Saturday, 28 December 2013

Final Fantasy XII (PS2)

Final Fantasy XII PAL title screen
Today on Super Adventures I'm playing classic PlayStation 2 JRPG Final Fantasy XII, sometimes also referred to as Final Fantasy 12 by people who want to maximise the chances of their site showing up in search results.

I've been playing through the first few hours of all the main series Final Fantasy games in order this year, but I'm going to have to jump from 10 to 12 here, skipping 11 entirely, as it appears that Square accidentally gave the name to their multiplayer spinoff. They could've called it Final Fantasy Online, Final World of Fantasy, or Final Fantasy: MMO Gaiden, but nope they slapped the name Final Fantasy XI on it and waited for the fans to come to them as they always do, eager to get them all signed up for that monthly fee.

So no, I'm not playing that one.

Final Fantasy XII PAL Plantium DVD case contents
I don't usually read the manuals for the games I play, but I couldn't help but be curious about what the red leaflet hiding behind this one was about. It turns out it's a survey, to 'define the future' of Square's games. You know what this means?

IT MEANS THAT IT'S ALL MY FAULT!

Final Fantasy XIII's lack of gameplay and nonsensical plot, their painfully cheap and amateurish looking mobile ports and spin-offs, the way they're making their Western developers focus more on online features, the way they turned Final Fantasy XIV into a pit to flush their money away into (and then blamed the Western market for under-performing because Tomb Raider didn't outsell Call of Duty), they way they're making Breath of Fire 6 into a casual mobile game.... wait, that one's Capcom. But all those other things are all my fault, because I've had this survey sitting on my shelf for years and I didn't send it to them!

I could've told them to knock it off before they even started and saved them from travelling this dark road.

So anyway, I should probably put Final Fantasy XII on then.

In a massive break from Final Fantasy tradition, the game begins with an incredible looking elaborate CGI cutscene showing the Trade Federation invading the peaceful planet of Naboo with their... oh wait that's Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

The video actually begins with a parade in the streets of the city of Rabanastre to celebrate the wedding of Princess Ashe of Dalmasca and Prince Rasler of Nabradia. But the mood is soon ruined entirely by news that the Empire of Archadia begun an invasion of the Prince's homeland and he departs with all these troops you see above to defend Nalbina Fortress.

I think I got all of that right.

The heroic Dalmascan forces, led by Prince Rasler himself, struggled valiantly to defend the fortress of Helm's Deep from the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron... I'm sorry but this really does look like Lord of the Rings mixed with Star Wars right now. Armies of a thousand knights battle each other along stone walls with sword and bows, while starfighters dogfight overhead and the fortress's energy shield falls.

Don't take that as a criticism though, I'd totally watch this movie.

Sadly Prince Rasler falls in battle and the Archadian Empire takes the Kingdom of Nabradia. With their army defeated and the Empire moving in as their new neighbours, the King of Dalmasca has no choice to but travel to Nalbina Fortress and sign the Empire's Treaty of Absolute Surrender Peace.

It's quite a big difference from the beginning of Final Fantasy X, which was more or less entirely focused on a single blitzball player as he went around chatting to fans and signing their balls.

Man, this narrator really does like to have some fun with his capitalisation. Actually I know what this narration reminds me of now: the start of Final Fantasy Tactics! It's probably not a coincidence seeing as they both take place in the land of Ivalice, a place where heroes are more concerned with the fate of nations than they are with beach volleyball.

It seems that I'm playing as Reks, part of the Order of Dalmasca, who have returned to Nalbina Fortress at the time of the King's treaty signing to... I have no idea yet. Though by the look of all these dead soldiers I guess we're not here as his bodyguards.

My first task is to move the right analog stick to rotate the camera, which is harder than you'd expect considering the camera controls are inverted and there's no way to turn that off. I can forgive them though, as this is this is actually the first main series Final Fantasy game to let the player turn the camera themselves.

