Final Fantasy XII is on the eve of its release in Japan. It's been a long 5-year journey from the beginning of development to store shelves, shaken up by several long delays, complaints over the androgyny of the main character Vaan, and rumors of staffing problems or concern of the direction the game was going in. Despite the hearsay, FFXII received a perfect 40 in premiere Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu (the 5th game to ever do so) and those who have had early access to the game (regardless of means) are speaking quite well of the final product. Needless to say, if you've grown tired of the series, this may be the Fantasy to win you back.
Most obvious amongst the changes is the battle system. It takes cues from both scenario writer Yasumi Matsuno's other games (Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story) and MMO Final Fantasy XI. You'll guide your party through gigantic fields filled with enemies. There are no separate screens for encounters; instead, battles are started by either walking up to enemy and attacking it or incurring its wrath from afar (read: aggro, a term often used in MMORPGs to describe a character action – whether it be casting a spell, walking too close, or otherwise – that causes an enemy to come after you). From there, fights can take one of two paths depending on whether you've set the system to active or wait . The only real difference is that when set to active, the battle will progress in real-time, whereas in wait mode, it will pause when the player brings up a menu. The former requires a bit more strategy and quick-thinking while the latter is more traditional and makes combat easier on the whole. Whatever you choose, you control one of the characters while the other two party members act based upon their Gambits – a set of actions, like AI, determining their behavior in battle. If you're one of those RPG players who hates not having immediate control over everyone in your party, never fear, you can switch control to any character at any time and issue individual commands. Once a party member has been given something to do, an arrow will be drawn between him/her and the enemy (or vice versa). This shows the target and the length of time until the action is executed.
The battle system in FFXII definitely marks a change of pace for the series, one that may take some players a while to get used to while others will no doubt consider it a breath of fresh air. Those familiar with the mechanics of Final Fantasy XI should find it the easiest to pick up. Besides that, though, the game has also taken on the aesthetic stylings and atmosphere of Matsuno's previous works. It's set in the world of Ivalice found in both Final Fantasy Tactics and the Gameboy Advance sequel. Neither of those worlds are exactly like the Ivalice found here, but the European architecture and wealth of different races remain in tact. The story also maintains the same sense of complex, Machiavellian relationships between different characters and those in power. The Archadian Empire is seeking to expand its influence by subjugating smaller nations one at a time. The kingdom of Dalmasca, where our heroes reside, has recently been conquered by the invading force. There isn't much to be done about it, but Vaan has no problems starting trouble, the street urchin-turned-air-pirate-wannabe that he is. He plans to invade the residence of the new Archadian consul and make him an example of him, but things very rarely go the way they're meant to in these situations. As Vaan makes his move, he discovers that a resistance force comprised of former Dalmascan soldiers is already underway and that they're planning a strike at the same time. In the confusion, Vaan gets captured, meets up with some future allies, discovers the existence of the only remaining heir to the Dalmascan throne Princess Ashe (previously thought to be lost), and comes face-to-face with a powerful Judge (a type of heavily-armored, influential lawmaker who first appeared in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance).
Surprisingly, there isn't much more known about the story than that besides the basic characters. There's Vaan's childhood friend Penelo, princess Ashe, the air pirate Balthier, and his Viera partner Fran. Though mere hours to release in Japan, most US gamers won't get to experience the world of Final Fantasy XII until the Fall of 2006. Until then, continue to salivate over these screenshots .