The mood in the office this morning is somewhat tense. We all spent the weekend playing FFXII and we came back today completely divided regarding its quality. I have to admit that after putting in nearly fifteen hours over the past two days I’m prepared to call it the best FF game I’ve ever played. I know that’s at odds with what I said on Friday but it’s the truth. Tycho and Robert are actually playing together and they’re at about the five hour mark. They came in this morning saying the game was trash and I can’t blame them. They’re knee deep in what I’d describe as the tutorial phase of the game. If you played Kingdom Hearts II you’ll remember that’s a game that doesn’t actually “start” until nearly eight hours in. I don’t mean like you don’t start having fun until then, I mean you literally don’t even see the title screen until you’ve dicked around with Roxas for eight fucking hours. FFXII felt the same way to me. It’s extremely slow to start but now I’m having a hard time putting the controller down.
The big thing for me was that I finally started to understand the combat system. I don’t just mean I could manage it, that’s not hard. I mean, I understood what they were trying to do and how it isn’t a departure from turn based combat but actually an interpretation of it. I almost said refinement there and maybe I should have.
So the big complaint and the one I had for probably five hours was that I wasn’t actually doing much during most combat situations. My gambits took over and my characters just did their thing. It wasn’t until I got to the first boss Firemane that a little light bulb went off over my head and I really “got it”. I was literally stopping the action after every turn and adjusting my characters actions, or making new decisions. It was for all intents and purposes a turn based encounter. Now, this is where I wish I was Tycho because I want to explain the combat system as I understand it, but I’m not sure I’m up to the task.
When I think about playing FFX or IX and I think about the battles that take place between bosses I remember that I was never really in too much danger. When a battle pops up between your party and let’s say some wolves in X you just select attack on all your characters, maybe toss in a fire spell for fun and then watch the wolves bite it. Most of the time you weren’t sweating over what each character should use their turn for because a single miss step could mean game over. Sure you could fuck up and die but you really only had to get serious during boss fights and handful of other tough mobs. Most of the time, it’s just you selecting the same moves over and over, occasionally dropping a healing potion. Well all that FFXII has done is stream line that process. I’m not pushing “X” as much but I’m doing the same things. It was hard for me to get my head around at first because I wanted to believe I was doing more than that but I wasn’t. I wanted to believe that every fight in IX really required strategy but it didn’t. People feel like their being taken out of the driver’s seat, that the car is just on autopilot now. The truth is that you may have been driving the car before but the fucking thing was on rails. You just grind through monsters until you hit a boss and that’s when the combat really gets interesting.
It’s funny, I should have realized what was going on when I played Enchanted Arms. One of my favorite features of that game was the ability to have your characters just do the same move they did last turn. Rather then having to go and select in from the menu it was automatic if I wanted it to be. Obviously I could tweak it and change that when I wanted but much of the time I just want my healer to heal, my fighter to hit and my wizard to cast spells. The Gambit system lets me tell my characters how I want them to behave. At anytime I can stop the action and make adjustments but for a lot of stuff I don’t need to. All its doing is saving me the trouble of navigating five different menus to tell a character to do the same thing they did last time.
When I hit a boss all of that changes. Just like in previous FF games, now I really need to think about what everyone’s doing. I have my gambits as a sort of failsafe running underneath but for the most part I’m stopping the action all the time to adjust each character’s target or change a spell. Everything I love about controlling multiple characters through a difficult turn based fight is right there. That’s the thing, the new system means the game is as deep as I want it to be whenever I want it to be.
Well there, that’s how I feel about the new combat system. I hope that made sense even if you don’t agree. The rest of the stuff about the game isn’t as important I don’t think. I love the story but that’s because it’s Star Wars meets LOTR. Obviously not everyone is going to dig that. I think the writing and the voice acting are the best in an FF game to date. Again that’s open to interpretation. I think most importantly for me beyond just getting my head around the combat is that I really like these characters. For me it doesn’t get much better than Balthier. Like I said, everything else is secondary though. If you don’t like the gambit system and the way it affects combat then you won’t stick around long enough to enjoy the rest of it. I just felt like it was important to tell you guys how drastically my impression of the game changed over the weekend. Maybe it’s still not for you but I’d recommend giving it some time. You may find out that it’s exactly what you wanted.