Thursday, March 22, 2007

Final Fantasy XII

Just because it's enjoyable doesn't mean it's good. Take, for example, heroin.

That's the thought that's been going through my mind over the last eighty hours of gaming as I've worked by way through approximately the first three quarters of Final Fantasy XII. It's addictive like a drug, but the thin veneer of reward schedule ends up covering up the fact that the game is wholly artistically sterile.

The visuals are not aesthetically compelling. The story is not well told. The gameplay is neither innovative nor deep. Skill and intelligence are not rewarded, nor are curiosity and experimentation greatly encouraged. The music is derivative, the details are uninspiring, and the overall pacing is poor. But boy howdy, you can level up.

I absolutely loved Vagrant Story. It is a gem among games and if you have not yet experienced it you should immediately get yourself a copy. I say this because the FFXII team are by and large the same individuals who worked their magic on Vagrant Story, and it shows. Not only is the art style similar, but there are constant references and allusions to that earlier game throughout the gameplay and naming schemes of FFXII. Unfortunately most of what made Vagrant Story good was top-notch storytelling, a unique tone and mood, a commitment to pushing the technical limitations of its platform, and gameplay which wasn't afraid to experiment (occasionally unsuccessfully).

FFXII makes a decent pass at experimental gameplay. I mean, at some stage in the development, someone tried. It just didn't make it into the final game. There's the much lauded "gambit system", which ostensibly lets you program the artificial intelligence of your characters is shallow. This mostly devolves to allowing your characters to intelligently target enemies and automatically heal themselves. There's really no strategy or depth involved and the large part of the game designed to support it feels increasingly irrelevant the further in you go.

The other half of the FFXII gameplay equation is the Licence Board. This is a large chessboard-like interface wherein you can spend "licence points" to buy the skills necessary to use certain weapons, armour, spells and skills. The catch is that having the licence isn't all you'll need - you're still required to actually find or buy the relevant weapon, spell or suchlike. It functions a little like the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, but where that system was dynamic, tactical and rewarding, the Licence Board just ends up feeling largely redundant, as you'll spend an awful lot of time buying skills for items you don't yet have. The fact that you'll probably buy every licence long before completing the game doesn't help much either.

The game purports to tell a story, which isn't by any means awful, but it's poorly told. It draws strongly from genre classics like Star Wars and Dune, yet fails to really tap into the qualities which made those titles good. The player is introduced to a plethora of named characters, yet few are characterised. Too often important events are resolved by third parties. The majority of the protagonists, including Vaan (ostensibly the lead character), spend most of the plot with no obvious personal stake in the proceedings. Throughout the game narrative is presented through poorly written text, which appears in a particularly unattractive font. The direction and cinematography are uninspiring, both in the cutscenes and the normal gameplay, and it's more than a little difficult to care about the story in any fashion whatsoever.

All of these faults are more or less covered up by the game's reward system. The player is constantly presented with a plethora of achievable mini-goals, ranging from hunting certain powerful monsters, to seeking out "rare game", to working your way through the usual assortment of sidequests. At any given point, you'll be keeping a mental list of sub-goals as long as your arm. Most goals can be completed in less than an hour of game time, and yield a tangible reward on completion, along with satisfying audio and visual fanfares. Plus, you'll be churning your way through that licence board, in addition to collecting loot (which now visibly drops from killed monsters and requires you to move over it to pick it up). The whole experience tickles that poker-machine nerve in just the right place and assists in drawing out what is essentially twenty to thirty hours of content into a 130 hour monstrosity.

So my point is: you'll like it. You will. It's good. You won't feel cheated out of your money and you'll play it all the way to the end. But if this is the way we're going to make A-list games, then we're in for a sad and unfulfilling future. We can reach further than the instinct to pull the poker machine lever - we can reach for the heart, and the mind, and the soul. We can, and we should.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Hey Vaan, can I ask ou something?"

(pause)

"Yeah Penelo, what's up?"

(pause)

"You know how we have voice acting?"

(pause)

"Yeah, we do. What about it?"

(pause)

"Well, how come after every sentence we pause for a second as if we're taking a moment to think about the next thing we're going to say?"

(pause)

"Hmm. Good question. You know, our voices are recorded separately."

(pause)

"True, but Square-Enix once did Advent Children, and the dialogue in that one flowed just like how real people speak."

(pause)

"Yeah, I guess you're right. We do have a lot of unnatural gaps in our speech, don't we? Oh well, that's all right. Voice acting in RPGs is so piss awful that we're going to be declared to have the best voice acting the world has ever seen just because people aren't shutting off the sound. Don't worry. Nobody's going to notice until that Xantar bloke complains."

Anonymous said...

Not aesthetically compelling? I think FFXII looks as good as any FF ever has (comparing to FFX of course). The more populous town sections and elimination of random battles gives Avalice much more authenticity as a world. The music as well is pretty top-notch - I've got the complete soundtrack to X and really, it's a just a different beast.

Where FFXII falls down is the poor character design and realisation. The storyline is convoluted even in its simplest form. Don't get me wrong, I was never really sure what Yu Yevon did to the Fayth a thousand years ago, blah blah, real world, dreams, *head hurts* But at least you knew at every turn why Tidus needed to keep going, why he cared for his party, etc.

I've loved FFXII but mostly because of the clan hunts. I loved this in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance as well. The only time I continue with the main story is when I've exhausted all the hunts (!!) I could care less about The Feywood, Eruyt Village et al but don't bother.

I don't agree with you on all points here... but yes, the Licence Board sux, magic and technics are not refined (where's Watera and Waterga?? GAH?) and the characters are pretty at best. Whoever decided to put Vaan in a fay little vest needs a rochambeau...

I'll always get chills when I think about the beautiful moments in FFX. FFXII leaves me sated but a little bored.

An awesome tech demo then?
Auron and Kimahri 4EVA.

GregT said...

The clan hunts were fun, though I gave up on the last six or so in order to finish the game before I lost interest.

I don't agree with you about the music. It's well performed by the orchestra but it's completely derivative of a half-dozen epic film scores. I'm unlikely to be humming that one in my head in anticipation of the next game the way I do with the soundtracks to Halo, Metal Gear Solid and Kingdom Hearts.

The game as a whole felt as if it were a little rushed; as though they'd prioritised graphics and enemies and then not left themselves enough time to tune the gambit and license boards and playtest the last few dungeons.

I'd still recommend it over the majority of computer RPGs hitting the market, though.