Final Fantasy seems to have hit a snag as of late. It almost seems that since the critically acclaimed Final Fantasy X that Square-Enix has run out of unique ideas. There are only about four different works in progress based solely on the 1997 hit Final Fantasy VII, which may lead some to believe that there's nothing really new or innovative coming from the developer any time soon. Final Fantasy XII, however, should go a long ways in alleviating those fears, as the game seems to be fresh in a classically Final Fantasy way. I had a chance to spend a considerable deal of time with the game yesterday, and walked away rather impressed for the most part.
Perhaps the biggest, and most noteworthy, change to the Final Fantasy franchise is the new battle system. You've still got an ATB bar that fills up before characters can take action, but the combat is still essentially real time as your characters will move and act without your input even while their ATB bars are filling. When they do fill up, you'll then be able to enter various commands and execute various actions. Logic dictates that in the final release of the game these commands will be at least somewhat character specific, though in the build I played, pretty much everyone had the same abilities, and rather well developed ones at that. Not only were there the traditional melee, white and black magic and item options, but Final Fantasy includes what they call ‘green' magics, which is really just a re-labeling of certain types of magic with which we're already familiar with, such as Haste, Slow, etc. However, they are now classified as an entirely different type of support magic, suggesting that they'll only be available, at least initially, to certain characters.
There were several different areas to explore in the playable demo of the game, and I found myself wandering through an ancient temple as well as meandering around open plains. The temple level had my main party leader, Vaan, and company taking on a Demon Wall, a large, animated and pissed off… wall. Yeah, sounds exactly like the pain-in-the-ass boss from Final Fantasy VII, but the dynamic of the battle was altogether different. Rushing forward, my party confronted the demon while at the same time being pushed back. A small graphic in the upper right hand corner illustrated where in the room we were, giving me a good idea of what would happen if the demon wall was able to push us all the way back to the other side; simply put, I wasn't just fighting against the demon wall, but against time- I had to beat it before it smashed me into the opposite side of the room, but I also had to worry about healing and protecting my party at the same time. Overall it made for an interesting battle, one that was frantic and strategic at the same time.
Luckily, you can set your party's AI instruction sets to handle a lot of the support stuff for you. If you want, you can have your mages worry about healing while you have your big guys worry about attacking, meaning you only have to start really worrying about health and such if you're really getting your butt kicked. It actually helps add to the feel of actual teamwork within the party to be in the middle of a melee attack only to see the character you're controlling suddenly healed by a potion or spell from another of your party members.
After battling the Demon Wall, I took a walk through some grassy outdoor plains and took place in some somewhat random battles. I say ‘somewhat' because for the first time you can see enemies on the map before just blindly stumbling into them, but in the playable demo, at least, they were pretty impossible to avoid nonetheless. Most of the enemies I encountered were of the typical sort you've come to expect from Final Fantasy RPGs- flying birds, chocobos, chimeras, etc. The difference is that the constantly flowing field of battle makes it harder to focus on a specific enemy in the heat of battle, meaning it's actually important to pay attention to what you're attacking and who you're healing. For instance, you may end up fighting against three Zus at once, but they don't just flap their wings in place, they'll circle around you during battle, so the Zu that is in front of you now may not be the Zu that is in front of you ten seconds from now; and since you still have to prioritize targets in order to ensure effective elimination of the enemy, you have to actually start paying attention to the menu dialogue to make sure you're attacking the enemy you want to attack. Whether Square puts a ‘memory' option into the battle system as they have in most recent Final Fantasy titles, I do not know, but depending on your viewpoint, doing so would either greatly help or greatly hurt the feel of combat in the game.
Visually, Final Fantasy XII is actually a bit disappointing. Even playing on the super nice Square-Enix monitors, the visuals looked jagged and rough. While the change-over to a full 3D engine makes the game more technically impressive than Final Fantasy X, the game doesn't actually feel that way- it feels, visually at least, subpar to FFX, simply because nothing seemed to have even a remotely smooth edge to it. Whether this is simply a matter of polishing the visuals or an inherent problem with the new engine created for the game, I couldn't say, as Square reps were in short numbers on the show floor and I had a finite amount of time with the game, but it certainly needs to be stated that Final Fantasy XII is not shaping up to be the kind of game that wows you in the graphics department.
Overall, though, the game felt great. The combat was intuitive and fun, and different from previous Final Fantasy games in a good way. Best of all, the game seems to have retained what has made the more recent titles in the series so popular while simultaneously reaching back to the roots of the franchise, though we can only hope this type of mix pays off better than it did the last time Square tried that with Final Fantasy IX. So far, it looks as though it will, and we'll certainly keep you updated when more news about the title is available later this year.