What’s more, FFXII does a nice line in side-quests. The main pursuit this time is hunting. Every city has a bar with a notice board, and if you find the contact, take the job and kill the right monster in the right location, you can come back and collect the loot. There’s even a guild encountered early on that can give you special bounties to collect. It’s perhaps the clearest note that some ideas have been taken from the online-only FFXI, and as you need every Gil you can get for new gambits, spells and equipment, it actually makes a lot of sense.
This all hugely positive stuff, so why the slightly sulky eight at the top of the screen? Well, FFXII goes great guns on dragging Final Fantasy into the modern age of gaming, but it still doesn’t quite go far enough. I guess the problem is attention to gameplay detail. At times, the pacing is hideously off. Some dungeons are a tedious slog of endless corridors and countless minor monsters, and at its worst the game can actually be a bore. In some places the designers have clumsily thrown in potentially fatal encounters at the very end of a particularly tiresome twenty-minute stretch, and they’ve done so without putting in a save point first. “Fine”, you might say, “that’s always been the Final Fantasy way”. But when the team has gone to so much effort to make FFXII so much more enjoyable in every other respect, isn’t it a shame that chunks of the game leave you wishing you were doing something else? It would also have been nice to see some summonings – here called Espers – a bit earlier in the game. They’ve always been one of the best parts of the series, so why make us wait so long?
So there you have it: Final Fantasy XII is nearly a genre reinvention of Resident Evil 4 proportions, but in the end it doesn’t quite make the masterpiece grade. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not the finest Japanese RPG I’ve played in years. Nor does it mean it’s not a must for those who’ve stuck with the series since its SNES days and those who left it behind after FFVIII. In other words, it’s an essential purchase for anyone with even a casual interest in Japanese RPGs, and – while not perfect – a great base on which this glorious series can build its future.
While the pacing flags from time to time, this is the most enjoyable and accessible Japanese RPG in ages, and an important turning point not just for Final Fantasy, but the genre as a whole.