Seeing the forest (Final Fantasy XII)

Final Fantasy XII was a huge hit and got a lot of praise, but there were some strange misgivings about the game. The foremost of these is the “gambit” system. The basic idea is that since playing a Japanese roleplaying game tends to be a tedious exercise in repeatedly hitting the same button to dispatch the grunt enemies and healing when someone in your party is low on hit points, why not automate the routine? I know I’ve been so comatose “playing” FF VIII and even the revered FF VII that I’ve had people in my party die due to inattention. How could I be interested in what’s going on the screen when the game is obviously uninterested in what I’m doing?

Thus the gambit system. You can assign targets and actions to your characters. My current party automatically attacks any foe they come across. All of them attack the same target. One character is assigned to stealing from the foe when he’s close to dropping. Magic user characters will heal any ally who’s below 60% of HP, and all characters will use a healing potion on an ally who’s below 20% of HP. One magic user keeps my lead character under the Protect spell. Playing the game, I only need to scout new enemy types by using the Libra “technic” and use additional spells when needed. Of course I can turn off the gambits at any time or just input specific commands, bypassing the system.

The game has eliminated the tiring grind, making combat fast and exciting, and even made dispatching the basic enemies a joy as you need to plan your gambit setup to maximum efficiency and then observe it in action, thinking about improvements to your scheme all the time. Instead of focusing on the tiny stuff (choosing to attack, with each character after the other, on the same enemy, until they all fall), it lets you focus on the big picture.

Yet people complain that they don’t get to “play the game”, which is just wrong in every level. Tuning your gambit setup is vastly more interesting than brainlessly hitting X every few seconds – your every decision is a meaningful one. And as the game progresses in real-time unless you access the menus, going through enemy-infested areas is fast and exciting, when your gambit setup is functioning properly.

The gambit system is perhaps the biggest innovation in console RPGs to date and one I should hope will be copied a lot in the future. I know I’ll be very disappointed if Final Fantasy XIII makes a return to pre-XII standards. Square Enix was worried about the gambit system’s reception and they chose to keep it a secret prior to launch and when the game launched, the unannounced, totally new base gameplay element left many a player dumbfounded. Square Enix can only blame themselves for not marketing the system as the revolution it truly is.






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