The menu driven combat system is pretty similar to the earlier Final Fantasy games, giving me the option to choose either an attack, a magic spell, a skill, or an item during my turn. Then I have have to wait for my action bar to fill up again before I can make another move.

There is one slight difference I've noticed though: the fights take place directly on the level instead of on a separate battle screen and everyone's free to run around in real time during combat. Plus I don't have to keep choosing an action each turn as Reks is happy enough to keep hacking away at anyone I've targeted until they're dead.

The coloured arcs on screen indicate who's aiming at who by the way, with blue referring to my team and red being the enemy. I can't actually remember ever seeing that in a game before and it's working out pretty well so far.

Onwards men, to... wherever it is we're going!


A FEW CORRIDORS LATER.


Well this isn't good. I got held up for two minutes fighting a couple of enemies and when I caught up with my team I found them all lying dead in front of our King, and he isn't looking too sprightly himself.

But who would assassinate our King before he could officially surrender? It doesn't seem like the Empire would get much out of it, seeing as they already had everything they wanted, he came here to surrender to them.

Oh, well a knife to the gut certainly clears up that mystery. It appears that my boss, Captain Basch, has turned traitor and killed his own king to prevent him from selling out his people in the name of peace. It's a shame really as the guy was almost the star of the intro sequence, riding around through the battle on his chocobo firing arrows at dudes, I was really hoping I'd get him on my team at some point. Plus he's got an awesome beard.

But nope, he's gone to the dark side and the player character is dead, so now the game's got to set up a new protagonist. It'll be interesting to see who it'll be now that they've gotten their typical male teenage hero out of way.


A COUPLE OF YEARS LATER.


Oh. It's another male teenager. Fighting rats. In a sewer. Well this went downhill fast.

Though I suppose it is quite a pretty sewer. There's not much to say about this fight really, I select targets, walk Vaan close to them, and he goes and hits them until they die.

Final Fantasy XII PAL world map
Now that the mandatory RPG rat battle's over I get to explore a bit of the town my replacement protagonist calls home, also known as the Royal City of Rabanastre. You can see it in the middle of Dalmasca here on this map of Ivalice, and there's Nalbina Fortress up on the border to the north. I've no idea how this relates to the map of Ivalice seen in Final Fantasy Tactics though.

Well the game certainly has a world map, but it doesn't look like I'll be doing much travelling across it. It seems Square threw that idea of an overworld away for good back in the PlayStation era.

It's been two years since the deaths of Prince Rasler, Princess Ashe, The King, Reks, the traitor Captain Basch... basically everyone from the intro, and everything's working out pretty well so far under the new management in Rabinastre. Well, except for the Archadian soldiers patrolling the streets, oppressing the populace and taking food from the merchants.

Our substitute hero's a bit of a thief class, so he at least gets to enjoy stealing the purses from some genuine assholes for once. He's saving up to buy an airship and become a sky pirate you see.

Okay I've got to admit, I don't hate Vaan's character design. I'm not a huge fan of his voice, but his outfit is definitely on the right side of terrible as far as I'm concerned. Sure, the armoured boots look a bit dumb, but at least they're symmetrical. Maybe he swiped them from a treasure chest at some point and he's still looking for the rest of the armour that goes with them.

He clearly has too many 'a's in his name for such a short word though, so from now on I'll be calling him Aladdin Skywalker instead.


EVENTUALLY.


Final Fantasy XII PAL Rogue Tomato bill
A... Rogue Tomato? I had my doubts for a while, but this is definitely a Final Fantasy game.

Well I had to go down the street to drop by Migelo's place, who sent me back up the street to find a guy called Kytes and I eventually found him in this tavern. Not that I had to go looking really as the game kindly marks where I need to be on my map. So that's where I'm at and why I'm at where I am.

This Rogue Tomato has been harassing couriers in the Estersand and there's a bounty for whoever takes him down. Which will of course be me.

Rogue Tomato: The Hunt Begins!

Thankfully accepting this job means I get a permit to travel through the city gates, so I won't end up in a Final Fantasy VII situation of being trapped in the starting city for hours.


