The world of Ivalice is a beautiful and diverse place with deserts, swamps, grasslands, forests, cities in the sky and on the ground. Everything is to scale and seen from the main protagonist’s perspective. There is a sort of medieval European feel to some areas, Arab in others. Archadian and Rabanastren culture are drastically different and the details show. There streets and alleys, bazaars and mines, Chocobo riding and airships. There are cobblestones, blue skies and green grass. There is great fashion on the part of the Archadians and what Viera isn’t cute? I can go on waxing lyrical about the details and differences that each area and character demands but it inspires one with a sense of wonder at the confidence of the world. To reflect this new confidence in the world is the ability to control the third-person perspective camera so the player can see the details and the beauty. This ability to inhabit the world extends to combat.
The grindingly dull turn-based battles have been replaced. No more transition and fanfare to a battle screen where people take turns to hack each other up, just a real-time open field battle. What this means is that instead of random battles springing up on a player as they journey through areas, players roam an overworld with the ability to see everything with the camera. Monsters inhabit the same overworld. The player can see what monster is where. You can see its health. You can engage it if you want or avoid it. During battles, you can see who’s going to be attacked and by what means. If things go badly you can flee (as long as you have health and are quick enough). When you’ve healed or levelled up enough you can go back and finish the fight.
Yes there are still menus to surf and only three characters from your party battle but combat can be left to the Al to control the action. Give it specific instructions through the Gambit system such as heal if health dips below a certain point or use the following attack and it will carry out the attacks with efficiency. The player is free to jump in and take control at any point making this combat much more free-flowing and flexible in contrast to archaic turn based fighting.
The characters taking part in the action might adhere to type – healing, tank, ranged, etc. but they are wonderfully drawn for the most part. Sky pirate Balthier and his Veira partner Fran are the particular highlight. The dubbing is a triumph of localisation and reflects the characters well. The diverse range of accents from actors is great with the delicious English tones of aristocratic Balthier and the Archadian upper-echelons are my favourite. What I also love about the game is the music. Hitoshi Sakimoto has created the first Final Fantasy soundtrack I bought with 4 CDs of inspiring and fitting music for the huge game. The chore common to all RPGs of levelling up on the plains of Ozmone or along the Phon Coast is made bearable by the music that accompanies the exploration.
FFXII does feature some of the elements that I dislike about JRPGs – repetitive strain injury inducing menu–surfing, boring blonde-haired, blue-eyed bland-boy orphan protagonists and a mostly terrible fashion sense as females dress in improbably skimpy outfits and there are more belts and buckles on display than in a men’s boutique. These are forgivable because the world, the sounds, music and characters are far more interesting than what has gone before. In my opinion.