In Defense of Final Fantasy XII
In Japan, Final Fantasy XII is enjoying both critical and commercial success (40/40 in Famitsu, nearly 2 million copies sold in first four days). Still, there are a sizable amount of complaints from a section of Japanese gamers, venting their opinions on forums. Tim Rogers defends FFXII.
Criticism 1: "Difficulty is too high"
Apparently, people think the game is difficult. This is perhaps the case. There are monsters in the game that will kill you in one hit if you choose to fight them. For example, the Tyrannosaurus Rex inexplicably located right outside the first town. But this is just an example of why the game is interesting…
The thing is, the T-Rex, quite uncharacteristically, is friendly. He won’t bite you if you don’t touch him. Furthermore, even if you have your auto-battle "Gambit" commands set up to automatically attack the closest enemy, your characters will not attack the T-Rex unless you explicitly tell them to.
Square-Enix actually did a commendable job in balancing the difficulty of the battles by implementing the aforementioned "Gambit" system. During battles, you hardly need to touch the menus at all. You program your AI party members with detailed, prioritized scripts called Gambits. Say you put "Ally with less than 30% HP remaining" as the "target" and "Cast ‘Cure magic’" at "#1," and "Closest enemy" and "Attack" at "#2." This will make a character attack all enemies that get close, though instantly cast cure on any ally whose HP falls below 30%. This is, essentially, what you would do in an RPG anyway. Yasumi Matsuno, Final Fantasy XII’s producer, obviously realizes how superfluous all of this button-pressing is. When you turn up the battle speed, the game progresses at a wonderful clip.
I will point out, in fairness, that it is impossible to kill the T-Rex at the start of the game. Though you move your characters on a map where enemies are moving freely, this is not an action game. You attack an enemy, and then wait your turn. When they hit you, you take the hit — it’s like taking your medicine.
It’s part of the game. Therefore, there is no way to kill the T-Rex. It’s a rather brilliant red herring, design-wise (not the least of all because he’s a T-Rex, a normally ferocious creature). See, the T-Rex’s life bar is displayed in green, which the instruction manual clearly tells the player means the enemy will not attack. That many players just go ahead and attack the T-Rex is indicative of their belief in common sense (a T-Rex is murderous — fight for your life) over what they read in a videogame instruction manual (which they probably don’t read anyway).
Gambit and License
Another major complaint from Japanese gamers is that the Gambit and the License systems are too complicated. This is coming from people who used "Junction" to attach magic spells to weapons (somehow) and combine "Materia" to slots in armor in previous Final Fantasies. The Sphere Board in Final Fantasy X is at least twice as complicated as the License Board in XII, because in X, you have to move your characters around the board and collect certain keys to activate abilities. This sounds confusing because it kind of is. It’s daunting at the start. The License Board in Final Fantasy XII is designed to be more logical.
Meanwhile, the Gambit system is, well, probably the most brilliant thing ever to appear in a Japanese role-playing game. With Gambits, you can minutely program your characters’ AI using only the two criteria of "target" and "action." You then select which actions will take priority. For example "Cast Cure" as the action, and "Ally with less than 70% HP remaining" as the target could be top priority, and "Attack" "Nearest enemy" could be second priority.
As long as no ally’s HP is below 70%, this character will continue attacking the enemies; as soon as a character is in need of healing, they will be healed. If the caster’s magic drops to less than the cost of the "Cure" spell, the character will abandon priority number one. You can make priority number three "drink an Ether"; they’ll perform this action automatically if there are no enemies to fight. This action will restore the magic points, allowing the character to heal characters (as dictated by priority #1) if needs be.
This is where producer Yasumi Matsuno shines most — in creating straightforward game concepts that eliminate waste. Matsuno saw a way to get rid of the tedium of role-playing games (heal when low on HP, attack, attack, attack, get hurt, heal again, attack, attack) by implementing a simple AI programming scheme. The dead simplicity of the AI programming scheme, however, rather violently lays bare the fact that RPGs are, generally, predictable and tedious.
Yet people can’t get their heads around this. With Gambits turned on (and configured with just five minutes of commonsensical thought), battles go at least twenty times more quickly than in any other RPG. At their best, Final Fantasy XII’s battles resemble rollicking fights in fantasy movies. The player merely directs his party through an area, freezing the action when he sees fit to make adjustments on the battle plan (stronger enemies appear, et cetera). This alone should be enough to qualify XII as a "videogame." The controller’s vibration, for example, provides wonderful feedback.
Yet players feel betrayed. They say, "I want to press buttons." They say, "I don’t want to watch my videogame."
How Square-Enix could have prevented this: Square-Enix must have predicted the players’ revolt against the Gambit system, because they applied absolutely perfect graphic design to the Gambit menu. Everything is color-coded (blue windows for healing Gambits, red for attacking, gray for switched-off Gambits) and the sound effect the cursor makes is clearly market-tested. It’s a perfect click. Moving the priorities of Gambit commands causes the windows to slide and shift in a way that should let even an entry-level player know that things are changing.
Yet Square-Enix faltered, and didn’t tell people what they were getting into. On the back of the box, the game calls the battle system "Active Dimension Battle (ADB)," which is supposed to evoke a feeling of familiarity — the previous battle system was "Active Time Battle," or "ATB." Yet the battle system is not familiar. In removing the need to constantly press buttons, the game changes completely. And furthermore, people like choosing "Use–>Potion–>near-death party member." They like punching the commands in, maybe speaking like a doctor on "ER" when they do it. "Balflear! Get Basch a Potion, quick!" It makes them feel familiar with the game, which comes to feel familiar with the player. It’s a mutual relationship.
Square-Enix could have milked the Gambit system — they could have touted it as actually being more intuitive and more intimate (what you program a character to do is deeply connected with what that character is capable of doing, and/or the equipment s/he’s wearing) than the previous battle systems. They could have put big words on the back of the box: "This is what Final Fantasy always aspired to be." They would have been right, too.
One thing they really should have done above all else was KNOW their battle system was hot stuff. Apparently, everyone in the PR department was scared that the battle system would confuse people. In the end, it only confused people because they thought it was going to be just like Final Fantasy X or VII, with their simple, menu-based battles. VII attracted casual players with its hot (at the time — dated now) CG cut-scenes. They persevered through the game because they wanted to see more cut-scenes, and they were able to do this because the battles were forgiving, menu-based affairs. Final Fantasy XII is an exercise in common sense; yet most people don’t want common sense — they want menus. What Square-Enix needed to do was teach them to appreciate their own powers of common sense. (Of course, this might have hurt the sales of, uh, every other game Square-Enix makes.)
They needed to tell Famitsu to run a full feature on Gambits. They needed to go through it blow-by-blow, maybe six months before the game’s release. They should have done this last fall. (Conspicuously, configuring Gambits was not part of the demo shown at the Square-Enix Party event in July 2005, nor was it part of the demo released in North America.) Square-Enix, you must understand, is a company that spoiled every character cameo in Kingdom Hearts II by releasing new screenshots each week. In that case, they did a little too much promotion. In XII’s case, they did not nearly enough. This is because of two things — first, the story in an actual Final Fantasy game (not a spin-off) is sacred, and Square-Enix would never dare to spoil its details, and second, because they were afraid details about the battle system would turn people off. The latter reason sounds a little dishonest; no, my friend, it’s not dishonest. It’s business. A little bit more effort, however, could have yielded a way to sell this game softly, without laying a finger on its design or lying to anyone. I suppose when the project is already years delayed, "effort" is the first thing to suffer from cutbacks.