I offer this advisory warning: the content of this post concerns a video game. If you predict your time will be wasted by continuing, then read no further. Otherwise, I’d like to tell you about Final Fantasy XII, the greatest video game ever.
Okay, so that’s a strong statement, and I may or may not have total conviction about it. But the point is that for the first time in many years, a new video game has actually forced me to reconsider my list of all-time favorites. Final Fantasy XII seems to be the culmination of every good idea that has ever been hatched about how to craft a sensational RPG. As someone who has played and beat every installment in the FF series (aside from the online FF XI), not to mention a bevy of other console RPGs, I feel at least somewhat qualified to crown FF XII the new king of the genre, its excellence readily apparent in the areas of story, art direction, battle system, and soundtrack.
The first thing I have to mention is the battle system, since it is both a radical departure from anything to which gamers are accustomed and yet a seemingly obvious evolution of the tried and true gameplay mechanics that have come before it. When I first heard of how much automation took place with the new system, I cringed. I didn’t want the battle system deprived of its strategy, which for me is a key aspect of the fun factor of any RPG. But when I bought the game, I decided to go “all in” with its pioneering concept of Gambits and resist my urge to slow the game down to its traditional pace. One impressive quality about FF XII is that it allows you play both ways, but clearly the game designers intend for you to get the most enjoyment from using Gambits—automated actions that are prioritized by you, the player. This system has just the right amount of complexity to make it accessible, but becomes even more enjoyable as you progress through the game. As you steadily compile a vast array of techniques, healing spells, status enhancing spells, and weapons, you are forced to rearrange your Gambits for maximum effectiveness. And when your party launches into battle, the fun is witnessing how well your Gambits translate into victory—and you can still interrupt the normal automated flow of battle at any time to enter a manual command. The battle system of FF XII truly is revolutionary and even causes me to have reservations about playing some of my old favorites, knowing I’d have to start entering each command manually again. And coupled with the impressive Gambit system is a challenge level that is nearly ideal. I would say I died about eight times during the game, and those demises were the legitimate result of a lack of refinement in my strategy. A couple of tweaks later, and my new set of Gambits were leading me to victory.
Since the battle system is the core of the game and the primary basis by which I judge any RPG, I will not delve into as much detail about Final Fantasy XII’s presentation, but it stands far above the competition in this area as well. The art direction is truly inspired, resulting in fascinating character designs and breathtaking locations. The textures and lighting are incredibly impressive for the PlayStation 2 and noticeably surpass the already high standards set by Final Fantasy X on the same system. The music is utterly gorgeous and perfectly complements the on-screen action at all times. Many of the creative team behind FF XII worked on Final Fantasy Tactics, another game with sterling art direction and and incredible soundtrack, so I approached FF XII with high expectations of its graphics and music, and the game surpassed those expectations demonstrably. The story in the game manages to be richly woven with political intrigue, yet remains more tightly unified than many RPGs. Because of the scope of many games in this genre, their plots too often lose focus, especially near the end. But FF XII stays on course, delivering a powerful end-game sequence without relying on contrived events to bail out any dangling plot threads. The mission is clear from the start: prevent war between two powerful nations and protect your own centrally located kingdom. FF XII never loses sight of that mission, even with the side quests that are inherent to any RPG.
For three weeks Final Fantasy XII kept me riveted (and even piqued the interest of my roommates from time to time), and I was a bit hesitant to see it come to an end, but I am thoroughly convinced I have just played something that will revolutionize the genre. I waited patiently for another modern RPG to supplant Star Ocean 3 as the best of this generation, but Final Fantasy XII goes for broke and dares to take its place alongside such legends of the genre as Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI and VII, Dragon Force, and Panzer Dragoon Saga. It has become the crown jewel of RPGs.