RPGs are notorious for their ability to take over people's lives. Final Fantasy XII has gone one step further than that - the game's director, Yasumi Matsuno, left Square Enix last year, either due to health issues or having been asked to resign, depending on who you talk to about it. Either way, it's hard not to see Final Fantasy XII as the game capable of breaking its creators, and Square Enix's patience - and after playing it, you'll see why. It's a game with a soul - by which we mean (less wankily) almost everything about it is rendered with artistry and utter class. Or, even less wankily, it looks bloody gorgeous, is an enormous achievement and plays unlike any other Final Fantasy RPG ever made. Well, ever released in the UK...
It's got a surprising amount in common with the massively multi-player online RPG and UK-release absentee Final Fantasy XI, offering the kind of real-time-ish combat you'd find in a PC MMO like World Of Warcraft. We'll come back to it later, but it may well be a bone of contention for those long-serving FF addicts who are used to random battles and the line-dancing rhythm of turn-based fights. And, on top of that, there may be another off-putting aspect for those who want their FF games to be the same as the last one, but with new characters: the story. The lengthy opening cut-scene is typically beautiful and luxurious, but just as bleak. Lots of people die and the story quickly becomes muddier than a Welsh caravan. Depressing? Not at all. If anything, it's a refreshing change from the GCSE melodrama that most RPGs are happy to pass off as a plot. Messy? Hell, yes. The bad guys aren't pure evil and the good guys aren't saints; hardly anyone in FFXII has a clean CV as far as karma goes. We would elaborate on the finer details, but there's just no room suffice to say that its dark and complex plot is told stylishly via the in-game cut-scenes. Rendered with enormous attention to detail, when characters speak their faces and bodies say just as much as their gobs, to stunning effect. Some of the westernised voice acting may feel a bit weird to begin with, as it draws on so many accents to provide dialogue for its mix of races, from Icelandic to cockney English. It starts out feeling like a culture clash, but it'll soon grow on you. And it helps that the script is well written - totally grown-up and unafraid to use big words if they apply.
Visually, it's just as excellent, as rich with detail as you'd expect from a top-flight Squeenix RPG, but a far cry from the cartoony, cake-and-jelly looks of the publisher's last two great adventures, Kingdom Hearts 2 and Dragon Quest VIII. It's rugged as hell, but still bright and beautiful - Moogles and Chocobos have never looked so vivid, while other races, such as the bunny-eared Viera and the troll-like Seeq, are stunners. Towns are full of people and the environments are huge, which is no small feat since they're actually there to be explored, and not restricted to some invisible, pre-rendered corridors for you jog through. They're packed with secrets and hidden creatures, and virtually all areas are designed to be revisited, featuring daunting enemies or caves you'll have no choice but to run from first time around.
As far as combat goes, you can play FFXII as a purely menu-driven experience, if you like, pausing the action and directing every single move of your three-strong team. Scraps are seamless - you can see all the enemies around you, and choose to avoid them - and use time-dependent action meters along with blue/red trails that spit between you and your enemies to show who's attacking who. It takes hardly any time to adjust to, and makes for the feeling of exploring a detailed, believable world instead of simply a sequence towns and dungeons. And then there are the Gambits (see Final FAQtasy), a bravely complex idea for such a mainstream RPG, that allow you to program your team to look after themselves - you're always in control, but never have to babysit. It's brilliant and means that fights can zing along at an exciting and unruly-looking pace, always giving you the option of total control.