ron, Feb-13 2008

Still chewing on FF XII

75 hours already. And it comes in waves.
I've been slowly chugging away at Final Fantasy XII over the course of the last three months. The peculiar thing about the game is how it has many times made me walk away from it and play something else, even though I genuinely enjoy playing it when I do. Phases of greatness alternate with disappointment. Sometimes it feels like a chore, and those are the moments I get fed up with it. Then, invariably, a week later I will remember that I brought it upon myself, by wanting to complete as much as possible, and I'd enjoy it more if I just skip over all the optional stuff, to resume, and ideally finish, the main storyline. That works well for three or four hours and then I again get lured sideways with hunts and fetch quests. The cycle repeats itself.

A gigantic enemy turtle

FF XII is itself a bit like this creature: it's very hard to ignore, but it turns out very tough when you try to bite off a piece.

The game is strange. Its departure from traditional RPG combat mechanics, towards an RTS-like real-time system is well covered, and I'll save my own recap of that for the full review I hope to be doing sometime. Much more notable at the moment, for purposes of discussing FF XII's strangeness, is not that low-level change, but rather the change at the highest level, in the design of the game world. Up until this point, all of the Final Fantasy game worlds up were essentially linear chains of areas where strong direction pushed the player down a carefully designed path. Yes, those paths were ornate, and treasure rooms were hanging off the sides, but you could never stray far enough to lose sight of your primary goal. Then, near the end, you got an airship but you had already been everywhere, except of course for the two optional treasure islands that only the wonder of flight can make accessible, finally. Or maybe you played X-2, but then you had bigger problems.

Final Fantasy XII gives you a much more open world, which I'd surely mark down as an MMORPG influence, if I had any first-hand experience with MMORPGs that is. The overall structure of the world still bears some resemblance to the traditional chain, but each segment of that chain is in itself a non-linear web of sub-areas with intertwining paths, walls and depths. The game starts opening up very early on. At about the four-hour mark, you can either head straight for the next station of the main quest, a small village on a desert plain or might keep yourself busy for a couple of hours exploring just the immediate surrounding lands of that same village, and its multiple connections to other areas, some of which you may have already visited, but not others.
Just around that time, FF XII also throws a big lump of side-quest on your plate, the hunting of marks, a number of optional, challenging enemies that are scattered across the game world. That activity alone can keep you busy for more than twenty hours when all is said and done, but there are of course other optional things to do and big challenges to face. In no other Final Fantasy game has it ever been so easy to let go of the main quest.

Basch questions Balthier's motives

It's a question of attitude. Are you a completionist? Do you have to find and do everything in an RPG, as soon as possible? Chances are, Final Fantasy XII will overwhelm you.

I'm not complaining about the quality of FF XII's optional content, on the contrary, it's varied, relatively imaginative and certainly rewarding. I'm also not complaining about the amount of side activities. If anything, I'm complaining about how early it is made available, and how it detracts from the main quest in such a way that players can get burnt out on the core gameplay on optional stuff alone, and lose interest in finishing the game. But then again, that's a question of how an individual approaches the game.
I've actually had a lot of fun with the main quest whenever I made an effort to progress with it. Breezing through a game that offers so much to do is not usually my style of play, but I find it is the optimal mode for me, for FF XII. The story isn't significantly more absurd than I expected, and it's presented in concise bursts that don't get in the way of the gameplay much, which I like. I just have to make myself not go off one yet another optional mission if I ever want to see the end of it. Wish me strength.

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