SOON.


Oh thank fuck I've finally reached a save crystal! I have to admit, I've been kinda skipping through dialogue lately to get to one of these things so I can safely turn the game off and take a break. You'd think they would've put one right in the middle of the city, but nope. Saving is a privilege reserved only for those who have sat through enough cutscenes.

Incidentally the game has skippable and pausable cutscenes, which deserves to be mentioned because it's awesome.


AND SO I JOURNEYED A FEW STEPS ONWARDS TO THE ESTERSAND.


Holy shit is that a Tyrannosaurus down there? I'm barely able to hold my own against these wolves right now, using up more potions than I've been finding or stealing from them, so I think I'll try to keep my distance from the king of dinosaurs for the time being.

This is what the game has in place of the traditional overworld by the way: a network of connected levels. Personally I'm fine with it, as they've given me the freedom to stretch my legs and perhaps stray further out than I should be going at this point in the game, which is all I really ask for.

The combat's still on the 'mostly automated' side, but overall this has definitely just taken a huge step up from my experience with Final Fantasy X as far as I'm concerned.

Hey, it's the Rogue Tomato! Aww, look at his little peg legs. Okay buddy, time to turn you into Rogue Ketchup!

And thus began the epic final battle between the street rat and the cute little tomato man... which played out entirely by itself while I watched.


EVENTUALLY.


What do I think? About your abs? I'm sorry man, but they're pretty weird looking. The characters in this all have an appealing painted style to their textures that kinda reminds me of the work of artist Hyung Tae Kim (you probably wouldn't have heard of him...) but I don't know what went wrong with those abdominal muscles.

Final Fantasy X (PS2)
Here's a shot from Final Fantasy X for comparison. It's definitely not ugly for its era, but I wouldn't recommend staring at it for an extended period of time. I'm not sure FF12 is putting more polygons on screen or doing anything cleverer with them, but it's definitely shows a bit more restraint with the art design.

Though not by too much... I mean, it's still got a girl with little wings on her back walking around like that's totally normal.

Anyway poor Vaan had a bit of hassle getting back inside the city after taking down the tomato and that, combined with the growing public support for their new imperial overlord, has driven him to take extreme measures. He's going to break into the occupied Royal Palace and steal some treasure! You know, to give it back to the people (he wants to buy an airship with it).

First though he needs a way inside the palace and that's where his old friend Old Dalan comes in. The guy actually has the key to get me in, but to use it I first need to charge it up with magic.

So here I am, going from glowing rock to glowing rock in the miserable empty Giza Plains trying to smack hyenas, avoid giant owls, and get this key charged.

Vaan's friend Penelo has kindly volunteered to join the team and she has brought with her knowledge of the all-powerful Gambit function. She didn't bring much knowledge though, just enough to let me turn the feature on. Basically so far all it means is that she joins in when I attack anything.

By the way, it may seem like I could just walk straight forward from here to reach my glowing yellow goal in the distance, but there's almost certainly an invisible wall blocking me and forcing me to travel through to a different area first. I'm having to navigate by the minimap here just to figure out where I'm allowed to go.

Final Fantasy XII Giza Plains map
Each region is like a little island connected to its neighbours by narrow exits and each of those exclamation marks is another glowing rock I need to visit. I'm getting the feeling this might take a while.

This strikes me as kind of a dumb quest to put at the beginning of the game, seeing as they've used their CGI budget to set up this epic story of royal marriages, wars between nations, traitorous soldiers and a city living under occupation, and it seemed like my backup protagonist was finally going to get involved with it... and then it's sent me out into the bloody desert looking at rocks instead.

It just feels like a pointless filler quest really.


WAY TOO LONG LATER.


Okay, well that's finally over with now. Penelo got bored of hanging out with me (and I don't blame her) so I'm on my own again. But my long exile out in the Giza Plains has given me time to think about how I can improve my combat performance, so I've come back to town to buy a bigger sword and maybe some healing magic.

