My verdict? It's good, if you like that sort of thing, which I do.
In terms of story - more details below in spoilerland, but while the story was good, I'd have to put it below my top 3 FF games - VI, VII, and X. Honestly, part of this is probably due to the way things start to blur together for me when a franchise has been going for this long. Haven't we already seen these plot elements before? That being said, there are still some unique thematic things they do here which keeps it interesting.
Apart from the story, I'd have to say that the world they've created here is one of their best. They have some advantages here - by returning to Ivalice, rather than starting from scratch, there is already some weight behind this planet. Even if we didn't have Tactics, though, this would stand as one of the best FF worlds ever, due to its full realization of cultures, history, and politics. You spend a surprisingly long time at the beginning of the game in a single city, and it feels more overwhelming than limiting: the hum of the bazaar, the twisty streets and labyrinthine underground, everything feels very lived-in and hints at more to find. And more you do - as you move between cities, you find that each has its own unique dialect, different accents, concerns, and relations to one another. I think we've permanently moved beyond the days when cities in RPGs are only differentiated by their name and merchant goods.
FFXII's gameplay is probably its single most controversial aspect. Personally, after getting used to it, I came to love it, and can confidently say that, minute by minute, I enjoyed playing this game more than any other entry in the franchise. As you've probably heard by now, FFXII works around a system of "Gambits", which are equivalent to the macros people use in online RPGs. What this means in practice is that, rather than pressing "Attack" dozens of times in a fight, you can instead instruct your characters what they should be doing - "Raise anyone who has died, then make sure that everyone has at least 70% of their health. Then, find the nearest enemy and start attacking them." By papering over the routine actions that dominate 90% of combat, the game frees you from minute tactical concerns and lets you focus on strategic considerations. "Can I win this fight? Is it worth using a Megalixer? When should I unleash my Mist attack?"
This is an imperfect analogy, but one that's fresh in my mind since Gary Gygax died: I'm reminded of what the Baldur's Gates games did to the D&D ruleset. I loved how those games honored all the details and intricacies of the system, yet did not force the player to roll virtual dice every time they wanted to swing a sword. Being a geek, I enjoyed peeking at the console to see how my 3D6 damage was being dealt, but when I was fighting a horde of Mindflayers I had more important things to think about. Both Baldur's Gate and FFXII understand that game mechanics are only fun if they support the game, and are not fun in and of themselves.
Oh, and the graphics are stunning. That seems to go without saying... Square has always been a genius at extracting more from their console than any other developer.
My biggest complaint with the game is actually with myself: it is addictive as heck. All FF games have offered two styles of play: you can try to beat the game, or you can try to beat everything in the game. Especially since FFVII, Square has included hidden monsters and quests that are far more difficult than the actual end boss. The final boss of VII is hard, but Ruby Weapon is much more difficult; beating the game takes a while, but taking the steps to get every character and every summon takes even longer.
Mentally, I've tended to group FF players into two groups. First are the "regular" players, like myself... I don't want to say "casual", because they will still be spending several dozen hours playing a vast and complicated game, but their interest lies in beating the game. In the other corner are "obsessive" players, ones who strive for 100% completion. They'll end up investing an order of magnitude more time into the game, will level all their characters up to 99, get the ultimate weapons, and unlock everything the game has to offer.
I've shunned the second path for two reasons. First, it doesn't seem very fun. Completing the game yields a high ratio of story to gameplay; you are, in essence, investing the minimum time to get the maximum cut scenes, cool boss battles, and new worlds. Fighting for hundreds of hours to get 100% dramatically lowers that ratio - yes, you unlock some more cool stuff, but at a far higher cost. The fleeting achievement of, say, getting a golden Chocobo just doesn't provide me sufficient fun to justify the grinding it took to get it.
The second reason is more pragmatic: I seem to always have more games that I want to play than time to play them. In the time it would take to get 100% in a FF, I could beat two other RPGs, or a dozen normal games. I like Final Fantasy, but I also love Baldur's Gate, Ultima, and the Elder Scrolls... I'm not about to sacrifice the latter to squeeze everything I can from the former.
Anyways, that's been my objection. What's insidious about FFXII, though, is that it provides a very slippery slope for people in the first camp - regular gamers - to fall into the second camp - obsessive players. In the past, there have been pretty solid barriers between the two. If you want to fight Ruby Weapon, you can, but there's nothing that really prepares you for it, other than repeatedly fighting ordinary enemies. FFX moves us closer to the slope - by capturing monsters, which was rather easy, you could then create super-monsters, who required a lot of work to defeat. FFXII, on the other hand, has a really fun set of side quests called "Hunts". You know how boss battles are way more fun than normal battles? Well, a Hunt is an optional unique boss battle, and there are over 40 of them. Very often, a Hunt will take place along a route that you are traveling anyways. You'll do a cool fight, which often has a slight puzzle element, and be rewarded with gil and unique items or weapons that directly help you later in the game. Why would you not want to do it?
Before long, I found myself with a few dozen Hunts completed. At this point I started to dream. I knew that I would not want to do everything in the game - there were some side quests that I was adamantly avoiding - but Hunts were fun, I was well on my way, and wouldn't it be nice to get 100% on at least SOMETHING? So, as I approached the end of the game, I started to get more serious about hunts, accepting ones that were off the beaten path, often traveling for miles to chase down an obscure clue, before engaging in a fight that was taking increasingly long to finish.
