battles, there are several side quests which elicit rewards in the form of rare armor/weaponry, extra espers, and quite a few hidden areas which you may not have noticed on your first trip through various dungeons. FFXII is more about exploration than any Final Fantasy before it and it's evident in the very design of each region, which often features multiple paths. The hunts and side quests will have you rooting through every nook and cranny of the map. And, of course, there's always the age-old past-time well known by RPG fanatics as "maxing out your characters."
Final Fantasy XII ultimately proves itself more than deserving of your money. Originally anticipated, then treated by skepticism, XII sets itself up to become one of the top games in the series and the hallmark of the PS2 generation. Deviations from past Final Fantasies may turn off some players, but this game is so classy, it's like mouthwash for the nasty taste FFX/X-2 left in gamers' mouths. It redeems a hallowed series which had begun to spiral into teeny-bopper, pop-idol-infested hell. Please, for the sake of supporting games which are, you know, good , buy it!