Final Fantasy XII shop screen
Well the shop screen's pretty minimalistic, but I can buy and sell in bulk and it lets me know if a weapon is an improvement on what I already have, so I'm happy enough.

I sold a few wolf pelts etc. while I was here and this somehow unlocked the 'bazaar' option, where I found I was able to buy two potions for the price of one. And then the button disappeared as quickly as it arrived, its job done for the day.

They've brought back multiple equipment slots, so I can carry a sword, shield, helmet, armour and an accessory. But I can't just equip and use something I've bought straight away! Nope, that'd be stupid.

Before equipping a new weapon (plus magic, equipment and accessories for that matter) I have to go to my posh looking Licence Board and use my LP points (gained by killed enemies) to unlock the relevant tile. The catch is that I can only see and unlock tiles immediately adjacent to tiles I've already got, so I had no idea that unlocking the Poisona spell would get me access to the +50 HP tile (though I'm glad it did).

Now I'm tempted to go off and kill 20 something more enemies to get that as well.

Man, this really is a nice map. It even reminds me what I'm supposed to be doing next, which is awesome because I tend to drift off track and forget where I was meant to be going in these RPGs.

It's just a shame that getting around this bloody city takes so long. Those icons gathered around the middle right point to the shops, so they're all in one place at least, but to leave the city or save the game I have to travel through two areas with two exits.

It's a nice looking city for sure and I like how there's a good mix of different species living here, but having to walk through the same empty areas over and over each time I come and go is wearing down my interest.

And my interest is running on low right now after all that glowing stone business.

Aww look a the cute little moogle... is what I'm trying not to say to the guy's face right now. Not that I ever get to make dialogue choices; like all Final Fantasy protagonists Vaan has his own fixed personalty and opinions, and takes over from the player during conversations.

This building is the Clan Centurio Hall, which apparently has something to do with hunting monsters, though I'm not sure. I just wandered in here while looking for openable doors on the map. It's funny how the game gives so much attention to monster hunting so early, as I can imagine players getting bored of all that sun rock bullshit and going off to hunt instead for a bit. And then for a bit more. And then eventually they find they're massively overlevelled and the main questline holds no further challenge for them.

Anyway, to the secret palace entrance in the sewers!


SEWER LEVEL SCREENSHOTS REMOVED FOR YOUR BENEFIT.


I was worried I'd have to do a stealth sequence to sneak past the palace guards, but fortunately there's just a basic puzzle on this floor. Groups of guards stand blocking intersections, so I've got to go down one corridor, yell to bring them over, then run around them down another corridor to sneak behind them through the area they used to be guarding.

Hopefully not too many times though.


SOON, IN THE PALACE TREASURE ROOM.


Oh of course the only treasure Vaan decides to go after is a crystal. A glowing yellow crystal.

C'mon man, this isn't Indiana Jones, you're not going to wither away and die if you take the wrong item out of the room, fill your pockets! Take everything that isn't nailed down! Take something for fuck's sake!

Oh crap, it seems that we're not the only thief stalking the palace tonight. These two are like Han Solo and blonde bunny girl Chewbacca, a pair of sky pirates striding right into the plot like they own it, and they make it clear that they intend to take Vaan's new crystal for themselves.

The guy on the left is Balthier (played by Gideon Emery from Battlefield 3 and Dragon Age II) and he claims to be 'the leading man'. Which sounds awesome to me, because I've been waiting hours for one to show up.

Final Fantasy XII menu screen
Eventually events conspire to force the three thieves to make a temporary alliance to escape their current predicament, which means I'm stuck with Balthier and Fran for the time being. Drat.

Like Penelo, Balthier arrives with knowledge of Gambits, only he understands the system a whole lot better. In fact I even get a screen to edit the things now!

Alright, here's the mysterious Gambit system revealed at last.

