What do you get when you combine the director and musical composer of Vagrant Story with the budget and scope of Square’s flagship franchise? You get a polished, compelling mish-mash that possesses neither the clear intrigue and individual focus of VS nor the standard-setting gameplay and thematic overtones that came to define FF. But hot damn it looks good!

It’s possible FFXII was doomed for me from the beginning. Still bitter from the Final Fantasy that wasn’t (XI), the idea of setting the next game in the universe of a series spinoff, replacing the head job and composer, both new to the series and inferior to the original men, was just asking me to nit-pick the final product to death. Even so, despite an initially negative reaction and what I believe are some serious shortcomings, I came to enjoy it quite a bit.

There is a great deal that FFXII does right. Towering above all is the visual presentation, with level design and graphical complexity, prerendered and in-game, so breathtaking it makes you want to cry. It’s all the more impressive that such a visual feast is served through the seven year old PS2 hardware. If the game’s other aspects matched its exquisite vistas and mind-bending layouts, it would certainly be one of the greatest games of all time.

Musically, Final Fantasy has always been a standard. Although you can argue the quality of Uematsu’s work of late, even FFX, on which he only partially collaborated, had its share of standout pieces. Hitoshi Sakimoto helmed FFXII’s composition, and he did about as well as his previous works. That is to say, if you preferred the glissando strings and roaming harmonies of Vagrant Story, Breath of Fire V, or Final Fantasy Tactics to Uematsu’s simpler melodic structure, you won’t be disappointed in the least. But for those that can still hum the original FF theme, Prelude, or any of the myriad of character themes that have made the Final Fantasy series an aural powerhouse over the years, you may come away from his latest work as I did – pleased overall, but a bit disappointed. The quality of composition is high, but like many film scores, it’s just present, not memorable. This approach works for some games (and movies), but for a series that almost singlehandedly opened the door to game music as a subgenre, the change is almost too stark. All of that said, I did like the music, just in a different way.

Speaking of changes, by far the largest is the battle system, an ever-evolving piece of Final Fantasy. FFXII jettisons the old system almost entirely, including random battles, static positions, and even the need to individually instruct your party members. Instead it feels like a modified MMO control style, with a twist to allow you command over three party members. The Gambit system lets you preprogram orders for your characters for everything from whom and when to attack, to what status buffs to maintain. This makes combat almost automatic, and without much difficulty reduces the player to simply driving around auto-piloted killing machines (you can still enter commands manually, but you quicky get broken of that in all but special circumstances). There is a notable feeling of accomplishment from maintaining and tweaking your party’s gambits, but in trade for a large dose of passivity. In the end, it just wasn’t quite as fun or engaging as previous installments.

What really let me down was the most critical part of any RPG: its story. The political intrigue of the main über-plot was engrossing enough, if a little dry (Is the princess alive? Will she reclaim her throne? Will the Archadian Empire succeed in drawing Rosaria into a conflict by asserting its dominion over the Kingdom of Dalmasca?). But the main problem lies in piss poor character development. Most of the characters, including Vaan the aspiring sky pirate, Penelo the poor young wench, and Basch the dishonored soldier, get 99% of their development in their introduction, after which they mindlessly follow the party for the rest of the game. The only playable character to really have any depth is Ashe, and that’s primarily because the entire fucking game revolves around her!

Other games in the series have suffered the same problem to lesser degrees. Tifa didn’t have much point beyond breasts, and Zell was about as tag along as they come. But no other game in the series has done so little with its cast after setting them up. While the plot of FFXII itself is passable, the characters themselves are all just faceless retainers in Ashe’s entourage (oh, we find out Balthier has an interesting dad but it never becomes part of the story, and Fran has a segment where we find out the sexy rabbit Viera people are in bizarre tune with nature).

An excellent example of character development done right in a game with a medium-to-large cast is the last great (IMO) game of the series, Final Fantasy X. Every character has an arc, a journey they themselves go on. They may all be going with Yuna on her quest to defeat Sin, but they have their own stories as well. In XII, Vaan has no story – from the start he wants to become a sky pirate. That’s it. I won’t spoil whether he succeeds or not, but it’s the only thing we know of his character from beginning to end.

All this ranting makes the game sound bad… It’s not. It was a lot of fun, and a good story if you pretend it only really consists of one or two characters.

Score: 8.5 / 10

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