I eventually realized that I was spending twenty minutes or more just to find a monster, which in some cases would only appear randomly. The actual battles were uneven - by the end of the game I was dispatching some of then in just a few blows, while other fights could stretch on for half an hour or more. The rewards were getting better, but I was getting to the point where my characters were powerful enough that they didn't have much use for the latest rewards.
Eventually, I got all the way to completing 42 hunts. There were two left on my list, and I could not for the life of me find either of them. I broke down and checked Gamefaqs. As I read what I would need to do to defeat those final two, my jaw dropped. When I read what new mission I could undertake after defeating them, I felt sick to my stomach. This wasn't a game! This was... a job! And I already have one of those!
So, regretfully and with a bit of pique, I grounded the game for a week or so, before picking it back up. On the bright side, I was now so powerful that the endgame was almost absurdly easy. All that time chasing down hunts had buffed my characters to extreme levels, and unlike earlier FF final battles which were often nail-biting affairs, this one was a breeze, easier than a few of the optional boss battles I had taken. Best of all, it was packed thick with amazing scenes, nifty revelations, and stunning imagery. That's what I play Final Fantasy for.
Gameplay aside, let's return to the story. Be forewarned that you are in the land of
*** MINI SPOILERS ***
I said earlier that FFXII's plot is reminiscent of earlier games. That isn't entirely fair. One pretty cool thing they do is set you as a character in an occupied country.
The pre-game story describes a proud but weak independent kingdom that is defeated by a powerful empire. This sort of thing happens all the time in RPGs, but what's new is living in the aftermath. The game's protagonist is a young boy who is growing up in an occupied land, filled with tales and dreams of an independent Dalmasca, but chafing under the presence of Arcadia. Their loud, boorish soldiers clank up and down the streets, rudely demand service in the bars, and in dozens of petty ways make the lives of Rabanastrans miserable.
There are all sorts of parallels one can draw to the real world, where occupation has been a hot topic for most of the past century. The immediately obvious connection is with Iraq. In both cases, a vastly superior military power invaded and defeated a sovereign state, then installs a consul who speaks grandly about peace and progress. In the real world, the US was "good" and Iraq "bad," but I can't imagine the average Iraqi civilian in the street being overjoyed whenever they see an American Hummer roar by their house. What I often found myself thinking of more often, though, was Japan in the post-WWII era. This has to be an extremely important event for the Japanese psyche, and it's kind of surprising that this political situation isn't depicted more often in games. It may be that the scenario is too raw for many Japanese, and too foreign for many Americans.
One interesting aspect of the game is how there are both species and nationalities, but the two are separate distinctions. There are Rabanastran Bangaa, Rhujerban Bangaa, and Archadean Bangaa. They all look similar (at least to my species-ist eyes), but hold their allegiance to their home country. It's an interesting dynamic. Unlike, say, Ultima VI, I can't really tell if the creators are trying to say anything significant about race, but at the least it's a different experience.
*** MEGA SPOILERS ***
A lot of familiar Final Fantasy themes are here - loyalty, cleverness, purity - and to be honest, much of it just washes over me. There is a religious angle which is kind of interesting. This world has several gods, but they are not omnipotent. One of the most interesting characters is Cid, a brilliant researcher who seeks to divorce the race of humanity from the gods, charting a new course free of their oppression. Much like His Dark Materials, the game could be seen as making an anti-theist statement rather than an a-theist one... except that the people opposing the gods are bad. Honestly, I did feel some sympathy for Cid's quest... although I don't necessarily agree with his aims, and certainly not his methods, there is something quite admirable about his striving. In some ways it is the parallel to Ashe's virtuous goal: while she seeks to politically free Dalmasca from Archades' control, Cid seeks to free all humanity from the gods' control. Why is her struggle good and his bad?
Finally, let's close out with the box!
- Favorite Weapon: Masamune, of course.
- Favorite Cant: "bhadra".
- Favorite Villain: Cid
- Favorite Hunt (Battle): Behemoth King
- Favorite Hunt (Story): Gilgamesh
- Favorite Character: By the end it was Balthier, but for most of the time it was Ashe.
- Least Favorite Character: Vaan. I didn't like Penelo much at first, but she grew on me.
- Favorite Ally: Reddas.
- Favorite NPC: Marquis Ondore's story is the most interesting.
- Favorite Esper: None! I hated all these battles. Well, the death one was pretty good, I guess. I didn't even bother to learn these licenses after the first few.
- Favorite City: They're all really good! Rabanastre is the most fully developed one. Balfonheim has the best stuff. Bhujerba is the prettiest. Archades is really cool, especially for its stark depiction of social striving and class, but is surprisingly annoying to get around in.
- Favorite Dungeon: The one that isn't a mine. Barenheim Passage, I think?
- Favorite Spell: I was so happy when I finally got Curaja. The coolest ones are ones that I almost never cast - Reverse, one or two more.
- Favorite Technique: The only one I regularly used was Steal. I did Poach for HOURS and HOURS before I realized that poaching an enemy didn't yield any XP. Dark you, Square! Telekinesis would have been really cool, but I could never find where it was. Most hunts and bosses are immune to the techniques that would be useful.
- Favorite Theme: The music was really catchy in this game! Hard to pick... maybe the Deadlands music.