There’s an unwritten law when it comes to reviewing RPGs. “Thou shalt not compare Japanese and Western variations on the genre.” Up to a point this makes sense, Japanese RPGs are very different from their western equivalents, prizing narrative flow and intricate combat strategy over freedom of choice and deep character development. All the same, it’s hard not to notice that while Western RPGs have spent the last few years creating a more streamlined, accessible experience, Japanese RPGs seem to have got stuck in a rut. The graphics have been getting prettier, the English translations and voicework have improved beyond all recognition, but the gameplay has stayed still, with the same turn-based battles, irritating random encounters and over-complex game mechanics that bothered many of us with Final Fantasy VII. The best games from Bioware, Obsidian and Bethesda have held onto what made the US RPG special while still finding hooks to grab a mainstream audience. Isn’t it time for a game that does the same for the Japanese experience?
Guess so, because Final Fantasy XII is it.
This is a game in which all the underlying mechanics of the genre have been comprehensively rebuilt. Let’s take that old bugbear – the random battle – for example. No longer are you wandering around in the game world when, from out of nowhere, you’re switched to the turn-based action view to find yourself in combat with four Vile Badgers (level 3). You can walk through the levels as you would in other games, look for hostile forces in the mini-map, and avoid them if you choose. When an enemy does spot you, a tracer-line shoots a graceful red arc from your foe to your character, and you can see exactly what the danger is and where it’s coming from. Target a foe yourself, and a blue arc links you to him. It’s simple. It’s visual. It works.
This is true of so many of FFXII’s gameplay and interface enhancements. Square-Enix has successfully bridged the old gap between gameplay and combat, giving you direct, hands-on control of your party leader, and leaving the rest of the work to a set of surprisingly clever and – more importantly – programmable AIs. Battle is no-longer turn based. In a system reminiscent of Bioware’s work on Knights of the Old Republic, you move your party leader in real time and pause the action to assign him targets.