I'm currently about 40 hours in and approximately 60-70% through Final Fantasy XII and have come to realize that there's a lot to unpack here. So rather than save it all for an epically long review once I complete the game, I thought I'd give some updated thoughts and impressions from what I've experienced so far:
I often hear FFXII referred to as a “single-player MMORPG” and I've come to realize this pretty much exactly what I want from the modern JRPG. The MMO battle mechanics are a great way to modernize and speed up traditional turn-based combat while still requiring a layer of strategy often absent from the more button-mashy battles of an action RPG. Unfortunately, unlike in a proper MMO, there's no way to edit button mapping or assign hotkeys to commonly-used abilities. Thus, every time I want to take control of a character away from the Gambit system (i.e. player-defined AI routines), there are entirely too many button presses and menus involved in order to select the spells/skills I want. However, due to the age of this game, I can be somewhat forgiving of this clunky interface.
I've observed that the difficulty curve of the main storyline quest seems to have a lot of spikes and steps. I often experience abrupt shifts from steamrolling enemies in one zone to getting decimated in the next even though I rarely ever avoid battles. Did the designers of the game intend for the player to take breaks to grind between every story beat? This would be a departure from the other Final Fantasy games that I've played.
The irregular difficulty curve coupled with this game's unique battle system makes it very easy to throw off the balance of combat. Playing straight through a story quest will cause boss battles to be like hitting a wall. However, if the party is over-leveled from taking grinding breaks, those same boss battles will essentially play themselves out without any real strategy or input from the player due to the Gambit system. Ideally I want to be a manager of my AI-controlled party, manually adjusting the strategy and putting out fires as needed while the gambits handle the rest, but this has been a difficult equilibrium to maintain.
While the story thus far hasn't been quite as gripping as some of the other Final Fantasies, I've really been enjoying the setting of Ivalice. It truly feels like a fully realized and cohesive world rather than a series of disparate fantasy environments linked together by story conceits. It becomes more apparent as I play that the voice acting contributes quite significantly to this sense of place. The fact that each region in the game world has its own accent (Archades – English, Dalmasca – American, Rozzaria – Eastern European, etc) is a nice little touch that allows the player to tell where a new character is from as soon as they begin speaking. I'm definitely curious to try out other Square-Enix games set in Ivalice such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story as a result.
Overall, I've been having a lot of fun with Final Fantasy XII and am looking forward to playing through the final third of the adventure. As tempted as I am to dig deep, I'll probably continue to stick primarily to the critical path and limit my side quests since there are still many more big RPGs and open-world games I'm planning to tackle before the end of the year. Stay tuned for my wrap-up and review of Final Fantasy XII within the next few weeks!