Originally created 12/28/06

Newest chapter in 'Final Fantasy' saga is full of engaging features

It's hard to believe a video game such as Final Fantasy XII even fits on a single PlayStation 2 disc - it's a gargantuan, epic role-playing experience.

Even veteran gamers will find weeks of content to explore in this latest - and perhaps best - chapter in the long-standing Japanese series that rivals anything conjured up by George Lucas or J.R.R. Tolkien.

This T-rated, $49.99 game - available only for the PlayStation 2 - unfolds in the magical world of Ivalice, where seemingly incompatible low-tech swords and mystical sorcery exist alongside high-tech, heavily armed floating airships.

It may seem odd using the term cinematic for a video game, but it fits here.

The frequent cut scenes between action sequences propel a lofty story involving a ragtag group's underground effort to take back control of Dalmasca, a freedom-loving country invaded by the evil Archadian Empire. These are video game movies at their finest, with incredible production values showcasing some of the most intricate, beautiful computer animation you'll see anywhere.

Though the actual game graphics can't match these interspersed movies, they're still impressive considering this game runs only on the graying PS2.

Game play, which in past Final Fantasy has been an often-tedious sequence of menu shuffling, gets some serious tweaks in combat.

In previous versions of the series, dungeon crawling would periodically be interrupted by some truly terrifying "boss" battles. It was an often jarring transition, going from one mode to the other.

While the rules are basically the same as you trade sword swings and spells and try to kill the enemy before it kills you, the fighting here occurs in real time, so you can approach the enemy and know what's coming.

It will take veterans of the series some getting used to but it's definitely for the better and makes the frequent battles feel a lot more interactive.

Since so much of the game will have you controlling a small group of combatants, the developers at Square-Enix Co. include a special "gambit" system to streamline the process.

Like computer macros, gambits basically let you preprogram a series of moves in each of your characters to automate fights to a certain extent. There will be plenty of occasions, however, where you'll want to take up the controls on your own.

There's substantially more to Final Fantasy XII than fighting, though: exploration, some well-voiced dialogue and a story that's actually interesting are other highlights.

As a solitary experience, FFXII is a refreshing break from online worlds such as World of Warcraft, where you often rely on other real players to win or lose.

Like some thick tome of fantasy or science fiction, Final Fantasy XII is the kind of game you'll spend a long time with: There's just so much to see and do. I've been patiently exploring on and off for a month now and I'm not even close to finishing. This is one role-playing game that's meant to be savored, not rushed.


THE VERDICT: *** out of ****

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