Friday, November 17, 2006

Start Digging some Nerd Holes

A Review of Final Fantasy XII

As many of you (actually, just EHastings) may know, the demo of Final Fantasy XII filled me with disgust and I swore I would never buy it. It did not, at first, seem like a game, it was more like one of those semi-interactive screensavers that were briefly popular in the 1990s (Castaway Jim?). Yet here I am, having just spent about ten hours playing it, and it’s really awfully good.

Online review sites have, as usual, been gushing about the top-notch plot and characters. They are, as usual, giving Square-Enix entirely too much credit. Here’s the basic sketch: a disaffected, spiky-haired orphan teams up with a quiet princess to fight a cruel, mechanically-inclined empire. Is this sounding familiar, O People of the Internet? Within the first half-hour of the game, the protagonist’s female best friend plants her hands on her hips and tells him to be careful, something that every female character in every Japanese RPG is required to do as often as possible (don't worry, she gets kidnapped just a little later). The princess, whose name is something like Ashleigh Starla Modeine IV, confines herself mostly to spluttering and saying things like “I’ll never surrender!” Thomas Pynchon, this ain’t. On the plus side, although the things the characters are saying are stupid, the localization is very good, like a pretty good fantasy novel. Lord Vayne, the effeminate, long-haired villain (sound familiar again?) actually makes a very interesting, rhetorically ornamented speech early on.

The characters themselves are shopworn wares from the FF series stock – a determined knight, a determined plucky lad, a determined female sidekick, a determined princess, and a sarcastic but nonetheless determined sky pirate. The highlight character is Fran (yes, her name is Fran), an oddly accented furry who is screwing Sky Pirate Balthier in what must be some extremely awkward and unsatisfying virtual grappling. She has a neat, kind of vaguely Bjorkian accent but is otherwise a standard FF weirdo elf rabbit creature thing.

So as usual the plot and characters should be ignored, but the game mechanics, OH DOCTOR are they good. Two radical changes improve the combat system: no random encounters (all the enemies are already on the map and you fight them without transitioning to a battle screen), and no controlling your characters. The Gambit system, which EHastings accurately described as an autistic programming language, means that you can set general tactics for your characters and then just watch them level grind for hours on end. Somehow, they made this really, really fun. This isn’t as big a revolution as you might initially think: famous old PC games like Baldur’s Gate did basically the same thing, as did the more recent (and vastly better-plotted) Knights of the Old Republic series. FFXII’s gambit system is nonetheless a big improvement on the automatic combat of these other titles: the gambits let you set, in detail, actions for most possible scenarios, and the simple, intuitive system is nonetheless very powerful. You can take just a few seconds to set a behavior like, “If any of your allies are injured, heal them, unless they’re really severely injured, in which case you should give them a potion, and if no enemies are around you should recharge your magic and then heal everyone.” Afterwards, you can experience a brief moment of reverse Schadenfreude when you realize how excited you got over programming the behavior of a virtual rabbit-woman archer.

Anyway, the trademark of Final Fantasy has always been the endless parade of tedious, enervating random battles, and they are gone from this version. What could have been boring (watching your cyberdudes fight) just makes the game feel fast-paced and constantly new. Fighting, say, fifty enemies in a row take about ten minutes, gives measurable rewards, and requires only periodic nudges. Everything else is pretty much standard: you have a standard level board instead of the monstrous “Sphere Grid” from Final Fantasy X, so if you want to customize all your characters in bizarre ways, you can. If only there were a way to turn off the repetitive, vulgar music score this would be perfect. Highly recommended.

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