Live with Regis & Vaan

Character design by Yoshitaka Amano and Mark FoleyFinal Fantasy XII is a great game. It took me about eight hours to come to that conclusion, because I didn’t like it much at first, and it takes a long time to get going.

I wasn’t jumping up and down to get into another long RPG, but I ran into my friend Frank on the flight down to Burbank, and he recommended it. I had some time to kill before my flight left, so I went by and picked up a copy. And sitting inside with a videogame seemed to be the best way to guard myself against party-goers and trick-or-treaters on Halloween night.

There’s a lot going against it to start. It’s got the beautiful but interminable cut-scenes that are a Final Fantasy standard by this point, and you begin with just about the driest exposition possible of countries at war. After at least an hour of cut-scenes and training, you’re given your main character, Kelly Ripa (pictured). For some reason, they’ve given her a male voice. The battle system is different, and most of the familiar elements like scene transitions and end-battle victory music are missing, so you can’t get nostalgic. And the biggest insult of all: you start out fighting rats.

Gradually they trickle out additional characters, and familiar things like crystals and the power of the earth and giant dark conspiracies with androgynous leaders and it starts to feel like a Final Fantasy game is about to happen. But with it they introduce the new “gambit” battle system, which means they’ve finally removed that last pesky bit of interactivity from FFX and have finally released a game that can play itself.

But gradually, over the next few hours, it all starts to pull together. When it finally coalesces into sky pirates on hover bikes being shot at by giant airships during a daring escape from a palace culminating in a boss fight against a giant horse made of flame and you win just at the last minute and you finally see the camera pan across your party and get the familiar victory music, that’s when you sit back and think, “Okay, this is pretty bad-ass.”

It’s a really impressive production. Even more than the usual standard for the series; these things take years to produce and have budgets on the scale of small countries. But usually the result is visually stunning but overwhelmingly Japanese — technically unparalleled but completely foreign and indecipherable, with hundreds of neat things that get drowned in all the visual overload. This one, once you get past the overly complicated political intrigue, is an accessible and compelling story.

There’s a definite Star Wars influence. Other games in the series have made reference to the movies, but this is more direct, what with its story about a sky pirate and an orphan going onto a giant ship to rescue a princess who’s leader of a rebellion against an evil empire. But even though it’s the most blatant, it’s so well told — the art is phenomenal, the world-building is perfectly done, the voice performances are solid, and the characters are genuinely interesting — that it never feels like a rip-off. And the familiar Final Fantasy elements, when they appear, are so well-done that they don’t get overwhelmed by all the other stuff going on (the bombs just look cool).

What surprised and impressed me most is that “gambit” system, where you don’t control all of your characters directly but instead set up their AI to perform actions during combat. It was pretty ballsy of them to include it, because it sounds like a horrible idea; it takes away the last bit of control from the player and plays itself. In practice, though, it’s just what these games need. There’s nothing compelling about choosing “Attack” over and over again from a menu. The only interesting part of most console RPG combat is when you could figure out a great tactical combination and pull it off.

The system in FF XII automates all the tedium while still giving you the level of control that’s interesting. And even more surprising is that both the boss fights and all the easy level-grinding fights up to that point are made more exciting as a result. The only thing that would’ve made the gambits system better is if they’d included pre-generated versions for different character classes, like healers and black mages.

Overall, I get the feeling that this is finally the successor to Final Fantasy Tactics (which, I remind everybody, is the best videogame ever made). Even though it uses a different battle system, and it’s set in the same world only in name, it feels even more like the original game than FF Tactics Advance did. It borrows the best elements from Advance (the hunt side-quests, the new character races, the judges), ditches the stuff that sucked (the cards and rule system, the lack of focus, the cheesy child-sucked-from-the-real-world storyline), and keeps the best from the original (the general setting and European feel, the epic scope, the variety of character creation, and the odd-ball combinations like Lancer-ninjas and Calculator-green-mages).

And of course, the writing and translation are the best yet for the series, and there’s a level of polish in everything from the transportation system to the bestiary (which is, for the first time ever in one of these games, interesting on its own). I do wish there were more variety in the main characters — so far I miss the black mages, and the weird specialized characters like moogles and Red XIII, but you can’t have everything.

So far, I’m loving it. Now I just need five or six extra hours each day to get everything done and have time to play a videogame.