When Hironobu Sakaguchi left Square, he left an authorial void for the “Final Fantasy” series. Though he had relinquished his place as director many years before, he had assured a coherent evolution of the work through his mentoring as Executive Producer. When he left, his vision was naturally discontinued. While some might see this departure as the dire end of the “Final Fantasy” brand, it was a necessary evil for the series to move on. In the nineties, the name “Final Fantasy” was a synonym for new audacious ventures and the enlightened exploration of the boundaries of both video-games in general and role-playing games in specific, but since then the series had become enthralled in its mentor’s vision. What was once a guiding beacon had become a blinding beam of light. Change was needed. Enters Yasumi Matsuno [which I’ve already discussed briefly in this article], author behind “Final Fantasy Tactics” and “Vagrant Story”. Charged with the directing of “Final Fantasy XII”, Matsuno seems to have wanted to impose his unique take on the genre; the change that would ensue from his ego’s imposition on the series cannon would lead to some dissent from the more fervorous fans. But change bares its prices, and one cannot explore new landscapes without leaving the common and familiar settings which we grew accustomed to.
The game’s backdrop is Ivalice; at first glance it is not that much unlike the worlds from previous “Final Fantasies”: its blend of science-fiction and high fantasy is very similar to its predecessors and the aesthetic follows many traditional tropes for the series (moogles, chocobos, spunky haired heroes, flashy colors and wardrobe, etc). But when probed deeper, it reveals some staggering changes in tone. Visually, the influence from Hiroshi Minagawa’s (art director and co-director) style is prevalent, with his use of earthy tones and eastern motif’s dominating the landscape. All of the game’s art builds these cohesive images in your mind, from the Archade’s art-deco meets Babylon’s hanging gardens, to Dalmasca’s middle eastern vibe, with its crowded streets, bustling street markets and sprawling deserts. Ivalice has that unique quality that good fantasy pieces tend to possess: it’s dreamy and magical, but it bares a cohesiveness and wealth of detail that we come to associate with the real world. Character design and soundtrack are also a departure for the series following the style of Matsuno’s previous games: Akihiko Yoshida took Nomura’s place in translating Amano’s paintings into each character, and Uematsu’s intimate and delicate compositions were replaced by Hitoshi Sakimoto’s and Masaharu Iwata’s more orchestral, opulent music styles.
The game’s narrative themes also clash with “Final Fantasy” tradition, being more akin to a Shakespeare play than the typical high fantasy cliches that overrun the genre. Sakaguchi’s bed-time naivete is avoided, paving way for a medieval drama that deals with corruption, moral ambiguities and the troubles of monarchic and autocratic states, with royal family intrigue, the constant back-stabbing of political figures and the waging of a war serving as the forefront for the action. However, despite the well penned background (by Miwa Shoda and Daisuke Watanabe) and the enticing narrative structure, there’s a constant influence from “Star Wars” in many of the story’s motifs. From the presence of a sky-pirate and his furry sidekick, to the main character being a princess whose kingdom was conquered by an evil empire, not to mention the operatic climax, a battle being waged with many “star-ships” and “battle cruisers” (directed in similar fashion to recent “Star Wars” episodes), the references are simply too prevalent to discard as coincidence. This influence is ill-fated, as it creeps its way into the aesthetic background, and doing so, breaks away the consistency of the world which bares little relationship with Lucas’ universe.
The biggest change in “XII” however, comes from where it was most needed: game-play. Turn based battle systems were starting to accuse their age, and perhaps more importantly, their constant lack of innovation. Despite all the good that previous “Final Fantasies” had introduced to make action more dynamic, tactical and well paced, none comes close with the revolution brought about by this twelfth iteration. Firstly, its MMORPG inspired battle system is seamless, featuring no awkward transition from exploration to battle, in essence making the world feel less fragmented. And because battles apparently run in real time, it makes them swifter, more frantic and engaging. In all fairness, it is still a turn battle system running underneath: you can still pause the game at any time, giving orders for each ensuing turn and characters only act when their ATB bar is filled. But the pacing is so fast, that actions really feel like they’re being executed in real time. More so, you can move your characters in real time, making the illusion more consistent and adding depth to tactical placement of characters.
The problem when moving turn based battle systems into real time, comes from the fact that battles become too fast paced to leave space for tactical thinking and strategy planning. And this is where the game strikes a chord of genius, by introducing a customizable AI system named ‘Gambit’. It’s basically an interface to control each character’s AI, based on an “If Event_A happens then do Action_B” kind of logic. It gives you the power to accurately determine each character’s behavior in combat facing various situations and outcomes, thus allowing for a near infinite number of tactical choices. By combining speed with tactical thinking, the game gives you the perfect battle system – one that never feels old. Battles become fast and smooth and grinding becomes fun instead of a chore. It’s simple, elegant and above all, incredibly entertaining; without a shadow of a doubt, the best “Final Fantasy” battle system since “VII”. In fact, game-play in “XII” is so good that its only flaw is that it becomes a huge driving focus of the game, over-shadowing narrative, which ultimately ends up developing slower than would be normal for a “Final Fantasy”.
“Final Fantasy XII” maintains all of the important qualities of the series, but in all of its expressive dimensions, there’s something new and fresh to it. It’s a game that tries to break free from the stylistic notions that ruled its predecessors, and that is in my opinion, its greatest accomplishment. If anything, Matsuno’s greatest failing in “Final Fantasy XII” is that he was not able to completely cut away Sakaguchi’s legacy. At times, the game does feel contrived and bounded by certain classic “Final Fantasy” precepts and whether that is due to Matsuno’s premature departure from the project (for health reasons) or for the known friction between the staff’s different teams, remains unknown. Despite the fact, what we’re left with is an a new adventure that revolutionizes what the name “Final Fantasy” stands for. Matsuno took a huge risk to brave new skies, challenging the genre’s preconceptions and venturing where few had dared to. And that is Final fantasy’s true spirit: to lead the RPG genre into new horizons. It just took Matsuno-san to break away from the past and actually do it.
[Thanks to Rheinmetall for asking for this review. It’s a bit more traditional than I usually come up with, but I hope you enjoy it.]