Each character has a number of slots in which they can place a command and a target, which is then carried out automatically in battle. For instance 'Ally: HP < 70%' is triggered when one of the other characters in the party has less than 70% health, making Fran cast cure on that character next chance she gets. It's going to be a drain on her mana, but that recharges when I walk around so I'm not so bothered. ALSO DID I MENTION THAT MANA RECHARGES WHEN I WALK AROUND HOLY SHIT THAT IS AWESOME!

Uh, anyway if no one needs healing, Fran then looks at the next command on the list, which is at this point is set to 'put arrows into the enemy that I am currently attacking'.

The effect of this system is that my characters can react to increasingly complicated situations as I unlock new slots and program them with more advanced behaviour.

Which basically means that I don't even have to manually select enemies anymore. I don't have to do anything in combat anymore. I can just run around like an idiot and everything on screen should eventually die regardless.

I am now entirely superfluous.


EVENTUALLY, AFTER A BOSS FIGHT.


Huh, I'm fighting a second boss battle down here? This time it's Firemane the flaming horse (you can just about make him out over there on the left behind Balthier; he's the horse that's on fire). I have to say, this fight is definitely... giving me an opportunity to walk away from the controller and get something else done for five minutes.

Oh wait, hang on, Vaan's been poisoned! I'll have to switch between my characters, select him, and tell to cast the Poisona spell on himself next time his action bar is filled. Don't worry, I'll give him another Gambit slot soon and I can set that up to be automatic next time.

Sadly all good sewer levels have to eventually come to an end and this one ends with our heroes facing a firing squad. But I think I'm pushing the limits of how many screenshots I can get away with here, so I'll quit now.


Well this seems like a good spot for a conclusion, so I'll finish by briefly talking about what I really thought about Final Fantasy XII.

The game is kind of like Final Fantasy X's freaky mirror universe counterpart, which does everything exactly opposite.
  • FFX stuck me in tiny areas and didn't let me take three steps without dropping me into another bloody cutscene or battle, but the battle system was really good. FFXII on the other hand gave me a massive city and the surrounding area to run around in almost from the start and monster hunting sidequests to do, but the battle system seems to be a little... hands off. 
  • FFX seems to be focused on one athlete's personal issues, while FFXII appears to be about people caught in a huge political struggle.
  • FFX's art design and music typically feels like it belongs to the series. FFXII not so much (it's the first main FF game without an Nobuo Uematsu soundtrack).
  • FFX's world shuns technology, FFXII's world embraces its high-tech flying machines.
  • FFX's Sphere Grid starts off as a long linear line of upgrades obfuscated in a complex indecipherable squiggle. FFXII's Licence Board is plainly simple, yet lets you upgrade your character in any direction from the start.
  • FFX's lead character is an irritating teenager with a whiny voice, FFXII's lead character... uh, well I guess it's not always opposite.
The two games do have a lot in common as well, like looking like they cost a bloody fortune to make.

I think overall though, this one suits my tastes a lot more. An interesting story, likeable characters and a bit of freedom can inspire me to put up with tedious gameplay, while the best battle system in the world isn't going to make me put up with a game that seems to resent that it has to let the player steer every now and again. In fact I honestly want to keep playing this some more, so FFXII gets a shiny star.


Though of course all my opinions are based on the first few hours of gameplay and are therefore nearly worthless.

Well that's the end of my Final Fantasy posts, at least until the day a PS3 with a copy of Final Fantasy XIII included mysteriously appears at my door with a note saying "Suffer like I did" attached to the box. But you should totally leave comments on all the games that I did play, like this one for instance!

3 comments:

  1. I love how dramatic that "THE HUNT BEGINS" screen is considering you're chasing a tomato-headed midget.

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  2. That's actually a ROGUE tomato-headed midget, please don't attempt to diminish my epic struggle against this fearsome foe. Songs will be sung about this hunt, I assure you. Though they'll probably be singing that Balthier was the one who got him.

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  3. This is probably my favourite of the series, although I haven't played IX yet. I even liked the combat system but I do admit it feels a bit disconnected. The final boss is rubbish though.

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