Changing the rules of the series, Square Enix's new fantasy promises to be the true next-generation Final Fantasy players have been expecting for years.
This could be more than enough to let him enter the pantheon of the gaming gods, but this man - who created many of the most beautiful games of the latest years - is also the producer of the Final Fantasy game that could finally rewrite the rules of the most successful console RPG series. After the wonderful Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, and my personal favorite chapter, Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy X, despite its enormous worldwide commercial success, showed clear signs that the series needs to reinvent itself, if it wants to live up to its name and fame. From what we have seen so far, Final Fantasy XII promises to be something truly new for the franchise, at the same time remaining into the tradition built by Square across its many projects.
New game, many influences.
Many great talents that already worked on Square's past projects accompany Matsuno in the development of Final Fantasy XII: character designer Akihiko Yoshida (Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics), art director Hideo Minaba (Final Fantasy Tactics), background art designer Isamu Kamikokuryou (Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy X) and music composers Hitoshi Sakimoto (Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics) and the legendary Nobuo Uematsu. Overall, an army of more than 120 people is currently working on Final Fantasy XII.
Most of the key talents of the development team already worked with Matsuno on at least one game in the past. Also for this reason, Final Fantasy XII features many elements from Final Fantasy Tactics (world, races, secondary characteristics of the battle system) but also from Vagrant Story. For example, from the early artworks of the game, it was impossible to not notice that Vaan had been created by the same talented, elegant character designer that worked on Vagrant Story, Akihiko Yoshida. Anyhow, the character design seems to draw inspiration also from the less elegant and more flamboyant style of the latest works by Testuya Nomura, at least for the character of Ashe, close in "style" to the sexy, half-naked heroines of Final Fantasy X-2.
Final Fantasy XII is set in the world of Ivalice, the same of Matsuno's Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Anyhow, Final Fantasy XII is not connected to Final Fantasy Advance, also because the two games take place in two completely different timeframes in the history of Ivalice. The same races seen in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance are present in Final Fantasy XII. Humans, Moogles, Bangaa (a race of lizard men), and the Viera (a sexy female race with long rabbit ears; Fran, one of the main characters of Final Fantasy XII, is a Viera).
The two most powerful kingdoms of Ivalice, Archadia and Rosaria, have been fighting each other for a long time. The small kingdom of Dalmasca, located in a strategically relevant position between the two major kingdoms, is invaded by the ruthless Archadian forces, and the king is killed. The king's only daughter, the young princess Ashe, decides to defend her land, creating a rebel group to fight back the invader.
Like in any other Final Fantasy game, the story is focused on a party of heroes, each of them with his or her unique dreams, story, and reasons to fight. The main male hero, Vaan, is a romantic figure reminiscent of Final Fantasy IX's Zidane. Vaan is a young man - introduced as a street urchin in the game - who has lost his brother, his last surviving family member, during the attacks of the Archadians. But the tragedy didn't change Vaan's cheerful attitude towards life - his only dream is becoming a pirate, owning and airship, and then leave the kingdom of Dalmasca. Vaan will be the true key character of the game, like Squall in Final Fantasy VIII; according to Matsuno, the whole game can be seen as the story of boy growing up to become a man. Penelo, Vaan's closest friend, also lost her parents during the war against the Archadians, but she managed to survive and become a strong young woman. She owns a bazaar, but she's also a great singer and a talented dancer, expert in a dance similar in its movements to martial arts.
Pirates fly in the skies of Ivalice aboard their airships, so the two other characters are a couple of pirates named Fran and Balthier. Fran, a woman of the Viera race, is a skilled archer, but she is proficient in using almost any kind of weapon. Balthier is an expert gunman. Balthier and Fran fly on board of their airship in the skies of Ivalice, and they seem to prefer to avoid as much as possible any involvement in the war between the kingdoms of Ivalice.
Basch, the most controversial character introduced in the trailers and the playable demo of the game at the E3, is a 36-year-old knight, former general of Dalmasca. Basch discovered that the King of Dalamasca had sold his people to the Archadian Empire in exchange of his safety, so he killed him and he also killed Reks, Vann's older brother.
The game begins with the first encounter between Vaan and Ashe. Vann, who sees the Empire as a hated enemy for what it has done to his family, decides to enter the palace of the Archadian consul in Rabanastre, Dalmasca's Royal City, to steal some of the consul's precious treasures. But once inside, Vaan is caught in the middle of an assault led by a group of rebel soldiers against the Archadian Empire. Among the members of the resistance, Vaan sees the only remaining heir to the Dalmascan throne, the Princess Ashe.
We don't know much about the villains of Final Fantasy XII. Anyhow, we know that the menacing figure in the wonderful logo of the game created by Yoshitaka Amano is a judge: those who played Final Fantasy Tactics will remember these characters. Anyhow, while in Final Fantasy Tactics judges were law enforcers used in the game's Judgment System, in Final Fantasy XII they will be the main antagonists of the heroes of the game. Judges of death and terror, according to Matsuno, for a game that seems to be dark in tone despite the beautiful Mediterranean colors of Ivalice.
Final Fantasy XII marks the introduction of a new battle system for the series. Anybody who has played past Final Fantasy games knows how heavily the series is based on random battles. Random battles are an easy way to let the players gain experience points (or sphere levels, in Final Fantasy X) and level up their characters. But, honestly, there are few gameplay mechanics as instinctively irritating as being unable to see an enemy on the screen before a battle; avoiding battles becomes impossible, and one feels constantly the urge of running through beautiful landscapes in an effort to avoid random battles - an unconscious and sometimes unjustified reaction, since in many portions of random battle based RPGs battles are triggered when you pass over predefined spots in the level.
While you still necessarily have to fight hundreds of battles, in Final Fantasy XII you can see your enemies on screen before a battle, so you usually can avoid them if you want to. Final Fantasy XII features a battle system reminiscent of the one of CyberConnect2's .hack games, but also of Square's Final Fantasy XI - in other words, a battle system similar to the one seen also in online games.
You explore the world of Ivalice with a party of three characters. Using the d-pad, you can select the character you want to control, but, like in Final Fantasy VIII, all the characters of your party are shown on the screen at any given time, showing their equipped weapons and items. The new real-time battle system, called ADB (Active Dimension Battle) is well integrated into the game, so you don't see any transition between level exploration and battles.
The player has direct control only over one of the characters during the battle, but it's always possible to pause the game with Circle and choose to control another character or simply issue commands for the other two party members. The new "Gambit" system developed for the game is similar to the one seen in .hack. Players can select a specific strategy for the two A.I. controlled party members, choosing among 10 different available scripts; for example, you can set your A.I. controlled friends to stay in defensive stance, to play as tanks and take most of the damage for the group, or to mirror the moves of the lead character. Like in Final Fantasy XI or in EverQuest, once a battle has started your character will keep on attacking the enemy until you issue a new command.
Like in the other games created by Matsuno, including Vagrant Story, relative position between your characters and enemies plays an important role during the battle; characters can be moved freely during the battle, and it's sometimes fundamental to choose the right spot to position your characters in order to survive and finally win a battle. Once you get used to the new system, battles in Final Fantasy XII feels more varied, "realistic" (kind of a stupid word in this context), and more based on strategy than in any other Final Fantasy game.
The possibility to freely move the characters on the battlefield leads easily to fun but also more chaotic battles; for this reason, like in Final Fantasy XI, the game features a fully rotational camera to let you change the angle on the battle in the way and in the moment you need it. Since the battlefield is no longer clearly divided like in past classic Final Fantasy games, a simple "Arc" system shows which enemies you are targeting, and which characters of your party are being targeted by the enemies. When one of your characters is targeting an enemy, you see a blue arc connecting your character to his target; vice versa, when one of the enemies is targeting one of your character, you see a red arc linking the enemy to your character. Pretty straightforward, even if at first the system could seem confusing for anyone who is only used to RPGs like Final Fantasy X.
The game should feature all the classic magic spells from past Final Fantasy games. The only difference is that the spells have been divided into three categories: the classic White Magic (curative spells), the classic Black Magic (offensive spells), and the new Green Magic group. Green Magic simply groups those magic spells that can alter the normal status of your characters or of your enemies, like shell, protect, or blind.
Matsuno and his staff have also designed and developed a new graphics engine for their game. Final Fantasy XII's characters are made of less polygons than those of Final Fantasy X (around 1,800 polygons per character), but this lets the developers use higher quality textures, better lighting, and more refined animations than those seen in Final Fantasy X. This is something Matsuno already did in Vagrant Story, which turned out to be one of the best looking games on PsOne (and one of the most artistically valid videogames of all times). This also makes it possible to generate fully 3D environments (Final Fantasy X introduced partial 3D environment; read our review for more details) and lets the players move the camera angle during the game.
In-game character models show a rich range of facial expressions.
It wouldn't be Final Fantasy without Chocobos!
The world of Final Fantasy XII shows all the interest for the Western culture seen in other Matsuno's works. The development team studied the art and colors of Mediterranean countries to bring to life the world of the game. The "new" Ivalice will also show much more variety than the world of Final Fantasy X. Final Fantasy XII goes back to the vast, expansive worlds that were a trademark of PsOne's Final Fantasy games - each city will have a different style and a unique atmosphere. Considering the size of the world of Final Fantasy XII, airships will be important throughout the game. Matsuno is particularly proud of the work done by his team to create the airships, which will greatly vary in size and shape. The main airship of the game, the one used by the main party, is a medium-sized one that measures over 1,000 feet from bow to stern.
Final Fantasy XII looks more than a promising title. It could be the Final Fantasy game veterans of the series have been expecting for a long time. We'll be sure to keep you informed about Square Enix's new dream, with more detailed previews, during the next months.